Friday, May 27, 2011

Psalm 118 – The Name of the LORD

I’m still reading through Professor Robert Alter’s “The Book of Psalms – A Translation and Commentary” and, as I have noted earlier, it’s both a challenge and a delight.

This week, I want to take a look at the use of the phrase “the Name of the LORD” in Psalm 118. One reason for doing this is to contrast it with the rather wooden interpretations imposed on this idiom by two religious movements started in 19th Century North America; Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses;

• In it’s tract “17 Points of the True Church”, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints claims to comply with the criteria because it has the name “Jesus Christ” in it’s name – it “bears the name” of Jesus Christ (Point 2). There's a discussion on this tract here, and I posted a couple of comments in the posts.

• The Jehovah’s Witnesses likewise claim to be the “true church” because they also “bear the name” of God (Jehovah) in their collective name.

The thrust of both movements (neither of which recognize the other) is that if you don’t have the name of God in the name of your Church then, by simple mechanics, you must belong to a “false” church. By this logic, including the name of God in the Church’s title is mandatory for a Church to qualify as the “true” Church. Incidentally both movements have recently dropped the names of God from their titles – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is now content to brand itself as “Mormon”, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses now brand themselves simply as “Witnesses”. I’ll leave them to sort out their internal logic for themselves.

My concern is that this mechanical inclusion of a formula of words in one’s self-identifying title is not what the Biblical idiom is about. It’s an issue that becomes manifestly apparent in dealing with texts such as Psalm 118, which uses the idiom in two of its passages.

The first instance of the use of the “Name of the LORD” is in Psalm 118:10-12, as follows;
All the nations surrounded me.
With the LORD’s name I cut them down
They swarmed around me, oh they surrounded me.
With the LORD’s name I cut them down
They swarmed around me like bees,
burned out like fire among thorns.
With the LORD’s name I cut them down

I’m using Alter’s Translation here. The KJV and NIV use the idiom “In the name of the LORD, I cut them down/I will destroy them”. Note that Alter follows the convention used in the KJV and the NIV that translates the covenant Name of God, YHWH/יהוה as LORD, using all capitals.

In this passage, the Psalmist is describing the “Name of the LORD” as a weapon that is used to cut down or destroy the enemies of the people of God.

This brings us to our first problem; what is the “Name of the LORD”? It’s an immediate problem in the Psalm because YHWH/יהוה is not a proper name in this context; it’s a title, rather like our words for “God”, “King”, “Master”, “Judge”. If Exodus 3:14 is a reliable guide, YHWH/יהוה is not even a proper title, but a daunting statement of unqualified being that none but the Highest Deity can ever utter. He is the nameless one who has a name above all names. So, if we look in the Bible for a “magic” name that we can utter to cut down our enemies, we will look in vain. That’s not to say that we will reap an abundance of descriptives and epithets and even contextualized names of deities (e.g. Elyon, which is apparently borrowed from the Canaanite pantheon), but none are unique enough to cause the enemies to be cut down at their mere inclusion in a formula of words.

Before resolving this (alleged) difficulty, I’d like to consider the second use of the idiom in Psalm 118:26a

Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the LORD.
Baruch haba ba shem YHWH (ברוך הבא בשם יהוה)

The Psalm uses this phrase to greet the people who approach the Temple Altar. There is some debate about whether the greeting in the Psalm is extended to the crowd of worshippers, or if the worshippers extend the greeting to Levitical choristers, or even Priests. Professor Alter suggests that this is a greeting to the crowd, but three Gospels have the crowd using this to greet God’s anointed representative (Matthew 21:9, Mark 11:9, John 12:13), and in two Gospels, Jesus chides the Jews for not greeting him with the idiom sincerely (Matt 23:39, Luke 13:35).

I understand that the idiom has been shortened in modern Hebrew to the rather formal salutation “Blessed is he who comes” (baruch haba/ברוך הבא), and the “Name of the LORD” (ba shem YHWH /בשם יהוה) is inferred, perhaps out of religious conservatism or secular deference.

The problem for the wooden translations of the idiom in the context of his triumphal entry is that Jesus does not “bear the name” of God in his name. The name “Jesus” derives from the Hebrew word for “rescue” or “salvation”. Furthermore, it’s not unique to First Century Israel – there were plenty of Jesus’ out there, including the Jesus in Colossians 4:11 and the Jesus in the Galilean Hills that Josephus tried to negotiate with. The name also occurs as Joshua (Moses’ successor) and Hosea (the Prophet). My point is simply that if a church calls itself “the Church of Jesus”, I could rightly ask “which Jesus?”

Such convolutions are simply not necessary in the Biblical idiom. The “Name of the LORD” is not a proper name, like Martin or Jesus, but a package that contains the character, status and reputation of the person.

In Exodus 3:14, God does not merely introduce Himself as “my name is Earl”, but He tells Moses who He is, and in doing so He tells Moses why He alone does not have a name. I have discussed this previously here.

In Genesis 17:5 and 17:15, God changes Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah to signal a change in their status (or ownership). Naomi (literally “sweetness”) attempts to change her own name to Mara (literally “bitter”) to signal her dire situation (Ruth 1:20). Jesus changes Simon to Peter (John 1:42), and he also gives a new name to “those who are victorious” (Rev 2:17). So, the “name” tells us about the status of the person.

The “name” also tells us about the reputation of the person. This comes from a tribal perspective in which the chief is responsible for the behaviour of his tribe. It follows, then, that when the tribe misbehaves, the chief’s “name” is reviled. This is how we should approach Romans 2:24 (quoting Isaiah 52:5 see Septuagint) “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you”.

Returning to the Psalm, the use of the “Name of the LORD” in Psalm 118:26 becomes transparent – the blessing is extended to the person (or persons) who are owned by and who represent the LORD. The crowd in the Gospel accounts were shouting this to the one that they believed would be their divinely appointed King, who would cut down their enemies. One has to wonder where they were a week later, at Jesus’ trial and execution, but that particular litany of human failings is another story.

How does the “Name of the LORD” become the weapon of Psalm 118:10-12? Again, we have to look into the character and reputation of God. This is not an invocation of a word, but a belief that God will protect, rescue and vindicate His People. It’s conditional, though. We enjoy God’s protection when we behave in a way that rightly represents Him - when we “bear His Name”. This is not a mandate for us to use the “Name of the LORD” to further our interests (thus breaking the third of the Ten Commandments, see Exodus 20:7). Rather, it is a solemn command to further His, and it is a distinction that must be consciously maintained. The message is that if we serve God, He will triumph over our enemies.

As I noted in the discussion on the Tract "17 Points", the idiom is used in 2 Chronicles 7:14
...if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
What does this passage say about being "called by [God's] name"?

2 Chronicles 7:14 refers explicitly to Israel. The word "Israel" has one of the names of God in it - "El" (אל), but it's not in a positive context. The phrase "Israel" (ישראל) means "God overcomes" or "he struggles/contends with God" as in Gen 32:28.

I don't think any modern church would be game enough to follow Genesis' lead and call itself "The Church of the People Who Constantly Fight God" (though such a title would be truer than we'd like to admit). I also think the Old Testament authors enjoyed the irony; they certainly scolded the Israelites for continuing to exhibit their nature, as described in their name.

So, when 2 Chronicles 7:14 refers to "called by the name/bearing the name", it isn't about incorporating the name of God into the title of the community, but rather it's about the nature of the people who should have been God's representatives - their vocation as His "witnesses" before the surrounding nations.

In conclusion, the Biblical idiom to “bear the Name of the LORD” is not about semantics, but about being owned by and being representative of the LORD. That is how the “Name of the LORD” cuts down our enemies, and why we should shout out “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the LORD”.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Ecclesiology – the Word verses the Brand

This week, a couple of on-line comments have prompted me to dip into ecclesiology.

Please don’t be scared of the word – ecclesiology is the study, or philosophy, of the church. It’s a neglected topic that we frequently run into, though we often prefer to talk about something else, like the Cross of Christ. For example, when “doing” evangelism, a common reaction we get from the un-churched is not a theological or philosophical debate but a story about the church and, lamentably, it’s often one about how badly the church has behaved. It is an issue of importance that we need to tackle, and, too frequently, we are poorly equipped.

The two comments that prompted my thoughts are;

• In a FaceBook discussion about “the One True Church”, one evangelical gave a perfunctory view of the church, as if it were irrelevant to his own personal salvation. To be fair to him, he was reacting against the “Big Church” idea put forward by some religious movements

• A Christianity Today article mentioned a proposal by the Anglican Priesthood in Liverpool to change the words of the Baptism Rite to make it more accessible to un-churched people. The article rightly, in my view, argues for the retention of the “obscure” references like this: "Through water you led the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land."

My reactions are these;

• I can readily understand the perspective of the evangelical poster, because that’s a view I held myself.

• In reading the CT article, I had to wonder if the Liverpudlian priests were more interested in promoting baptism as a brand, or educating and bringing people into the Christian tradition of the Word

The first point of contention is the treatment of “church” as a "brand" (hence the title of this week’s offering). This, like it or not, is how the secular world views Christians; it sees us as promoting this “brand” with our messages of redemption, festivals and values. Our desired outcome, it is thought, is to foster a habit of identification with the “brand” - we want more people to become like us.

This is the source of my disquiet with the Liverpdudlian Anglicans. Possibly, I am reading their position too gloomily, but there is a school of practical atheism within Anglicanism that rejoices with the rites, whilst downplaying the significance of the back-story behind those rites. According to this school, infant baptism could become a nice family bonding experience, which the church is happy to facilitate, but without embarrassing references to potentially mythological episodes in which an improbable God was supposed to work miracles. Baptism, then, becomes a brand, and it is subject to all the normal rules of branding, including the mother-of-all-branding-rules, which is that the product must be re-branded periodically to re-energize it’s customer base.

In my opinion, this approach is not only crass; it is a strategic mistake. For one, it removes any challenge to understand the rite. Baptism, like all the Christian rites, must be understood in the context of Christian tradition, and that is (or should be) founded firmly on the Bible – the Word. It is this Word that provides the back-story, going all the way back to the liberation of God’s people from an oppressive and inhuman dictatorship, through the miracle at the Red Sea, and into the Land of Promise where they are free to live out what it means to be human. The best vehicle to convey this theology is the story of the Exodus, and that is why the references should be retained in the rite. To the Biblically illiterate, this story will sound strange and irrelevant, but surely it’s the church’s job to correct such illiteracy if it wants to bring people in.

Remove the challenge and we miss a very important life-lesson here, which is that the universe will not comply with our preconceptions and prejudices. We need to work, and sometimes to work hard, to understand it. If the references to the Israelites' journey through the parted waters of the Red Sea confuse us, then it is incumbent on us, as Christians, to understand why they didn’t confuse our forefathers.

The second reason the (apparent) branding of the church is wrong, is that it places no obligation on the believer to conform. Successful commercial brands strenuously avoid intruding into their customers' private lives beyond the point of sale. Brands conform to their target audience, or, at least, they promote a well-constructed myth that they do. The customer is always right, so they say. But the Church cannot adopt this position; the “customer” is frequently wrong.

So, it comes as a shock for young believers to find that, yes, the church does “intrude” and it makes it its business to judge you on “private” issues, such one’s sexual habits and preferences. I’m not advocating mind-control here, in fact I’m an advocate of respecting a person’s decisions, whether I like them or not. However, we should expect that believers should be aligned with the Word, and it’s a process that all believers must submit to.

So, if the church should not conform to whatever walks through the door, what should it be doing?

And, if the church is not a brand, what is it anyway?

The perfunctory assessment of my (presumably) young Evangelical’s point of view presents another misconception. If his misconception is anything like mine, then it regards the church as little more than the thing that happens when individual believers get together for mutual support. This, I have come to realize, arises from a view of Christianity that is skewed exclusively to the individual’s status and interests. According to this mind-set, it says that Christ died for my sins, to make me right, and I am the beneficiary of his vicarious work. It's all about me. The fact that there are others like me, is purely incidental. The fact that those "others" are the solution to my narcissistic self-obsession, is inconvenient and best left neglected. Mea culpa.

The problem here is that though the Bible speaks of the redemption of the individual, it is always in the context of community. Fundamentally, God is not here to serve the self; it’s the other way round, and I need to be aligned with with this order of things. Further, I need to understand why God has saved me, and it’s not all about making me into a better person.

My response, in Evangelical language, is that we are not saved by the Church, but we are certainly saved into the Church and for the Church. The Exodus story provides the formative paradigm here; the individuals were saved by God’s miraculous acts, but they were saved so that they could comprise a worshipping community on the other side of the sea. The end goal, if Revelation 5 is a trustworthy indication, is not simply a reconciliation of the individual with God, but the formation of this worshipping community. Compare Moses’ appeal to Pharoah to take God’s people out of Egypt to worship Him (Exodus 9:13) with the "new song" of the redeemed:

And they sang a new song, saying:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
Revelation 5:9-10

Notice the significance of “every tribe and language and people and nation”. God’s redemption is now not limited to an ethnic tribe, but to all peoples. And it’s not as if these peoples lose their sense of self-identity and heritage either, but rather the whole person and the whole people is brought before God in worship.

Looking at John’s vision, one must consider that it is the Word that brings this new community together. This Word, God’s Word, includes the stories of the Exodus, the Exile, the Temple and their fulfillment in the Son of Man. I see a special, or spiritual significance in these particular stories, but even if we strip them of all divine connotations, we are still forced to the conclusion that the Church is the product (creation) of the Word. These are the stories that bind us in this worshipping community, and that is something that the Bible rightly rejoices in.

So, the Church (the “True” Church) is a creation of the Word. I’d even go further and say that it is the present “incarnation” of the Word because it “lives out” and fulfills the formative stories in the Word. The corollary is that if it does not conform to the Word, then it is no longer the Church; it might provide much needed fellowship and support, but it has become something other than the Church.

How do we find, or recognize, the “True” Church? Empirically, it’s boundaries do not fall neatly on organizational lines. Some organizations are better than others at “incarnating” the Word, but none are perfect. Some organizations, it must be noted, promote stories and doctrines that are plainly contrary to the Word and, as I noted last week, these crass theologies inevitably give rise to crass practices. My own tradition is fairly aligned with the Word, but we have some very divergent views and not all are positive.

Closer to home, I know the Word better than some, but I don’t know it all and not all my actions align with it. Does this mean I am “in” the Church or not? Here’s where John’s beautiful metaphor of the Church as the Bride of Christ helps;

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.
(Revelation 22:17)

Notice that the Church is filled with the Spirit of God, and she yearns to be united with her lover, calling him to come to her through the centuries. The one who hears the Word, joins the call (incidentally, there could be a deliberate ambiguity in the text - we don't know if the "one who hears" is Christ or the believer, but it's immaterial if we view Christ as the "true" representative of all believers). It is open to all who are thirsty and it you want it, it is free - the Church is God’s free gift to the world. Shame on those "churches" that make you pay for the privilege. At its most fundamental level, you are “in” the Church if you love and worship Jesus Christ.

It’s like a marriage, says John. There are better marriages and worse marriages, but if you’re married, you’re “in”, for better or worse, forsaking all other lovers. Like all brides, the Church might not always be beautiful, or even attractive, but God loves her and works ceaselessly and selflessly to be united to her in intimate, exclusive union.

Finally, if God loves His Church, then so must we. If you don’t love the Church – this motley collective of idiots and sinners who sometimes do the most bizarre things - how can you love God?

I don’t believe in the “Big Church” of some religious movements, but neither do I believe in the “Little Church" of others. The Church is not a brand, or an organization; it is where the Word is expressed in community; and where the Word is expressed in community, there the church is also. Matthew, quoting Jesus, puts it this way;
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them
(Matthew 18:20, KJV).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Psalm 95

This could become a habit. I’m currently reading through Professor Robert Alter’s “The Book of Psalms, a Translation and Commentary” and I’m finding it quite addictive.

Alter is a stellar Hebrew scholar, whose translation and commentary is more concerned with language than theology, though he rightly notes that the one informs the other. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Alter’s inferences, and his evaluation of the Biblical texts is firmly humanist (some inerrantists will find him heretical), however, it is both a pleasure and a challenge to read his commentary on the words and language of the Psalms. Even so, I find myself unable to detach myself from the theology of the Psalms and they persist in drawing me to the attitude of meditation, prayer and worship. It is this strange mixture of clinical forensics and devotion that drives me to sally forth with a theology and comments on the translation though, regarding the latter, I must stress that I’m almost entirely dependant on Alter and NET Bible.

Why Psalm 95?

Like Psalm 82 (which I addressed last week), it uses several Hebrew words for God, including Elohim (אלחים), YHWH (יהוה) and El (אל), but there are other interesting theological features that I’d like to comment on. Also, like Psalm 82, if you believe that the Bible teaches that there is more than one God, then Psalm 95 is not your friend.

PS, note that the Hebrew letters should be read from right to left and it’s something that seems to send text programs like MS Word into conniptions, which was irritating in the preparation of these notes. I earnestly hope my Hebrew spelling is adequate.

Here’s the whole Psalm, according to the NIV translation;

1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.

3 For the LORD is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.

6 Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
7 for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.

Today, if only you would hear his voice,
8 “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,
9 where your ancestors tested me;
they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

The first line of verse 1 identifies the object of worship - the LORD. Here the NIV follows the convention of the KJV in rendering the Hebrew word YHWH (יהוה) as “LORD” with full capitals. In English, the Hebrew word YHWH used to be translated “Jehovah” (the word is a mash up of the Hebrew consonants of יהוה with the vowels of the Hebrew word “Adonai” or Lord), however a more faithful pronunciation is more likely to be “Yahweh”. It’s literal meaning is something like “I am what I am”, and it’s the word that God uses to describe Himself in Exodus 3:14. It is the name of God that is most commonly used in the context of Covenant. I previously discussed this name here, again relying on Alter's Commentary on the Books of Moses.

Verse 3 expands on the theme of praise to YHWH, but it uses two different words for God, the second of which is properly translated “gods”. This needs some explaining, and to do so, I’ll use Alter, because he retains the order of the Hebrew words in his translation,

For a great God is the Lord, and great king over all the gods.

Here’s Alter again, with the English transliteration and Hebrew words inserted at the appropriate points;

For a great God (El/אל) is the Lord (Elohim/אלחים), and great king over all the gods (Elohim/אלחים).

Note that Elohim is used to refer to “God” and “gods”. So, how do we know that the "God" of Israel is not actually "Gods" of Israel? One, of many, reasons is that the pronoun in verse 7 is firmly singular - "...for He is our God (Elohim/אלחים)...", not "...for they are our Gods....".

Various attempts have been made to differentiate between Elohim and YHWH. The most notable I have seen to date is the Mormon Endowment Ceremony (a rite that is liberally borrowed from Freemasonry) in which Elohim and YHWH are presented as two separate characters.

I find such an attempt at differentiation entirely artificial and certainly not derived from the Biblical use of the words. Furthermore, it totally defeats the sense of the scenario described in the first three verses of Psalm 95. It is much less forced to understand that the Psalmist is using different words to describe the same God. To try to illuminate the scenario presented in the Psalm, here's a very approximate reading (I have borrowed Verse 2 directly from Alter);

Come, let us sing to YHWH, let us worship the Only One to whom we cling to save us from the storm
Let us greet Him in acclaim, in songs let us shout out to Him
For Elohim is a truly great God, and he dominates all other elohim

The description of YHWH, Elohim and El as King (Melech/ומלך in verse 3) is significant in ancient near eastern culture, because individual kings, not committees, ruled kingdoms. There can only be One King, not two, and not many, else the ancient Hebrews could have cleaved to another “Rock” (tsoor tsoor/לצור).

Verses 4 and 5 go on to proclaim His dominion over the “depths”, the “heights”, the “sea” and the “dry land”. So, not only is He “king” over earth, but also the heavenly realms, where the “gods” reside.

The mention of the sea here is noteworthy, because in Canaanite mythology, the creation was wrought as the Sky God defeated the Primordial Sea Monster. The proper name for the Sky God is “Elyon” (which is co-opted into Biblical Hebrew as one of the proper names for the God), and the sea monster turns up under various pseudonyms, including Tehom, Behemoth and Rahab, and quite frequently as a nameless, dark chaos that claws away at the land on which the people dwell safely. It is not clear whether the Psalmist borrows his imagery from Canaanite mythology here, but whatever he thinks of the Canaanite theology, he polemically places the God of the Hebrews as having unchallengeable dominion over the Canaanite Pantheon. In other words, the Canaanite “Elyon” and “Tehom”, together with all the other “Elohim” in the cosmos are answerable to the One who has the Name above all Names.

I need to mention the Mormon doctrine of Eternal Progression here. It teaches that the Heavenly Father we know was brought into being by a succession of Heavenly Fathers before Him, who are all progressing in glory and power. This is not the scenario described in Psalm 95. The Psalm places all other “gods” below YHWH, not above Him, as Eternal Progression would have us believe. Elohim cannot be the God “over” these “lesser elohim” if, indeed they are greater than Him. Eternal Progression simply makes no sense in the context of the Psalm.

Verses 6 and 7 provide a segue into the second half of the Psalm, in which the emphasis shifts from the theology of God to what how we should live. This transition is a common pattern in the Bible, and its importance cannot be under-estimated. There can be a tendency in academic circles to focus on the theology without considering its impact on everyday, human life. Likewise, some worshipping communities tend to focus on practice without seemingly asking why they should behave the way they do. One comment on-line summarized this latter position when the poster wrote, “all I want to be is good”. The Bible does not recognize such a dichotomy. The way of life of God’s people flows out of their understanding of God – the nature and character of God directs the life of His people. The theology and practice are two legs on which the same body stands and walks. Two examples of this in Biblical literature are the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Paul’s entire Epistle to the Romans, but this principal permeates all scripture. Things go wrong in church life when crass theology gives fruit to abusive and errant practice. Theology is important because it informs the decisions made by the community of believers and, in my opinion, dysfunctional community life stems from bad theology. It is something that is abundantly evident in the cults.

The final section of the Psalm invokes the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert, after they left Egypt and before they entered the Promised Land. The puns on the places of “quarrelling” and “testing” (Meribah and Masseh) are transparent (see NIV footnotes). The Psalm rails against the fractious children that God had delivered from Egypt and warns its own audience not to follow them. As the Exodus story shows, it was because of sin that God forbade them from entering the Land, which is a theme that Paul invokes in Romans 3:23 – they fell (died) in the desert, before they could cross over.

Finally, the “resting-place” in the conclusion of verse 10 has a rich theology of its own that is worth reflecting on. It starts out as the physical Land of the Promise, where Abraham would find a home with his sons (Genesis 12:1-7). However, it transpired through Biblical history that merely living in the Land in a physical sense was not sufficient to enjoy the promised rest, so it becomes a metaphor for living in the place where the Kingship of God is effective – the Kingdom of God. In it, God’s people enjoy the privileges and protection of their Divine King. They are reconciled with God and the relationship between God and His “flock” is restored (Psalm 95:7) .

Christians believe that the real Exodus was effected by Christ, at the Cross, and when we are “in” Him, we are transported into the Land of rest and promise. The end goal of this journey is the assembling of God’s people, united in joyful, communal worship of their divine King. This Psalm rightly belongs in Christian liturgy.

In conclusion, Psalm 95 presents a firmly monotheistic perspective of the heavens and the earth. Whatever other “Elohim” exist, they are subject to the God who dominates heaven and earth. In line with Biblical thought generally, the Psalm traces a line from the nature and character of God to how we should live our lives. The aim of this journey through the sea is to bring God’s people to the place they are united with Him and to each other in joyful worship, which brings the Psalm full circle to its opening statement:
“Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD.”

Friday, May 6, 2011

Psalm 82

Psalm 82 is often cited in defense of the idea that the Bible teaches a kind of henotheism (there’s more than one God, but there’s only one that we should be concerned with), or polytheism (there’s more than one God, and we should be concerned with them all). For example, it has been quoted in defense of the Mormon doctrine of Eternal Progression, which holds that our present Heavenly Father had a Father before Him, who had a Father before Him and so on, and that all these beings (including us, if we subscribe) are progressing eternally in ever increasing states of knowledge and glory.

What I hope to demonstrate is that if that’s your view, then Psalm 82 is not your friend. The reason is because of the relationships between the “Gods” that it describes.

There are three things we need to comprehend in this Psalm, and all of them are interesting in their own right;

• The use of the Hebrew word “Elohim”, which can be properly translated as “God”, “Gods”, or “gods”

• The duties and responsibilities of these “Gods”, and how they were failing in them

• To whom these “Gods” were answerable, and who has the prerogative of judging them

Here’s the Psalm in its entirety, according to Professor Robert Alter in his "The Book of Psalms, a Translation with Commentary":

An Asaph psalm
1 God takes His stand in the divine assembly
in the midst of the gods he renders judgment
2 “How long will you judge dishonestly,
and show favor to the wicked?


3 Do justice to the poor and the orphan.
Vindicate the lowly and the wretched
4 Free the poor and the needy ,
from the hand of the wicked save them
5 They do not know and do not grasp,
in darkness they walk about.
All the earth’s foundation totter
6 As for me, I had thought: you were gods
and the sons of the Most High were you all.
7 Yet indeed like humans you shall die
and like one of the princes, fall”
8 Arise, O God, judge the earth
for You hold in estate all nations

A couple of footnotes for the curious;

• Like the Professor and all modern renderings, I have retained the verse numbers for ease of reference, but they do not appear in the oldest texts

• The opening phrase “An Asaph Psalm” attributes the Psalm to Asaph, who might have been the father of King Hezekiah’s secretary, or a son of Berechiah, chief Levite musician under David.

• Nobody knows what the word “Selah” means, but the consensus is that it is likely a musical or poetic note. I like to think it probably means something like “pause here”, or “play a few bars of music here” like “bridge”, as in “verse, chorus, bridge, chorus”.

Firstly, let’s tackle the use of the Biblical Hebrew word “Elohim” which occurs twice in Verse 1 (see!bible/Psalms+82 and open the tab “Grk/Heb” to see the English and Hebrew side by side). Like most modern translations, the Professor’s translation renders it as “God” and “gods” so, how many “Gods” are there?

Nobody disputes that the first “Elohim” refers to the God. In the Biblical idiom, nobody else would have the right to “stand” in judgment in the assembly of someone else. It’s the same word for God that’s used in Genesis 1:1 and it’s actually plural in form because it bears the “im” plural suffix of all male Hebrew nouns. But, when referring to the God, it should considered to refer to a singular “God”, not “Gods” for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the “Spirit of God” in Genesis 1:2 is singular. If there were “Gods” involved in the Creation, then Genesis 1:2 should have “spirits of the Gods”, but the Hebrew word for “spirit” is firmly singular, not plural (it does not bear the “ot” plural suffix of all female Hebrew nouns and the Hebrew for “spirit” is a female noun).

Some commentators and translators understand the second word “Elohim” to refer to human judges, kings or leaders, but I’m not convinced because it doesn’t fit with the story that unfolds in the Psalm. The least forced reading is that the Psalm refers to “real” deities, not mortals, because the worst that happens to them is that they are condemned to mortality (Verse 7). That is hardly a fitting judgment if they were mortal to start with. The scenario in Verse 1, then, is that the God turns up in the “assembly” of the “lesser” gods, rather like He is walking in to Mount Olympus.

This, I believe, is not out of line with other Biblical texts; I find it quite natural to place these “lesser” gods within the context of the creation of “all things” in John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16. The Bible, in my opinion, does not dispute the existence of these “lesser” heavenly beings, but it does profoundly challenge their status and their relevance to us.

This brings us to what those “lesser” gods should have been doing, and why the God judges them. As the Psalmist notes in Verses 3 and 4, the "lesser" gods should have been upholding justice. However, they were derelict in their duties, and the God holds them to account. Perhaps they were too busy enjoying the latest chocolate confection or beer, as some recent TV ads would have us believe.

There’s a very important aspect to this in Verse 5, which Professor Alter remarks upon as follows;

All the earth’s foundations totter: This is not, as may first appear, a non sequitur. The order of creation itself, in the view of Biblical monotheism, is founded on justice. When the lesser gods allow injustice to become rampant, the very foundations of the earth are shaken – the perversion of justice is the first step towards the apocalypse.

I find the Professor’s comments startling in our modern context. The Biblical authors considered human justice to be an extension, or even an expression, of the natural justice upon which the universe is founded. For them, the breaking of the law on a human scale was not merely a question of personal preference, but something that had significant cosmological implications. If a wrong was committed, it was not merely an offense against the victim, but something that shifted earth and heaven, rather like the way that a tremor or earthquake is the extension or expression of plate tectonics. Of course, the corollary is true; that the enactment of human justice restores the cosmological order of things. As a side note, I believe that this is a proper approach to the work of Christ as described by Paul in Colossians 1:19-20.

So, when the God turns up in the assembly of the lesser Gods, He does not like what He sees, and he pronounces judgment on them. No longer are they given the privileges of deity, they are effectively cast down into the human realm, where they will die like humans (Verse 7). They might have it good for a while, like the eponymous prince of the Psalm, but their days are numbered. Empirically, we know this to be true, because who today worships Zeus, or Apollo, or Baal, or Ashteroth, or any of these pagan tribal deities? They starved to death when their followers stopped feeding them with their sacrifices. For all intents and purposes, they have “died”.

Finally, then, one has to wonder at the “uber-ness” of the God in judging these “lesser” gods. This is not a case for either henotheism or polytheism, but rather a case against them both in no uncertain terms. There is only One God who has the right and the authority to judge these lesser gods. He calls them to account, and they are subject to Him. The implication in the Psalm is why bother with the monkey when you should be dealing with the organ-grinder.

The fact that the God judges and outlives the “other” Gods should be enough to dismiss this Psalm as supporting the Mormon doctrine of Eternal Progression. It must be noted that the direction of travel for these other heavenly beings is not upwards, as Eternal Progression proposes, but downwards. These “Elohim” are not headed to eternal life, but to mortal death because of their manifest failures and injustices. They are subject to the judgment of the “Elohim”, which would be a reversal the Biblical idiom, because, if Eternal Progression were true, the son would be judging his fathers.

In conclusion, I believe Psalm 82 has a message that is highly relevant in today’s pluralistic culture. Whatever “gods” are worshipped today, they are subject to judgment by the God, who guarantees that justice will prevail.

The Psalm also speaks of a perspective that is foreign to us in our modern context; that the upholding of human justice has cosmological implications. Today, we tend to view morality as a question of personal choice, or preference. In the Psalmist's view, the failure of the "gods" in upholding justice threatened the very fabric of the universe, and only the intervention of the God could save the world from oblivion.