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(how to tell the biblical story
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I said you are gods…

Psalm 82 is one of my favourite psalms. It is short, sweet, theologically irregular, but very much to the narrative-historical point, at least as I understand things. Oddly, it is quoted only once in the New Testament, but it encapsulates what would be a key New Testament affirmation—that the God of Israel would sooner or later seize control of the nations from the pagan gods. It also pops up to similar effect in the Dead Sea Scrolls, so we’ll have a look at that passage too.

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.”

Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!

Good-for-nothing gods

The Psalm depicts a judgment of the gods. God (ʾĕlōhîm) has taken his seat in the divine council and accuses the assembled gods (ʾĕlōhîm) of malpractice: they have judged falsely, they have shown favouritism to the wicked when they should have defended the rights of the vulnerable and downtrodden.

These are the gods of the nations, and as members of the divine council they are “sons of the Most High” (cf. Ps. 89:6-7). We get this from Deuteronomy 32:8-9:

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

The idea is also found in Psalm 89:6-7: “Who among the [sons of God] is like the LORD, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him?” (modified ESV). It is probably this understanding of the “godhead”, rather than some sort of proto-trinitarianism, that accounts for the “Let us make man in our image…” of Genesis 1:26.

For Paul the coming judgment of Greek-Roman civilisation had already been secured through the suffering of the man Jesus, but the judgment itself—the historical putting right—still lay ahead.

Because the gods have governed unjustly, however, they will die like mortal men, like any prince they will fall. Eventually, the only true and righteous God will tear down the structures of pagan belief. The gods will vanish in a puff of disbelief.

The Psalm concludes with the confident appeal: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!”. The point is clear: the God of Israel is God of the whole earth, but the hope of the Psalmist is that he will one day take possession of the nations which currently worship a bunch of corrupt and incompetent deities. One day the God of Israel will be explicitly confessed as Lord by the idolatrous nations which have oppressed his people (cf. Is. 45:22-23).

Psalm 82 at Qumran

The Qumran sectarians regarded themselves as the ”inheritance of Melchizedek” (11Q13 2:4-5). A new Melchizedek would restore them in the last days, proclaiming the jubilee, and thereby “releasing th[em from the debt of a]ll their sins” (2:5-6; the square brackets indicate damage to the Hebrew text); and on the Day of Atonement he would atone for them. This is the time decreed for “the year of Melchiz[edek]’s favour” and ‘for a kingdom of judgment, just as it is written concerning him (ʿalay) in the Songs of David, “A godlike being (ʾĕlōhîm) has taken his place in the coun[cil of God;] in the midst of the divine beings (ʾĕlōhîm) he holds judgment”’ (2:9–10).

In this translation it sounds as though Melchizedek is directly identified (“it is written concerning him…”) with “God” (ʾĕlōhîm) who stands in the divine council. Some scholars have suggested, therefore, that the passage has important christological implications, particularly given the association of Jesus with Melchizedek in the New Testament.

The writer, however, is primarily concerned about the time when “Belial and the spirits predestined to him” will be judged. Belial is the Satan figure behind Roman opposition to Israel. It seems to me likely, therefore, that we should translate the prepositional phrase ʿalay as “concerning it” (referring to “the time decreed”, which is also masculine) rather than “concerning him” in verse 10. So: concerning this time it has been written that God will stand in the divine council and judge Belial and his hordes. But he will do so by the agency of this human Melchizedek figure, who will lead the sectarians in the final battle against Rome.

The end of a world

Perhaps the clearest expression of this broad conviction in the New Testament is given to Paul by Luke at the climax of his Areopagus speech:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world (oikoumenē) in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30–31)

Like the Qumran community Paul believed that the God of Israel would soon—or soonish—judge the nations, and the spiritual forces behind them, through the agency of a man whom he had appointed.

For the sectarians this man was the priest-king Melchizedek, who would lead the Sons of Light in battle against Rome, backed up by angelic armies.

For Paul the coming judgment of Greek-Roman civilisation had already been secured through the suffering of the man Jesus, but the judgment itself—the historical putting right—still lay ahead. So he quotes Isaiah: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope” (Rom. 15:12). At the parousia Jesus would come in glory to defeat his enemies, to vindicate his servants, to be acclaimed by the peoples of the Greek-Roman, and to establish his own rule over the nations to the glory of the God of Israel (eg., Phil. 2:11; 3:20-21; 1 Thess. 14-17; 2 Thess. 1:9-10; 2:8; cf. Rev. 11:15-18).

Gods and the Son of God

Sadly, Psalm 82 does not feature in this apocalyptic narrative of judgment and kingdom. We find reference to it only in John 10, where it serves a different purpose. Jesus claims to be one with the Father, the Jews threaten to stone him, he asks them why, they say it is because he makes himself God, so he answers them:

Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (John 10:34–36)

A popular understanding of this peculiar statement runs something like this: the phrase “gods, sons of the Most High” in Psalm 82 is a reference not to divine beings but to the people of Israel, to whom the Word of God came at Sinai; but if scripture calls the Jews “gods”, why are they so offended if he claims to be the Son of God? As it is, he is simply doing the works of the Father.

This is very unsatisfactory, not least because it seems to mean that Jesus has either misunderstood or taken liberties with the Psalm. For orthodoxy it raises the further problem that it sets Jesus’ “divinity” more or less on the same level the Jews’ divinity.

Better, therefore, to suppose that Jesus indeed had in mind the divine council. The Psalm records the “word of God” which came to the assembled “gods” of the council. In the Psalm this was a “word” of judgment: they had failed miserably, therefore they would be destroyed. The Jesus of John’s Gospel may only have meant, more generally, that in the divine council the word or command or instruction of God came to the gods.

The immediate controversy with the Jews has to do with whether Jesus was speaking and acting with the authority of the Father. Some thought that he was demon-possessed or insane, others thought it unlikely that a demon would open the eyes of the blind (Jn. 10:20-21). Some heard his voice and followed, others did not (10:25-27).

So if he claims to be the Son of God, he means that he has been “consecrated and sent into the world” (10:36) by God (or, if we prefer a somewhat higher christology here, from the divine council) with the same sort of authority and mandate that the “gods” received. The difference is that whereas the “gods” were corrupt, Jesus was one with the Father and fulfilled the Father’s will.

Comments

Andrew,

Well that was a major shift in topic. I’ve never seen a shift that dramatic on your site before. What got into you?

With that said, I love this topic! After reading Unseen Realm I’ve been consumed with studying the DDS, the Pseudpigrapha (especially the book of Enoch) and other ANE texts. I have to ask. Are your reading or maybe just finished Heiser’s book Unseen Realm? If not, you should get it. It’s this topic and related topic on steroids. Heiser is one of today leading scholars on the literature list above. He has researched this topic for 17 years prior to writing his book.

If you haven’t read the book you can find additional information that he didn’t put in the book:

http://tinyurl.com/yacrct36

Much of what you’ll find of that site is a lot of his (and other scholars) papers on various topics (by chapter) that are just too scholarly for the book’s intend audience and to save space. For example, chapter 3 of the book deals with Psalm 82 and the subject of the plurality of gods. Some really great papers which can be found here:

http://tinyurl.com/ycqcwfcm

A first quick read of your post here, nothing jumped out at me that differs from Heiser, but I’ll give it a more thorough reading when I get a chance. Glad you started a discussion on this topic.

-Rich

The post started out a while back as a response to a comment on the 11Q13 passage, though I forget the circumstances. I have read The Unseen Realm. I also read this essay while writing the post, though it’s focus is on Mormon beliefs. Where we differ mainly, I think, is that I would place a lot more weight on the political and historical dimension to eschatology. I think he misconstrues the New Testament “project”.

Andrew,

I don’t think he necessarily misconstrues the NT project, I think he is just more focused on the spiritual dimension while you’re more focused on the physical dimension. It was all the same battle, a battle that was taking place in both realms because they were two sides of the same coin. Like you said, you “would place a lot more weight on the political and historical dimension.” (emphasis mine)

Have you picked up his follow-up book, Reversing Hermon: Enoch, the Watchers, and the Forgotten Mission of Jesus Christ? While Unseen Realm was focused mainly on the OT, this book’s focus is the NT and Jesus’ mission. And it’s much shorter too!

Ah, his Mormon essay. I’ve read so much literature from Heiser and others on all this stuff I can’t remember (outside the main topic of the essay) what all was in that paper verses other papers and books. I do remember is was a beast to read - just opened it back up and sure enough it’s 266 pages. The one I was most interested in was his essay Does Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible Demonstrate an Evolution from Polytheism to Monotheism in Israelite Religion? I think it interested me more because I had run into that in the past as a new Christian and never really new one way or the other but just accepted it because that was what I heard coming from those around me. Something didn’t seem right about it but I was not equipped to argue one way or the other. I think that was my main motivation for getting the book Two Powers in Heaven too. Of course the only reason I knew about that book was because of Heiser’s mention in Unseen Realm.

Hello Andrew, and I too appreciate you delving into this topic - not only because it has been sidelined for so long among evangelicals, but also because, I think, the concept of gods and divine council can actually speak to our fractured day, when - although people might not use the language of “gods” - the splintering of our societies is clearly an indication that something is “up” in the heavenly realms. Mullen and his Assembly of the Gods is a very detailed read along these lines (and he even sees some Daniel 7 “son of man” language among Ugaritic El/Baal texts…) Having the concept of “gods” could be a rich source for historical-narrative approach in our day, though it would definitely challenge some presently held paradigms… Thank you for your post.

An interesting thought. Worth pursuing further.

Lee,

the concept of gods and divine council can actually speak to our fractured day, when - although people might not use the language of “gods” - the splintering of our societies is clearly an indication that something is “up” in the heavenly realms

As a preterist, I would argue that today’s fracturing is a mere remnant from these corrupt gods’ actions in the past. I would argue these gods were judged and destroyed in AD 70 at the end-of-the-age prior to the ushering in of the new age (a new heaven and earth).

Not sure if Andrew agrees or not. I know Andrew puts a judgement upon Israel in AD 70 but puts a judgement of the nations out at the fall of Rome (~AD400ish). Andrew could clarify his position.

Either way, I think these gods were dealt with in our past. I know in the past, in a conversation about demons, I pointed out that if you map out all the references to demons in the Gospels “the results reveal that every single case of demon-possession in the Gospel accounts occurs in the north, outside Judea; there are no examples of demon-possession in Judea or Jerusalem recorded in any of the four Gospel accounts”. I think there is a reason for this that is directly tied to the subject of these corrupt gods and their inheritance of the nations. Per Deut 32, the “LORD’s portion is his people”. His people were in Judea, YHWH’s holy ground.

It’s also interesting that in the north is where Mt. Hermon is located and is the OT region of Bashan, the “place of the serpert”. According to the book of Enoch, Mt. Hermon is where these corrupt “gods” descended. See Unseen Realm page 282-285 for additional information on this connection.

Hello Rich!

I agree with you, about the days of the “gods” being done away with at the coming of Christ. So that is completely a historical event in our past. And also, if I’ve understood Andrew correctly, the working out of Christ’s enthronement eventually led to the conquest of the Roman oikumene, with the consequences of that working itself out through the activity and influence of the church up unto our day.

More than anything, I was pleased to see Andrew bring up the topic of “gods” and divine council if for no other reason than that it helps us read and understand the Hebrew Bible more correctly, because it was the biblical worldview of Israel.

Also, your comments about demons and the north are interesting. I know that in Ugaritic texts the “north” is where the council meets, etc., so no stretch there.

One of my questions with all of this (that is, the narrative-historical approach) is, if Christ was enthroned (and I believe he was) over the nations 2,000 years ago, what is going on in heaven now? If the rulers have been dispatched, why is it so chaotic down here, in our “liquid modernity” (sorry, I’m reading Zygmunt Bauman’s presently!). If the church has let its priestly duties go, and the reign of Christ is waning, is it simply Satan that is causing the chaos, or has something like the dominion taken in Daniel 7:12 being restored to other powers? Who are we dealing with after the council’s demise?

“As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time” (Daniel 7:12)

Blessings…

Lee,

I know that in Ugaritic texts the “north” is where the council meets, etc., so no stretch there.

That is true. Heiser points out all these connections in his book Unseen Realm too. I was trying to keep my post short and simple.

I agree with you, about the days of the “gods” being done away with at the coming of Christ….

I’m confused how you can agree with me and then turn around and ask “is it simply Satan that is causing the chaos”? This is also connnected with your statements about the reign of Christ etc..

My understanding is a bit different. When I say “these gods were judged and destroyed in AD 70 at the end-of-the-age prior to the ushering in of the new age”, I mean they were destroyed. That was the lake of fire judgement of Rev. 20:10 in AD 70. The devil (which is a bit complicated in relation to these corrupt gods) and the other corrupt gods were all destroyed in AD 70. That is why I said, “today’s fracturing is a mere remnant from these corrupt gods’ actions in the past” -although man had his part in it too.

To complicate it further, these “gods”, according to 1 Peter 3:19 and Jude 6, were locked up in prison (tartarus) in Noah’s day. So, post Noah’s day they weren’t around to corrupt man.

None of these gods need to exist for man to work evil. James tells us that we are lead astray by our own desires. James 1:14. Man doesn’t need some corrupt god to lead him astray. So, “Who are we dealing with after the council’s demise?” Our own selfish fleshly hearts (although the council is not gone).

Post AD70 those who come to Christ may enter the City gates and partake of the tree of life. Outside the city “are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood”. Rev. 22:14-15.

About the reign of Christ. The way I see it, Christ’s reign was from ~AD 30 to AD 70. That was the period of transition (a period of overlap) of the covenants, the two ages, Israel’s 40-year wondering in the desert and journey to the promise land, etc.. Christ handed the Kingdom back over to the Father in AD70 after he destroyed all that he came to destroy.

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world (oikoumenē) in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30–31)

Like the Qumran community Paul believed that the God of Israel would soon—or soonish—judge the nations, and the spiritual forces behind them, through the agency of a man whom he had appointed.

Certainly *soonish* is quite in order give “will judge” is better read as… “is about to judge” — μέλλει.

I quite agree that The Unseen Realm makes for quite a paradigm change when reading the Bible and the DC worldview is seen in places one would never imagine e.g in Galatians 3 and 4, 1 Cor 15, 1 Pet. 3 as well as in the Gospel writings. It is hard not to un-see it once settled. But then I am not into ancient languages - I am more of an interested layman. The book of Enoch is quite startling to read because one can see more than a few connections here and there in the NT.

The DC worldview makes the outrage in John 10 clearer. Not only was Jesus equating himself with the elohim at the DC, he was claiming a unique relationship with the One who sat at its head…and he had works to back it up with. Long before Christians had disputes about the Being of God, the Second Temple Jews were already having their own disputes on the Two Powers in heaven. http://tinyurl.com/y9bmg9u2

It appears early thoughts about monotheism (in the OT) were far messier than the neat version we have at present. And the idea of religion was far different from what we think it entails for now. It took me an unrelated rabbi’s essay to realise that The Unseen Realm did have an interesting point about the sons of god to whom the nations were apportioned to - hence the curious term “Israel is my heritage/portion.” Maybe we should be prepared to leave some things as mystery. But as far as Trump is concerned, am beginning to believe Africa (I live in East Africa) if we were truly apportioned out to the sons of god - must have ended up in the hands of the most corrupt of the bunch mentioned in Psalm 82!

Now where are we headed after this post?…

My understanding is Jews moved from monolatry to monotheism sometime around the Babylonian exile, so Jesus may just be saying, “Our forefathers believed in other gods, so is it really a huge thing for me to call myself Son of God?”

Heiser would argue, I think, that the divine council idea survived into the New Testament period. I’m not sure I’m convinced about that, but it would have a bearing on your interpretation.

The other thing I would say is that for Jesus the core issue is not divine status or otherwise but authority. Because we are mainly interested for dogmatic reasons in the implications of the passage for christology, we tend to downplay the words “to whom the word of God came”, the focus on works, and the phrase “Son of God” which is relational but also has strong functional connotations: the son of God is an agent.

It’s an interesting suggestion, though.

It seems the author of John had a higher christology than the other Gospel writers. When the Jews in v31 were ready to stone him for making himself out to be God, he didn’t completely deny their charge. Instead he just reminded them that their own scriptures had room for more than one god, so they should go easy on him since his Son of God claim was slightly lower than that.

If a belief in divine council survived into the first century, I suspect it would involve angels and not gods.

Andrew,

You “think” Heiser would argue? Of course he would. The NT is inundated references to this entire perspective.

A few right off the top of my head.

Col. 1:15-17
1 Peter 3:18-20
2 Peter 2:4-5
Jude 6-7
1 Cor. 10
1 Cor. 11:10

Are you sure we read the same book?

Hi Rich,
Thinks for the link. I’m pretty familiar with Heiser’s work, but I don’t always agree with him. He admits his view is a minority view among scholars and I simply don’t find it nearly as persuasive as the majority view, which says that Israel’s religion evolved from a cult of Yahweh as a primary deity among many to a monotheistic faith.

“thanks,” not “thinks” :)

Peter,

I also wanted to throw in the caveat that I don’t agree with everything Heiser puts forth. For example, my position on Genesis’ creation account is considerably different than his. He still holds to some kind of physical creation account, I do not. I see it as a covenant creation account, which contains much of Walton’s functional creation ideas.

Heiser’s eschatology differs from mine as well. While he would fall into the futurist camp I do not. I’m a Preterist (full preterist) so for me Revelation is 100% completed. Becasue of these two differences, my conclusions differ considerably. But the majority of the meat in his book Unseen Realm, I agree with.

Peter,

Yes, he does admit his view is a minority among scholars. But, that just tells me all the more to listen and study the issue. I could provide a pretty lengthy list of views that are a minority among scholars but are true nonetheless - such as there is no place called Hell. Personally, I find Heiser’s view considerably more persuasive than the majority view, but that’s me. You have to remember though the majority view was developed from scholars who had been limited to the available literature of their day. Not so today. The vast amount of new documents (such as the DDS) have many scholars reexamining their views. I suspect it won’t be long before these majority views are the minority.

Have you interacted with Paul Sumner’s ideas, at all? I think you’d find it rewarding to dip in, if you haven’t already.

Paul wrote his thesis on the divine council and this page on his website links to the following two documents, which relate directly to this topic.

  • The Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible — Chapter 2 from a larger thesis by the same name. This chapter focuses on the evidence for the council imagery and concept in the Tanakh (Old Testament). [29 PDF pages]
  • The Divine Council in Second Temple Judaism & the New Testament — Chapter 5 from a larger thesis. It focuses on the trajectories of the heavenly council imagery and concept in the Hebrew Bible into documents of what is called “Early Judaism” and in the New Testament. See “Heavenly Council” below. [27 PDF pages]

John,

thanks for this link. I’ve download all five chapters and have started reading them.

you don’t see a parallel between the evil “counsel of god” and the jews?
the “counsel” had been given authority and failed to be faithful - so had the jews
warning!

This was also suggested here. It’s an attractive idea. The difficulties with it, as I see it, are: 1) the past tenses (“he called them gods to whom the word of God came”); and 2) the fact that in the Psalm the “gods” are associated not with Israel but with the nations.