Posted By MSH on November 26, 2010
[Note: For other posts on Mike’s work on the divine council, click here for the archive.]
At last week’s annual ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) meeting I read two papers. The first was entitled. “What Is / Are (an) Elohim?“ It dealt with why the reality of other gods (plural elohim) is not a threat to monotheism. The reason is that our modern definition of monotheism creates a problem that would not have been seen as a problem for an ancient Israelite. Here is the introduction:
We’ve all no doubt heard the Italian proverb (traduttore, traditore): “translator, traitor”—the idea being that every translator is a traitor. I’m not that cynical, since I’m familiar with the difficulty of the translation enterprise, but I have to admit that there are times when translators really do betray the text. This sort of fudging is evident in passages that involve the word elohim when grammar and context clearly indicate the word is plural—especially when the plural elohim are not foreign deities. The inclination to obscure what’s really in the text in these instances is understandable. After all, when Psalm 82 describes the God of Israel as presiding over other plural elohim, that sounds like polytheism. But that admission in turn suggests that the text is being translated so that it conforms to our theological expectations or needs. Surely that strategy can’t be recommended. Yet that is precisely what many translators and scholars do in the name of fidelity to God. I would suggest this is dishonest and hypocritical.
In this paper I want to suggest that we need not fear the biblical text, and need not protect people from the biblical text. There is a simple way to resolve the problem of an inspired Old Testament that affirms that there are many real elohim (good or evil) in addition to Yahweh. Though simple, the solution requires us to think like a Semite, like an Israelite, and not as the product of the Reformation or modern evangelicalism. Biblical theology does not begin with us, Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, or Augustine. It begins with the text as it stands, understood within the historical, cultural, and religious context that produced it.
This first paper set up the discussion in the second one. If you will be downloading both these papers to read, it is therefore best that you read them in order:
The second paper was entitled, “Should the Plural Elohim of Psalm 82 Be Understood as Men or Divine Beings?” This paper deals with why the “human interpretation” of Psalm 82 has no merit at all — and in light of the first paper, that view is completely unnecessary. Here is part of the introduction:
How could the psalmist tolerate the existence of multiple elohim within the context of Israelite monotheism? How can the Hebrew Bible affirm plural elohim in this psalm and yet deny that there are other gods in other passages? These questions telegraph why so many Jewish and Christian (evangelical) interpreters argue that the plural elohim of Psalm 82 are humans. Seeing these elohim as divine beings is viewed as a threat to monotheism, the heart of biblical theology. Making them human is the easiest path to removing the problem. But is this correct? My answer is “No.” In this paper, I hope to show why arguing that these elohim are human beings is inescapably incoherent and, more importantly, completely unnecessary for defending the real point of a monotheistic biblical theology. Toward that end, I will address how an Israelite would have understood the term elohim, thereby providing a corrective to our own mistaken understanding. This will help us see that plural elohim are no threat to monotheism. I’ll then provide a positive defense that the plural elohim in Psalm 82 are divine beings by highlighting some transparent details from the text why the plural elohim in Psalm 82 cannot be humans. Lastly, I’ll take a negative approach, demonstrating that there is no coherent argument in favor of the human identification.
The Psalm 82 paper was also prompted by criticisms posted in 2009 by Alpha and Omega Ministries (AOM). That I really don’t consider these criticisms serious is indicated by the fact that they have existed on the web since 2009 with no online response on my part (though many have emailed me the link and asked me to respond). Rather than engage people on the internet on these matters, my choice was to submit my views to public peer review at an academic evangelical conference (and I’ve actually done that several times now at ETS in a piecemeal sort of way via other papers). Eventually, I will be merging the two papers to submit to a peer-reviewed journal, hopefully sometime in 2011.
The AOM response is curious. On the one hand, AOM has found my material useful with respect to countering Mormonism’s use of Psalm 82 (see the above link; better, see my article critiquing Mormonism’s use of Psalm 82 — published in a Mormon journal no less — kudos to them for fair play). But on the other hand, my views are criticized in the same AOM post and answered with rather feckless arguments. That it doesn’t even get my job title right (not hard to check – Logos has one Academic Editor, not several) doesn’t speak well of the quality of the research that went into the response. Nevertheless, the criticisms are understandable in that they are motivated by a desire to defend monotheism. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the AOM writer has much of a grasp of how my position reinforces orthodox Christology (see the last paragraph of the link, but it may be the case that the new Psalm 82 paper probably does a better job of articulating Jesus’ use of Psalm 82 in John 10).
Finally, if anyone wants to respond to my views on Psalm 82 in the future, the new Psalm 82 paper makes it apparent as to what needs to be done: (1) engage the Hebrew text rather than proof-texting the English Bible; and (2) provide coherent responses to the list of items in the conclusion to the Psalm 82 paper. I want to see something with explanatory power and answers to specific issues I bring up in my article, not dismissive online glibness. I want you to tell me –and of course the online or academic communities — how your position faithfully takes all the germane material into account in a way more coherent than my position. Let’s have it. I’ll be happy to post it and interact with it. In the absence of a substantive response, I don’t plan on posting on this again. I have better things to do.