We are all going to die. I don’t mean that in an imminent way, though perhaps some of us will pass shortly, but instead in a general sense. It is the condition of humanity that all men die. You and I will both die one day. If you are not righteous in God’s eyes when you come before His holy judgment, you will be sentenced to hell. Now, while there is time, repent of your sins. Ask God for mercy, and seize hold of Christ as your mediator. But that’s not the primary reason I wrote this post. After all, many of the readers of this blog already believe.
Instead, I wanted to focus on responding to something Dr. Michael Heiser has written. I hope to add a few points to the excellent points already presented by Dr. White in his earlier post (link). You may recall that Dr. Heiser wrote: “If these elohim are humans, why are they sentenced to die “like humans”? A clear contrast is intended by both the grammar and structure of the Hebrew text (Prinsloo; Handy, “Sounds”).”
Dr. Heiser is referring to Psalm 82.
Psalm 82 is a warning to unjust judges. God is the judge of judges, just as he is elsewhere described as the King of kings and Lord of lords. (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14; and Revelation 19:16)
God accuses these judges of judging unjustly, and particularly accepting the bribes of the wicked. He tells them to defend the poor and fatherless, the afflicted and needy. Specifically he urges them to defend the weak from the powerful wicked.
Then, God changes voices and talks about these unjust judges, saying that they do not understand. God says that he has called them gods, and that they are children of God. Nevertheless, he warns them that they will die like men and princes die. The Psalm ends with the singer calling forth God’s judgment on all nations.
These judges are referred to as “elohim” (as Dr. Heiser notes), but there are a few significant problems in Dr. Heiser’s analysis.
I. Meaning of “Like Humans”
Dr. Heiser seems to insist that “like humans” must be translated in a way that distinguishes these unjust judges from humans. He’s a credentialed professor in the area of Semitics, and I don’t provide any credentials. Nevertheless, I’d like to encourage the reader to consider the evidence.
a) The other usages of the expression
The expression translated “like men” in the KJV is “כְּאָדָ֣ם“. The precise form of this word is unique to Psalm 82:7, but very similar forms may be found in Job 31:33 (“כְאָדָ֣ם“) and Hosea 6:7 (“כְּאָדָ֖ם“).
i) Job 31:33
Job 31:33 If I covered my transgressions as Adam, by hiding mine iniquity in my bosom:
Notice that in this instance, the speaker is Job. There is really no denying that Job is human. In this instance, while Job is not admitting to being like Adam, he is discussing the matter hypothetically. Thus, the expression is not only not a denial of Job’s humanity, but also not a way of distinguishing (at least not directly) Job from Adam. Of course, Job is not Adam, though Job is human.
ii) Hosea 6:7
Hosea 6:7 But they like men have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me.
God here is speaking about people. There’s really no serious question that the context is God talking about the wickedness of his chosen nation. I do wonder whether the better translation here might be (as in Job) “like Adam.” Namely, they are transgressing the Covenant of Moses, just as Adam transgressed the Covenant of the Garden. Regardless, essentially the same analysis as in Job follows. They are not Adam, but they are men.
b) The immediate context
The immediate context of the expression “die like men” is a Hebrew parallelism to the expression “fall like one of the princes.” The term “fall” here is a synonym for “die.” Which princes are in mind here is somewhat of a difficult question.
Hosea 7:6 refers to the princes of Israel falling by the sword and 2 Samuel 3:38 refers to Abner’s death as the falling of prince. While some have suggested that Satan’s fall from heaven (Luke 10:18) is in mind, this seems somewhat strained, particularly given the parallel in play here. The “princes” (we must note) among the Israelites were the elders of the people, not the sons of the king (as in western monarchies). Thus, we see references to the princes of Israel both before (Numbers 21:18 and Judges 10:18) and after (Ezra 9:1-2 and Nehemiah 9:32) the monarchy, as well as during it (Jeremiah 26:16).
Notice as well that is not “like the princes” but “like one of the princes.” This usage weighs in favor of translating “die like men” as “die like a man” or “die like Adam” (Adam means man, in Hebrew, so it is sometimes hard to distinguish the two). In any event, the Hebrew expression translated “like men” is a singular expression, and so is the expression “one of the princes.”
These singular expressions do, in fact, contrast with “ye” (the plural pronoun in English – expressed in the Hebrew by the conjugation of the two verbs in the sentence). Thus, if Dr. Heiser is simply noting that there is a comparison being made, he’s right. Yet it is an equivalent comparison to those in Job and Hosea mentioned above.
c) best sense
The best sense of the text is that God is warning these judges of their impending doom. We might paraphrase God’s comment as: “Everyone dies (both ordinary men and princes), and you won’t be an exception.” Dr. Heiser views the comment from God as a sentence imposed on the judges, and – of course – death is a sentence for sin. It is sufficient, however, to simply view this as a proclamation of the doom that awaits unjust judges. They must die and come before the Judge of judges to answer for their injustice.
II. Backward Reference to the Pentateuch
In addition to the local context of the expression and the other uses of the expression, there is also the question of the relationship of meaning of this text with other texts. Dr. White has already addressed more than sufficiently the relationship of this text with the New Testament. That by itself should be a sufficient basis for rejecting Dr. Heiser’s position. Nevertheless, the Old Testament also provides additional light.
Specifically, verse 6 does not simply refer to the judges as “gods” (elohim) but states that God has said this:
Psalm 82:6 I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
The question is, where did God describe these unjust judges as “gods” (elohim)? It seems unlikely that this is simply a reference back to verse 1 of the psalm, though we cannot completely eliminate the possibility.
There are several places where judges are referred to as “elohim” in the Pentateuch:
Exodus 21:6 Then his master shall bring him unto the judges (elohim); he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.
If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall be brought unto the judges (elohim), to see whether he have put his hand unto his neighbour’s goods. For all manner of trespass, whether it be for ox, for ass, for sheep, for raiment, or for any manner of lost thing, which another challengeth to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges (elohim); and whom the judges (elohim) shall condemn, he shall pay double unto his neighbour.
Exodus 22:28 Thou shalt not revile the gods (elohim), nor curse the ruler of thy people.
And beyond the Pentateuch:
1 Samuel 2:25 If one man sin against another, the judge (elohim) shall judge him: but if a man sin against the LORD, who shall intreat for him? Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto the voice of their father, because the LORD would slay them.
It should be noted, of course, that although that is the KJV’s translation of the verses, as is so often the case, many of the modern translations disagree, using “God” instead of judges. Probably the strongest of these verses is Exodus 22:28, in that it provides a parallel between “reviling the gods” and “cursing the ruler of thy people,” which serves to demonstrate that the two concepts are analogous. Furthermore Paul, in Acts 23:5, makes application of this verse (at least the second half of it) to the human rulers of Israel.
It is interesting to observe that while Dr. Heiser has attempted to dismiss Exodus 21:6 and Exodus 22:8-9, he has not provided a similar response to Exodus 22:28 (link).
Much of Dr. Heiser’s argument with respect to the text relies on a higher critical framework that is repulsive to the traditional evangelical scholar. This makes interacting with Dr. Heiser difficult from the standpoint of finding any common ground upon which to premise discussions. I am not sure, for example whether the second part of this post (the other Old Testament references to human rulers as elohim) would have any particular significance for Dr. Heiser, because I’m not sure that Dr. Heiser would necessarily hold that the Scriptures have been providentially preserved for us, such that we might look for this prior statement of God in Scripture.
On the other hand, Dr. Heiser should be willing to accept the lexical grounds on which the first of the two points (i.e. the grammatical question of the expression “die like a man”) is premised. I do not know whether Dr. Heiser will read this discussion, but – if he does – I would be very curious as to how he would seek to continue his argument that “die as humans do” (translation used by Heiser) is something that clearly distinguishes these elohim from humans.
Dr. Heiser’s comment that “This sounds as awkward as sentencing a child to grow up or a dog to bark,” seems to fail to appreciate the very different negative consequences of dying as opposed to growing up (unless one is Peter Pan) or barking. A better comparison would be the comparison in the Proverbs:
Proverbs 26:11 As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.
Cautioning the fool that he will return to his folly or a dog to his vomit is not an empty statement devoid of negative connotation. Indeed, the apostle Peter refers us to this very proverb:
2 Peter 2:22 But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.
Even so, contrary to Dr. Heiser’s suggestion that “The point of verse 6 is that, in response to their corruption, the [elohim] will be stripped of their immortality at God’s discretion and die as humans die,” the point is that these judges should be aware of their mortality and the impending judgment of God. They should repent of their ways in order, at a minimum, to seek to avoid the punishment they deserve for their injustice. Dr. Heiser’s attempted explanation might seem to work if the text only mentioned dying like a man, but it also mentions falling (a synonym for dying) like one of the princes. The concept emphasized by the parallel is not a stripping of immortality, but a reminder of existing mortality: every man and every prince will die and face judgment, these unjust judges being no exception.
I’ll conclude with a similar warning from another Psalm:
Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.