Where Alter’s Psalter falters
What's really going on in Psalm 82?
Two months ago, I read through Robert Alter’s translation of and commentary on the Psalms, part of a much larger project covering the entire Hebrew Bible. Alter’s insights into the text as well as into the intricacies of the Hebrew language are amazing, the results of patient scholarship and an evident love of scripture.
Although I generally appreciate Alter’s work, I question one element of his interpretive framework. This is relevant especially to Psalm 82 but to others as well. Throughout the Psalms he sees vestiges of Canaanite polytheistic religion, with many of the traditional attributes ascribed to Baal being reassigned to YHWH, including the often-used metaphors of riding on the clouds and defeating the waters of chaos.
Of course, there is little doubt that the early Hebrews were influenced by the surrounding peoples’ religions, as the Bible itself testifies. But I think it’s possible to exaggerate these mythological remnants in such a way as to miss something more concrete and obvious, which Alter is otherwise at pains to emphasize. Here are the two initial lines in Alter’s translation:
“God takes His stand in the divine assembly, in the midst of the gods He renders judgment” (82:1).
Alter comments: “The efforts of traditional commentators to understand ‘elohim here as ‘judges’ are unconvincing. God speaks out in the assembly of lesser gods and rebukes them for doing a wretched job in the administration of justice on earth.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible says something similar – that the psalmist pictures a “world . . . ruled by a council of gods.” This is predicated on the assumption that the ancient Hebrews’ faith developed into monotheism late in their history and that the first two commandments proscribing idolatry date, not from Moses, but from a time just prior to the Babylonian exile.
But remember that in the ancient world it was scarcely unusual for rulers to claim divine status for themselves. The Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors are worthy of note in this respect. In light of this historical reality, look again at the words of God’s judgements:
“How long will you judge dishonestly, and show favor to the wicked? Do justice to the poor and the orphan. Vindicate the lowly and the wretched. Free the poor and needy, from the hand of the wicked save them” (82:2-4).
These commands are quite practical and appear to be directed at flesh-and-blood human beings in positions of authority who carry responsibility for the most vulnerable in society.
Now it is possible that Psalm 82 is a general protest against idolatry posed in vestigial mythological terms. But given the Hebrews’ penchant for the concrete over the abstract, for the earthy over the ethereal, it seems to me that God’s judgement here is directed at earthly rulers who esteem themselves divine and are miscarrying justice in quite ordinary and particular ways.
Psalm 82 is one of the biblical texts I used to give my introductory-level students to show that God expected his people to do justice, especially to the three most vulnerable groups in Israelite society, namely, the widows, the fatherless, and the sojourners. These precepts are found throughout especially the Old Testament, and in the Psalms they take on poetic form. In singing these words, God’s people would commit them to their hearts and presumably put them into practice.
While I am not a biblical scholar, I find this concrete understanding of the Psalm more persuasive than Alter’s mythological interpretation.