Every Tuesday at morning prayers, observant Jews recite Psalm 82, an extraordinary and powerful call for justice and kindness. God demands justice, saying:
How long will you judge unjustly, showing favor to the wicked?
Do justice to the weak and the orphaned.
Vindicate the poor and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy.
Save them from the hand of the wicked.
Okay. Great. But there’s a little problem. From where does God sound this judgment? “From among the Gods.” Wait a minute.
How can the God of a monotheistic religion pronounce judgment from “among the Gods”? It’s obvious that this line troubles many commentators, who often translate the line as “from among the judges,” but that is clearly wrong. The word used in the Bible is אלהים, “gods”, not שפתים, “judges.” Robert Alter’s wonderful translation of the Psalms dismisses this attempt as “unconvincing.”
The rabbis of the Midrash tried to say that it meant “judges,” citing Exodus 22:8, which, they say, reads, “the cause of both [litigants] shall come before the judges.” Except that it doesn’t say that; it says כי הוא זה עד האלהים, or “both parties shall come before God.”
What to do? Barring a scribal error, we might start reconceptualizing the nature of ancient Jewish “monotheism.” Most Biblical scholars (e.g., James Kugel) see ancient Jewry as being henotheistic in any event. This would be an ironic twist on the present, where, as the joke goes, the agnostic Jew knows precisely what the God whose existence he doubts requires of him.
For our purposes, we might simply start by saying that whatever Jewish monotheism might mean, it is far for more complicated that one God and one humanity. Alter suggests one supreme God and several lower gods (although that would not be angels, who have a perfectly good word — מלאכים — to represent them.). Perhaps God mediates Him/Her/It/Self through other agencies, beings, and forces. I don’t know what that would look like, but it would be a suitable meditation for Tuesdays.