Ps. 82: Justice & the Family Business

Mark Oppenheimer teaches journalism at Yale, hosts the podcast Unorthodox for Tablet magazine, and is the author of the forthcoming book Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.

 

When asked to boil our religion down to its essence, to turn the sap into the yummy, easily digestible syrup, Jews will often say that Judaism is about “ethical monotheism.” We were the people who said to the world, “There is only one god, and that one god makes the rules.” The implication is clear: what’s wrong in one time and place is wrong in other times and places. Rules like honoring one’s parents, not stealing or murdering, not committing adultery—they’re for everyone, and there’s no diplomatic immunity for people who claim to worship other gods. Only one jurisdiction counts. You don’t get to say, “I am Beldar from planet Remulak, and our god says I can cheat on my wife, Prymaat.” Sorry, Beldar: your god isn’t a real god, or at least not one that counts, and you can’t do that.

Throughout our sacred literature, Jews are pretty consistent about our monotheism. You can list the exceptions pretty quickly. In I Kings, Micaiah has a vision of God seated on His throne, “with all the host of Heaven” around him, to his right and left. Who constitute this “host of Heaven”—possibly other gods? In the second chapter of Job, we read about the “sons of God,” who along with Satan present themselves to the Lord. And various angels, cherubim, and seraphim in the Hebrew Bible also suggest that if there is only one God, there are at least other mini-gods, helper gods, or godlings.

But these are exceptions, leftovers from the ancient world in which Judaism slowly emerged; they don’t threaten the idea of God as the big chief, the only Lebowski who achieves true dudeness. What, then, are we to make of Psalm 82, in which God is convener of some sort of club of gods, who all have tremendous power? “God stands in the divine assembly,” it begins, and “among the divine beings He pronounces judgment.” God is not judging minions, but high councilors, perhaps co-equals (for a time); in the Hebrew, He is b’qerev elohim, in the midst of gods, in a circle of the gods. This is not God addressing a mass of lowly legislators at the State of the Union—it’s the top brass gathered in the Situation Room.

Basically, God is talking to His team. It is of them that He demands to know, “How long will you judge perversely, showing favor to the wicked?” And it is them that He commands, “Judge the wretched and the orphan, vindicate the lowly and the poor, rescue the wretched and the needy; save them from the hand of the wicked.” He sounds like an exasperated CEO, somebody who can’t do it all Himself; if He is to succeed, he must delegate well. And his delegatees are failing Him.

What’s worse is that the delegates are, literally or metaphorically, His children. For the psalm concludes with this warning: “I had taken you for divine beings, sons of the Most High, all of you; but you shall die as men do, fall like any prince.” So God is not just CEO, but the CEO of a family business; He is asking His children to help, and they are screwing things up, “showing favor to the wicked.” They are behaving like trust-fund babies, yachting with their private school classmates, cruising around the Italian Riviera like celestial Dickie Greenleafs. The apple has fallen far from the tree; rags to rags in three generations, and so on … And now it’s time to come home and assume their proper role in the family business, which is running the world justly.

I find this deeply anthropomorphized version of the project—ethical monotheism—to be comforting. We all like to think of our successes as mono, achieved just by our lone selves, when in fact we’re supported by our genetics, our upbringing, our spouses, and the tax base and the publicly funded roads and schools it gives us. What if the failures in the Torah vision, all those times when evil prevails and good dies in ignominy, are not betrayals by God but rather frustrations of His plan? And not frustrations we bring on ourselves alone, but C-suite glitches, in a dysfunctional family-run company? Bringing justice to earth is never the work of one person, and it may not be the work of one god. Psalm 82 is a glimpse at God’s team. The team is not faring too well, it seems. And so, the psalm invites us not just to pray to them, but for them. It also challenges us to join the team in the ongoing pursuit of justice and righteousness for all. 

 

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.