Death Knell for the Pagan Gods, Part 2

Scripture text: Psalm 82


Note:  This blog entry continues a line of discussion which began in my the last blog entry, “Death Knell for the Pagan Gods, Part 1.”  You will better appreciate what I am saying in this blog entry if you read the previous one first.

Psalm 82 is a curious psalm in which the ancient gods of the Near Eastern civilizations are brought up to account in a trial in the heavenly council. The God of Israel, who is affirmed as the God of all nations, pronounces a death sentence against the other gods. This is a curious scenario indeed.

But what fascinates me even more in Psalm 82 is the basis on which the ancient gods are condemned to death. What is the great evil they have done that deserves a death sentence?

Hear the charge against them as it is expressed in Psalm 82:

 “How long will you judge unjustly

            and show partiality to the wicked?  

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;

            maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.

Rescue the weak and the needy;

            deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

 The words of God, as spoken through the psalmist, charge these ancient gods with the crime of upholding injustice and showing partiality to the wicked. And their upholding injustice is particularly expressed in their showing partiality to the rich and powerful to the neglect of the lives and rights of the poor, the needy, the destitute, and the fatherless. Their great crime is upholding social and economic injustice.

Now the prophets of the Old Testament make very clear that the God of Israel is an upholder of justice. The God on whose behalf the prophets speak is especially partial to the needs and the suffering of the poor, the destitute, the afflicted, and the defenseless. The Old Testament summarizes this class of people with its stock phrase, “the widow, the orphan and the resident alien.”

Now how can the charge leveled against the pagan gods of the ancient civilizations stand? Here is where I am deeply indebted to Mircea Eliade and his book The Myth of the Eternal Return published in 1954.

In this book Eliade surveys the mindset of the ancient religious traditions of humanity, including those pagan religions of the ancient Near East in which Psalm 82 finds it context.

He perceives in almost all of them a cyclical view of history. This means that history—and life itself–is seen as a constantly repeated pattern.

In these pagan religions, what counted most was the moment of origin of the world. In the initial act of creation, the gods created the divine structure of the world and of human society. All remains harmonious in the world in so far as human beings respect and obey that divine order, created at the time of creation.

Each year at New Year’s these ancient societies sought to return to that first day of creation and re-affirm or re-establish that divine order. So New Year’s Day Festivals occupied a dominant position in the cultic year of these ancient societies.

At this festival the ancient people represented in mythical drama and other cultic acts a kind of spiritual return to the first day of creation so that the divine order might be reaffirmed and re-established in the world.

The annual reaffirmation of the divine order also included a reaffirmation of the divine social order of semi-divine king, priesthood, nobility, peasantry, and slaves. This was the stratified social order established by the gods at creation. It was to be re-established each year at the New Year’s Festival.

This divinely sanctioned social order meant therefore that ancient societies tended to be conservative. Originality and creativity were not highly valued. Instead these societies valued conformity to the divine pattern set at creation. Tradition, not change, was valued, for it maintained the stability of the divine sanctioned order.

As a result, ancient paganism tended to reinforce what we today would see as an unjust social structure. The ancient gods did indeed give religious sanction to a stratified social order in which the privileged were few and the unprivileged were many. Care for the weak and needy was not a primary concern.

Now ancient Israelite religion included many cyclical features like the ancient paganisms. For example, Old Testament Judaism had it annual round of festivals, like Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and its own New Year’s festival.

Christianity maintains some of these cyclical features, too. We have our church year, with it annual cycle of feast days and fasts. And in both religions we have the weekly cycle of the Sabbath or Sunday celebrations.

But there was a factor in the ancient Israelite story that broke with this almost universal conception of life and history as cyclical. That was the experience of the Exodus and the story that emerged out of it.

The Israelites believed that God intervened (in one decisive and unrepeated moment) into their lives by setting them free from Egyptian bondage. That set them on a journey, a journey that lasted 40 years. It was not only a physical journey, but a spiritual journey as Israel learned what it meant to be the people of God. The story was fundamentally one of liberation.

Now here is where the Israelite concept of history was so different from the cyclical view of history found in the ancient paganisms. The pagan cyclical view saw the Age of Gold lying at the beginning of history. It was then that the gods established the eternal order of the world.

This was their spiritual home. And each year in the New Year’s festival, the people returned to their spiritual home to reaffirm that eternal order. This meant a revolutionary change of the social structure stood little chance of surviving.

When Israel leaves Egypt, it leaves its old home. But when the Exodus journey ends 40 years later, it has not brought the Israelites back to Egypt. They have not returned home, now however refreshed, strengthened, and integrated so they can thrive in the old society.

When the Exodus journey ends, it lands Israel not in Egypt, but in the Promised Land. Israel arrives at a new home. And if all the principles of the Torah given at Sinai are put into practice, the new society will be one in which all have a rightful place, a real chance to thrive. The needs of the poor and destitute, the needs of the widow, orphan, and resident alien, will not be ignored, but given due attention.

In a mindset shaped by the Exodus story, the Age of Gold does not lie at the beginning of history, but at the end, in the coming of the Kingdom of God. And that kingdom will be a far different reality than the spiritual Egypt from which God calls humanity.

History therefore is not a cyclical journey, in which history constantly cycles back to its beginning to reaffirm the divine order. Instead history is a linear journey. It will have a beginning. It will have an end. But the end will not be the same thing as the beginning.

For a religious mindset shaped by the Exodus story, the purpose of religion is not primarily the reaffirmation of the status quo of society. Instead religion is to lead people to a new and better experience of life, a life of liberation, or in the language of Christianity, a life of redemption.

This gives an incentive for change, change that will lead to a better life in the future. And in that better future, justice will reign. I am not sure that the Bible defines justice as equality, but it certainly sees justice as ensuring that everyone in society has access to the freedom and bounty that God bestows.

Ancient Israel was not able to live out this vision of a just society, anymore than has Christianity. In both religions, religion has been used to sanction and prop up an unjust status quo. But in both religions, the Exodus story plants seeds that upset any attempt to return to the role religion played in the ancient paganisms.

So in a very real sense, Psalm 82 sounds a death knell on any religious system that sees its role simply as the reaffirmation of the current status quo. To such religious systems—pagan, Jewish, or Christian—Psalm 82 speaks these words:

 I say, “You are gods,

            sons of the Most High, all of you;

nevertheless, you shall die like men,

            and fall like any prince.”


Death Knell for the Pagan Gods, Part 1

Bible text: Psalm 82

Recently I was reading Psalm 82. It a very curious psalm. It does not quite fit my expectations on what I will find in the Bible.

The psalm begins with God, the Lord of Israel, taking his place in the divine council. As the next line makes clear, this is an assembly of gods, presumably in heaven.

Now that is where the puzzle arises. If Judaism is a monotheistic religion, how does this allusion to polytheism make it into the sacred text? Are we to conclude that the Israelites of the Old Testament believed in the existence of other gods?

This thought has troubled many commentators through the centuries. As a result there is one tradition of interpreting the word “gods” in the divine council as angels. Other interpreters understand the “gods” to be an inflated way of speaking about the ruling authorities in human society, the kings and the judges and other governing officials.

I think when the text says “gods”, it means just that. For the imagery of a divine council was a common one in ancient mythologies, whether Sumerian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Egyptian, or Greek. In Canaanite literature (the alternate religious environment in which Israel lived) we find references to this divine council of gods, headed up by the dominant father god El.

The psalmist is adapting this common mythological motif in structuring his psalm. He is using imagery his listeners were very familiar with.

This is one bit of evidence that pure monotheism was a long time establishing itself in the religious mindset of the Israelites of the Old Testament era. Some scholars suggest that the religion of ancient Israel should be more accurately labeled monolatry rather than monotheism.

Monotheism believes in the existence of only one god. There are no others. God is one god and one alone. Monolatry believes there are multiple gods in existence, but a particular people worship and serve only one god exclusively. Monolatrists are monotheists in practice, but not in their thinking. Psalm 82 fits best into a monolatrist view of divine world.

But it is interesting what Psalm 82 does with that monolatrist mindset. It does not deny the existence of other gods. Instead it puts those other gods on trial. And the judge is the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who reveals himself at Sinai as the I AM. He is affirmed in verse 8 as God of all nations and judge of the earth.

Charges are brought against the other gods, and they are found guilty. Then the God of Israel stands up in the assembly to pronounce their sentence:

I say: “You are gods,
sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you will die like men,
and fall like any prince.

The days of polytheism are numbered. These powerful and renowned gods that other nations worship and serve will be shown not to be immortal, but momentary powers here today and gone tomorrow just like the long succession of human emperors, princes, and warlords.

In this the psalmist does prove prescient. Where today do we find anyone who seriously worships and serves Marduk and Ishtar of Babylon, Osiris and Isis of Egypt, El, Baal, and Asherah of Canaan, or Zeus, Athena, and Apollo of Greece? Their temples are in ruins. No one brings the daily sacrifices to these gods.

As far as I know, only two gods from the ancient Near Eastern world of divinity continue to be worshipped and served today. One is Ahura Masda, the god of the Zoroastrian religion. The other is the God of ancient Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. All the other gods have died in effect, as the sentence in Psalm 82 predicts.

Now I don’t say this in a triumphalist note. I am simply saying this in a realistic note that this is indeed how things have worked out in the course of history. One can make of that what one wants.