“You Are Gods”: The Biblical Picture

Jesus references Psalm 82:6, “You are gods,” as a response to the Jewish attempt to stone him after he claims, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). When Jesus asks what particular good work they were stoning him for, they answered, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” Instead of narrowing his claim or qualifying it, Jesus suggests that human beings were made to be gods – according to the Law: “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS’? “If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (Jn 10:34–36). In the Psalm, God judges “in the midst of the rulers” accusing them of judging unjustly and showing partiality to the wicked, rather than defending the weak and the fatherless (Ps. 82:1-3). The Psalm makes the point that these rulers, appointed to a divine like authority, have failed in their duty. “I said, ‘You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High. ‘Nevertheless, you will die like men and fall like any one of the princes’” (Ps. 82:6).

Jesus, in the context of his quoting the Psalm, presumes the reference applies to humanity and not to angelic or spiritual sons. The reference may be to the divine image in which humans were created and the dominion they were given over creation: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (Gen. 1:26). The idea is that the humans would not simply dominate but would, as the Psalm indicates, offer a benevolent reign over creation. As Bnonn Tennant notes, the Hebrew term kibshu has the double meaning of “subdue,” as in a military campaign but also the idea of a forceful or vigorous ordering. “God is not merely making man a custodian in Genesis; he isn’t giving him mere supervision of the earth, like a middle-manager. He is making him a king; giving him free rein over the world. The creation mandate is a dominion mandate.”[1] Creation care would certainly be involved in this reign, but as is now clear in the nuclear age and an age of global warming, humans can also manipulate creation so as to destroy it.

The garden may be a model or guide for what man is to do throughout creation. Adam is on the order of a coparticipant in God’s creating and ordering activity. He names the animals, tends and organizes the Garden, but extension of the Edenic Kingdom into all the world (they are to “subdue the earth,” Gen. 1:28) is part of the rule or kingship exercised by the original royal pair. This is indicated in that the “image and likeness” which God impressed on the first couple is subsequently an image Adam impresses on his son Seth (Gen. 5:1-3). The success, but mostly the failure to rightly exercise this rule, to order God’s kingdom, is the story of Scripture. “The entire Bible, one way or another, is concerned with tracing its decline, division, reunion, and eventual restoration.”[2]

The battle joined between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) involves the entire human race in both the flood and at Babel (Gen. 11). Babel marks a united attempt to order the human kingdom on the basis of a unified world government and religion, due to improved technology and heightened presumption. Rather than spreading out, multiplying and filling the earth, the people of Babel refuse the dominion mandate and decide to arrange a kingdom that would make their name endure in a very limited region (the plain of Shinar). It is an organized rebellion – an attempt to order the kingdom by human standards and means. The unified attempt to organize, instead becomes a confusion of languages and religions.

Amar Annus, a scholar of the ancient near east, notes, “There was a broad tradition in the Babylonian scribal milieu that the seventh antediluvian figure, a king or a sage, ascended to heaven and received insights into divine wisdom. The seventh antediluvian king according to several lists was Enmeduranki, the king of Sippar, who distinguished himself with divine knowledge from the gods Adad and Shamash.”[3] Sippar, according to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, was one of the states located in Shinar.[4] Where “Babylonian mythology puts a positive spin on this event, representing the sons of God, the Apkallu, as the ones who founded Babylon and imparted knowledge of culture and technology, Jewish  Second Temple writings describe the Apkallu as the ones who taught mankind things like idolatry and witchcraft.”[5]

It is significant that Abram is called (in Gen. 12) immediately subsequent to the multiplication of tongues and religion at Babel (Gen. 11). Even the household of Abram are carrying household idols (Gen. 31:19) and in the midrash Genesis Rabbah, Abram is depicted as a young boy working in his father’s idol shop. Abram is called from out of Babel to form a people who will bring forth the second Adam. Meanwhile the other nations are allowed to continue in their religious idolatry or in, what the New Testament will describe as, the worship of demons. As Deuteronomy explains, “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage” (Dt. 32:8–9). These particular “sons of God” may refer to spiritual forces which have displaced God. The Septuagint translates the “sons of God” as “angels of God.” The gloss that Deuteronomy 4 puts upon this indicates that it is indeed spiritual forces that control the nations.

And beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven [צבא השמים— tsaba ha’shamayim, the standard nomenclature for the armies of heaven], you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, which Yahweh your God has allotted [חלק] to all the peoples under the whole heaven.[6]

In contrast Israel was saved out of Egypt or “out of the iron furnace” so as to be a people “of his (God’s) own inheritance” (Dt. 4:20).

The nations are turned over to spiritual forces (represented by “the sun and the moon and the stars”) or a force other than that for which they were made. Their failure to rule rightly means they have been usurped. As Psalm 82 indicates, they are subject to death though they were meant to be princes, kings, and rulers. They have apparently been turned over to the spirits or spirit behind false religion and idolatry.

The New Testament pictures this power over the nations in a variety of images: “rulers and authorities”, “world forces of darkness,” “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places,” “the prince of the power of the air,” or simply cosmic powers of darkness.[7] The various combination of “rulers and authorities” and heavenly spiritual forces combined with imagery referencing nations and kings, indicates a continuum between the human realm and cosmic and spiritual powers. The book of Revelation speaks of “the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan” (Rev. 20:2), but it also describes a beast with seven horns and ten heads, which fronts for the dragon and which elicits the worship of all the world (Rev. 13:1-4). Whether this beast is the Roman God Emperor, or some combination of political powers, the world is forced to bow before a unified religion opposed to the rule of Yahweh.

In both Daniel and Revelation, the combination of spiritual power and political embodiment is given a beastly representation. Daniel describes a Revelation like beast and its destruction by “the Ancient of Days”: “And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time” (Da. 7:11–12). Daniel is given an interpretation of the vision that identifies the beasts as “four kings who shall arise out of the earth” (Da. 7:17). The saints (ESV) or the “sons of God” will take possession or receive the kingdom (7:18), from the “son of man” who has secured it on their behalf (7:14).

Paul refers to “so-called gods” but goes on to say “indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father” (I Cor. 8:56). He later explains that Gentiles “sacrifice to demons and not to God” (I Cor. 10:20) so that the “many gods and many lords,” unlike the idol itself, is not simply nothing (I Cor. 8:4) but an actually existing power, force, or spirit. There is an ambiguity surrounding the exact nature and provenance of these powers (or this power), but there is an alignment between nations, idolatrous religion, and subjection to the powers of darkness.

If we presume that Jesus inaugurates the kingdom and subdues the powers with the incarnation (the teaching of the New Testament), this must have occurred in Jesus’ confrontation with the earthly powers during the time of Roman rule. As Tennant notes, Daniel’s description of the son of man coming on the clouds is not his coming to earth but his coming to the throne of God in heaven.[8] This occurred in the first century, in which Luke records the ascension, echoing the language of Daniel:

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1: 9-11).

Daniel’s title “son of man” is taken by Jesus, and the synoptic Gospels (also in the imagery of Daniel) picture the kingdom being ushered in with his generation: “For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:26–28). Or in summary of a host of signs:

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24: 29– 34; par. Mark 13: 24– 30; Luke 21: 25– 32).

The images of cosmic upheaval (e.g., a darkened sun and blood moon, representative of spiritual forces) are images of a heavenly regime change. The reality of Jesus being seated at the right hand of the Father is pictured in the imagery of unruly spiritual powers being subdued. At the same time, the gods of Psalm 82, subjected to death, with the resurrection of Christ are being restored through his reign. The “greatness of his power toward us who believe” is restoring Adam’s reign, as Christ raised from the dead is seated “at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:20-21).

To return to the point of departure, the call of the Psalm, which Jesus is applying to himself and his followers, is for God to repossess the nations: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps 82:8). He will restore to those designated “gods” the eternal life that fits their station: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:28). The Fall, the turn to other gods, the continual rebellion and idolatry, are here reversed and this gain is irreversible. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:29-30).

As Peter describes it, this god-like status does not describe an innate nature but a partaking or participation in the divine nature opened to all through Christ:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

[1] Bnonn DominicTennant, The Spine of Scripture: God’s Kingdom from Eden to Eternity (pp. 18-19). Information Highwayman. Kindle Edition.  Very much appreciate the recommendation, Leigh. Thank you.

[2] Ibid. 21-22.

[3] Amar Annus, “On the Origin of Watchers: A Comparative Study of the Antediluvian Wisdom in Mesopotamian and Jewish Traditions” Estoniain  Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha · May 2010

[4] https://www.internationalstandardbible.com/S/shinar.html

[5] Tennant, 70.

[6] From Tennant, 73.

[7] Col. 2:15-17; Eph. 2:2; 6:12; John 1:5 respectively.

[8] Tennant, 85.

Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease

Where the truth of Christ is understood to counter a lie and the death of Christ an overcoming of the orientation to death fostered by this lie there are an infinite variety of ways in which this overcoming is to be described.  Key throughout is the recognition that this understanding has its explanation in the lived reality of human experience. As opposed to theories of atonement focused on the mind of God (i.e. divine satisfaction, penal substitution) which do not, for the most part, engage the lived reality of human experience, an immanent explanation of how the world is impacted by Christ is readily available.  Let me suggest a direction for the theological enterprise as it engages the ongoing task of apprehending the meaning of the death of Christ. Continue reading “Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease”