Gods, Evil, and the Decision—Psalm 82

The Politics of Scripture

Liberal ethical tropes around “fairness” and “inequality” are not wrong. But they are not enough. Political theology needs the possibility of an absolute “No” in the face of injustice. It needs the decision.

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

Psalm 82 (NRSV)

“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state,” the jurist Carl Schmitt once famously argued, “are secularized theological concepts.”[1] And while Schmitt traced this relation from the omnipotent God to the sovereign ruler, and from the miracle to the “state of exception,” there remain other key theological notions that are all too often left out of political theology’s discourse. Psalm 82 provides fertile material for one such case: evil.

Schmitt’s Political Theology set a key trajectory for the discipline of the same name, described in the book’s subtitle: “four chapters on the concept of sovereignty.” For Schmitt, the political notion of sovereignty is grounded in the omnipotence of God: “the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver.”[2] Ever since Schmitt’s work, sovereignty has remained the watchword of political theology. The sovereign’s unique and singular power to set aside the rule of law—to declare the “state of emergency”—echoes the unique and singular deity: one God, one king.

Yet, Psalm 82 reveals a more complicated divine schema. For while it is certainly true that ancient Israelite worship was organized around a central divine figure—YHWH, the God of the cosmos and creator of all—the celestial hierarchy was considerably more complex and tension-strewn than is generally recognized. Together with the figure of the singular God, was a world of lesser spiritual beings, the “divine council,” as Psalm 82 names it. Michael Heiser, the scholar who has done more than any other to popularize this research, names this pantheon-centered perspective the “divine council worldview.”[3]

But, as Heiser shows, this was not a council of yes-men. Rather, as is already clear in Psalm 82, this council was marked by strife and conflict. Biblically, this strife can be traced back to Genesis 6, where members of this council, the sons of God (bene elohim) disobey God and cross-breed with human women, symbolically mirroring the moral corruption of humanity inaugurated in Genesis 3 with the failure of Adam and Eve, and culminating in Genesis 11 with the construction of the tower of Babel.

The result of this dual corruption, of the gods and of the humans, is the dispossession of the nations. This event is recalled in Deuteronomy 32: “When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.” Here, YHWH disinherits the nations, reserving only Israel for himself. Since the nations “did not see fit to acknowledge God,” to borrow a phrase from Romans 1, “God gave them up.”

The consequence of this divine/human rebellion, and the result of this dispossession, is the rule of violence and injustice throughout the nations. Thus, the Psalmist rebukes these gods, “how long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” (Psalm 82:2). The gods of the nations, these rebellious spirits from the council of God, become the very symbol of evil. As the author of Ephesians insists, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). This struggle is the struggle to reclaim the nations, already proleptically anticipated by Psalm 82: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!” (Psalm 82:8)

In the contemporary Western context,  this “divine council worldview” has largely been relegated to certain sects of Pentecostalism and evangelical fundamentalism, under the title of “Spiritual Warfare.” While many contemporary political theologians outside of those particular ecclesial communities may find themselves unwilling or unable to countenance a heavenly assembly of conflicting lesser divinities, I propose that it is possible to read this conflict in a demythologized manner. What the language of the rebellious divine council, spiritual warfare, and demonology offer political theology is language to theorize evil—or rather, more precisely, decision in the face of evil.

The world in which we find ourselves is a world of complexity and nuance, a world of gray in which it is hard to delimit friend and foe. Recognition of this nuance is an undeniable good. Retrenchment into simple, binary narratives of good vs. evil historically—and presently—serve to divide, to harm, and to perpetuate injustice. And yet, this recognition of nuance is not without its own risks or pitfalls. For, while cheap moral binaries have been rightly avoided, the result has often been a certain moral equivocation. When everything is gray, it is often difficult to speak without ambiguity.

Put another way, what is lost is the prophetic “No.” It is not coincidental that the authors of the lectionary would pair Psalm 82’s cry for justice: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3-4), with the prophetic voice of Amos crying out against the injustice of Israel, a nation parabolically compared to a crooked wall (Amos 7:7-17), and to Jesus’ radical command to love across ethnic boundaries (Luke 10:25-37). To think of rebellious gods, demons, “powers and principalities” not as naive beings of a literal cosmic struggle, but—being good Schmittians—as “secularized theological concepts,” is to learn to speak about evil. For liberal ethical tropes around “fairness” and “inequality” are not wrong. But they are not enough. Political theology needs a language to speak of evil decisively. That is to say, political theology needs the possibility of an absolute “No” in the face of injustice. It needs the decision.

Here, the late work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida is particularly helpful. For, as much as any contemporary thinker, Derrida troubled simple binaries. Through every trick imaginable—inverting them, blending them, multiplying them, intensifying them, erasing them—Derrida sought to upset all simple binaries, leaving only the paradox of indecision. But, against those commentators who would accuse Derrida of moral nihilism, he insisted upon one final paradox. In the face of indecision, one must decide. As he writes in The Gift of Death, commenting upon Abraham:

The problem is precisely that he doesn’t know. Not that that makes him hesitate, however. His nonknowledge doesn’t in any way suspend his own decision, which remains resolute. … He decides, but his absolute decision is neither guided nor controlled by knowledge. Such, in fact, is the paradoxical condition of every decision: it cannot be deduced from a form of knowledge of which it would simply be the effect, conclusion, or explication.[4]

To be faced with the gods, is to be faced with the ultimate decision: what is my absolute? Indeed, Jesus would force precisely this decision upon his interlocutors, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). In a world where Palestinian protesters—children, medics, and journalists included—are executed by snipers, in a world where a murderous white nationalism is spreading like wildfire across the Western nations, in a world where private equity firms profit off of the imprisonment and death of children in concentration camps along the southern border; in such a world we must relearn to speak unambivalently of evil, we must relearn the prophetic “No,” and we must decide: God or Mammon. 

[1] Carl Schmidt, Political Theology [1922/1985], 36.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Michael S. Heiser, Unseen Realms: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible [2015], 27.
[4] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death [1992/1995], 77.

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