Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Explicit statements continued: Hebrews 1:8, Elohim possibilities

This is the fourth post in a thread about explicit New Testament statements pertaining to Christ's divinity. The thread has been spread across other posts, so if you need to see the progression of thought, then please recap first here (introduction) and then here (Thomas' declaration to Jesus), then here ("He says: Your throne O God", part 1). This constitutes a new "sub-chapter" I am adding to my paper, Trinitarian Interpretations, which I initially published August 2015. So let's buckle up and look at the Hebrews 1 passage over the remaining two posts...

Elohim possibilities

We are assuming that “God” in Hebrews 1:8 (Psalm 45:5), is not the same one referred to as “God” in Hebrews 1:9 (Psalm 45:7), but how does that work if Christians and Jews are all monotheists? There surely can’t possibly be more than one Elohim, Theos, God, or whatever language you want to use! This modern way of looking at ancient perceptions of the supernatural realm is disintegrating in theological circles (see also chapter 2, monotheism), in favour of a more hierarchical perspective. There is only one supreme God – for the Israelites, this is Yahweh: He created everything and no-one can be compared to him. He is an Elohim. And there are other Elohim. Michael Heiser sets out Elohim into 6 types:

1.      Yahweh, the God of Israel (thousands of times—e.g., Genesis 2:4–5; Deuteronomy  4:35)
2.      The members of Yahweh’s council (Psalms 82:1,6)
3.      Gods and goddesses of other nations (Judges 8:33[1], 11:24; 1 Kings 11:33)
4.      Demons (Hebrew: shedim—Deuteronomy 32:17)
5.      The deceased Samuel (1 Samuel 28:13)
6.      Angels or the Angel of Yahweh (Genesis 35:7)

This list is initially quite striking, but hard-core monotheists confronted with such strong textual evidence might still want to emphasise that there is a difference between Elohim referring to gods (plural) and Elohim referring to the singular God, synonymous with Yahweh (e.g. Psalms 82:1,6). I too was struck by that possibility, but that was still the influence of my modern evangelical world-view (and English translation[2]) skewing my interpretation.

Even in its plural form applied to a singular being, Elohim can be applied descriptively to another singular being. Judges 8:33-34 is a clear example of this: the people replace their God (Elohim), Yahweh, making Baal-Berith their God (Elohim). The Israelites also re-assign the works and status of Elohim Yahweh to the Elohim of the golden calf (see Exodus 32). These biblical cases inform us that within a hierarchical system, the one at the top qualifies for plural status.

Thus far we have established that options for understanding Elohim can be plural OR singular, and can refer to Yahweh or NOT to Yahweh. That is significant. But what of human kings – can a human king be referred to as Elohim? But regarding human bearers of the title, we need to refer back at this point to scholars on the Hebrew of Psalm 45 at this point.

Donald Hagner, commenting Hebrews 1, states: “The king originally in view was an Israelite monarch, but so glorious are the words spoken to him that their ultimate fulfilment can only be in the messianic king, the son of David … [there is] a difficulty of understanding the original historical context wherein a king of Israel is addressed as God. The latter difficulty can be explained as hyperbole for the king who functions as God’s representative in his office.[3]

Constable, for whom Christ just is God in Hebrews 1:8, agrees with this exegetical option for the Psalm used by the Hebrews writer: “the writer addressed his human king as “God” (Elohim). He did not mean that the king was God but that he stood in the place of God and represented Him”.[4]

Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce and Manfred T. Brauch also agree: “The king was not regarded as the incarnation of deity. Rather, he was “Yahweh’s anointed and served as the Lord’s deputy on Earth”.[5]

I don’t know how you read Hagner, but he does not appear totally coherent to me. On the one hand we have glorious hyperbole denoting God’s representative, while on the other it could not be making sense without a future fulfilment necessary. Views about Old Testament prophecy vary. Mine is very basic: it made sense[6]. However it was reinterpreted later (by the Hebrews writer for instance), it already made sense then. Furthermore, whatever that sense was must not be presumed absent from the later, first century, author’s mind either. But is this the only instance of Elohim applied to humans? Heiser also reminds us that the revived spirit of Samuel was Elohim too, but he takes it no further, despite the fact that one of his foundational understandings of the Biblical picture of humanity is that of being “imagers” of God. So human imagers of God in this Elohim puzzle has to be developed – we can’t stop at a strange, murky corner of the canon on Samuel’s spirit.

1.      Exodus 4:16: He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God (Elohim) to him. The speaker is Yahweh, the “he” is Aaron, Moses’ brother, and the “you” is Moses, needing a lot of reassurance about confronting the Egyptian authorities. Notice this “as if you were God”. Exodus 4:16 gives us concrete scope that when addressing a later leader of Israel, the Psalmist of Psalm 45 could certainly have the same idea. 
2.      Exodus 21:6; 22:8-9: We will not lose time quoting these passages, but you can check the context – here the Elohim are almost certainly human judges, not God or gods, but exercising a task with delegated authority from the divine realm, and ultimately from Yahweh Himself.
3.      Deuteronomy 3:24: Sovereign LORD, you have begun to show to your servant your greatness and your strong hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do the deeds and mighty works you do? Throughout the Bible, we have these two great realms represented – the spiritual unseen realm and the Earth realm, both of which are populated and organised. That is why Jesus teaches his disciples to pray to the Father, saying: May your will be done here on Earth as it is in Heaven. The other Elohim in Heaven and the Elohim on Earth are not comparable in greatness or love to Yahweh; but it pre-supposes their existence: they are impressive, authoritative and noticeable authorities in both spheres.
4.  Psalm 45:2,6-7: You are the most excellent of men […] Your throne [O] God will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom […] God your God has set you above your companions[7]. Assuming that this Psalm is not saying “Your throne is God”, this key passage for Hebrews 1 interpretation is also a key component to understanding the biblical picture of how humans can be bearers of the Elohim image.
Please click here to see my take on the Hebrews 1:8 assumptions. Thank you.

[1] Judges 8:33-34 is my addition to the sample references provided by Heiser, I think even more striking than Judges 11:24. Here I believe NIV make a mistake in applying the lower-case “g”. It should read: They set up Baal-Berith as their God, that is to say that, within a henotheistic framework, Baal-Berith is set up as occupying the place of God (of gods) that is actually Yahweh’s by right.
[2] The fact that a translation of the plural form of Elohim as singular God, god, spirit when not referring to Yahweh is not criticised – I simply note it to as a contributing factor to my uninformed view.
[3] Hagner, p. 34
[4] Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Psalms, 2016 Edition, p. 233, available in PDF form and updated at These notes are those adjoining the NET Bible study notes.
[5] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce and Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible, p. 270-271, Intervarsity Press, Illinois, 2009.
[6] Assuming no textual corruptions.
[7] The use of capitals here is to simulate the Hebrew and remove interpretative bias through capitalisation (or non-capitalisation) of certain Gs.

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