Psalm 82 has recently been of interest because of Michael Heiser’s writing about the Divine Council. He proposes that this text reflects Ancient Near Eastern imagery of God presiding over angelic spiritual beings who mediate his rule over the nations.
I come from the Lugbara people of northern Uganda. Like many East Africans, my Nilotic ancestors mixed with ancient Kushites, Ethiopians and Egyptians. For many centuries my pre-Christian relatives have held religious beliefs not unlike those of the Ancient Near East. Here I will provide an alternative reading of Psalm 82 from my Ugandan, Lugbara perspective.
I’ve framed my answers to the questions below. I will also look at similar ideas to these within the biblical text.
1. Who are the “gods” in Psalm 82 in a Lugbara context?
Lugbara tribal leaders are believed to be given power by God to lead and judge the Lugbara people. Among the Lugbara, just as in this Psalm, the tribal leaders are compared to God, because they exercise their God-given powers in the right ordering of the Lugbara society. The Lugbara tribal leaders are believed to be given power by God.
2. What is the difference for the Lugbara people between God’s judgment and the judgment of the gods in Psalm 82?
The Lugbara believe God is their eternal and righteous judge and ruler of the earth, who is defender of the cause of the poor, weak and helpless. The tribal leaders are God-appointed and share his authority. Their authority is limited because they are men and accountable to God and also judged by God. Because God positions them higher than the ordinary Lugbara, when power corrupts them, they become dishonest and judge unjustly, showing partiality to the wicked. Their power becomes an instrument of severe oppression of the poor, weak and helpless.
3. How might invoking of curses among the Lugbara illuminate the imprecations in Psalm 82?
Among the Lugbara, curses are invoked in a situation where unjust treatment has been imposed on an innocent person. The innocent sufferer does not have power to abate the unjust treatment, so he or she turns to God and invokes curses upon the wicked in power. The Lugbara believe that God will judge the wicked leaders without partiality to bring justice for the sufferer by granting the curses invoked upon the unjust.
In a traditional Lugbara context, Psalm 82 would portray God’s analysis of the human condition, his delegation of power to Lugbara tribal leaders, God’s limitless authority, and his radical aims of justice for the people.