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Psalm 8:5, Elohim, and Angels

Posted by Matt Postiff January 3, 2015 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Bible Texts 

Here's today's question:

In Psalm 8:5, I heard that the word "angels" in Hebrew is Elohim. This changes the meaning of the verse, to something about being made a little lower than God Himself. What does that mean?

It is true that the Psalmist uses elohim, the word often used for God. But there are four reasons in favor of taking this to refer to angels or, more generally, "heavenly beings." First, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the LXX or Septuagint) translates the word unambiguously as "angels."

Second, in the New Testament quotation of this passage in Hebrews 2:7, the author of Hebrews uses "angels," and the text is inspired by God so we know it is correct. There are no significant variants among the many known Greek manuscripts at this point in Hebrews 2:7.

Third, almost all good English translations use the word "angels" (ESV, KJV, NET, NIV, NKJ). The NAS and CSB are the only translations that use "God." In light of the clear parallel in Hebrews 2:7, such a translation is in error. It would be permissible, in my view, to translate the verse as "you have made him a little lower than the gods," but then a footnote would have to explain what "gods" means and that would cloud the meaning too much for the English reader.

Fourth, sometimes the word elohim is used to refer to beings other than God. For instance, Exodus 18:11, Isaiah 41:23, and 1 Kings 11:5 use the term to refer to idols, that is, false gods. In two other instances, the word elohim refers to human beings. In Exodus 21:6, most translations understand "elohim" to refer to the judges in the city or region. In Psalm 82:6, quoted by Jesus in John 10:34, Jesus says that if it is appropriate to call others as "gods" then it is certainly appropriate to call Himself the "Son of God." Here is the note at John 10:34 in the NET Bible on this point:

The psalm was understood in rabbinic circles as an attack on unjust judges who, though they have been given the title "gods" because of their quasi-divine function of exercising judgment, are just as mortal as other men. What is the argument here? ...This is evidently a case of arguing from the lesser to the greater, a common form of rabbinic argument. The reason the OT judges could be called gods is because they were vehicles of the word of God (cf. 10:35). But granting that premise, Jesus deserves much more than they to be called God. He is the Word incarnate, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world to save the world (10:36 ). In light of the prologue to the Gospel of John, it seems this interpretation would have been most natural for the author. If it is permissible to call men "gods" because they were the vehicles of the word of God, how much more permissible is it to use the word "God" of him who is the Word of God?

For these four reasons, it is legitimate to translate "elohim" as angels. Certainly the term "Elohim" most often refers to the true God (in about two thousand occurrences), but consideration has to be given for these rather clear exceptions to that general rule.

Finally, I would say that it is true enough that God made mankind lower than Himself. However, the text says more than that: it says, "you made him a little lower. Mankind is not just a little lower than God. He is much lower than God. So it makes more sense theologically to understand elohim as angels since mankind is closer to finite angels than to the infinite God.

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