"The gods" or "God" in Exodus 22:28?
The KJV says: "Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people." (Exodus 22:28). Newer translations tend to replace "the gods" with "God". For example, the ESV says: "You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people." On the face of it, both "the gods" and "God" are valid translations of the Hebrew "אלהים (elohim)". However, critics point to the context and charge that the translation, "the gods", would make the verse into an instruction not to revile false Pagan deities. There are two responses to this criticism.
"The gods" refers to judges
It is erroneous to suppose that the KJV's rendering instructs people not to revile Pagan deities because the Bible uses "gods" in various ways. Sometimes "gods" refers to Pagan deities, sometimes it refers to judges. "אלהים (elohim)" in the most basic sense means "a superlative" (Strong's Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries). A superlative is whatever that is the greatest. In the context of all of reality, "אלהים (elohim)" is the creator God, the Most High. In lesser contexts such as in human government, "אלהים (elohim)" could refer to individuals with the highest authority in that context, such as judges or magistrates. God calls judges "gods" in Psalm 82:
A Psalm of Asaph. God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods. How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah. Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked. They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course. I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes. Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations. (Psalm 82:1-8)
Our Lord Jesus Christ referred to Psalm 82 in John 10:34:
Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God? (John 10:34-36)
Moreover, in the same chapter the NASB and NIV both agree with the KJV in translating "אלהים (elohim)" as "judges" in Exodus 22 verses 8 and 9.
Hebrew parallelism and context
Exodus 22:28 is written in Hebrew parallelism. "Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people" is a statement with two parallel clauses. The idea in the first clause, "Thou shalt not revile the gods" is repeated in the second clause, "nor curse the ruler of thy people". Since the second clause refers to a human ruler, the first clause should also refer to a human being. "God" as we spell in English with an upper-case "G" is not a human being. The parallelism is weaker if the first clause refers to God while the second clause refers to human beings.
With respect to context, the NASB and NIV agree that chapter 28 instructs people to have their matters arbitrated before judges (Exodus 28:8-9):
If the thief is not caught, then the owner of the house shall appear before the judges, to determine whether he laid his hands on his neighbor’s property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for ox, for donkey, for sheep, for clothing, or for any lost thing about which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before the judges; he whom the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor. (Exodus 22:8-9, NASB)
The ESV disagrees with the KJV, NASB and NIV, translating every instance of "אלהים (elohim)" as "God" in chapter 22. However, this makes for a difficult text because there is no known procedure by which common Israelites could directly approach God for arbitration. Thus the KJV, NASB and NIV's treatment of "אלהים (elohim)" as human judges is most appropriate in the context. If Exodus chapter 22 instructs people to approach human judges, then it is appropriate that the same chapter at verse 28 instructs people to honor these judges.
The KJV translators understood that "the gods" at verse 28 refers to judges. The marginal note in the 1611 edition of the KJV say, "Or, Iudges" (modern spelling "Or, Judges"). Thus the charge that the KJV instructs people not to revile Pagan deities is completely baseless. The remaining question might be why the KJV translators chose "the gods" instead of "judges" at verse 28, when they had chosen "judges" at verses 8 and 9. One reason may be because "the gods" is the most reverent title that could be given to a human being. Since verse 28 specifically instructs people to revere these individuals, the most reverent title for them may have been chosen to reflect this instruction. Another reason may be to provide a cross-reference to Psalm 82 and John 10:34.
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