BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 158 (January-March 2001): 52-74

[Copyright ฉ 2001 Dallas Theological Seminary; cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon College] 




                DEUTERONOMY 32:8 AND

                        THE SONS OF GOD


                                                Michael S. Heiser



the more intriguing portions of Deuteronomy and has re-

ceived much attention from scholars, primarily for its po-

etic features, archaic orthography and morphology, and text-

critical problems.1 Among the textual variants in the Song of

Moses, one in verse 8 stands out as particularly fascinating. The

New American Standard Bible renders the verse this way: "When

the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when He sepa-

rated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples ac-

cording to the number of the sons of Israel."

The last phrase, "according to the number of the sons of Is-

rael," reflects the reading of the Masoretic text lxerAW;yi yneB;, a reading

also reflected in some later revisions of the Septuagint: a manu-

script of Aquila (Codex X), Symmachus (also Codex X), and

Theodotion.2 Most witnesses to the Septuagint in verse 8, however,

read, a@ggelw?n qeou? ("angels of God"), which is interpretive,3 and


Michael S. Heiser is a Ph.D. candidate in Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the Uni-

versity of Wisconsin-Madison.

1 For a recent overview of the scholarship on the Song of Moses, see Paul Sand-

ers's thorough treatment in The Provenance of Deuteronomy 32 (Leiden: Brill, 1996).

See also Frank M. Cross and David Noel Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic

Poetry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997); William F. Albright, "Some Remarks on

the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy XXXII," Vetus Testamentum 9 (1959): 339-46;

and D. A. Robertson, Linguistic Evidence in Dating Early Hebrew Poetry (Missoula,

MT: Scholars, 1972). .

2 Fridericus Field, ed., Origenis Hexaplorum, Tomus I: Prolegomena, Genesis-

Esther (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1964), 320, n. 12.

3 This is the predominant reading in the Septuagint manuscripts and is nearly

unanimous. See John William Wevers, ed., Septuaginta: Vetus Testamentum

Graecum, Auctoritate Academiae Scientiarum Gottingensis Editum, vol. 3.2: Deuter-

onomium (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977), 347; and idem, Notes on the

Greek Text of Deuteronomy (Atlanta: Scholars, 1995), 513. Wevers refers to this

majority reading as "clearly a later attempt to avoid any notion of lesser deities in

favor of God's messengers" (ibid.).

Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God                            53


several others read ui[w?n qeou? ("sons of God").4 Both of these Greek

renderings presuppose a Hebrew text of either Myhlx ynb or Mylx ynb.

These Hebrew phrases underlying a@ggelw?n qeou?  and ui[w?n qeou? are

attested in two Hebrew manuscripts from Qumran,5 and by one

(conflated) manuscript of Aquila.6

Should the verse be rendered "sons of Israel" or "sons of God"?

The debate over which is preferable is more than a fraternal spat

among textual critics. The notion that the nations of the world

were geographically partitioned and owe their terrestrial identity

to the sovereign God takes the reader back to the Table of Nations

in Genesis 10-11. Two details there regarding God's apportionment

of the earth are important for understanding Deuteronomy 32:8.

 First, the Table of Nations catalogs seventy nations, but Israel is

not included.7 Second, the use of the same Hebrew root (draPA) in

both Genesis 10 and Deuteronomy 32 to describe the "separation"

of the human race and the nations substantiates the long-

recognized observation that Genesis 10-11 is the backdrop to the

statement in Deuteronomy 32:8.8 Because Israel alone is Yahweh's

portion, she was not numbered among the seventy other nations.

The reference to seventy "sons of Israel" (in the Masoretic

text), initially seemed understandable enough, for both Genesis

46:27 and Exodus 1:5 state that seventy members of Jacob's family.


4 Wevers, ed., Septuaginta, 347. The Gottingen Septuagint has adopted ui[w?n qeou?

as the best reading, despite its having fewer attestations.

5 The words lx ynb are not an option for what was behind the Septuagint reading,

as demonstrated by the Qumran support for the Hebrew text underlying the unre-

vised Septuagint. First, manuscript 4QDtq has spaces for additional letters follow-

ing the l of its [ ] lx ynb. Second, 4QDtJ clearly reads Myhvlx ynb (Sanders, The Prove-

nance of Deuteronomy 32, 156). See also Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the He-

brew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 269.

6 Wevers, ed., Septuaginta, 347; and Field, Origenis Hexaplorum, Tomus I: Prole-

gomena, Genesis-Esther, 320. The manuscript of Aquila is Codex 85.

7 As Allen P. Ross notes, "On investigation the reader is struck by a deliberate

pattern in the selection of names for the Table. For example, of the sons of Japheth,

who number seven, two are selected for further listing. From those two sons come

seven grandsons, completing a selective list of fourteen names under Japheth. With

Ham's thirty descendants and Shem's twenty-six, the grand total is seventy"

("Studies in the Book of Genesis; Part 2: The Table of Nations in Genesis 10--Its

Structure," Bibliotheca Sacra 137 [October-December 1980]: 342). Some scholars,

Ross observes, arrive at the number of seventy-one for the names, depending on how

the counting is done (ibid., 352, n. 18). Ross and Cassuto agree that the accurate

count is seventy (cf. Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: From

Noah to Abraham [Jerusalem: Magnes, 1964],177-80).

8 Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, 174-78; Albright, "Some Re-

marks on the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy XXXII," 343-44. A Niphal form of drp

is used in Genesis 10:5 (Udr;p;ni), and the Hiphil occurs in Deuteronomy 32:8 (Odyrip;haB;).

54        BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


went to Egypt in the days of Joseph.9 Little thought was given,

however, to the logic of the correlation: How is it that the number

of the pagan nations was determined in relation to an entity (Is-

rael) or individuals (Jacob and his household) that did not yet ex-

ist? Even if one contends that the correlation was in the mind of

God before Israel's existence and only recorded much later, what

possible point would there be behind connecting the pagan Gentile

nations numerically with the Israelites? On the other hand what

could possibly be meant by the notion that a correspondence ex-

isted between the number of the nations in Genesis 10-11 and

heavenly beings?

Literary and conceptual parallels discovered in the literature

of Ugarit, however, have provided a more coherent explanation for

the number seventy in Deuteronomy 32:8 and have furnished sup-

port for textual scholars who argue against the "sons of Israel"

reading. Ugaritic mythology plainly states that the head of its pan-

theon, El (who, like the God of the Bible, is also referred to as El

Elyon, the "Most High") fathered seventy sons,10 thereby specifying

the number of the "sons of El" (Ugaritic, bn il). An unmistakable

linguistic parallel with the Hebrew text underlying the Septuagint

reading was thus discovered, one that prompted many scholars to

accept the Septuagintal reading on logical and philological

grounds--God (El Elyon in Deut. 32:8) divided the earth according

to the number of heavenly beings who existed from before the time

of creation.11 The coherence of this explanation notwithstanding,

some commentators resist the reading of the Septuagint, at least in

part because they fear that an acceptance of the Myhlx ynb or Mylx ynb

readings (both of which may be translated "sons of gods") somehow


9 There is a textual debate on this passage in Exodus as well. Although space

prohibits a thorough discussion of Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5, they do provide

examples, in conjunction with Deuteronomy 32:8, of the primary guiding principle

in textual criticism: The reading that best explains the rise of the others is most

likely the original. In the case of Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5, the Septuagint and

Qumran literature disagree with the Masoretic text together when they read that

seventy-five people went to Egypt with Jacob. The number seventy-five incorporates

five additional descendants from Ephraim and Manasseh. This example from these

verses features the same textual alignment as with Deuteronomy 32:8 (the Septua-

gint and Qumran agree together against the Masoretic text), but in Exodus 1:5 the

Masoretic reading is to be preferred. The point is that one cannot be biased in favor

of either the Masoretic or the Septuagintal readings; instead, the reading that best

explains the rise of the others is the preferred reading, regardless of the text-type.

10 Manfried Dietrich, Oswald Loretz, and Joaquin Sanmartin, eds., The Cuneiform

Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani and Other Places, KTU, 2d ed. (Mun-

ster: Ugarit, 1995), 18. The reading in the article is from KTU 1.4:VI.46.

11 Job 38:7 states that the heavenly host was present at creation.

Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God                            55


means that Yahweh is the author of polytheism. This apprehension

has prompted some text-critical defenses of the Masoretic text in

Deuteronomy 32:812 based on a misunderstanding of both the tex-

tual history of the Hebrew Bible and text-critical methodology, a

prejudiced evaluation of non-Masoretic texts, and an unfounded

concern that departure from, the Masoretic reading results in "Isra-

elite polytheism." The goal of this article is to show that viewing

"sons of God" as the correct reading in Deuteronomy 32:8 in no way

requires one to view Israelite religion as polytheistic.






The textual evidence cited above presents a situation in which one

reading (that of the Septuagint) is supported by very ancient

manuscript evidence (notably Qumran), while the other (the Ma-

soretic reading) has a preponderance of the support, thereby cre-

ating an "oldest-versus-most" predicament. As in similar New Tes-

tament cases the correct reading can be verified not by counting

manuscripts but by weighing them. Hence it matters little that the

Septuagint reading is "outnumbered," especially since the more

numerous sources are much later, and in fact are interdependent,

not independent, witnesses. When considering the evidence, it is

wrong to assume that the Masoretic text is superior at every point

to other texts of the Old Testament. It is equally fallacious to pre-

suppose the priority of the Septuagint. Simply stated, no text

should automatically be assumed superior in a text-critical investi-

gation. Determining the best reading must be based on internal

considerations, not uncritical, external presumptions about the

"correct" text.

Unfortunately the notion of the presumed sanctity of the Ma-

soretic text still persists. The dictum that the Masoretic text is to

be preferred over all other traditions whenever it cannot be faulted

linguistically or for its content (unless in isolated cases there is

good reason for favoring another tradition) is all too enthusiasti-

cally echoed.13 The idea seems to be that whenever a Masoretic


12 For example David E. Stevens, "Does Deuteronomy 32:8 Refer to 'Sons of God' or

'Sons of Israel'?" Bibliotheca Sacra 154 (April-June 1997): 139. However, since

writing his article Stevens has repudiated this view and has accepted the reading

"sons of God" (David E. Stevens, "Daniel 10 and the Notion of Territorial Spirits,"

Bibliotheca Sacra 157 (October-December 2000): 412, n. 9.

13 Ernst Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, trans. Peter R. Ackroyd (New

56                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


reading could be accepted it should be accepted. Such an approach,

however, hardly does justice to non-Masoretic readings that also

could be acceptable on their own linguistic and contextual terms.

Put another way, the above view seldom addresses why the Ma-

soretic text should be held in such esteem. Where there are wide

and significant textual divergencies between the Masoretic text

and the Septuagint, many textual studies have shown that the

Qumran witnesses demonstrate the reliability of the transmission

of the Hebrew text underlying the Septuagint. For example it is

well known that the Masoretic text of 1 and 2 Samuel is in poor

condition in a number of places and includes instances of signifi-

cant haplography.14 First and 2 Kings are riddled with both short

and lengthy pluses and minuses, transpositions, and chronological

differences.15 Also portions of the Masoretic text of Ezekiel, espe-

cially chapters 1 and 10, could serve as a veritable digest of textual


Judging by the survival in Old Testament textual criticism of a

"textus receptus" approach like the one that once held sway in New

Testament textual criticism, more consideration is needed as to

how the Masoretic text came to be considered the "received text."

Just because the Masoretic text was the received text of the medie-

val Masoretes does not mean that it merits textual priority among

today's extant witnesses, or even that it had textual priority in

biblical times. The Masoretic text rose to prominence only after

centuries of textual diversity and not, as noted above, by "intrinsic

factors related to the textual transmission, but by political and so-

cioreligious events and developments."17

The evidence from Qumran unquestionably testifies to a certi-


York: Macmillan, 1957), 76-82.

14 P. Kyle McCarter, I Samuel (New York: Doubleday, 1980); and idem, Textual

Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 38.

15 Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 142.

16 Daniel Block, "Text and Emotion: A Study in the 'Corruptions' in Ezekiel's Inau-

gural Vision (Ezekiel 1:4-28)," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50 (July 1988): 418-42.

17 Emanuel Tov, "Textual Criticism (OT)," in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D. N.

Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992),6:395,407. Tov summarizes the historical

situation as follows: "By the end of the 1st century A.D. the Septuagint had been

accepted by Christianity and abandoned by Jews. Copies of the Samaritan Penta-

teuch were available, but in the meantime that sect had become an independent

religion, so that their texts were considered Samaritan, not Jewish any more. The

Qumran sect, which had preserved a multitude of texts, did not exist after the de-

struction of the temple. Therefore the sole texts that existed in this period were the

ones that were copied and distributed by the central group in Judaism. . . .This

situation gave rise to the wrong conclusion that the MT had 'ousted' the other texts"

(ibid., 407).

Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God                            57


fiable textual plurality among Jews in Palestine for the period be-

tween the third century B.C. and the first century A.D.18 Precursory

forms of the Masoretic text, the Septuagint, and the Samaritan

Pentateuch existed and are attested in the Dead Sea Scrolls. As

further proof of textual diversity the Qumran material also con-

tains "independent" or "unaligned" texts, which exhibit both

agreement and disagreement with the textual traditions of the Ma-

soretic text, the Septuagint, and the Samaritan Pentateuch.19 The

Qumran fragments that support the Septuagintal "sons of God"

reading, 4QDeutj,n, are among the unaligned texts.20

Two points derive from this review of the textual plurality in

the Dead Sea Scrolls. First, no evidence exists in the actual textual

data that the Jews held a negative view of Hebrew texts not

grouped among those that later received the appellation "Ma-

soretic." Second, the undeniable textual diversity at Qumran ar-

gues against any suggestion that the Qumranites altered a text

ultimately used by the Septuagintal translators as their Vorlage.

Besides the chronological and logistical difficulties of such an idea,

this question remains: If the Qumran members were in the habit of

altering texts to reflect allegedly strange angelic views or Gnostic

tendencies, why did they leave so many texts within each of the

major textual strains unaltered? Stated another way, why did the

Qumran inhabitants allow so many passages of the Hebrew Bible

that point to God's uniqueness, omnipotence, and sovereignty to

stay in the texts they deposited in the nearby caves? It hardly

makes sense to sneak one alteration into Deuteronomy 32:8 while

letting hundreds of other "nondualistic" texts remain.




Those who assume the priority of the Masoretic text might offer

two explanations as to why Deuteronomy 32:8 reads "sons of God"

in some manuscripts, including the Qumran material. One option

is that this reading should simply be regarded as an intentional

error reflecting the theological predilections of Qumran and the

Septuagintal translators. However, this theory has already been

called into question. The other explanation suggests that the vari-

ant arose unintentionally; that is, the consonants rWy were acciden-


18 Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 116-17. See also S. Talmon, "The

Old Testament Text," in Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. Peter R. Ackroyd and C.

F. Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963); 1:159-99.

19 Tov, "Textual Criticism (OT)," 395, 402, 404, 406.

20 Ibid., 402.

58                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


tally omitted (by parablepsis) from the word lxrWy leaving lx ynb in

the text in the place of lxrWy ynb.

This second explanation is less than satisfactory for at least

two reasons. First, one could just as well argue that rWy was added

to the text. This is hardly a satisfying response, however, for it is

as much of a speculation as the competing proposition. The real

problem with the parablepsis proposal is that, while it accounts for

the consonants lx in the text, it fails to explain adequately how the

consonants Myhv would have come to be added after lx to the text

underlying the Septuagint reading. It is particularly significant in

this regard that the texts from Qumran that support the Septua-

gint do not read the consonants lx ynb as this explanation would

postulate, for in one text, 4QDeutq, there are spaces for additional

consonants after the l of the word lx. The other Dead Sea text that

supports the Septuagintal reading, 4QDeutj, unambiguously reads

Myhlx ynb.21

Second, and perhaps even more damaging to the proposed

parablepsis explanation that an original "sons of Israel" was unin-

tentionally corrupted to "sons of God" in Deuteronomy 32:8, is that

there exists another text-critical problem in Deuteronomy 32 in

which heavenly beings--"sons of Myhlx / Mylx"--are the focus (v.

43a)! Deuteronomy 32:43 reads differently in the Masoretic text,

the Septuagint, and a Qumran text.

The Masoretic text has one line:

"O nations, rejoice His people."


4QDeutq has a bicolon:

"O heavens, rejoice with Him

Bow to Him, all divinities."


And the Septuagint has two bicola:

"O heavens, rejoice with Him

Bow to Him, all sons of the divine.22

O nations, rejoice with His people

And let all angels of the divine strengthen themselves in



21 Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 269. Also see note 5 in this article.

22 The translation of the Septuagint provided by Tigay could reflect Mylx instead of

Myhlx since "divine" rather than "God" is chosen as the translation (Jeffrey H. Tigay,

Deuteronomy, JPS Torah Commentary [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society,


23 The translations are from Tigay, Deuteronomy, 516.

Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God                59


            It is significant that the Masoretic text lacks a second line in

what should be the first pairing. Even more striking is the fact that

this missing colon is the one in which reference is made to divie

beings in the Qumran and Septuagintal texts. In these latter two

texts each colon has its partner. This argues strongly that the Ma-

soretic text originally had a bicolon, a pairing that was deliberately

eliminated to avoid the reference to other "divine beings."24 While

the other Masoretic omissions can be explained by haplography,

the absence of the line that would have made reference to heavenly

beings cannot be so explained.25

            What does this imply? It suggests, for one thing, that those

who defend the priority of the Masoretic text would have to argue

for accidental changes in Deuteronomy 32:8 (the missing rWy) and

in 32:43--changes that produced false readings in favor of angelic

beings in both cases, while simultaneously accounting for all the

consonants in Myhlx in 4QDeutj. Such a coincidence is possible, but

it stretches credulity to argue that the Masoretic text of Deuteron-

omy 32:8 and 43 best represents the original text when (a) the ex-

clusion of heavenly beings in verse 43 is so obviously a textual mi-

nus and (b) its conceptual parallel in verse 8 cannot coherently ac-

count for how the Septuagintal reading for verse 8 may have

arisen. It is far more likely that both texts were intentionally al-

tered in the Masoretic text for the same reason, namely, to elimi-

nate a reference to heavenly beings in order to avoid allegedly poly-

theistic language. It is inconceivable that a scribe would have done

the reverse, that is, altering an innocuous lxrWy ynb ("sons of Israel")

to a potentially explosive Myhlx ynb ("sons of God"). Therefore the

reading in the Septuagint sufficiently explains how the Masoretic

reading could have arisen, but the alternative does not.



                        IN THE HEBREW BIBLE

Although some may fear that adopting the Septuagintal reading

for Deuteronomy 32:8 amounts to embracing the notion that Yah-

weh is the author of polytheism, this is not the case at all. In fact a

proper understanding of the concept of the "divine council" in the

Old Testament provides a decisive argument in favor of the Sep-

tuagint/Qumran reading.

            The Old Testament often reflects literary and religious contact


            24 Ibid.

            25 Ibid., 516-17.

60                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


between Israel and her ancient Near Eastern neighbors. One evi-

dence of such contact concerns a "divine council" or "divine assem-

bly" presided over by a chief deity.26 Of particular interest to the

study at hand are the Ugaritic texts, since that language bears a

close linguistic affinity to biblical Hebrew.27



An example of the divine council assembled for deliberation is in 1

Kings 22:19-23 (cf. 2 Chron. 18:18-22).28 First Kings 22:1-18 in-

troduces the political alliance forged between Jehoshaphat of

Judah and the king of Israel for invading Ramoth Gilead, the ap-

proval of the plan by four hundred prophets of Israel, and Je-

hoshaphat's insistence on hearing from a true prophet of Yahweh

concerning the matter. The king of Israel revealed that there was

indeed a prophet of God, Micaiah ben Imlah, whom they could con-

sult, but that Micaiah never prophesied anything favorable about

him. Micaiah was summoned, and at first he mockingly prophesied

blessing for the invasion, but Jehoshaphat immediately detected

his duplicity. This set the stage for Micaiah's genuine vision.

Micaiah continued, "Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I

saw the LORD sitting on his throne with all the host of heaven

standing around him on his right and on his left. And the LORD

said, 'Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and go-

ing to his death there?' One suggested this, and another that. Fi-

nally, a spirit came forward, stood before the LORD and said, 'I will

entice him.' 'By what means?' the LORD asked. 'I will go out and be

a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,' he said. 'You will

succeed in enticing him,' said the LORD. 'Go and do it.' So now the

LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of

yours. The LORD has decreed disaster for you" (vv. 19-23, NIV).

In a scene that resembles Ugaritic council scenes, Micaiah pic-


            26 The major work on the divine council is E. Theodore Mullen, The Divine Council

in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature, Harvard Semitic Monographs (Missoula,

MT: Scholars, 1980). Two works that focus on more specific aspects of the divine

council are Lowell K Handy, Among the Host of Heaven: The Syro-Palestinian Pan-

theon as Bureaucracy (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994); and Conrad

L'Heureux, Rank among the Canaanite Gods: El, Ba'al, and the Repha'im, Harvard

Semitic Monographs (Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1979).

            27 Stanislav Segert, A Basic Grammar of the Ugaritic Language: With Selected

Texts and Glossary (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), x, 13-15.

The present study focuses on material from Ugarit, but the concepts delineated can

also be found in the literature of ancient Phoenicia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.

            28 In addition to the two primary examples of the council in the Old Testament

discussed in this section, see also Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3:1-8.



                        Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God                            61


tured Yahweh as the sovereign,29 enthroned among the members of

His council and directly addressing its members, who "stand" (a

technical term30) before Him.31 The question God asked occurs in a

form paralleled in Ugaritic literature and other passages involving

Yahweh's presence in the Hebrew Bible.32 God then approved the

course of action He knew would be successful, and a messenger

(the "spirit"33 in 1 Kings 22:21, but often a prophet) was commis-

sioned. This does not mean that Yahweh lacks ideas or that the

council members exercise independent authority, but rather that

the council serves only to "reemphasize and execute His deci-

sions."34 This pattern is also seen in the Ugaritic council texts.35 In

1 Kings 22 Micaiah was permitted to observe the deliberations of

the divine "boardroom meeting" and thus as a messenger of the

divine assembly he could pronounce with certainty the Lord's mes-


            A second example of the divine council is in Psalm 82:1-8.

"God [Myhilox<]36 standeth in the congregation of the mighty [lxe-tdafEBa];

he judgeth among the gods [Myhilox<]. How long will ye judge un-

justly, 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

[i.e., Myhlox<] 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 [Myhlox<]; and all of you are children of the most


            29 The chief deity and leader of the council at Ugarit was called El. The Hebrew

text makes it clear that El is Israel's God (Gen. 33:20) as well (although the lxe of

the Bible does not share behaviors of His Ugaritic counterpart) and that Yahweh is

El(Deut. 7:9; 10:17; 2 Sam. 22:31; Ps. 85:8; Isa. 42:5; Jer. 32:18). Also numerous

epithets of the Ugaritic high god El are used of Yahweh in the Old Testament

(Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 44-76).

            30 Mullen, The Divine Council, 207,209-26. In this regard it is interesting to note

Isaiah 6:2 in the Septuagint, where the angelic beings in the passage stand before

Yahweh, not above Him as in the Masoretic text.

            31 Cf. KTU 1.16:V.9-28; Ugaritica V.2.I.2--4. See Mullen, The Divine Council, 205.

            32 Cf. KTU 1.16:V.10-11, 14-15, 17-18, 20-21.

            33 This is a common designation for Yahweh's and/or the council's messengers. See

Mullen, The Divine Council, 206.

            34 Ibid., 207.

            35 Ibid., 206.

            36 The Masoretic text is used here. As is noted in several of the studies cited sub-

sequently, the only meaningful variant in the text is whether the first occurrence of

Myhilox< in verse 1 should be replaced by hvhy. The choice makes no difference for the

interpretation of the psalm.

62                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


High [NOyl;f, yneb;U]. But ye shall die like men [Adam], and fall like one

of the princes [the Shining Ones].37 Arise, 0 God, judge the earth:

for thou shalt inherit all nations" (KJV).

            This psalm has generated much scholarly controversy.38 The

problem focuses on the meaning of Myhilox< in verses 1b and 6a.39 How

can God (Myhilox<) be said to be standing in the council of God (lxe) in

the midst of a (singular) God (Myhilox<)? It would seem obvious that

the second Myhilox< (v. 1b) must be pluralized, but since this allegedly

smacks of polytheism, many commentators have resisted the

translation "gods." Therefore other interpretations of Myhilox< in

verses 1b and 6a have been offered: (a) Myhilox< are Israelite rulers

and judges; (b) Myhilox< are rulers and judges of the nations; or (c)

Myhilox< are members of the divine council. In reality the latter two

options are both correct and must be combined for an accurate in-

terpretation of the psalm.40

            As Cyrus Gordon pointed out over sixty years ago, under-

standing Myhilox< as Israelite "rulers" or "judges" lacks validity and is

an example of theologically "protecting" God.41 Since Gordon ade-

quately chronicled the examples in which Myhilox< is only specula-

            37 The Hebrew here is MyrW.Aha dHaxak;, which is usually translated "like one of the

princes," under the assumption that the noun MyriWA.ha is related to the Akkadian

Sarru, meaning "ruler, prince." While there may be some question about whether

the verbal form sararu means "shine," the adjective form saruru certainly does

mean "shining," as evidenced by its use in astronomical texts to describe the planet

Venus (Hugh R. Page, The Myth of Rebellion [New York: Brill, 1996], 97, n. 134).

Psalm 82:7 could therefore contain a substantive use of the cognate adjective (see

also Mullen, The Divine Council, 239-40). The reference to a "Shining One" in verse

7 is paralleled by Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:12-17, where heavenly beings are

in view (or where tales of heavenly beings form the backdrop for these passages).

Ezekiel 28:13-16 and Isaiah 14:12-15 provide an overt linguistic connection be-

tween Eden and the holy Mount of Assembly, where the divine council at Ugarit and

in the Old Testament held its meetings. The Myhilox< of Psalm 82:7 will die like Adam

and fall like one of the "shining ones" did (see Ezek. 28:12-17). The point of the

verse is that the beings judged in the psalm will be (or were) stripped of immortality

and cast from their high estate, just as Adam and that heavenly being who was

punished in the same manner earlier had been punished. The word rWA ("prince") is

used in Daniel 10:13, 20-21; 12:1 to identify heavenly beings--those Myhilox< who still

rule the nations, and Michael, guardian of God's portion, Israel (Deut. 4:19; 32:8-9).

            38 See Julian Morgenstern, "The Mythological Background of Psalm 82," Hebrew

Union College Annual 14 (1939): 29-98; W.S. Prinsloo, "Psalm 82: Once Again,

Gods or Men?" Biblica 76:2 (1995), 219-28; and Lowell Handy, "Sounds, Words and

Meanings in Psalm 82," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 47 (1990): 51-66.

            39 Prinsloo, "Psalm 82: Once Again, Gods or Men?" 219.

            40 Mullen, The Divine Council, 228, n. 195.

            41 Cyrus Gordon, "Myhlox" in Its Reputed Meaning of Rulers, Judges," Journal of

Biblical Literature 54 (1935): 139-44.

                        Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God                            63


tively translated as "rulers" or "judges"42 and demonstrated that in

each case such a translation is unnecessary, this article focuses on

features of Psalm 82 that show that Myhilox< in verses 1b and 6a

should be translated "gods" or better, "heavenly beings."

            Several external considerations point to Psalm 82:1b and 6a as

describing the divine council and its "heavenly beings." First, the

fact that the Myhilox<  in verse 6a are called NOyl;f, yneB; is a strong argu-

ment for their heavenly nature, because NOyl;f, is an obvious title for

deity in both Hebrew and Ugaritic. In the Bible and Ugaritic relig-

ious texts the word NOyl;f, refers only to God / EI.43 The point is that

the divine character of the offspring of El in the Ugaritic texts is

beyond question. That the same descriptive appellation for those

offspring is used many times in the Old Testament of nonhuman

inhabitants of the heavens makes the translation "human judges"

nonsensical44 and ignores the comparative Semitic philology. Sec-

ond, the terms and themes in this psalm are present in Ugaritic

literature. "Elyon," "princes," and "gods," are all present in the Ug-

aritic poem "The Gracious Gods," and it is quite telling that the

notion above in Psalm 82:7 of the Myhilox<  "falling" like "one of the

Shining Ones" is found in a specific episode "in which the fall of one

of the bn srm ('sons of the shining ones') of the heavenly congrega-

tion was depicted."45 Third, the fact that the psalm speaks of ren-

dering justice to the poor and needy does not argue for human

judges, since the council terminology from Sumer, Akkad, and Ug-

arit "referred originally to the political organ of a primitive democ-

racy, a phenomenon which can be discerned in the pantheons of

various non-Israelite cultures."46 Fourth, verses such as Isaiah


            42 For example see Jay P. Green, The Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and

English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1979), 43a.

            43 In Genesis 14:18 NOyl;f, lxe is translated "God Most High." On the use of NOyl;f,, in

Ugaritic as either an epithet of El or a "double name of a single god," see Cross,

Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 51.

            44 See Gerald Cooke, "The Sons of (the) God(s)," Zeitschrift fur die alttestament-

liche Wissenschaft 76 (1964): 34.

            45 Ibid.

            46 Matitiahu Tsevat "God and the Gods in Assembly," Hebrew Union College An-

nual 40-41 (1969-1970): 127 (italics added); and Page, The Myth of Cosmic Rebel-

lion, 158-64. In all these ancient religions, as well as in the theology of the Old Tes-

tament, the gods / God and their / His council were supposed to render right judg-

ment for the oppressed and the poor (see Mullen, The Divine Council, 231-38). The

earth itself was founded on justice (Isa. 28:16-17) and each member of the council

had his own earthly responsibilities (Deut. 4:19; 32:8-9, as noted in the Septuagint

and Qumran). As Gordon also notes, "The duty of rulers (gods and kings alike) is to

protect the weak from the strong" (Cyrus Gordon, "History of Religion in Psalm 82,"

64                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


24:21 ("In that day the LORD will punish the powers in the heavens

above and the kings on the earth below," NIV) clearly distinguish

between Yahweh's host and earthly rulers.

            Internal features of Psalm 82 place beyond dispute the view

that Myhilox< in verses 1b and 6a are not human judges. Two recent

articles on Psalm 82 have produced a number of structural proofs

in favor of this view.47 Two observations will suffice here. First

Psalm 82:1 has a chiastic structure that compels the understand-

ing that the second Myhilox<  does not refer to human beings:

            a. bc.Ani Myhilox< ("God takes His stand")

                        b. lxe-tdafEBa ("in the congregation of God")

                        b.'  Myhilox< br,q,B; ("in the midst of gods")

            a.' fPow;yi ("He judges")


            Second, the particle NkexA in verse 7 indicates "a strong antitheti-

cal relationship with v. 6."48 The presence of yTir;maxA introducing the

clause before NkexA means roughly "I had thought. . . but."49 The con-

trast is, of course, between the speaker of verse 6, Yahweh (who in

either view is the only One who has the authority to render the

death sentence for these Myhilox<), and the Myhilox< of verse 6a--the word

being in parallel to NOyl;f, yneB; ("sons of the Most High"). So interpret-

ing the phrase "you shall die like Adam" (v. 7) as referring to hu-

man judges would contradict the contrasts required by the syntax.

It would also require ignoring the parallel here with the judgment

on Adam and Eve. The point is not that the Myhilox< were put to death

at the moment Yahweh judged them, but that they must die as a

result of their actions (i.e., they would become mortal).50 Moreover,

as Smick noted, "if they are going to die like mortals, they are not


in Biblical and Near Eastern Studies: Essays in Honor of William Sanford LaSor,

ed. Gary A. Tuttle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 129-31 (see esp. 130).

            47 Prinsloo, "Psalm 82: Once Again, Gods or Men?" 222-28; and Handy, "Sounds,

Words, and Meanings in Psalm 82," 51-66. See also Mullen, The Divine Council,


            48 Prinsloo, "Psalm 82: Once Again, Gods or Men?" 226.

            49 Morgenstern,"The Mythological Background of Psalm 82," 33.

            50 Ibid., 73-74. This does not rule out the possibility, as some argue, that Adam

and Eve possessed contingent immortality before the Fall. In that case their pun-

ishment would involve removing that contingency (i.e., the tree of life from which

they ate) which maintained their immortality. The effect would be the same--they

were now fully mortal and could not avoid death.

                        Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God                            65


mortals."51 The initial immortality of those suffering this judgment

is clearly presupposed.52



The texts above (and others) are all the more convincing once the

Ugaritic terminology for the divine council is compared with the

vocabulary of biblical Hebrew. Such a comparison yields both se-

mantic congruences and exact philological equivalents.

            Terminology for the assembly.53 The literature of Ugarit has a

number of designations for the divine assembly or council. The two

most common at Ugarit are phr with its related form mphr, both

meaning "congregation, assembly,"54 and dr, meaning "generation,

assemblage."55 The phrases phr ‘ilm ("congregation of the gods"),

mphrt bn ‘ilm ("congregation of the sons of the gods"), and dr bn ‘il

("generation of the sons of El") are quite common.56 None of these

forms is used in biblical Hebrew as exact linguistic equivalents,

though their conceptual equivalence is clear.

            A common appellation for the divine assembly at Ugarit is 'dt

'ilm ("assembly of the gods"),57 a phrase that corresponds exactly to

the one in Psalm 82:1 (lxe-tdafEBa, "in the assembly of God"). Another

Hebrew term for the council that has an equivalent in Ugaritic is

dOs ("assembly").58 (See, for example, Jeremiah 23:18, 22).59


            51 Elmer Smick, "Mythopoetic Language in the Psalms," Westminster Theological

Journal 44 (1982): 95.

            52 It does no good to suggest that the Myhilox< in question are humans who thought

themselves to be divine, for the text does not say this, and, more importantly, be-

cause the suggestion would put such words in the mouth of Yahweh (the verb "said"

or "thought," yTir;maxA, is first-person singular, not second-person plural). To object that

it is impossible to conceive of gods dying like men in an attempt to argue for human

beings as the Myhilox< is to sound polytheistic in orientation, for the objection would be

based on the assumption that the plural Myhilox< have the same qualitative essence

(noncontingent immortality) as Yahweh. The point here is that if more than one

being possessed noncontingent immortality, the result would be true polytheism. It

is necessary to recognize a distinction between Deity (God) and divinity (godlike-

ness) as a solution for reconciling the plural Myhilox< and Israelite monotheism.

            53 For a full discussion of this topic see Mullen, The Divine Council, 111-27.

            54 Marjo Christina Annette Korpel, A Rift in the Clouds: Ugaritic and Hebrew De-

scriptions of the Divine (Munster: Ugarit, 1990), 269; Cyrus Gordon, Ugaritic Man-

ual, Analecta Orientalia 35 (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1955), 312.

            55 Gordon, Ugaritic Manual, 256.

            56 For example KTU 1.47:29; 1.148; 1.40:25; 1.65:3; 1.2 (cf. E. Theodore Mullen,

"Divine Assembly," in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 2:214-15).

            57 Gordon, Ugaritic Manual, 303. For example see KTU 1.15:11.7, 11.

            58 For example see Psalm 55:14 (Heb., 15; translated "throng" in NIV); Jer. 6:11

66                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


            When in a vision Isaiah saw Yahweh enthroned and minis-

tered to by seraphim, he heard the Lord ask, "Whom shall I send,

and who will go for us?" (Isa. 6:8, NIV). The winged creatures in

verses 2-3 have undeniable parallels in the Ugaritic council

scenes.60 In fact visions or auditory revelations of Yahweh and His

divine council were viewed as an authentication of the veracity of

the prophet's message and status, a test of true "propheticity."61

            Terminology for the members of the assembly.62 Ugaritic litera-

ture regularly refers to heavenly beings as phr kkbm (the "congrega-

tion of the stars"),63 language corresponding to rq,bo ybek;OK ("morning

stars"; in parallelism with the "sons of God" in Job 38:7) and

lxe ybek;Ok (the "stars of God," Isa. 14:13). Aside from the context of

these references, each of which clearly points to personal beings,

not astronomical phenomena, it is significant that in the entire an-

cient Near Eastern literary record, El is never identified with a

heavenly body. Thus the phrase "the stars of El" points to created

beings with exalted status.64 The Hebrew Bible also uses Mywidoq;


("assembly" in KJV); Proverbs 15:22 ("advisers" in NIV). For the Ugaritic see KTU

1.20:1.4; and Korpel, A Rift in the Clouds, 271.

            59 The King James Version translation of "counsel" instead of "council" in

Jeremiah 23:18, 22 is another example of how the linguistic parallels with the an-

cient Near Eastern "council" terminology are missed.

            60 Ibid., 207. Mullen argues that the winged creatures / seraphim are council

members, but elsewhere in his book he notes that such fiery (cf. the root srp for the

seraphim) messengers are mere emissaries to the council at Ugarit (The Divine

Council, 140). Handy argues that the seraphim at Ugarit and in biblical Hebrew are

only messenger "gods" (a term appropriate only for a polytheistic context), had no

independent personal volition, were clearly a subclass (even in Jewish tradition),

and were most likely the "security guards" of the heavenly throne room where the

council met (Handy, Among the Host of Heaven, 151-56). They are thus only ser-

vants of the council membership and its head, not members. It seems more likely,

however, that the whole heavenly host constitutes the divine council (cf. 1 Kings

22:19) but that there was a hierarchical arrangement within the council.

            61 H. Wheeler Robinson demonstrated that the divine council forms the back-

ground for the commissioning of the prophet ("The Council of Yahweh," Journal of

Theological Studies 45 [1944]: 151-57). See also Christopher Seitz, "The Divine

Council: Temporal Transition and New Prophecy in the Book of Isaiah," Journal of

Biblical Literature 109 (1990): 229-47; Frank M. Cross, "The Council of Yahweh in

Second Isaiah," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 12 (1953): 274-77; and Mullen, The

Divine Council, 215-26.

            62 See Mullen, The Divine Council, 175-208; and Korpel, A Rift in the Clouds,


            63 KTU 1.10:1.4.

            64 Ulf Oldenburg, "Above the Stars of EI: EI in Ancient South Arabic Religion,"

Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 82 (1970): 187-208 (esp. 197).

                        Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God                            67


("holy ones") and tOxbAc; ("hosts") for inhabitants of heaven,65 a term

not utilized in Ugaritic for the heavenly host. The "hosts" of Yah-

weh (hvhy tOxbAc;) is an umbrella term that includes the variety of

categories of nonhuman beings who serve God.66 In fact Miller has

argued that the "host" of heaven, the divine council, and the Old

Testament's portrait of Yahweh as a warrior are linked.67

            The members of the assembly at Ugarit are unambiguously

classified as ‘ilm ("gods"), bn ‘il ("sons of El"), and bn’ ilm ("sons of

the gods").68 Specifically in the Keret Epic the Canaanite chief de-

ity El sits at the head of the assembly and four times he addresses

its members as either) 'ilm ("gods") or bny ("my sons").69 Both Uga-

ritic and biblical Hebrew use ml’k ("messenger," typically trans-

lated "angel") to denote heavenly beings. In Ugaritic and in the Old

Testament the terms Myhilox<, Mylixe, and Myhilox< yneB; are not equated with

the MykixAl;ma ("messengers"). All these beings are members of the di-

vine council, but within that council a hierarchy exists.70

            Terminology for the meeting place of the assembly.71 In Uga-

ritic mythology El and his council met to govern the cosmos at the

"sources of the two rivers," in the "midst of the fountains of the

double-deep," and in the "domed tent" of El, located on the moun-

tain of El, Mount Sapanu.72 This mountainous meeting place was

also designated phr m’d, the place of the "assembled congrega-

tion,"73 and was associated with both physical and mythical peaks


            65 Job 5:1; 15:15 (Qere); Psalms 89:6-7 (Heb., 7-8); 103:21; Zechariah 14:5. See

Carol A. Newsom, "Angels," in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:248.

            66 See Psalms 103:19-21; 148:1-5. However, several passages unambiguously dis-

tinguish heavenly beings from others (e.g., Isa. 24:21, "And it shall come to pass in

that day, that the LORD shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high

[MOrm.ABa MOrm.Aha xbAc;], and the kings of the earth upon the earth," KJV), and other pas-

sages describe those that dwell in the "heights" (e.g., 14:12-15).

            67 Patrick D. Miller, "The Divine Council and the Prophetic Call to War," Vetus

Testamentum 18 (1968): 101-7.

            68 In addition to the citations above with references to the 'ilm, see KTU 1.16; 1.15;

1.40:7-8,42; cf. Mullen, "Divine Assembly," 215.

            69 See KTU 1.16.V.I-28 for El's leadership in the council.

            70 Handy, Among the Host of Heaven, 151-59; Mullen, The Divine Council, 210-16;

and Korpel, A Rift in the Clouds, 289-317. See KTU 1.2:1.11; 1.13:25.

            71 Full discussions of this topic occur in Mullen, The Divine Council, 128-74, and

Richard J. Clifford The Cosmic Mountain in Canaan and the Old Testament, Har-

vard Semitic Monographs IV (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 34-176.

            72 Frank M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge: Harvard Uni-

versity Press, 1973), 36; Korpel, A Rift in the Clouds, 370; and Clifford, Cosmic

Mountain, 98-160. See KTU 1.4; 1.2:111; 1.3:V.5-7; 1.6:1.32-34; 1.101:2; 1.3:111.29.

            73 Korpel, A Rift in the Clouds, 269.

68                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


to the north of Ugarit.74 In like manner Yahweh's sanctuary is on a

mountain (Mount Zion), which is located in the "heights" of the

north," the NOpcA yteK;r;ya (Ps. 48:1-2).75 The "height of Zion" is a "well-

watered garden" (Jer. 31:12; cf. Isa. 33:20-22), and in Ezekiel

28:13-16, the terms "mountain of God" and "garden of God" (not to

mention Eden) are parallel. The mountain of Yahweh is also called

the dfeOm rha ("mount of assembly"), again located in the "heights of

the north/Saphon" (Isa. 14:13). The Ugaritic "domed tent," of

course, evokes the imagery of the tabernacle.76



Some interpreters argue against the idea that the Myhilox< of Psalm

82:1b and 6a are heavenly beings by introducing Exodus 4:16 ("And

he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even

he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him

instead of God [Myhilox<]") and 7:1 ("And the LORD said unto Moses,

See, I have made thee a god [Myhilox<] to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy

brother shall be thy prophet," KJV).

            Since Moses is referred to as Myhilox<, the argument goes, the

Myhilox< of Psalm 82:1b and 6a also refer to human beings. While it is

true that Moses is referred to as an Myhilox< (Exod. 4:16; 7:1), why

must Myhilox< refer to a human being in Psalm 82? As discussed, structural

elements and parallelism of that psalm argue against this conclusion,

as does the logic of verse 6, as well as other passages that refer to

plural Myhilox<.77

            The reason Moses is called Myhilox< in Exodus 4:16 and 7:1 is that

he was functioning similar to the way a member of God's council

would function. Moses was not a mere messenger (he is not re-

ferred to as a j`xAl;ma). Unlike prophets such as Jeremiah and Isaiah,

who were commissioned in the presence of Yahweh's council, Moses


            74 Clifford, Cosmic Mountain, 34-160.

            75 In addition yDawa (Shadday) may mean "mountain dweller" (Korpel, A Rift in the

Clouds, 581; and Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 48-60).

            76 Richard J. Clifford, "The Tent of El and the Israelite Tent of Meeting," Catholic

Biblical Quarterly 33 (1971): 221-27.

            77 For example Psalms 89:6-7 ("For who in the skies above can compare with the

LORD? Who is like the LORD among the heavenly beings [Mylixe yneb;B;]? In the council of

the holy ones [Mywidoq; dOsB;] God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who

surround him," NIV); 29:1-2 ("Ascribe to the LORD, O mighty ones [Mylixe], ascribe to

the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship

the LORD in the splendor of his holiness," NIV); and Isaiah 24:21, which clearly dis-

tinguishes human rulers from the council of Myhilox< ("In that day the LORD will pun-

ish the powers in the heavens above and the kings on the earth below," NIV). The

only powers in heaven besides Yahweh are the Myhilox< and the divine council.

                        Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God                            69


regularly spoke to Yahweh "face to face." Moreover, his task went

well beyond dispensing revelation; he was a governing mediator,

effectively ruling Israel at God's behest. This governing at God's

discretion marks him as an Myhilox<, much in the way that Israel's

king was called a "son of Myhilox<" (Ps. 2:7; see also 110:3 in the Sep-

tuagint). Whether addressing Pharaoh or his own people, Moses as

Myhilox< displayed divine authority.

            A second objection to the divine council and its Myhilox< is that

Isaiah 40:18-20; 41:5-7; 44:9-20; 46:5-7 denounce idols and force-

fully contend that there are no other gods besides Yahweh. Such

claims are also present in Deuteronomy 32 itself (vv. 15-18, 21).

Since the Scriptures do not contradict themselves, the presence of

such passages, particularly when juxtaposed with references to the

heavenly council in Deuteronomy 32:8-9 and 43, do not mitigate

against the existence of the Myhilox<, but actually assume their reality

to make the point of the comparison. Nevertheless how are these

statements to be reconciled with the reality of the divine council?

            Simply stated, these passages assert that there is no other De-

ity besides Yahweh. He is the only true God; all the other Myhilox<

have contingent existence and power, were created, and are not

omnipotent or omniscient.

            For example in Isaiah 40:12-24 the prophet mocked the idols

and their feebleness in comparison to Yahweh, and then wrote, "'To

whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?' says the Holy

One. Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?

He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each

by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one

of them is missing" (vv. 25-26, NIV; italics added).

            Elsewhere Myhilox< are referred to as "the starry host" (Deut.

4:19; Job 38:7; Isa. 14:13). In Isaiah 40, after asking what heavenly

being compares to Him, Yahweh answered His own question by

saying that He created these "stars," and they are therefore subject

to Him and "line up at His command." It would be nonsensical for

the Lord to claim to have created them and then to command enti-

ties that do not in fact exist. The juxtaposition of passages like this

one with the proclamation that there is only one true God demon-

strates that the reality of a divine council of Myhilox< is in no way in-

compatible with monotheism.


                        CONCEPT AND DEUTERONOMY 32:8

As noted, Old Testament passages and comparative linguistic data

show that the Hebrew Bible includes the concept of a divine as-

70                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


sembly that is undeniably analogous to that at Ugarit (not to men-

tion other ancient Near Eastern civilizations). So there is no need

in Deuteronomy 32:8 to opt for the Masoretic reading of "sons of

Israel" over "sons of God," which is attested in the Septuagint and

4QDeutq and 4QDeutj. In fact the "sons of God" reading makes

much better sense in light of biblical history and Old Testament

theology, especially that of Deuteronomy. The same cannot be said

for the Masoretic reading.



Accepting the Masoretic reading in Deuteronomy 32:8 ("he set the

bounds of the people according to the number of the sons of Israel")

along with the correlation of that verse with Genesis 10-11 results

in logical problems. As Tigay notes, "This reading raises a number

of difficulties. Why would God base the number of nations on the

number of Israelites? . . .Why would He have based the division on

their number at the time they went to Egypt, an event not men-

tioned in the poem? In addition, verse 9, which states that God's

portion was Israel, implies a contrast: Israel was God's share while

the other peoples were somebody else's share, but verse 8 fails to

note whose share they were."78

            In other words it makes little sense for God, shortly after He

dispersed the nations at Babel, to have based the number of geo-

graphical regions on the earth on the, family size of Israel, espe-

cially since there was no Jewish race at the time. This problem is

compounded when one considers Deuteronomy 32:9. What logical

correlation was Moses making when he wrote in verse 8 that God

"set the bounds of the people according to the number of the chil-

dren of Israel" and then made the concluding observation in verse 9

that "the LORD's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheri-

tance" (NIV)? Certainly the wording suggests a contrast between

verses 8 and 9. But what is contrastive about saying God divided

the earth into seventy units since there were seventy sons of Israel

and then adding that Israel was His own? Once the Masoretic

reading is abandoned, however, the point of the contrast becomes

dramatically clear.

            The statement in Deuteronomy 32:9 that "the LORD's portion is

his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance" (NIV) provides the key for

understanding the contrast between verses 8 and 9. Since verse 9

clearly presents the nation of Israel (here called "Jacob") as an al-

lotted inheritance, the parallelism in the Masoretic text would re-


            78 Tigay, Deuteronomy, 302.

                        Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God                            71


quire the "nations" of verse 8 to be given as an inheritance as

well.79 Hence the point of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 is not merely that

God created seventy territorial units after Babel, but that each of

these units was given as an inheritance. The question is, To whom

were the nations given? This is left unstated in verse 8a, but verse

8b, provides the answer. The parallel makes sense only if the origi-

nal reading of verse 8b included a reference to other beings (the

"sons of God") to whom the other nations could be given. The point

of verses 8-9 is that sometime after God separated the people of

the earth at Babel and established where on the earth they were to

be located, He then assigned each of the seventy nations to the

fallen sons of God (who were also seventy in number).80 After ob-

serving humanity's rebellion before the Flood and then again in the

Babel incident, God decided to desist in His efforts to work directly

with humanity. In an action reminiscent of Romans 1, God "gave

humanity up" to their persistent resistance to obeying Him. God's

new approach was to create a unique nation, Israel, for Himself, as

recorded in the very next chapter of Genesis with the call of Abra-

ham (Gen. 12). Hence each pagan nation was overseen by a being

of inferior status to Yahweh, but Israel would be tended to by the

"God of gods," the "Lord of lords" (Deut. 10:17).

            According to Deuteronomy 4:19 this "giving up" of the nations

was a punitive act. Rather than electing them to a special relation-

ship to Himself, God gave these nations up to the idolatry (of which

Babel was symptomatic) in which they willfully persisted. Seeing

these two passages together demonstrates this relationship. "And

beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the

sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be

drawn away and worship them and serve them, things which the

LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole

heaven" (Deut. 4:19, RSV).81 "When the Most High gave the nations

their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up bounda-

ries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. For


            79 The Masoretic reading of this verse implies that the nations of the earth inher-

ited a certain amount of property at God's hand, namely, their own lands, with the

translation "When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance" (NIV). How-

ever, it seems preferable to view the verse as saying that the nations themselves

were given as an inheritance, with the rendering, "When the Most High gave the

nations as an inheritance." Examples of the latter sense are in Deuteronomy 1:38;

3:28; 21:16; 31:7; Joshua 1:6; 1 Samuel 2:8; Proverbs 8:21; and Zechariah 8:12.

            80 As noted earlier, at Ugarit there were seventy sons of El (KTU 1.4:VI.46). The

sons of God are referred to here as "fallen" in light of Genesis 6 as well as Deuteron-

omy 4:19.

            81 The same verb "allotted" (qlahA) is used in Deuteronomy 4:19 as well as in 32:8.

72                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


the LORD's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance"

(32:8-9; author's translation, following the Septuagint and the

Dead Sea Scrolls).

            Tigay notes that these passages "seem to reflect a biblical view

that. . . as punishment for man's repeated spurning of His author-

ity in primordial times (Gen. 3-11), God deprived mankind at large

of true knowledge of Himself and ordained that it should worship

idols and subordinate celestial beings. . . . He selected Abraham

and his descendants as the objects of His personal attention to cre-

ate a model nation."82


If a divine council does not exist, verses like Psalms 29: 1 and

89:6-7 are eviscerated of meaning. "Ascribe to the LORD, a sons of

the gods [Mylixe yneB;], ascribe to the LORD glory and strength" (Ps.

29:1). "For who in the skies above can compare with the LORD?

Who is like the LORD among the sons of the gods [Mylixe yneb;Bi]? In the

council of the holy ones [Mywidoq;-dOsB;] God is greatly feared; he is

more awesome than all who surround him" (89:6-7).

            How hollow it would be to have the psalmist extolling the

greatness of God by comparing Him to beings which do not exist,

and then in turn to ask these fabricated beings to ascribe glory and

strength to the Lord!

            How can it be maintained that the Old Testament espouses

monotheism when its authors continued to use the terms Myhilox< and

Mylixe and "the sons of” Myhilox< and Mylixe in reference to nonhuman fig-

ures? The solution to this apparent impasse is relatively simple,

but requires an adjustment in both the way the English word "God"

is defined and how one understands the data of the Old Testament.

Making such adaptations will show the uniqueness of Israel's re-

ligion in the ancient Near East.

            First, hesitation to embrace the details of the divine council

stems from habitually viewing the Old Testament through western

eyes. Many Christians have been so conditioned by their concept of

the word "God"--who is omnipotent, self-existent, omniscient, om-

nipresent, and possessing ultimate creative power--that they as-


            82 Tigay, Deuteronomy, 435. The same idea contained in these verses also seems to

be the point of Zephaniah 3:9 ("For then will I turn to the people a pure language,

that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve him with one consent").

David was certainly familiar with this idea, as his incensed tone in 1 Samuel 26:19

indicates: "Now let my lord the king listen to his servant's words. If the LORD has

incited you against me, then may he accept an offering. If, however, men have done

it, may they be cursed before the LORD! They have now driven me from my share in

the LORD's inheritance and have said, 'Go, serve other gods'" (NIV).

                        Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God                            73


sume the unreality of any entity but one referred to by that word.

Would the ancient Semitic mind have defined "God" as westerners

do, and then made the same assumption? As already noted, even

Isaiah, famous for his diatribes against pagan worship, used lan-

guage and imagery analogous to depictions of the divine council in

other places in the Old Testament and outside it. Isaiah simulta-

neously affirmed the existence of other heavenly beings and the

one true Deity of Israel.

            Unfortunately the ancient Near Eastern religious systems

have been referred to as "polytheistic" with the assumption that the

ancient Semites believed that all nonhuman entities bearing the

label Myhilox< must have been omnipotent, self-existent, omniscient,

omnipresent, and possessing ultimate creative power. As a result

current observers often fail to recognize that the ancients in fact

understood that the various Myhilox< existed in a hierarchy and with

differing attributes.

            The authors of the Old Testament, however, affirmed the exis-

tence of plural Myhilox<, while they also asked, "Who among the gods

is like you, a LORD?" (Exod. 15:11; cf. Pss. 86:8; 138:1), precisely

because they already knew that Yahweh is an Myhilox<, but that only

He is omnipotent, preexistent, and omniscient. It was no conun-

drum for the people of Israel to affirm that the word Myhilox<  in their

language described actual beings that Yahweh had credited, who

were members of His council, while knowing that none of these

Myhilox< were truly comparable to Him. In fact they could not deny the

existence of other Myhilox< since Yahweh had created them! Whereas

other ancient Near Eastern religions showed only glimpses of the

monotheistic idea,83 Israel alone was consistent in holding to mono-

theism. There is no need to create wholly interpretive, camouflaged

translations,84 or to interpret Myhilox< as human "judges," an ap-

proach that requires either paying only lip service to an Old Tes-

tament hermeneutic that incorporates comparative philology or


            83 As discussions of the pantheons and the phenomenon of the divine council dem-

onstrate, all ancient Near Eastern religions divided their gods into "noncouncil" and

"council" groups, the latter forming the "upper tier" of those beings who inhabited

the heavenly realms. The fact that there exists evidence in Mesopotamia for mono-

theistic ideology, and that at least one Egyptian "theology" (the Memphite theology)

presents one god as supreme creator of all the others shows that one must not su-

perimpose the exclusivity of the attributes of Yahweh to other Myhilox<, nor should one

assume the ancients were incapable of the same distinction. With respect to Meso-

potamia in this regard see Johannes Hehn, Die Biblische und die babylonische Got-

tesidee (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1913); and Bruno Baentsch, Altorientalischer und

israelitischer Monotheismus (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1906).

            84 For example, the New International Version translates Psalm 29:1, "Ascribe to

the LORD, O mighty ones [Mylixe yneB;], ascribe to the LORD glory and strength."

74        BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001


jettisoning the analogous material altogether.

            Second, it is hardly necessary to balk at affirming the reality of

the divine council, for the Old Testament's presentation of the con-

cept is distinguished from the pagan understanding. Aside from

uncontradicted assertions that none of the Myhilox< were comparable

to Yahweh, the description of the divine council in the Old Testa-

ment departs from that of other ancient Near Eastern religions in

several important ways.

            For example Yahweh is clearly depicted as the sole Deity

credited with bringing all that exists into being. He was unassisted

in His creative acts.85 None of the other Myhilox< aided Him in this

endeavor. An equally radical departure from the ancient pagan

mind is the absence of any hint of theogony in the Old Testament.

God produced the Myhilox< and everything else without a consort.

Yahweh's "fatherhood" of the Myhilox< can only be spoken of in formal

terms. Also the members of the divine council, contrary to ancient

Near Eastern religions, cannot be viewed as genuine rivals to the

Most High. Yahweh does not need to battle them in order to main-

tain His position as Leader of the council and hence the cosmos.

There are no mighty deeds ascribed to any other than Yahweh.

Yahweh is unchallenged and in fact unchallengeable.



This article responds to the false notion that accepting the Septua-

gint and Qumran evidence for the "sons of God" reading in Deuter-

onomy 32:8 requires seeing Israelite religion as polytheistic. In an

effort to demonstrate that this conclusion is unfounded two asser-

tions were offered and defended. First, the textual evidence favors

the "sons of God" reading, particularly when common misunder-

standings of text-critical history and method utilized to favor the

Masoretic text are corrected. Second, the concept of the divine

council, common to ancient Semitic religions, is referred to in the

Old Testament and constitutes the theological backdrop for Deu-

teronomy 32:8-9. In light of the evidence there exists no textual or

theological justification for preferring the Masoretic reading of

verse 8. That verse should read "sons of God," not "sons of Israel."


            85 As the plural cohortative and plural pronouns ("let us make man in our image")

in Genesis 1:26-27 indicate, the creation of humankind was a decision of the divine

council. It should be noted, however, that the following verb (God "created") is sin-

gular, thereby noting that only Yahweh/El did the creating. He merely announced

His decision to the council and carried it out.


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: