BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 158 (January-March 2001): 52-74
[Copyright ฉ 2001 Dallas Theological Seminary; cited with permission;
digitally prepared for use at
DEUTERONOMY 32:8 AND
THE SONS OF GOD
Michael S. Heiser
MOSES' FAREWELL SONG IN DEUTERONOMY 32:1-43 is one of
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
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-
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 (
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
(conflated) manuscript of Aquila.6
Should the verse be rendered "sons of
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
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
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
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
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 [
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
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
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
Literary and conceptual parallels discovered in the literature
the number seventy in Deuteronomy 32:8 and have furnished sup-
port for textual scholars who argue against the
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
seventy-five people went to
five additional descendants from Ephraim and Manasseh. This example from these
verses features the same textual alignment as with Deuteronomy 32:8 (the Septua-
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
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
32:812 based on a misunderstanding of both the
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.
TEXTUAL CRITICISM AND THE "SONS OF GOD"
IN DEUTERONOMY 32:8
A WORD ABOUT TEXT-CRITICAL METHOD AND PREJUDICES
The textual evidence cited above presents a situation in which one
reading (that of the Septuagint) is supported by very ancient
manuscript evidence (notably
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
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
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
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
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
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"
Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God 57
fiable textual plurality among Jews in
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
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
reading, 4QDeutj,n, are among the unaligned texts.20
Two points derive from this review of the textual plurality in
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
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
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
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.
EVALUATING THE INTERNAL TEXT-CRITICAL EVIDENCE
FOR DEUTERONOMY 32:8
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
is that this reading should simply be regarded as an intentional
error reflecting the theological predilections of
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
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
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
supports the Septuagintal reading, 4QDeutj, unambiguously reads
Second, and perhaps even more damaging to the proposed
parablepsis explanation that an
original "sons of
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
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 [
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
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
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.
DEUTERONOMY 32:8 IN LIGHT OF GOD'S DIVINE COUNCIL
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-
The Old Testament often reflects literary and religious contact
25 Ibid., 516-17.
60 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2001
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
THE DIVINE COUNCIL IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
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
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
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
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 , 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
text makes it clear that El is
the Bible does not share behaviors of His Ugaritic counterpart) and that Yahweh is
El(Deut. 7:9; ; 2 Sam. ; 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-
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
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
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 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.
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. ; 32:8-9, as noted in the Septuagint
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 DIVINE COUNCIL AND THE VOCABULARY OF BIBLICAL HEBREW
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.
for the assembly.53 The literature of
number of designations for the divine assembly or council. The two
most common at
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
'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 , 22).59
51 Elmer Smick, "Mythopoetic Language
in the Psalms,"
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. ). 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 ("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 "
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, 140). Handy argues that the
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
) 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 : 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.
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
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 mlk ("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 md, the place of the "assembled congrega-
tion,"73 and was associated with both physical and mythical peaks
65 Job 5:1; (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., -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
J. Clifford The Cosmic Mountain in
vard Semitic Monographs IV (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 34-176.
72 Frank M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (
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
north," the NOpcA
yteK;r;ya (Ps. 48:1-2).75 The "height of
watered garden" (Jer. 31:12; cf. Isa. 33:20-22), and in Ezekiel
the terms "mountain of God" and "
the dfeOm rha ("mount of assembly"), again located in the "heights of
the north/Saphon" (Isa. ). The Ugaritic "domed tent," of
course, evokes the imagery of the tabernacle.76
OBJECTIONS TO THE REALITY OF A DIVINE COUNCIL
IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Some interpreters argue against the idea that the Myhilox< of Psalm
82:1b and 6a are heavenly beings by introducing Exodus ("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. ; 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
The reason Moses is called Myhilox< in Exodus 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,
discretion marks him as an Myhilox<, much in the way that
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.
; 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.
THE DIVINE COUNCIL AS AN OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGICAL
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
tion other ancient Near Eastern civilizations). So there is no need
in Deuteronomy 32:8 to opt for the Masoretic reading of "sons of
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.
THE NATIONS GIVEN UP
Accepting the Masoretic reading in Deuteronomy 32:8 ("he set the
bounds of the people according to the number of the
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
tioned in the poem? In addition, verse 9, which states that God's
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
graphical regions on the earth on the, family size
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-
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
and then adding that
reading is abandoned, however, the point of the contrast becomes
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
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
created seventy territorial units after
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
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
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,
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
"God of gods," the "Lord of lords" (Deut. ).
According to Deuteronomy 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
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. , 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
sons of God are referred to here as "fallen" in light of Genesis 6 as well as Deuteron-
81 The same verb "allotted" (qlahA) is used in Deuteronomy 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
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
THE DIVINE COUNCIL AND ISRAELITE MONOTHEISM
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.
such adaptations will show the uniqueness of
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
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. ; 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
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
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
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-
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
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:
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: firstname.lastname@example.org