Saturday, July 6, 2013

The gods of Deut. 32:8: An Israelite Pantheon?

An artistic iconographic harmonization of my own.
The divine beings of Israel's religion share many
of the titles, iconography and functions employed
by their surrounding neighbors
At the end of my last post (which should be read before this one), I complained that the majority of critical scholarship since the late 19th century has seen in the scriptures a chronological evolution of Israel’s religion from polytheism to monotheism.  Critics attempt to demonstrate this evolution by pointing to early Biblical texts which speak of the existence of multiple gods.[1] These “polytheistic” texts are then contrasted with the standard monotheistic declarations in later post–exilic texts those sweet old ladies in hats had you recite since Sunday school. There you have it. Israelite monotheism must have evolved under Hezekiah.

For example, a “polytheistic” text like Psalm 138:1 might be contrasted with a “contradictory” later-developed “monotheistic” text like Deut 4:39:
“I will praise you with my whole heart: before the gods will I sing praise to you.” 
“…Yahweh, he is the God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other
Traditionally evangelicals counter the reconstruction described above by doing their best to demythologize the texts in the Bible which affirm the existence of multiple gods.  They assure us:  “Those aren’t gods. Those are human rulers that the OT calls gods!”

Evangelicals are losing the debate and we deserve to. Exegetically, the evangelical response has been as elegant as a shaved gorilla.  In short, I believe it’s driven by 17th century terminology which is detached from the ANE material. At the same time, critical scholarship is wrong because it misinterprets post-exilic texts to contrive a strict post-exilic monotheism. Since both the critical scylla and evangelical charybdis are deficient, a third way between them has been entertained by several fed-up scholars.  As I stated in my last post, I don’t believe that third way implies contradiction in the Bible or in anyway effaces our fidelity to monotheism. More importantly, it was the worldview of the Biblical authors and Jesus.  Understanding this is a healthy invitation for Christians to re-embrace the highly supernatural worldview of scripture.

Deuteronomy 32:8-9 is one of the key texts in the discussion. The text reads:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.  9But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. (ESV)
Martin Shields over at his Shields Up blog is representative of the conservative sentiment.  My interaction with his post is motivated out of lighthearted comradery more than polemics since I enjoy much of his other work.  I also agree with Shields that the “elyon” in this passage refers to Yahweh. All I care about in this post is the identification of the “sons of God” of that passage.

As an aside on the textual variant in this passage, Shields recognizes with most scholars the Masoretic textual variant of verse 8 which reads “according to the number of the sons of Israel” is inferior to the DSS/LXX reading “sons of God” preserved in the ESV translation quoted above.  There are plenty of long, boring reasons the DSS/LXX reading is superior. Long story short, the Masoretic reading implies a gross anachronism since Deuteronomy 32:8-9 describes the tower of Babble episode.  It would be impossible for God to divide the nations according to the sons of Israel at Babble because Israel didn’t exist yet; Jacob had yet to be born.

Deut. 32:8 then does indeed claim that God divided the nations, “according to the number of the sons of God.

So, why do I believe these “sons of God” [Hebrew: bny ha-elohim] are gods and not men as Shields argues?  First, it is significant that if one counts the number of divisions of the table of nations at Babble the number totals to 70—the exact number of the cognate sons of God in the Ugaritic texts.[2]  The Ancient Near Eastern context therefore demands these 70 sons of God in the Bible ought to be defined with relation to the non-human 70 bny ilm at Ugarit.  This identification is unmistakable because other cognate titles in the Ugaritic for these beings (titles like “the assembly of El,” “assembly of the stars” or “holy ones”) are shared with the Bible.

Second, the parallel of this event in Deuteronomy 4 shows us these beings are gods and not human:
19And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you will be drawn away and bow down and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. 20But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day. (ESV)  
8When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.  9But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. (ESV)
The other text Shields quotes to supply the doctrine that the sons of God are mere humans is Psalm 82:
 1God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.5…all the foundations of the earth are shaken. 6 I said, “you are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; 7nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” 8Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations! (ESV)
Again, the plural elohim of this passage demands a supernatural translation.  There is simply no way to get away with making these gods human as Heiser's doctoral dissertation demonstrated.  In Psalm 89 these same beings are said to be "in the clouds."

So, did Israel have a pantheon?  Were they polytheists?  As I lamented in my last post, these are oily, shock-factor terms which lead to confusion more than clarification since they imply things which were not the case for the ancient Israelite.  It's best to simply describe the role and functions of these beings.  The psalms have them being created by God.  God, in this text, is seen exercising authority over them, distributing them among the nations to rule and later judging them--stripping them of their immortality at the eschaton in Psalm 82.  Although these beings are in a category distinct from what we usually envision when we use the term "angel." The sons of God are similar to angels in the sense that they are the mere created beings of Yahweh, and they are not presented as beings worthy of worship.

Michael S. Heiser, “Should the Plural אלהים of Psalm 82 Be understood as Men or Divine Beings?” (delivered at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society).

[1] Karen Armstrong’s popular History of God used in many college level religion courses is representative. A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 40-78.
[2] E.g. KTU 1.4:VI.46.


  1. Polytheism seems to demand that the various gods had the potential to become the "El Elyon" via subterfuge, warfare, etc.

    Whereas in the bible, the "elohims" or "bene elohim"(those deemed by context as divine creatures) are part of creation, have no authority over Yahweh or potential to have any.

    I can't find any evidence about these "elohims" except they're part of creation. I've assumed they're angelic creatures.

  2. Technically, the sons of God are not angels (at least in the sense of describing mere messenger beings). That’s also the way it was at Ugarit. They serve roles and functions distinct from the beings we have in our mind when we usually use the term angel as I'm certain you're aware. The points you raise about polytheism implying subterfuge, warfare and the potential to depose YHWH are all arguments I agree with, and it's why I think monotheism (even with all its flaws) is the best word available for describing Israelite religion.

  3. Ben,

    How do you see the relationship between the Ugarit divine council, their 70, etc relative to the biblical view? Right now, I take the biblical view as valid historicity, but, it seems clear the Jewish authors were influenced by the Ugarit view.

    Do you think the biblical view is limited to "70" as a dialectic to counter the Ugarit view for example? It seems not to be a coincidence, the number 70.

    BTW, the book, "In the beginning we misunderstood" takes the view Gen 1 is a dialectic using some Egyptian/Babylonian cosmology to counter that stuff with the earliest Exodus generation.

    1. That's a good question I've always wanted to ask Hieser. I'd view this text in the same way Inspirationists view the many ancient texts containing a flood tradition. Any number of proposed options comes to mind. Perhaps Ugarit received this information from a divine being; perhaps they reasoned it based on a memory tradition of Babble; possibly they share a source with the author of Deuteronomy. I don't have the answer. Ugarit also has angels (same word and general function), and cherubim are found throughout the Mediterranean. If you ever find the answer I'd love to read it.

    2. Good luck asking Heiser. I have not had much success in making him realize that in order for him to accept God allotted the 70 nations to the bnei elohim, you have to accept a literal understand of the Babel story. You have to accept that a little over 4000 years ago there were no other nations on this planet accept for these 70.

      Obviously, this was not the case since. Man kind was widely spread out all over the earth at this point. So how would you understand the story? Did God only give 70 nations a guardian bnei el, and the rest of the nations did not?

      Dr. Heiser would probably respond that the world of the bible only knew of these 70 nations. I agree. But that just begs the question regarding US, TODAY accepting that part of the theology. The theology that he is endorsing is only meant for a limited scale world of the bible. HOW it translates to the greater earth is something he never responds to.


  4. Maybe we'll never know, right now I lean to thinking it's used as a dialectic number because that's what the Jews were aware of being in proximity to Ugarit. Since the text was written to those Jews at that time, seems logical to do.

    I honestly think there were more people on earth than the 70 nations listed in Genesis 10, that's just what the Jews knew existed. Dr. Heiser has stated that in his book, "The Myth that is True".

  5. Headless Unicorn GuyJuly 17, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    This sounds like "Remote Monotheism", a theology commonly used in fantasy fiction; Tolkien used it in the Silmarillion, and many Dungeonmasters followed suit for their campaign-background pantheons.

    In Remote Monotheism, there is one Big-G God who set everything up but delegated day-to-day operations of the Cosmos (and interaction with mortals in FRP game context) to lesser supernatural beings, AKA small-g gods/angels/Valar.

  6. Good page on this topic! I intend to teach a one-Sunday adult Sunday school class on this topic, and in struggling with the terms we have available to us, I have concluded that 'monolatry' is better (but not perfect) than the term 'monotheism':

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  8. Mr. Stanhope, I am an Evangelical Christian who is in Mormon Studies.

    I don't know if you're aware of this but this, but this blog site is being cited from selectively (one might even say "cherry picked") by Mormon Apologists in their defense of Latter-day Saint henotheistic polytheism dogma. In a nutshell, they are claiming that your body of work supports both their cosmology and theology - that mainstream Christianity is heretical, not Mormonism. The following quote, from the above article, in particular, seems to be a favorite:

    "Traditionally evangelicals counter the reconstruction described above by doing their best to demythologize the texts in the Bible which affirm the existence of multiple gods. They assure us: “Those aren’t gods. Those are human rulers that the OT calls gods!” Evangelicals are losing the debate and we deserve to. Exegetically, the evangelical response has been as elegant as a shaved gorilla. In short, I believe it’s driven by 17th century terminology which is detached from the ANE material."
    - Ben Stanhope

    I would be curious get your take and this. And I wonder what your response would be to these Mormon Apologists who are using your body of work like this.

    Thank you.