deut 32:8–9 and the ancient israelite pantheon?
During a recent online debate the question of the meaning of Deut 32:8–9 was raised as evidence of the Bible’s affirmation of polytheism and the subordinate status of the God of Israel, Yhwh. The essence of the claim is that the version of this passage preserved in the DSS identifies El Elyon as head of a pantheon who assigns nations to various subordinate deities, and Israel is assigned to Yhwh in this process.
The argument rests upon the alternate reading found in a fragment from cave 4 at Qumran (4Q37 or 4QDeutj).1 This fragment only preserves a few words from these verses.
The MT reads as follows:
When Elyon gave the nations an inheritance,2
בהנחל עליון גוים
The different reading of 4Q37 is this (only the italicised line above is preserved with any differences, so only that line is reproduced below):
According to the number of the sons of God.
למספר בני אלוהים
Scholars generally agree that this latter is the superior reading. For one it is reflected in the LXX (for which various manuscripts read either ἀγγέλων θεοῦ or υἱοὶ θεοῦ [cf. Dt 32:43]).
There are essentially two issues raised in discussion of this passage:
- The expression בני אלוהים refers to a pantheon which reflects an earlier stage in Israelite religion, and
- The text indicates that the chief god, usually identified as ʾEl ʿelyôn on the basis of verse 8′s use of עליון, assigned nations to various subordinate deities and that Yhwh chosen from among those deities and assigned to Israel.
Ultimately, however, there are too many problems with both of these claims for them to be viable.
- There are a number of references to sons of God in the OT. A singular “son” of God is a designation for God’s appointed human king (e.g. Ps 2:7). Plural sons appears to refer to the members of a divine court, presumably angelic beings but certainly not “gods” (e.g. Gen 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7).
One particularly interesting text is Ps 82:6 which reads:
אני אמרתי אלהים אתם
ובני עליון כלכם
I said, “You are gods,
and sons of ʿelyôn are you all!”
The gods (אלהים, ʾelōhîm) who are sons of עליון, ʿelyôn, here are clearly human beings — albeit rulers.
- The term עליון (ʿelyôn) is used as an epithet in the ancient Near East for quite a number of deities, and elsewhere in the Old Testament (and, indeed, in the new when ὕψιστος is used) it refers to Yhwh. In this way the term itself is relatively generic as a designation for a deity. To claim it must refer to some deity other than Yhwh in Deut 32 fails to recognise this observation.
There is certainly no warrant in any manuscript from the DSS to support the claim that this is a reference to a Canaanite deity named ʾEl-ʿElyôn since the fragment from the DSS does not even preserve this portion of the text. Futhermore, even this expression, when it does appear, is clearly identified as Yhwh (e.g. Gen 14:22).
Beyond this, understanding עליון ʿelyôn as an epithet for Yhwh in Deut 32 makes very good sense. The passage functions to exalt Yhwh and his people over the nations. While Yhwh (designated by עליון, ʿelyôn) apportioned the nations according to the proportions of the heavenly court, he himself retained special ownership of the people of Israel. The passage is poetic and the parallelism aligns ʿelyôn with Yhwh who has been repeatedly mentioned both before and after verse 8.
In the end, the claims that this passage, read through the light of the fragments from the DSS, preserves evidence of an earlier stage in the religion of the OT, can only be maintained if one ignores the context and reads much into the text.
Heiser, Michael S., “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (Jan–Mar 2001) 52–74.
1. The reading is also supported by 4QDtq, although that fragment preserves even less of the text itself, i.e. only בני אל, making it unclear whether it included the plural form אלוהים.
2. Most English versions read something like “when the Most High gave the nations their inheritance” (NASB). The Hebrew is a little less clear. There’s no “their” in the Hebrew and the hiphil of נחל usually means “to give as an inheritance” with a double accusative. Consequently it would be possible to render the Hebrew as “gave the nations as an inheritance” or “gave the nations an inheritance.” The LXX supports the English translations with its “ὅτε διεμέριζεν ὁ ὕψιστος ἔθνη.”