Background/The Divine Council
This post (yes, I know the title is rather provocative) was inspired by a comment that TT made in a previous post in this series concerning 1 Cor. 11.10, which reads “For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (NRSV, used throughout; emphasis mine). The part of TT’s comment which is the inspiration for this post reads, “women are supposed to wear veils so that they don’t get raped by angels.” Another commentor said later in the discussion that “Is the point to take the most extreme interpretations of these passages possible (”women had to worry about getting raped by angels,” honestly!)” (please read the post and comments for full context).
TT’s comment and the following reaction quickly reminded me of Genesis 6.1-4 (and other texts), which presents a tradition of heavenly beings coming down from their celestial abode and mating with humans. As I have already discussed elsewhere on FPR several times (see here, here, here, here, here and here), references to a divine council or heavenly assembly are found frequently throughout the Hebrew Bible . The divine council is simply the heavenly royal court over which Yahweh, the God of Israel, presides as heavenly king. The members of this heavenly court or assembly are referred to in the Hebrew Bible by such terms as: bene (ha)’elohim “sons of God” (Gen. 6.2, 4; Deut. 32.8-9; Job 1.6, 2.2, 38.7), ‘elohim “gods” (Ps. 82.1, 6), bene elim “sons of gods” (Ps. 29.1, 89.7), and bene ‘elyon “sons of the Most High” (Ps. 82.6). Moreover, the council itself is referred to by such appellations as the adat ‘el “council/assembly/congregation of ‘El/God” (Ps. 82.1), sod qedoshim rabbah “great council of the holy ones” (Ps. 89.8), sod YHWH “the council of Yahweh” (Jer. 23.18), and sod eloah “council of God” (Job 15.8).
The members of the divine council–the “sons of G/god(s)” or “gods” as they are often described–served various functions. Yahweh’s heavenly council was frequently depicted in terms analogous to that of the royal court of an earthly king or monarch. Thus, just as a king presides over a body of counselors and administrators with whom he counsels and to whom he issues decrees, so too Yahweh was surrounded by an assemblage of heavenly beings with whom he counseled and to whom he issued decrees. For this reason the God of Israel is designated as ‘el ‘elyon “the Most High God” (Gen.14.18-19; Ps. 78.35; cf. Ps. 82.6), because there are other, lower gods who serve him and praise him in his heavenly divine council. The God of Israel is the Most High (God) because there are other, subordinate gods in his heavenly council. These gods obey Yahweh’s decrees and pay deference to Yahweh because he is the supreme God of the pantheon–but they too are still gods nonetheless. Like many ancient Near Eastern texts which exult a particular earthly king as supreme over all the kings or rulers of other nations, so Yahweh is supreme in relation to the other gods of his council and those of other nations. The relevant issue in these texts is not one of “ontology” or species, of course, but one of power, might, and glory. Thus we read in Ps. 29.1 (NRSV, alternate translation):
Ascribe to Yahweh, O sons of gods [bene ‘elim],
ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength.
There are thus numerous biblical passages which clearly state or imply that there are other real gods in existence, although Yahweh is seen as supreme among them. In addition to those verses cited above, consider also Psalm 89.6 (NRSV, adapted), which reads: “For who in the skies can be compared to Yahweh? Who among the sons of God is like Yahweh…?”, as well as Psalm 99.2 (4QPsalm), which states: “Yahweh is great in Zion, he is exalted over all the gods.” Furthermore, Deuteronomy 32.43 (NRSV) goes on to affirm that, “Praise, O heavens, his people, worship him, all you gods!” Finally, Job 38.4-7 (cf. Genesis 1.26-27; 3.22) (NRSV, adapted) declares: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” These are just a sample of the biblical texts which demonstrate that the biblical authors believed that there were other real gods in existence besides Yahweh (see also Deut. 32.8-9, Ex. 15.11, Ps. 82.1, 6).
Genesis 6.1-4 reflects the background of the divine council. This passage reads:
When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.
Here the heavenly beings of Yahweh’s council–the “sons of God” or gods–descend from their heavenly home and mate with human women producing children. This same ancient tradition is found in the non-canonical book of Enoch, chapters 6 and 7. Chapter 6, verses 1-3 reads:
And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’
Chapter 7, verses 1-3 continues:
And all…took unto themselves wives, and each chose for himself one, and they began to go in unto them and to defile themselves with them, and they taught them charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants. And they became pregnant, and they bare great giants, whose height was three thousand ells
I think it is clear that the Bible presents a tradition of heavenly beings mating with humans; moreover, such views are found in later Judeo-Christian texts. How can, or should, such notions be interpreted among Christians (including LDS Christians) in modern times? And, in contrast to the initial outcry concerning TT’s comment about 1 Cor. 11.10, is it really such a stretch, given these biblical and non-biblical sources, to think that some early Jews and Christians might have worried that women could still be sexually enticed or overpowered by angels (fallen or otherwise)? Although I do not as yet have a firm conclusion on what 1 Cor. 11.10 is referring to in its reference to women and angels, it doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous as it might appear at first glance.
 See John Day’s section “The Sons of El (God)” in his book Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Journal for the study of the Old Testament, 265. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 22-24.