God, Gods, and Sons (and Daughters) of God in the Hebrew Bible. Part III

This historical reconstruction [that El was originally Israel's chief deity, and YHWH was originally his son and the patron deity of Israel], in turn, helps to make sense of certain biblical texts which seem to indicate most naturally that El was originally the chief god of Israel and that YHWH was the patron deity of Israel.  For example, Deuteronomy 32:8-9 reads:

When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the sons of Israel.  For YHWH’s portion, his people; Jacob, his allotted share.בְּהַנְחֵל עֶלְיוֹן גּוֹיִם בְּהַפְרִידוֹ בְּנֵי אָדָם יַצֵּב גְּבֻלֹת עַמִּים לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ כִּי חֵלֶק יְהֹוָה עַמּוֹ יַעֲקֹב  חֶבֶל נַחֲלָתֽוֹ

The Masoretic Text has “sons of Israel.” However, the Septuagint and the manuscript 4QDeut from the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as several other ancient versions and witnesses, support the alternate reading of “sons of god/gods.”[1] The Masoretic Text thus appears to be a later revision adopted in order to change what was probably seen by an ancient scribe as a reference to the existence of other (real) gods.  The text most naturally seems to indicate, therefore, that the god referred to as עֶלְיוֹן, “the Most High” (c.f. the title El-Elyon, “El, the Most High [god],” in Gen. 14:18-19, 22), divided the nations of the earth and appointed a national deity for each one, and in the case of Israel this national deity was YHWH.  This is additionally compelling because from KTU2 1.4.VI.46 we learn that El and Athirat (i.e., Asherah), the consort of El, had seventy divine sons, and in the table of nations in Genesis 10 we learn that the ancient Israelites perceived the earth as divided among exactly seventy nations.  Why is this important?  Because, as we saw in Deuteronomy 32:8-9, the nations of the earth are divided among the sons of god/gods, each of whom is given their own dominion or stewardship (c.f. Ps. 82). Later Jewish tradition also asserted that there were seventy nations in the world, and other later texts confirm that there were seventy guardian angels that watched over them (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Deut. 32:8-9; 1 En. 89:59-77; 90:22-27).  This later Jewish tradition is clearly dependent on these earlier notions found in Genesis 10 and Deuteronomy 32:8-9 concerning the number of the nations and the sons of god/gods appointed over them.  Thus, by combining the information gleaned from these two biblical texts, it is further made clear that the writings of these Israelite texts were familiar with older traditions associated with the texts discovered at ancient Ugarit.

There are two other texts in this vein of tradition that deserve mention here as well, namely Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 33:26-27.  Psalm 82 recounts how Israel’s god (YHWH?) rose to prominence in the divine council.  Verses 1-4, 6-8 read:

God stands in the divine council [lit. assembly of El/god]; in the midst of the gods he judges.  How long will you judge unjustly, and favor the wicked?  Judge the poor and fatherless, and do justice to the disadvantaged and destitute!  Deliver the poor and needy, rescue (them) from the power of the wicked! …I thought, “You are gods, all of you sons of Elyon/the Highest.”  However, like a man you will die, and like one of the princes you will fall.  Arise, o god, judge the earth!  For you will inherit all the nations.אֱֽלֹהִ֗ים נִצָּ֥ב בַּעֲדַת־אֵ֑ל בְּקֶ֖רֶב אֱלֹהִ֣ים יִשְׁפֹּֽט׃ עַד־מָתַ֥י תִּשְׁפְּטוּ־עָ֑וֶל וּפְנֵ֥י רְ֜שָׁעִ֗ים תִּשְׂאוּ־סֶֽלָה׃ שִׁפְטוּ־דַ֥ל וְיָת֑וֹם עָנִ֖י וָרָ֣שׁ הַצְדִּֽיקוּ׃ פַּלְּטוּ־דַ֥ל וְאֶבְי֑וֹן מִיַּ֖ד רְשָׁעִ֣ים הַצִּֽילו. . . אֲֽנִי־אָ֭מַרְתִּי אֱלֹהִ֣ים אַתֶּ֑ם וּבְנֵ֖י עֶלְי֣וֹן כֻּלְּכֶֽם אָ֭כֵן כְּאָדָ֣ם תְּמוּת֑וּן וּכְאַחַ֖ד הַשָּׂרִ֣ים תִּפֹּֽלוּ׃ קוּמָ֣ה אֱ֭לֹהִים שָׁפְטָ֣ה הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־אַתָּ֥ה תִ֜נְחַ֗ל בְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִֽם

Here we see the god of Israel in the divine council setting.  The gods of the other nations (c.f. Deut. 32:8-9 discussed above) are condemned to the underworld for having improperly fulfilled their stewardship over the nations by judging unjustly.  The final verse then requests Israel’s god to take possession of each of these nations.  What is further significant about this passage is that it describes these gods as “sons of Elyon/the Highest,” which appears as a title of El in Genesis 14:18-20.  It seems quite possible, therefore, that at the earliest stage of this poem’s composition YHWH was seen not as the chief god of the pantheon, but rather as a son of (El) Elyon (as in Deut. 32:8-9), who originally possessed only Israel but was then granted responsibility over all nations.[2]

But what exactly is the divine council over which YHWH (and El) ruled?  YHWH’s heavenly council is commonly described in the Hebrew Bible in terms analogous to that of a royal court of a king or monarch.[3] Thus, just as a king presides over a body of counselors and administrators, so too YHWH was surrounded by an assembly of divine beings to whom he issued decrees.[4] For this reason the god of Israel (whether this be YHWH or El) is designated as אֵל עֶלְיֽוֹן, “the Most High god” (e.g., Gen.14:18-19; Ps. 78:35; cf. Ps. 82:6), because there are other lower gods in his pantheon.  These gods obey and pay deference to YHWH because he is the supreme god of the pantheon.  YHWH is the “god of gods” ( אֵל אֱלֹהִים), i.e., the “greatest god” (Josh. 22:22), just as Artaxerxes was the “greatest king” (מֶלֶךְ מַלְכַיָּא; Ezra. 7:12) or Canticles is the “greatest song” (שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים; Song of Songs 1:1).[5]

Deuteronomy 33:27 also contains mythic imagery suggestive of theomachic strife or discord among the gods. Deuteronomy 33:26-27, as traditionally translated in the NIV, reads:

There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. He will drive out your enemy before you, saying, ‘Destroy him!’[6]

However, the key phrases, translated here as “The eternal God is your refuge” (מְעֹנָה אֱלֹהֵי קֶדֶם) and “and underneath are the everlasting arms” (וּמִתַּחַת זְרֹעֹת עוֹלָם), are under serious question.  As some scholars have noted, by simply re-pointing the original Hebrew consonantal text, these two phrases read, “(he who) oppresses the ancient gods [lit. “gods of old”], and subdues the eternal powers [or perhaps, “subdues the arms/powers of the underworld”].”[7] Thus the passage can be read as describing YHWH’s rise to supremacy in the divine realm through subduing “the gods of old.”  This translation has been followed in such modern scholarly translations of the Hebrew Bible as the NRSV.  In conclusion, this passage may retain archaic Israelite notions of ancient theogonic or theomachic struggles.

Numerous texts in the Hebrew Bible indicate that the ancient Israelites believed there was a divine council of gods and/or that other nations had their own (real) gods.  Besides Exodus 15:11, referred to above, which read, “Who is like you, O YHWH, among the gods?,” Psalm 95:3 states, “For YHWH is a great god, and a great King above all gods”  (כִּי אֵל גָּדוֹל יְהוָה וּמֶלֶךְ גָּדוֹל עַל־כָּל־אֱלֹהִֽים). Psalm 29:1 further says, “Give to YHWH, O sons of gods, give to YHWH glory and strength” (הָבוּ לַֽיהוָה בְּנֵי אֵלִים הָבוּ לַיהוָה כָּבוֹד וָעֹֽז). Moreover, Psalm 89.7 reads, “For whom in the skies can be compared to YHWH? Who among the sons of god/gods may be likened to YHWH…?” (כִּי מִי בַשַּׁחַק יַעֲרֹךְ לַיהוָה יִדְמֶה לַיהוָה בִּבְנֵי אֵלִים).  Finally, Job 38.4-7 (cf. Genesis 1.26-27; 3.22; 11:7) states:

Where were you when I laid the foundations 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 heavenly beings [lit. “sons of god/gods”] shouted for joy?[8]אֵיפֹ֣ה הָ֭יִיתָ בְּיָסְדִי־אָ֑רֶץ הַ֜גֵּ֗ד אִם־יָדַ֥עְתָּ בִינָֽה׃ מִי־שָׂ֣ם מְ֭מַדֶּיהָ כִּ֣י תֵדָ֑ע א֤וֹ מִֽי־נָטָ֖ה עָלֶ֣יהָ קָּֽו׃ עַל־מָ֭ה אֲדָנֶ֣יהָ  הָטְבָּ֑עוּ א֥וֹ מִֽי־יָ֜רָ֗ה אֶ֣בֶן פִּנָּתָֽהּ׃ בְּרָן־יַ֭חַד כּ֣וֹכְבֵי בֹ֑קֶר וַ֜יָּרִ֗יעוּ כָּל־בְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִֽים

Such texts confirm that the majority of ancient Israelites believed there were other gods in existence besides YHWH.  Moreover, this fact helps make sense of Deuteronomistic polemic against other gods, since there would be no need to try to discredit these deities so vehemently otherwise.  Moreover, the fact that the biblical authors themselves believed that other deities were real and interacted with the world may be seen in such texts as 2 Kings 3.  This text recounts a story in which the  kings of Israel (in the north) and Judah (in the south), along with Edom, ally together to attack king Mesha of Moab after receiving a favorable prophecy of victory from the prophet Elisha (vv. 18-20).  However, as they are pursuing after the fleeing Moabites, Mesha sacrificed his first-born son and “great wrath” came upon Israel and they withdrew to their own land.  The text most naturally seems to indicate that the Moabite deity had some power or puissance that was claimed via human sacrifice.


[1] For this point and the following, see Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 23-24; and Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 143.

[2] For further discussion of this passage see Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 142-145; The Early History of God, 32-33; and Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 15-17.

[3] Smith, The Early History of God, 37-39; Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 22.

[4] Smith, The Early History of God, 37-39; Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 22.

[5] For this point and further discussion, see Smith, The Early History of God, 34.

[6] Kenneth L. Barker and Donald W. Burdick, The NIV Study Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1985).

[7] See Baruch Halpern, From Gods to God: The Dynamics of Iron Age Cosmologies (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 29.

[8] Quotation taken from Michael D. Coogan, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Version (Oxford: Oxford Univ Press, 2009).

  • Morgan Deane

    I’ve really enjoyed all the parts to this series. Thanks for posting.

  • http://www.isupk.org IsraeliteIndeed

    U missed key points! Psa 96:5 For all the gods of the nations [are] idols: but the LORD made the heavens.

    Jer 16:19 ¶ O LORD, my strength, and my fortress, and my refuge in the day of affliction, the Gentiles shall come unto thee from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Surely our fathers have inherited lies, vanity, and [things] wherein [there is] no profit.
    Jer 16:20 Shall a man make gods unto himself, and they [are] no gods?
    Jer 16:21 ¶ Therefore, behold, I will this once cause them to know, I will cause them to know mine hand and my might; and they shall know that my name [is] The LORD.

    Jer 2:11 Hath a nation changed [their] gods, which [are] yet no gods? but my people have changed their glory for [that which] doth not profit.

    U cant prove that the people of Moab where not the ones that were full of indignation with Israel, for getting their heir apparent slaughtered to the Molech god of Moab.

    Monday Night’s @ 9pm listen to The Grill, the most controversial, web cast call-in radio show hosted by General Yahanna at http://isupk.org/Radio_Show/index.htm Listen to what’s relevant spiritually and politically. The only show you will love and hate, all at once.

  • Mark D.

    Excellent series. I must say I don’t see the point of referring to the NIV translation, when the KJV is much closer to the original text.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com David J

    Mark D.,

    The KJV contains many, many errors and some guess-work on the part of the translators (cf. the “together with my dead body” passage in Isaiah – ugh!). The NIV is a weak translation, I’ll give you that, in that it is less “wooden” than the underlying text portrays. The NASB would be a modernized version of the KJV, if you’re interested. I prefer the NRSV (Oxford Annotated version) as it represents a decent middle point for woodenness and topical translations. Regardless, I don’t think TYD’s usage of the NIV is fatal to what he’s saying.

  • larryco_

    Again, great stuff. In some ways (though definitely not all), the idea of “the Most High God” El Elyon granting stewardship over the nations to His divine sons, who were to provide “refuge” for the people and “drive out your enemy”, reminds me of Avrahim Gileadi’s suzerain/vassal imagery. He sees the Father/Son/Chosen People interconnection as

    “resembl(ing) ancient Near Eastern covenants in which a vassal king, who proves loyal to his emperor, obtains the emperor’s protection of the vassal’s people. The vassal king thus becomes a proxy of his people in obtaining their protection. Jesus (as “vassal king”), by fulfilling the will of his Father (the “emperor”) in all things, thus purchased his people’s ultimate divine protection—their eternal salvation.” -Gileadi

    Then YHWH/Jehovah is “granted responsibility over the nations”, mirroring (to some extent) Paul’s statement concerning Jesus that “though he were a son, yet learned he obedience” and now sits “on the right hand of God” (in the divine council).

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TYD

    Thanks for your encouragement all! I hope that you continue to enjoy this series!

    IsraeliteIndeed, I believe that if you peruse my older posts on the issues of monotheism and polytheism in the Old Testament, you will find that I have addressed a number of your questions and some of the issues you raise elsewhere. Thanks for taking the time to read this post, however! Feel free to continue participating!

    Best,

    TYD

  • http://latterdaysnark.blogspot.com/ David B

    I like The Message, myself, but it’s not what i’d call a faithful translation!

    Anyway, this is all really very interesting, given the frequent charges of polytheism thrown against the Mormon church. I’ve long thought that there’s too much polytheism in the Bible for me to take such charges seriously (or at least to take them seriously as charges of heresy), but i’m not conversant enough in the original languages to be able to explain myself well on why. Things like this series help.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    Glad to explore these topics with you David B!

    Best,

    TYD

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    David J,

    The other point I might mention in regards to this issue is that the Israelite pantheon, in my view, was originally viewed in familial terms (much as in Ugarit), but later, over time, it evolved into a model primarily conceived in terms of a royal court (although, of course, royal terminology made its impact on Ugaritic conceptions of the divine council). If El and YHWH were originally separate in ancient Israel, and El was indeed at first the chief deity of ancient Israel, then I don’t think it is an unreasonable conclusion, in conjunction with the foregoing analysis I have provided, in historical-critical terms to conclude that YHWH was seen as El’s son. I say this, of course, still cognizant of the limits of historical-critical inquiry I mentioned above. Nevertheless, I don’t really see the evidence pointing anywhere else.

    Best,

    TYD


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