The Divine Council

The Divine Council December 17, 2008

There has been serious discussion among Mormon scholars over the past several years regarding the divine council in the Hebrew Bible and its implications for Mormon thought. For instance, very recently Blake Ostler published his third volume of Exploring Mormon Thought, in which, among other issues, he discusses at length various aspects of the heavenly council in the Hebrew Bible and what their implications might be for Mormon theology. David Bokovoy, a Mormon PhD student studying at Brandeis University under noted biblical scholar Marc Brettler, also had a lengthy exchange with Evangelical scholar Mike Heiser in a recent issue of the FARMS Review that included serious discussion of the council motif. Moreover, this exchange itself was provoked by an even earlier essay by BYU Professor Daniel Peterson that included an analysis of the heavenly assembly and its relevance for Mormonism. Kevin Barney also mentions the topic in his article “Examing Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1” for BYU studies. There has also been some discussion here at FPR regarding this topic. Given, then, the importance of this topic among Mormon scholars in recent years, I thought that in addition to pointing out these articles to those who might otherwise be unaware of them, I might also briefly describe the divine council as referred to in the Hebrew Bible, as well as some of its historical analogues. I invite any comments following that reader’s might feel to be of relevance to the divine council and/or its relationship to Mormon thought.

God [elohim] has taken his place in the divine council [‘adat el];

in the midst of the gods [elohim] he holds judgement.

Ps. 82.1 (NRSV)

References to a divine council or heavenly assembly are found frequently throughout the Hebrew Bible [1]. Simply, the divine council is 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 god” or “gods” as they are often termed–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. 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.

In light of the preceding, other biblical passages which directly state or imply the other existence of genuine gods also make much more sense. For instance, Exodus 15.11 (NRSV) states:

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods [elim]?

Who is like you, majestic in holiness,

awesome in splendour, doing wonders?

And Psalm 95.3 (NRSV) reads:

For the Lord is a great God,

and a great King above all gods [elohim].

The divine assembly is often mentioned in connection with God’s creation of humanity, as in the P source in Genesis and in Job (Gen. 1.26-27, 3.22; Job 15.7-8). Moreover, it is frequently found in connection with the prophetic calling, as, for example, in 1 Kings 22.19-22, Is. 6, and Jer. 23.18 (cf. Amos 3.7). Other more general references to the divine council abound throughout the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Zech. 1.10-11; Dan. 4.14, 7; 8.10-13, etc.).

The notion of the divine council in the Hebrew Bible has become more prominent and clearly defined in light of the important discoveries from ancient Ugarit, which discoveries provide perhaps the most important ancient literary and linguistic parallels to the Hebrew Bible to date (although there are noteworthy differences to be sure). In the texts from ancient Ugarit, the Canaanite high god ‘El presides over an large heavenly assembly (phr, dr, or ‘dt), the highest tier of which was composed of his sons (bn ‘il ). From KTU2 1.4.VI.46 we learn that El and Athirat (biblical Asherah), the consort of El, had seventy divine sons. Such details recovered from the texts of ancient Ugarit very likely relate to the biblical descriptions of the divine council. For instance, in the table of nations in Genesis 10 there are exactly seventy nations listed and in Deut. 32.8-9 the nations of the earth are divided among the sons of God, each of whom is given their own dominion or stewardship (this theme is also present in Psalm 82). Later Jewish tradition also asserted that there were seventy nations on earth, and other later texts confirm that there were seventy guardian angels which watched over them (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Deut. 32.8; 1 En. 89.59-77, 90.22-27). This tradition is clearly dependent on these earlier notions found in Genesis 10 and Deut. 32.8-9 (and Psalm 82) concerning the number of the nations and the sons of god appointed over them, and these biblical texts, in turn, are informed by the older traditions connected with the texts discovered at the ancient city of Ugarit. Thus Deut. 32.8-9 (NRSV, adapted) reads:

When the Most High [elyon] apportioned the nations,

when he divided humankind,

he fixed the boundaries of the peoples

according to the number of the sons of God [bene elohim];
the Lord’s [YHWH] own portion was his people,

Jacob his allotted share.

The Masoretic Text (MT) which was followed by the King James Translators has “sons of Israel” instead of “sons of God.” However, the LXX and manuscript 4QDeut from the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as several other ancient versions support the reading of the “sons of God.” The MT reading thus appears to be a deliberate alteration to change what was otherwise seen by an ancient scribe as a reference to the existence of other gods. Additionally, it should be noted that the sons of god/gods are never called the “sons of Yahweh.” Except for Ps. 82.6, references to the sons of God virtually occur with the root ‘l in the word for God. This is additional evidence that the notion of the divine council found in the Hebrew Bible is most likely heavily indebted to that of El and his assembly of divine sons as found in the Ugaritic texts. Furthermore, Is. 14.13 pictures the assembly meeting upon the divine mountain of assembly which is consistent with the depiction of the council as found in the Ugaritic texts as well.

I conclude then with a quote about the divine council by Professor Jon Levenson of Harvard who stated:

“It is true—and quite significant–that the God of Israel has no myth of origin. Not a trace of theogony can be found in the Hebrew bible. God has no nativity. But there do seem to be other divine beings in Genesis 1, to whom God proposes the creation of humanity, male and female together: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (v. 26). When were these other divine beings created? They too seem to have been primordial. . . .From other biblical accounts of the divine assembly in session, it would appear that these “sons of God/gods” played an active roles and made fresh proposals to God, who nonetheless retained the final say.” [2]


[1] I have drawn primarily from 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.

[2] Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 5.

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