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.” 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.
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. 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. 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).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!’
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”].” 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?||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.
 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.
 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.
 Smith, The Early History of God, 37-39; Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 22.
 Smith, The Early History of God, 37-39; Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 22.
 For this point and further discussion, see Smith, The Early History of God, 34.
 Kenneth L. Barker and Donald W. Burdick, The NIV Study Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1985).
 See Baruch Halpern, From Gods to God: The Dynamics of Iron Age Cosmologies (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 29.
 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).