The Sons of God of Deuteronomy 32:8: Angels or the Children of Israel?

According to Deuteronomy, God divided the nations in respect to his people, the children of Israel:

“When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.” Deuteronomy 32:8 Authorized King James Version (AV)

What this means is that God assigned the nations their respective territories in view of the people he was going to form to be his cherished possession on earth.

In other words, mankind was divided and placed within the geographical bounds that God had set for them with Israel in mind. As such, all that God did prior to the birth of the nation of Israel was done in preparation for his people whom he would redeem and place within the land he had appointed for them.

However, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) a different reading was found, one that calls into question whether God divided the peoples in anticipation of the nation whom he would eventually give birth to:

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders[a] of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.”

This reading has God dividing the nations in accord with the number of the sons of God.

Many biblical scholars take this to mean that, when the nations were divided, God assigned them to the rulership of the members of his heavenly council, to spirit beings who would reign over the peoples as part of their punishment for rebelling against God at the time of the building of the tower of Babel (cf. Genesis 11).

The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, typically referred to as the Septuagint (LXX), seems to support this understanding since there it says that the nations were assigned to the angels of God. Biblical semiticist and scholar Michael S. Heiser explains:

Controversy over the text of this verse concerns the last phrase, “according to the number of the sons of Israel,” which reflects the reading of the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible (hereafter, MT), beney yisrael. The MT reading is also reflected in several later revisions of the Septuagint (hereafter, LXX): a manuscript of Aquila (Codex X), Symmachus (also Codex X), and Theodotion.2 Most witnesses to the LXX in verse 8, however, read angelon theou, which is interpretive.3 Several also read hyion theou.4 Both of these Greek renderings presuppose a Hebrew text of either beney elohim or beney elim. These Hebrew phrases underlying angelon theou and hyion theou are attested in two manuscripts from Qumran,5 and by one (conflated) manuscript of Aquila.6 (Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God, pp. 1-2 http://www.thedivinecouncil.com/DT32BibSac.pdf)

According to Heiser, the variant “angels of God” is the predominant reading of the LXX:

3 This is the predominant reading in the LXX tradition and is nearly unanimous. See John William Wevers, ed., Septuaginta: Vetus Testamentum Graecum, Auctoritate Academiae Scientiarum Gottingensis Editum, vol. III,2: Deuteronomium (Go.-ttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977), 347 (hereafter, Go.-ttingen LXX); idem, Notes on the Greek Text of Deuteronomy, Society of Biblical Literature (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995, 513). Wevers refers to this majority reading as “clearly a later attempt to avoid any notion of lesser deities in favor of God’s messengers” (Notes on the Greek Text of Deuteronomy, 513). (Ibid., p. 1)

I will return to the significance of this point shortly. For now I want to highlight some of the problems I have with assuming that the reading found in the DSS, and seemingly supported by the LXX, must be taken as a reference to the so-called divine beings of God’s heavenly council.

Who are the Sons of God?

A major problem with the argument that the reading ”sons of God” must necessarily refer to the members of the heavenly council is that it begs the question, since it fails to take into consideration that this phrase may be referring to some other group.

In point of fact, there is evidence suggesting that the sons of God are not spirit beings, but are actually God’s chosen people, the Israelites!

All throughout the immediate context, God’s covenant people are identified as the sons and daughters whom he begot, whom he gave birth to:

“Do you thus repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you (abika qaneka), who made you and established you?” Deuteronomy 32:6

“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth. The Lord saw it and spurned them, because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters (bana ubanota). And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children (banim) in whom is no faithfulness.’” Deuteronomy 32:18-20

That Israel is called the son(s) of God is affirmed elsewhere in Deuteronomy,

You are the sons of the Lord your God (banim ‘attem YHWH elohekem). You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead.” Deuteronomy 14:1

As well as in Exodus, where they are even said to be God’s firstborn son:

“Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son (bani bakhori), and I say to you, “Let my son (bani) go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” Exodus 4:22-23

In fact, the book of Hosea not only identifies Israel as God’s own son,

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son (libni).” Hosea 11:1

But it also describes the Israelites as the sons of El!

“Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God (beney ‘el chay).’” Hosea 1:10

What this shows is that there is nothing in the phrase itself that would lead one to necessarily assume that these sons are the spiritual members of God’s heavenly council. Rather the evidence from both the immediate and overall contexts actually points to the sons of God being a reference to the Israelites themselves, which accounts for the variant “sons of Israel” found in the Masoretic textual tradition.

Contrary to the claim of scholars such as Heiser, the scribes didn’t change the original reading in order to avoid the notion of there being lesser gods besides Yahweh. If in fact the Masoretes did change the text, then they did so in order to make explicit what was already implicit in the reading found in the DSS, namely, the sons of God in the context of Deuteronomy 32 are the children of Israel themselves.

This brings me to my next section.

The Septuagint to the Rescue?

Heiser and co. may wish to point to the reading of the LXX to support their premise that the “sons of God” is a reference to the heavenly council members:

“When the Most High divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God (angelon theou).”

Could it be any clearer that these sons of God are in fact heavenly beings?

However, appealing to the LXX doesn’t help Heiser’s position, but actually raises more problems for his view.

In the first place, as most scholars would readily admit the LXX isn’t a literal translation, since it doesn’t always translate the underlying Hebrew text literally. Rather, what the LXX often does is provide a paraphrase of sorts, where the scribe(s) seek(s) to bring out what he/they feel is the meaning of a given passage. As such, not every rendering of the LXX is necessarily accurate or correctly conveys the intended meaning of the text in question.

This brings me to my next point.

Michael Heiser himself does not accept the identification of the sons of God in Deuteronomy 32:8 as angels, since in his view the sons of God are different and distinct from the angels within the divine council. Heiser’s position is that the heavenly council consists of three tiers (with some scholars believing there are actually four), and that the sons of God are in the second tier whereas God’s angels are in the third one, functioning as the servants of the council.

But this is where the LXX creates problems for Heiser’s argument. The LXX does not differentiate the sons of God from the angels, but actually identifies these sons AS the angels themselves!

This isn’t the only place where the LXX does this. Compare what the following verses say with the Greek version(s) of these texts:

“Rejoice with him, O heavens; bow down to him, all gods, for he avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries. He repays those who hate him and cleanses his people’s land.” Deuteronomy 32:43

“Rejoice, ye heavens, with him, and let all the angels of God (pantes angeloi theou) worship him; rejoice ye Gentiles, with his people, and let all the sons of God (pantes hyiou theou) strengthen themselves in him; for he will avenge the blood of his sons (ton hyion autou), and he will render vengeance, and recompense justice to his enemies, and will reward them that hate him; and the Lord shall purge the land of his people.” LXX

Interestingly, both the DSS and LXX differentiate the gods/angels from the sons of God, since the latter clearly refer to the Israelites, the people whom God avenges and whose land he purges. This in itself sufficiently refutes Heiser’s case since it shows that even the Jewish scribes, which produced the DSS and the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, did not identify God’s sons in this passage as the members of God’s heavenly council.

Sidenote here. The reading where the gods are commanded to bow down to Yahweh does not appear in the later Hebrew manuscripts produced by the Masoretes, but it is found in the DSS. So this is another place where the DSS confirms a particular reading within the LXX, which is not found in the Masoretic textual tradition.

“Now there was a day when the sons of God (beney ha’elohim) came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.” Job 1:6 – cf. 2:1

“And it came to pass on a day, that behold, the angels of God (hoi angeloi tou theou) came to stand before the Lord, and the devil came with them.” LXX

“when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God (kal beney elohim) shouted for joy?” Job 38:7

“When the stars were made, all my angels (pantes angeloi mou) praised me with a loud voice.” LXX

“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings (elohim) and crowned him with glory and honor.” Psalm 8:5

“Thou madest him a little less than angels (angelous), thou hast crowned him with glory and honour;” Psalm 8:6 LXX – cf. Hebrews 2:7

“All worshipers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols; worship him, all you gods (kal elohim)!” Psalm 97:7

“Let all that worship graven images be ashamed, who boast of their idols; worship him, all ye his angels (pantes hoi angeloi autou).” Psalm 96:7 LXX

One interesting aspect of Deuteronomy 32:43 and Psalm 96:7 LXX is that scholars believe that the book of Hebrews actually quotes from either one of them, but are not exactly certain which one the inspired author had in mind:

“And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’” Hebrews 1:6

Since the reading more closely resembles that of the Deuteronomy passage, many feel that this is what the inspired writer had in view.

Whatever the case may be, this one fact remains certain. The Jewish scribes that produced the original Greek version of the Hebrew Bible did not differentiate the gods/sons of God of the heavenly council from the angels, but rather equated them together. For these scribes, the gods and/or the sons of God of the divine council are the angels.

Therefore, if scholars like Heiser want to appeal to the LXX to support their position, then they have to be consistent and contend with the fact that the same LXX testifies against their attempt of differentiating the sons of God from the angelic host.

However, if they wish to say that the scribes got it wrong since they incorrectly assumed that the angels and God’s heavenly sons are one and the same, then they must accept that these scribes may have also been mistaken in interpreting the sons of God in Deuteronomy 32:8 as the angels.

In other words, these scholars cannot have their cake and eat it too. If the scribes were wrong in distinguishing the angels from God’s heavenly sons, then they may have also been mistaken in assuming that the sons of God in Deuteronomy 32:8 are the angels.

Besides, as we noted earlier in the case of the variant reading found in the DSS and LXX versions of Deuteronomy 32:43, the scribes that produced them actually differentiated the gods/angels from God’s sons, whom they clearly identified as the Israelites, which makes matters even worse for scholars such as Heiser.

To put this in a more simple manner, instead of supporting their case, the LXX reading of Deuteronomy 32:43 and also the DSS refute the notion of the sons of God being members of God’s heavenly host. Both the LXX and DSS attest that God’s sons in the context are the Israelites, thereby providing further evidence that Heiser and co. are mistaken.

Moreover, contrary to the claim of Heiser and the scholars who hold to the same view, there is no evidence that these Jewish scribes employed the term angelos (angels) in a broader sense to describe all the members of the divine council, despite their supposedly having known that God’s sons are different from his angels. To be quite frank, such a viewpoint begs the question again by assuming what is yet to be proven.

As such, what Heiser and the scholars who agree with him must do is to first prove that the OT writers believed and knew that the heavenly sons of God were different from God’s angels, and not merely assume that such must be the case on the basis that the nations surrounding Israel, such as the Canaanites, were aware of that distinction. After all, OT faith is not identical to the religion of the ancient peoples that surrounded the Israelites, even though they share many commonalities. Therefore, we should not and cannot overemphasize the similarities between all these ancient religions, while downplaying or overlooking the stark differences, which exist among them.

In conclusion, I believe that the evidence I presented in my post shows that there is nothing in the reading found in the DSS, which necessarily points to the nations being assigned to the rulership of God’s heavenly council members. I believe a stronger case can be made to show that the sons of God reading actually refers to the Israelites, especially in light of the immediate context of Deuteronomy 32 where the inspired writer has already identified the children of Israel as God’s sons and daughters whom he formed for his glory.

Basically, what this means is that the inspired author was communicating the fact that God was providentially guiding the nations and all historical events in anticipation of, and preparation for, the nation whom he had already chosen to fashion for his glory, with that nation being the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Unless noted otherwise, biblical quotations taken from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Holy Bible.

Make sure to read my follow up reply to an objection that a commenter raised to this specific post https://answeringislamblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/29/the-sons-of-god-of-deuteronomy-328-revisited/.

POSTSCRIPT

I want to make it clear that my post isn’t intended to deny the reality of God’s heavenly council since the Scriptures are clear that there is an assembly of heavenly beings that attend and serve Yahweh (cf. Genesis 2:1; 1 Kings 22:19-23; 2 Chronicles 18:18-22; Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 86:8-10; 89:5-8; 103:20-21; 148:1-2; Daniel 7:9-10). Nor is it meant to refute the fact that there are rebellious spirit creatures that rule over the nations, since such beings do exist according to God’s inspired Word (cf. Daniel 10:13, 20-21; Matthew 4:8-9; Luke 4:5-7; John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; Ephesians 2:2; 6:12; Colossians 1:16; 2:15; 1 John 5:19). Rather, the point of my article is to show that Deuteronomy 32:8 doesn’t conclusively establish the case that scholars such as Heiser are trying to make concerning the divine council.

Further Reading

How Many Thrones did the prophet Daniel See? https://answeringislamblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/how-many-thrones-did-the-prophet-daniel-see/

A Three-Tiered Heavenly Council? Examining What the Holy Bible Really Teaches https://answeringislamblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/05/a-three-tiered-heavenly-council-examining-what-the-holy-bible-really-teaches/

10 thoughts on “The Sons of God of Deuteronomy 32:8: Angels or the Children of Israel?

  1. Sam, the one thing you may have missed is the fact that Hebrew linguists know why the MT has “sons of Israel” and not “sons of God” (as seen in the DSS). For example, here is Everett Fox’s translation of the verse: “When the Most-High gave nations (their) inheritances, at his dividing the human-race, he stationed boundaries for peoples by the number of the gods.”

    Even the Common English Bible has a similar reading: “When God Most High divided up the nations—when he divided up humankind—he decided the people’s boundaries based on the number of the gods.” (CEB)

    Thus, these scholars point out (including Heiser) that a more technical version is: “When the Most High gave their inheritance to the nations, when he divided the sons of man, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of El.”

    The phrase “sons of El” (which is “the gods”) balances the phrase “sons of man” in the parallelism. The reconstructed Hebrew text can be found in the apparatus of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, where it reads: bney el. The scribe who produced the Masoretic text took the letters BNY’L to be an abbreviation of bney Yisra’el. That’s why Hebrew linguists don’t accept the MT reading.

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    1. Brother, your reply here doesn’t refute anything I wrote but is nothing other than ad hominem since you basically attack me for missing something which the scholars have known.

      Furthermore, the text doesn’t say El, but Elohim, which actually ends up refuting your claim since the scholars have to argue that Deut. 32:8 must somehow correspond to the more technical rendering of the sons of El. The problem is that this phrase does appear in the OT, but not in reference to heavenly beings, but to Israel! Read Hosea 1:10 for the proof. Therefore, the writer could have easily used the phrase El but chose not to.

      Moreover, the parallelism does nothing to make your case since the readings beney Adam and beney Elohim are not meant to contrast human beings with divine ones, but with the nations and Israel, since Israel alone was set aparat by God to be his Son. In fact, had you actually read the article carefully you would have seen me make this very point, namely, that Israel was chosen from all the nations to be the sons and daughters of God.

      And instead of citing translations that agree with your position try dealing with what I actually wrote which you haven’t addressed yet.

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  2. Sam, following from my prior post, it is interesting to note that Targum Pseudo-Jonathan reads:

    “When the Most High made allotment of the world unto the nations which proceeded from the sons of Noach, in the separation of the writings and languages of the children of men at the time of the division, He cast the lot among the seventy angels, the princes of the nations with whom is the revelation to oversee the city, even at that time He established the limits of the nations according to the sum of the number of the seventy souls of Israel who went down into Mizraim.”

    Notice, you have 70 angels, a direct reflection of the ANE material as Eugene E. Carpenter writes:

    “At any rate, some scholars perceive a Ugaritic background to this text that refers to the “seventy sons of Athirat,” sired by El, and his council of divine beings. Seventy gods are mentioned at Emar. A divine council of gods was common in the ancient Near East. A Phoenician (also Hittite) inscription refers to the whole “group of the children of the gods” (El). In general in other Babylonian literature we read of the gods distributing the cosmos among themselves, but not the nations. Gods in the ancient Near East could give gifts of cities, as at Ugarit or in Sumer. This is part of the broader context, but these verses are intended to contrast the fact that the Lord has set Israel apart unto himself from among all the nations, and Israel is not numbered with them. The nations have their own “gods,” who are mortal, but they do not have Yahweh, who alone does not die and is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. The great Egyptian god Re grows old with millions of years, suffering from divine age. Marduk chooses Babylon as his chief city where the gods will live with him. Kronos, a chief Greek god, although much later in history, assigns the rulership of Attica to Athena, Byblos to Baaltis, Berytus to Poseidon, and all of Egypt to Tauthos.”

    But also notice that the Targum says 70 souls of Israel, which Duane L. Christensen points out and writes:

    “Reading בני אלהים, “sons of God,” in place of MT בני ישׁראל, “sons of Israel,” as lectio difficilior. DSS read בני אל, “sons of God,” and LXX ἀγγέλων θεοῦ, “angels of God” (so also ς’ and some OL witnesses). According to MT, God divided the nations in relation to Israel’s numbers; though Zimmermann suggested translating the word מספר (usually “number”) as “boundary” (JQR 29 [1938–39] 242), to make better sense of the present text, I emend the text here following the reading בני אלהים, “sons of God,” found in 4QDeutj and LXX ἀγγέλων [or ὑιῶν] θεοῦ, “angels [or sons] of God,” to read “according to the number of the sons of God.” The Tg. adds “seventy” after “the number,” connecting the text with the seventy nations of the Table of Nations in Gen 10 and the song of Jacob in Gen 46:27 (cf. 10:22). It is easy to understand the change that was made in MT to remove a text that seems to suggest the existence of other gods. For a somewhat similar “nomistic correction,” see the discussion of v 14 below. These “divine beings” are also mentioned in a variant reading of v 43 below. For a useful discussion of the idea of subordinate divine beings with whom God holds council, see Ps 82 and the study by G. E. Wright (The OT against Its Environment, SBT 1.2 [London: SCM, 1950] 30–41). The idea here anticipates the later doctrine of guardian angels watching over the nations in Dan 10:13, 20–21; 12:1.”

    Hope this helps, Sam. God bless.

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    1. BTW, brother here is what that Targum actuall says in context:

      “… When the Most High made allotment of the world unto the nations which proceeded from the sons of Noach, in the separation of the writings and languages of the children of men at the time of the division, He cast the lot among the seventy angels, the princes of the nations with whom is the revelation to oversee the city, even at that time He established the limits of the nations according to the sum of the number of the seventy souls of Israel who went down into Mizraim. [JER. When the Most High divided the nations by lot, and distinguished the languages of the children of men, He appointed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the tribes of the Beni Israel.]” http://targum.info/pj/pjdt32.htm

      So not only does Pseudo-Jonathan affirm both readings, you further see that the Targum of Jerusalem actually confirms the sons of Israel, not the angels.

      This is what what happens when we simply take for granted what a particular scholars says, instead of going back to the primary sources to see if what he says matches up with the actual context of the specific writing being cited.

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    2. And speaking of the Targums, here is how the Targum of Psalm 82 reads:

      Psalm 82
      1. A hymn composed by Asaph. God, his presence abides in the assembly of the righteous who are strong in Torah; he will give judgment in the midst of the righteous judges.
      2. How long, O wicked, will you judge falsely, and lift up the faces of the wicked forever?
      3. Judge the poor and the orphan; acquit the needy and the poor.
      4. Save the poor and needy, from the hands of the wicked deliver them.
      5. They do not know how to do good, and they do not understand the Torah, they walk in darkness; because of this, the pillars of the earth’s foundations shake.
      6. I said, “You are reckoned as angels, and all of you are like angels of the height.”
      7. But truly you will die like the sons of men; and like one of the leaders you will fall.
      8. Arise, O LORD, judge all the inhabitants of the earth; for you will possess all the Gentiles. (http://targum.info/pss/ps3.htm)

      Seeing that the Targum identifies the gods of Psalm 82 as human rulers, as opposed to divine beings, who are likened unto the angels but are not, are you willing to accept this interpretation over against Heiser’s?

      If not then you are only proving that it really isn’t the the evidence that you are interested in, brother. Rather, you are merely interested in finding sources to confirm your view, not question or challenge it.

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  3. Thank you for posting this since I am going to quote these in my upcoming rebuttal where I will show that angels are not distinguished from the sons of God in Jewish literature. Therefore, without realizing it you just ended up refuting Heiser by quoting the Targums which speak of 70 angels ruling over the nations, which contradicts what Heiser is arguing for, since he denies that the heavenly sons of God are angels. So thank you for making my case stronger and your case weaker. However, I thought you were trying to help Heiser, not help me to refute him?

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  4. Sam, my habibi, this is General Han Solo, as you know from our Paltalk days (I run Sentinel Apologetics, and I made those response videos to James White, as I see you have referenced on Facebook). I want you to know that there was NO ad hominem toward you. I am just stating what I have read in the literature. On the relationship of Psalm 82 with Deuteronomy 32:8–9, see Joel A. Reemstma, “Punishment of the Powers: Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 82 as the Backdrop to Isaiah 34” (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2014).

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