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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://answeringallah.com/the-sons-of-god-of-deuteronomy-328-angels-or-the-children-of-israel/

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.

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