You argue that Deuteronomy 32:8-9 clearly identifies YHWH as one of the sons of Elohim. Your argument here follows the Dead Sea Scroll text (4QDeutj
) that has “sons of Elohim” instead of “sons of Israel” (MT). Here is a translation of the passage, based on your textual reconstruction. (My comments regarding the translation and exegesis will follow.)
“When the Most High [Elyon] apportioned the nations,
When he divided the sons of man,
He fixed the boundaries of the peoples
According to the number of the sons of Elohim.
And it came to pass [wayehî] that YHWH’s portion is his people;
Jacob the measure of his apportionment.”
I agree that the 4QDeut text and the LXX reading “angels of God” together make a plausible case for “sons of Elohim” as the original reading. Still, I have to urge a caution here that we should accept this reading only with some tentativeness, given that we only have one incomplete manuscript with this particular reading. I am sure that if the situation was reversed and I were basing an argument on a reading preserved in a single manuscript, you would also suggest caution in building an argument on that basis.
Your argument here, “The nations were divided up according to the number of the Sons of God, not the number of the Sons of God plus an extra,” presupposes that the term “the nations” in this passage must include Israel. Not only is this presupposition exegetically unnecessary, a good case can be made against it. In Deuteronomy, as elsewhere in the OT, “the nations” (gôy?m
) are typically the foreign peoples distinct from Israel, and thus do not include Israel (Deut. 4:27; 8:20; 12:2, 29; 17:14; 19:1; 26:19; 28:1; 29:24; 30:1). In the immediate context of Deuteronomy 32:8-9, “the nations” are those peoples who existed when the Most High “divided the sons of man.” This division of the nations probably refers to the division detailed in the Table of Nations, when “the nations were divided after the flood” (Gen. 10:32). Deuteronomy 32:8 uses the same “nations” (gôy?m
) as well as the same verb for “divided” found in Genesis 10:32 (parad
, also in Gen. 10:5). Thus, Deuteronomy 32:8 refers to an act involving nations that did not include Israel, which did not yet exist. After the flood, God had given over the nations to be ruled by other “gods,” but then he created a new people for himself, the people of Israel.
It is true, as you have pointed out, that the term “peoples” (‘ammîm
) in the OT often includes or refers to Israel, and that the word “nations” (gôy?m
) can include Israel even though in Deuteronomy it usually does not. What we can fairly derive from these observations is that these words must be interpreted in their contexts. Here’s what I understand is going on in Deuteronomy 32:8-9. The text refers to the Most High apportioning the nations and the division of the sons of man, which appears to refer to the division of nations following the flood. The text then speaks of the Most High fixing “the boundaries of the peoples,” here using gôy?m
as a synonym for ammîm
. Thus, this usage of ammîm
also refers to non-Israelite peoples existing after the flood and before the patriarchal era. These “peoples,” I argue, stand in contrast to YHWH’s “people” (‘ammô
) in verse 9. This interpretation makes coherent, consistent sense of the uses of gôy?m
in this passage, and it fits the typical usage of gôy?m
elsewhere in Deuteronomy.
In our previous discussion, you also objected that my citation of Genesis 10 assumes “a univocal text.” Frankly, I don’t put any stock in this objection. All exegesis depends to some extent on understanding language through comparison with how that language is used elsewhere. The verbal connections between Genesis 10:5, 32 and Deuteronomy 32:8-9 are sufficient to establish a plausible thematic connection between the two texts. Barring some exegetical datum in Deuteronomy 32:8-9 to preclude this interpretation, I don’t see any reason to reject it. Furthermore, in reviewing the topic, I have realized that there is additional evidence confirming the correlation between Deuteronomy 32:8-9 and Genesis, which I will discuss below.
Another exegetical matter you discuss is the beginning of verse 9. You argue that we should adopt an emendation of the Hebrew text (which has the conjunction kî
, both in the MT and in 4QDeut), based on the LXX reading kai egenethe
, “and it came to pass.” Let us suppose for the sake of argument that you are correct and the original reading was something like wayehî
, “and it came to pass.” This reading seems to fit my interpretation quite well, perhaps even better than the MT/DSS reading. The Most High allotted the nations among the sons of Elohim, and “it came to pass” that YHWH’s “allotment” was his people Jacob. The transition “and it came to pass” allows for a passage of time and is therefore consistent with my explanation that verse 8 refers to the division of nations in Genesis 10 while verse 9 refers to the later emergence of Jacob as a people belonging uniquely to YHWH.
Then there is the exegetical issue of the use of “inheritance” (nachalatô
), which, as you pointed out, means inheritance or possession (we might also translate it “estate”). This word is the substantival form of the verb nachal
used in verse 8 to express the Most High’s action with respect to the nations. There is a grammatical question here: does verse 8 mean that the Most High apportioned the nations to someone else (presumably “the sons of Elohim”) or that he gave the nations their apportionment, that is, their possession or inheritance? Your interpretation assumes, I think, that the former is correct, but I’m not convinced this is correct. Many Jewish and Christian translations follow the latter exegesis (e.g., ESV, JPS, KJV, NAB, NASB, NIV, NJB, NKJV, RSV, TNK); only the NRSV (“apportioned the nations”) allows for the former exegesis, but even it does not make this explicit. For the sake of argument, I have followed the NRSV on this point in my translation while noting the ambiguity.
Now, your interpretation understands the apportionment in verse 9 to be the same event as verse 8, which is understood as the Most High apportioning the nations to the sons of Elohim. On this basis, you conclude that verse 9 means that YHWH’s apportionment in that general apportioning of the nations was the people of Jacob. Grammatically, your interpretation seems to be a possible one, but by no means the only exegetically tenable interpretation. It is also possible to understand verse 9 to mean that sometime after the Most High apportioned the nations (whatever that means), YHWH took possession of his people Jacob as his apportionment. This way of reading the text does not require us to understand YHWH as one of the sons of Elohim.
I should point out that verse 8 is oddly worded, even in 4QDeut, if its point is that the Most High assigned each nation to a particular son of Elohim. Let me quote it again:
“When the Most High apportioned the nations,
When he divided the sons of man,
He fixed the boundaries of the peoples
According to the number of the sons of Elohim.”
That is an awkward or at least roundabout way of saying that he apportioned the nations by distributing each one of them to one of the sons of Elohim. I’m not saying it is an impossible interpretation, only that it is not an obvious way of saying it. The closest verbally parallel text in the Hebrew Bible is in Numbers 26, where YHWH commands Moses and Eleazar to take a census of “all the congregation of the sons of Israel” (Num. 26:2), which they do by tribes and by clans within those tribes (Num. 26:5-51). Then we read:
“YHWH spoke to Moses, ‘To these the land shall be divided [techaleq] for apportionment [benachalah] according to the number of names. To a large tribe you shall give a large apportionment [nachalatô], and to a small tribe you shall give a small apportionment [nachalatô]; every tribe shall be given its apportionment [nachalatô] according to its numbers. But the land shall be divided by lot; according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall be apportioned [yinhalû]. Their apportionment [nachalatô] shall be divided according to lot between the larger and the smaller’” (Num 26:52-56).
It’s possible to understand Deuteronomy 32:8 4QDeut in a roughly analogous way. The Most High divided the nations and fixed their boundaries in order to reflect in some way the distribution of the “sons of Elohim” among those peoples.
At this point, I would like to suggest another factor that adds strong additional support for my understanding that the apportionment and division of Deuteronomy 32:8 is related to the division of the nations in Genesis 10. It has to do with the expression “sons of Elohim” in Deuteronomy 32:8. This precise expression is actually quite rare in the Hebrew Bible. It shows up in the Book of Job (1:6; 2:1; 38:7), and we’ve had some discussions on those passages in a separate thread. The only other place in which this expression occurs is Genesis 6:2, 4. Here is that passage:
“And it came to pass, when man began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born unto them, that sons of Elohim saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all that they chose. And YHWH said, My spirit shall not strive with man forever, for that he also is flesh: yet shall his days be a hundred and twenty years. The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when sons of Elohim came unto the daughters of man, and they bore children to them: the same were the mighty ones that were of old, men of renown” (Gen. 6:1-4).
It is quite interesting that the expression “sons of Elohim” shows up in Genesis 6 in reference to the rise of the Nephilim, giants that Genesis says were on the earth both before the flood and afterward. Genesis 6 thus connects the sons of Elohim and their offspring, the “mighty ones” known as Nephilim, not only to the time before the flood but also to the time of the repopulation of the earth following the flood. In other words, we should see a connection between the incident described in Genesis 6:1-4 and the rise of the nations described in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10. The first of the “mighty ones” that Genesis 6 says came afterward was Nimrod (Gen. 10:8-9). Nimrod’s kingdom began at Babylon in the land of Shinar, the precise location, according to Genesis, from which YHWH scattered the nations when they attempted to consolidate their power at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:2, 9). These references to Nimrod and Babylon in Genesis 10-11 confirm the connection between the “sons of Elohim” passage in Genesis 6 and the Table of Nations in Genesis 10.
Now let us return to Deuteronomy 32:8. It states that the Most High apportioned the nations by dividing the sons of man and fixing the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Elohim. We now see a cluster of three key expressions in this text relating to the narrative in Genesis 6-11: the “sons of Elohim,” the “nations,” and their “division.” I do not think this can be dismissed as accidental, especially in view of how rare the expression “sons of Elohim” is in the OT. Genesis 10 is, I believe, also the only other passage in the OT besides Deuteronomy 32 that speaks of a division of the nations. These clusters of unusual verbal and thematic links, in my opinion, put the association over the line of a possibility; it is highly probable.
In the Genesis narrative, immediately after the division of the nations in Genesis 10:1-11:9, the text introduces Abram as the figure whom YHWH chose from one of those nations (Gen. 11:10-32) to be the father of a new
nation: “I will make you into a great nation” (Gen. 12:2a). This nation of which Abram was the patriarch would be the object of YHWH’s blessing and the agency through which YHWH would bring blessing to “all the peoples on earth” (Gen. 12:2b-3). There is, then, a narrative sequence of the division of the nations (Gen. 10-11) followed by the creation of a new nation that would be the object and agency of YHWH’s blessing (Gen. 12 onward). This two-step narrative sequence is consistent with what we find in Deuteronomy 32:8-9, where the Most High divides the nations and then Jacob becomes YHWH’s people and possession.
Once we recognize the connection between Genesis 6-11 and Deuteronomy 32:8-9, we can see that YHWH is not one of the “sons of Elohim” in the latter text, since those “sons of Elohim” are heavenly rebels causing mischief on the earth.
I contend, then, that the meaning of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 is as follows. When God divided the nations, he did so in such a way that the rebellious “sons of Elohim” who corrupted the human race and threatened to do so again would be distributed or scattered widely along with those nations and peoples. Following this preservative action, what happened next was the rise of a new nation, the people of Jacob (Israel), the great nation that YHWH promised he would make from Abram. This special people are the people of YHWH, the people he possesses for himself. The text is not saying that God authorized each of his faithful sons to rule over a different nation on earth, and YHWH’s assigned nation happened to be Jacob. Rather, the text is saying that while the surrounding nations continued to be dominated by the rebellious “sons of Elohim,” Jacob had the tremendous privilege of being YHWH’s own people. This interpretation is to be preferred, for the following reasons considered together:
(1) It is consistent with the wording of Deuteronomy 32:8-9, viewed in and of itself.
(2) It appears to be the actual meaning of the text in view of the evident connection with the narrative of Genesis 6-12.
(3) It is consistent with the perspective of the rest of the book of Deuteronomy that YHWH is Elohim.