There is quite a bit going on in Deuteronomy 32, perhaps more than meets the eye when it is first read. First of all, it is worth noting that this text has a few variations and for good reason. Here are three versions of this text:
Dead Sea Scrolls: “When Elyon gave the nations as an inheritance, when he separated the sons of man, he set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God (bene elohim). For Yahweh’s portion was his people; Jacob was the lot of his inheritance”.
Septuagint (LXX): “When the Most High divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the angels of God (aggelón theou). And his people Jacob became the portion of the Lord, Israel was the line of his inheritance”.
Masoretic Text (MT): “When Elyon gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all the sons of man, he set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel (bene yisrael). For Yahweh’s portion was his people, Jacob was the lot of his inheritance”.
Mark Smith, in his book The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, works to illustrate that the Semitic peoples of the times that the Old Testament books were written believed in a pantheon of gods, a concept which is foreign to modern readers. In this pantheon, El and his consort Asherah occupied the first tier, commanding or governing a multitude of gods in a hierarchy of four tiers of divine beings. The second tier was inhabited by the children of El and his consort and were called the “sons of god.” A third tier comprising of craftsmen or artisan deities is found underneath and subservient to the sons of god (but poorly represented in Ugaritic texts and not well attested in the Hebrew Bible). Smith cites Kothar wa-Hasis as an example of a third level deity in the Ugaritic pantheon. Kothar is a maker of gadgets and weapons for Baal, kind of like the character Alfred as he relates to Batman. The fourth tier of divine beings act as messengers for God, servants to the gods who occupy the first three tiers. 1
Later redactors of Old Testament texts were uncomfortable with the polytheistic nature of earlier Hebrew texts. Deuteronomy 32:8-9 is a text which emphasizes the idea that a council of divine beings existed, with tiers or rankings of these divine beings. As Smith asserts:
The traditional Hebrew text (Masoretic Text, or MT) perhaps reflects a discomfort with this polytheistic theology of Israel, for it shows not “divine sons” (bene elohim), as in the Greek and the Dead Sea Scrolls, but “sons of Israel” (bene yisrael). Emanuel Tov labels the MT text here an “anti-polytheistic alteration.” 2 The texts of the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls show Israelite polytheism which focuses on the central importance of Yahweh for Israel within the larger scheme of the world; yet this larger scheme provides a place for the other gods of the other nations in the world.
Moreover, even if this text is mute about the god who presides over the divine assembly, it does maintain a place for such a god who is not Yahweh. Of course, later tradition could identify the figure of Elyon with Yahweh, just as many scholars have done. However, the title of Elyon (“Most High”) seems to denote the figure of El, presider par excellence not only at Ugarit but also in Psalm 82. 3
The author of Psalm 82 deposes the older theology, as Israel’s deity is called to assume a new role as judge of all the world. Yet at the same time, Psalm 82, like Deuteronomy 32:8-9, preserves the outlines of the older theology it is rejecting. From the perspective of this older theology, Yahweh did not belong to the top tier of the pantheon. Instead, in early Israel the god of Israel apparently belonged to the second tier of the pantheon; he was not a presider god, but one of his sons. Accordingly, what is at work is not a loss of the second tier of a pantheon headed by Yahweh. Instead, the collapse of the first and second tiers in the early Israelite pantheon likely was caused by an identification of El, the head of this pantheon, with Yahweh, a member of the second tier…
This development would have taken place by the eighth century, since Asherah, having been the consort of El, would have become Yahweh’s consort only if these two gods were identified by this time. Indeed, it is evident from texts such as Isaiah’s vision of Yahweh surrounded by the Seraphim (Isaiah 6), and especially the prophetic vision of the divine council scene in 1 Kings 22:19 that Yahweh assumed the position of presider by this time. Indeed, prior to the eighth century such a “world theology” suited the historical circumstances in Israel very well. In the world order there were many nations, and each had its own patron god. This worldview was cast as the divine patrimonial household in Deuteronomy 32: each god held his own inheritance, and the whole was headed by the patriarchal god. Other gods in their nations represented no threat to Israel and its patron god as long as they were not imported into Israel. As long as other gods did not affect worship of Yahweh in Israel, they could be tolerated as the gods of other peoples and nations. This state of affairs perhaps began to change in the eighth century when the neo-Assyrian empire presented a new world order. Only after this alteration of the world scene did Israel require a different “world theology” that not only advance Yahweh to the top but eventually eliminated the second tier altogether insofar as it treated all other gods as either non-entities or expressions of Yahweh’s power. 4
Outside of Deuteronomy 32 the tone is a bit more vague. While Israel is prohibited from worshipping the other gods, the prohibition is against the mode of their worship, not the deities themselves. Over and over again Israel is taught that they must not worship Yahweh in the same manner that they worshipped other gods. Deuteronomy 12:31 is characteristic of this teaching: “You shall not do thus for Yahweh, your God, for every abomination which Yahweh hates, they have performed for their gods.” In Deuteromony 29:26 Israel is warned about their ancestors’ transgressions: “They went and served other gods, and worshipped them, gods which they had not known, and whom he had not allotted to them.” They are banned from worshipping the other deities, for two reasons: (1) the gods of the nations were unknown to their fathers, and (2) the gods of the nations were not allotted to Israel. The nature of the polytheism of this culture is evident in the texts, if we read these texts as they are, apart from our cultural expectations of them.
- Mark Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 45-46.
- Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Fortress Press, 2011269. Tov regards the change of bene Elohim, “divine beings,” in Psalm 29:1 to mispehot ammim, “families of the people,” in Psalm 96:7 as another example of such an “anti-polytheistic alteration.”
- The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, p. 48-49.