Notes on Deuteronomy 32

The following notes come from Paul Sanders in his volume The Provenance of Deuteronomy 32 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996). For the record, here is Deuteronomy 32:7–9, 43 (NRSV):

7 Remember the days of old,
   consider the years long past;
ask your father, and he will inform you;
   your elders, and they will tell you.
8 When the Most High apportioned the nations,
   when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
   according to the number of the gods;
9 the Lord’s own portion was his people,
   Jacob his allotted share.

43 Praise, O heavens, his people,
   worship him, all you gods!
For he will avenge the blood of his children,
   and take vengeance on his adversaries;
he will repay those who hate him,
   and cleanse the land for his people.

Now, onto Sanders’ commentary (all bulleted texts are quotes from Sanders):

  • We have seen that [Deut. 32:8–9] must go back to an old myth concerning the primordial divisions of territories among the gods. . . . One of the clearest parallels of Deut. 32:8–9 in the Hebrew Bible can be found in Deut. 4:19–20, where Moses tells that YHWH once allotted (חלק; cf. 29:25) “the host of heaven” (צבא השׁמים) to the peoples (עמים) but kept the people of Israel as a נחלה for himself. It is absolutely clear that the gods besides YHWH are meant by this heavenly host. (pp. 363–364)  
  • The terminological correspondences with the Ugaritic religious literature are stronger in the case of Deut. 32:8–9. The expression בני אלהים has a clear counterpart in Ugaritic. . . . The expression בני אלהים is also found in Job 38:7 and in a slightly different form also in Gen. 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1 (בני אלהים); Ps. 29:1; 89:7 (בני אלהים). It always stands unequivocally for divine beings. (p. 365)  
  • Contrary to 4:19–20, the original text of 32:8–9 must have been offensive to later generations. The text was adapted in the Masoretic and Samaritan traditions. (p. 366) 
  • In Deut. 32:8 the בני אלהים are relatively independent. They have their own dominions, like YWHW. Psalm 82 also presupposes the existence of gods besides YWHW. In 82:6 these gods are called בני עליון “sons of Elyon”, which is reminiscent of עליון and בני אלהים in Deut. 32:8. YWHW acts as a complainant in the divine council (עדת אל). (p. 370)  
  • Scholars now generally assume that the [Masoretic Text reading of Deut. 32] is the result of adaptation of the older reading for theological reasons. Later generations would have deemed the concept expressed in these verses unacceptable. (p. 157)  
  • As in other passages, the expression בני אלהים is a designation for divine beings. In Ugaritic the expression bn ‘il(m) “sons of Ilu” also designates deities. This expression is undoubtedly in the background of its counterpart in the Hebrew Bible. (p. 157)  
  • Both in v. 8b and 43a the fragments from Qumran contain references to gods beside YHWH whereas such references are not found in the MT and the Samaritan Pentateuch. In the latter versions the absence of these references would seem to be due to deliberate elimination. (p. 250)  
  • It was probably theological aversion which led to adaptation of the text which became the official version in Judaism (MT). (p. 422)  
  • In the older version of Deut. 32:8–9 the existence of gods besides YWHW is taken for granted. . . . Verse 12 and verse 39 say that there is no god “with” YHWH. These affirmations relate to his activity: YHWH is the only god who acts on behalf of Israel. In that respect there is no other god with him. Other gods may exist, but for Israel they are worthless and so is their veneration. . . . [T]he designations לא אלה and לא אל deny the significance of these gods rather than their existence. (p. 427)  
  • Though the conceptual background of the passage may be archaic the message of the passage is completely in line with the “monotheistic” affirmations in the song: other gods may exist–––in fact they do–––but for Israel the only significant god is YHWH. He is even the highest god (עליון) and the other gods (בני אלהים) are subordinate to him. (p. 427)  
  • Even in the late passage 2 Chron. 14:10 and 2 Chron. 20:6 the statement אין עמך “there is none with you” does not have an ontological character. It only stresses that no god but YHWH is ready to help his people. The older reading of verse 43a definitely does not contradict this idea. Here the gods are summoned to praise YHWH exactly because of the fact that this god is ready to avenge the blood of his children. So it is my contention that the son’s descriptions of the relationship between YHWH and the gods are not contradictory. They do not suggest the existence of earlier and later layers in the text. The passages discussed here all share the same presupposition: YHWH is Israel’s god and Israel may not worship different gods. Other gods do exist and they are powerless but apparently the poet(s) did not aim at elaborating a view with regard to the extent of their power. What was important to them is that the other gods pale into insignificance when compared with YHWH. (p. 428) 

So, what have we learned from all of this?

  1. Deuteronomy 32 affirms the existence of other gods besides Yahweh.
  2. Deuteronomy 32 was deliberately emendated by later copyists to eliminate any reference to these gods.
  3. Israelite “monotheism,” as reflected in these passages, did not deny the ontological existence of other deities. Instead, it denied the power and worship-ability of these gods next to Yahweh. (On this last point, see the important article by Saul M. Olyan, “Is Isaiah 40–55 Really Monotheistic?” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 12 [2012]: 190–201.) 

(Note: I have not discussed the identity of Elyon in Deuteronomy 32. Such is outside the scope of this post. For the record, Sanders identifies Elyon as Yahweh, although he acknowledges that this point is highly contested.)

All of this is bad news for sectarian critics of Mormonism who wish to insist that the Bible is infallible, or has never suffered scribal mutilation during its transmission, or that the Bible teaches a strict, ontological “monotheism” as is affirmed in post-biblical Judeo-Christian thought.

As for the implications or significance all of this has for Joseph Smith’s theology, I will recommend readers to my published works on the divine council in LDS scripture.