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[ question originally posted here ]

Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (NRSV), part of Moses' song:

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; the LORD's own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.

Can someone tell me what this means? God is one of many gods and he got Israel? God divided the earth among his angels? Or is he talking about idolatry?

It seems to depends on the word "gods", and some translations have "number of the sons of Israel" instead.

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The Masoretic text says לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (sons of Israel). What does NRSV use as its source? –  Gone Quiet Jun 14 '12 at 3:09
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Welcome to BH.SE! In general, it would be best to flag a question like this for migration rather than cross-posting. If you do post twice, it is a good idea to tailor the question for each site. But this is a fine question for this site as is. You might want to edit the other question to make it a better fit for C.SE. –  Jon Ericson Jun 14 '12 at 6:04
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@MonicaCellio - The Qumrani version is למספר בני אלוהים and that is apparently how the NRSV is reading. The LXX has "angels of Elohim". Rachel Elior thinks the change in the Masoretic version was made in mid or late second century BCE by the Pharisees to de-Tsadokize the text. Would be interesting to compare with the Samarian text but I don't have one at hand. –  Eli Rosencruft Jun 16 '12 at 17:43
    
@MonicaCellio: Just wanted to say that I am really happy to see you being back on the site and contributing. Really happy! [I understand that this comment is WAY off topic and might be deleted. Don't hit me! :-p ] –  Niclas Nilsson Oct 16 '13 at 19:22
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3 Answers 3

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The text of Deuteronomy 32:8 that the Tsadokite priesthood took with them from Jerusalem to Qumran when they were displaced by the Hasmoneans reads "according to the number of b'nei elohim". This reading is also supported by the Septuagint (the "LXX") Greek translation.

The b'nei elohim were demigods first mentioned in Gen 6:1-4 as the offspring of heavenly beings (angels or gods) with earthly women. In the view of Yair Zakovitch the idea of heavenly beings fathering children with human women was so pervasive in ancient Mediterranean thought that the Bible could not ignore it. He cites the myths of the birth of Hercules, and indicates that there is at least an echo of this myth in the story of the birth of Samson.

As with other myths that the Bible incorporates, the Bible de-fangs the myth, first by denying eternal life to the demigods (Gen 6:3), and then by juxtaposing the story with the wicked generation of the flood (Gen 6:5). The flood apparently puts and end to the phenomenon, but we still see echoes later on, as in the story of the Nephilim seen by the spies sent to scout the Land in Numbers 13:33, and possibly later in the person of Goliath.

Later generations continued to de-fang the myth, for example Psalm 29, where the gods are exhorted to recognize the might of the Lord, and and later on, in Job 1:6, 2:1, where the bnei elohim have been reduced to being obsequious members of His council.

In post-Biblical times a further debunking occurred when the Pharisees interpreted bnei elohim to mean just human charismatic leaders (called judges in Israelite society) based on the linguistic similarity between word in Gen 6:3 translated as "remain" (My life-giving spirit shall not remain in man forever...) and the Hebrew word for "judge".

According to Rachel Elior, even this re-interpretation was not enough for Pharisaic sensibilities, and at some time during the second century BCE, in the course of a general revision of the Biblical texts, one of whose purposes was to expunge the text of Tsadokite elements, the text of Deuteronomy 32:8 was changed to read "b'nei yisrael", the sons of Israel. This change fits well with "Jacob" in the following verse, and with the idea that Jacob went down to Egypt with seventy souls (Deut. 10:22), and that these souls were representatives of all of the seventy nations of humanity, and that the seventy translators of the LXX translation were translating God's word for all of humanity (since everyone who was anyone was assumed to read Greek then).

So it seems that some of the common English translations give precedence to the Qumrani reading over the Masoreti text, at least in this verse. Check the introduction to the translation to see if this is stated explicitly. IMHO it would be only common courtesy for translators to indicate the policy regarding which manuscript they use, and to indicate any deviation from policy in specific verses by footnotes. That would save some confusion and SE.BH questions, though I do enjoy writing answers.

But I still haven't answered your question - Clearly Moses is a dyed -in-the-wool monotheist. Even if we accept the Tsadokite reading of the text, Moses is just recapping history using the common parlance (apparently there was once a myth that humanity was originally divided into nations led by demigods) to say that from the time that humanity was divided into nations (i.e, from the beginning), Jacob was set aside as God's own special portion in humanity.

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Thanks! I learned a lot from your answer, both about the verse in question, and also the history of Bible translations. –  Matt White Jun 18 '12 at 18:56
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This is the right answer. All of us have to make up our minds whether what the context presents is authoritative despite our preferences. I agree wholeheartedly with the above observation "Rashi's interpretation is eisegetical", and so are most such answers to this important point. I disagree with the notion of Mosaic "monotheism" that sticks head-in-sand and denies other "gods"—it does not. Everywhere we turn in the OT we are confronted with other non-human intelligent beings, but all are deemed to be created beings, not self-existent eternal beings. they are all under the feet, so to speak, of the one true God who revealed Himself as YHWH. We are to worship that one.

No, it isn't the "seventy sons" of Israel; it's 70 sons of God.

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Welcome, Richard, to Biblical Hermeneutics! Could you summarize the argument you linked to? It seems like you have some very clear ideas about this passage, which we'd love to hear you share. –  Jon Ericson Oct 22 '13 at 16:43
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I think the verse can be proposed as ‘the children of Israel’ because it makes good sense that way, but seems illogical when considered as ‘according to the number of the gods’.

The words ‘divided mankind’ may very well indicate the division of the world into’ various languages’ after the tower of Babal, as this is was practically sets the boundaries of different people. Jonathan Edward’s History of Redemption, P194, holds this view. This view also fits well with Acts 17:26-27:

26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.

So it seems that God set the boundaries of each nation, that is where they live, when they prosper, or fall, raise them up, or destroy them, etc., according to his purpose in Christ, so ‘so that men would seek him’. In this sense the nations are distributed and confined to their purpose around Israel, or his church. This is what it means that ‘Jacob his allotted share’. God’s church is his people among all those other nations that God measured out and find purpose only in how they relate to Jacob, or His church.

The NIV seem better:

8 When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.

That is all based around the people of Israel. If we used ‘as according to the number of the gods,’ the division of the nations would be negative based. It would be idolatry causing the reason for the divisions. For example we could then make the interpretation: ‘God judged men according to their filthy idolatries, making nations of them, being rejected under His wrath. The righteous however were given a language that separated them to be his own church, and He would be their God.” This seems to be too negative. The NIV version fits better into why God divided the nations and how God uses them for his purposes in His church.

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Rashi - according to the number of the children of Israel: [God let man remain in existence] for the sake of a [small] number of the children of Israel who were destined to descend from the children of Shem, and [the sake of] the number of the seventy souls of the children of Israel who went down to Egypt, He “set up the boundaries of peoples,” [i.e., He separated man into seventy nations with] seventy languages. –  Bob Jones Jun 17 '12 at 1:22
    
I disagree. The sons of Israel were not even alive when Gentile nations began to appear in the Genesis narrative. Rashi's interpretation is eisegetical. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Dec 6 '12 at 3:39
    
@H3br3wHamm3r81 - Your right in a sense as at the time of Babylon the church was not yet called Israel, but the idea is not limited to any time frame as the boundaries of nations are maintained under the same principle as originally with respect to the sons of God, i.e primative pre-Israel church, then sons of Israel through that period, then technically determined to the highest benefit of the elect in the New Testament. So during all ages the boundaries are determined according to the size and scattered locations of the church. At least this is the view I am arguing here. –  Mike Dec 6 '12 at 6:11
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