Broad comments on Deuteronomy's theology
Deuteronomy is known for containing the Shema, which reads:
Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
This has traditionally been taken as an explicit proclamation of monotheistic belief.
Deuteronomy also contains derisive statements that foreign gods are merely inanimate objects of human creation, e.g. Deuteronomy 4.28 (cf. 28.36,64):
There you will serve other gods made by human hands, objects of wood and stone that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.
Chapter 5 repeats the ten commandments, which of course includes the first:
You shall have no other gods before me.
This is sometimes interpreted to mean the Israelites were not to honor any gods ahead of Yahweh, but I think within the context it simply meant that under God's sovereignty ('before me') the Israelites were not to honor any other gods at all. Beyond these, there are repeated prohibitions against worshipping other gods and the consequences if people fail to heed this prohibition (6.14; 7.4,16,25; 8.19; etc.).
There are a few curious passages, though, like Deuteronomy 4.19:
And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that Yahweh your God has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven.
It seems to be implying that other nations are permitted to worship their own gods, with Israel alone being forbidden from doing so. This verse could potentially be read under a henotheistic lens. Mark Smith (God in Translation, p. 207 fn. 61), though, warns against prioritizing a henotheistic interpretation of verse 4.19 over the rest of Deuteronomy:
However, to generalize from this one "henotheistic" expression in 4:19 to the expressions of monotheism elsewhere and to claim that they are not monotheistic but "henotheistic" or the like is to conform the interpretation of the vast majority of texts to the one apparent exception.
With but few exceptions, as a complete work, The Book of Deuteronomy expresses a monotheistic theology: other gods are merely idols of stone, wood, or metal, which are fine for foreign nations to do with as they will, but Israel is called into a covenant with the one true God, Yahweh.
Relationship to Deutero-Isaiah
However, the specific verse in question, Deuteronomy 32.39, comes from the same chapter as two of those exceptions, 32.8–9 and 32.43. In that regard, Deuteronomy 32.39 requires a little more digging. It is interesting that highly similar parallels are found in Isaiah 40–55:
To whom then will you liken God,
Or what likeness compare with him?
An idol?—A workman casts it,
And a goldsmith overlays it with gold,
And casts for it silver chains.
As a gift one chooses mulberry wood
—wood that will not rot—
Then seeks out a skilled artisan
To set up an image that will not topple.
Tell us what is to come hereafter,
That we may know that you are gods;
Do good, or do harm,
That we may be afraid and terrified.
You, indeed, are nothing
And your work is nothing at all;
Whoever chooses you is an abomination.
I am Yaweh, that is my name;
My glory I give to no other,
Nor my praise to idols.
Before me no god was formed,
Nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am Yahweh,
And besides me there is no saviour.
I am God, and also henceforth I am he;
There is no one who can deliver from my hand;
I work and who can hinder it?
Thus says Yahweh, the King of Israel
And his Redeemer, Yahweh of hosts:
I am the first and I am the last;
Besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let them proclaim it,
Let them declare and set it forth before me.
Who has announced from of old the things to come?
Let them tell us what is yet to be.
Do not fear, or be afraid;
Have I not told you from of old and declared it?
You are my witnesses!
Is there any god besides me?
There is no other rock; I know not one.
The author of Deutero-Isaiah clearly intends to stress how Yahweh is utterly unique, incomparable, and supreme. These come alongside numerous disparaging comments about worthless idols. For this author, all other gods are false.
But should Deuteronomy 32.39 be read in light of Deutero-Isaiah?
Nathan MacDonald (Deuteronomy and the Meaning of "Monotheism", p. 87-88) recaps recent attempts to draw a linguistic connection between the two:
Third, the best parallels to Deut. 32.39 are to be found in Isaiah 40–55 and in her recent analysis of אֲנִי הוּא C.H. Williams argues that in Deutero-Isaiah אֲנִי הוּא functions as a "monotheistic formula". Its "primary purpose…is to encapsulate Yahweh's claims to be the only true and powerful God". This is also true for Deut. 32.39. "The clear implication of this self-proclamation is that הוּא itself, combined with the emphatic twofold אֲנִי, serves – as in the poetry of Deutero-Isaiah – as a succinct self-expression of Yahweh's unique and true divinity, with the result that all other gods are to be excluded." However, with Sanders she argues that the existence of other deities is not denied. It is clear then that William's understanding of "monotheism" is not so very different from that offered here.
However, MacDonald goes on to temper attempts to read Deuteronomy 32.39 and Deutero-Isaiah as interdependent: The key phrase C.H. William finds between Deuteronomy 32.39 and Deutero-Isaiah — I, even I am he (אֲנִי אֲנִי הוּא) — is found only once in Deuteronomy, and may not carry the systematic meaning it is given in Deutero-Isaiah.
MacDonald suggests that Deuteronomy 32.39 should be understood independently of Deutero-Isaiah, and really that the whole song found in chapter 32 should be understood independently of the rest of Deuteronomy, since it was likely a separate work originally.
'Sons of God' in Deuteronomy 32
In a related question about Deuteronomy 32, I surveyed differing textual variants for verses 8 and 43. The Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls (and circumstantial evidence in Daniel 10–12) provide plenty of evidence that some sort of divine figures were referenced in these verse, though neither version entirely provides us with the very original wording.
It was also inferred the tradition behind the Masoretic Text interpreted these verses as incompatible with a monoetheistic theology, and so they suffered the most alteration in the Masoretic Text.
The conclusion was that these verses originally contained references to either 'gods' or 'sons of God', on par with the 'gods' of Psalm 82. That the Masoretic tradition apparently scrubbed such references demonstrates that a henotheistic interpretation of the Song of Moses is possible.
Verses 8–9 suggest that these 'sons of God' are subservient to 'the Most High' Yahweh: it was Yahweh who divided and organized the nations of the earth, and he did so according to the number of these 'sons of God', with the nation of Israel specially formed for Yahweh himself.
Elsewhere in Deuteronomy 32
Other points of the Song of Moses appear to reference divine figures:
Yahweh alone guided [Israel];
No other god was with him.
[Israel] abandoned God who made him,
And scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
They made him jealous with strange gods,
With abhorrent things they provoked him.
They sacrificed to demons, not God,
To deities they had never known,
To new ones recently arrived,
Whom your ancestors had not feared.
Indeed Yahweh will vindicate his people,
Have compassion on his servants,
When he sees that their power is gone,
Neither bond nor free remaining.
Then he will say: Where are their gods,
The rock in which they took refuge,
Who ate the fat of their sacrifices,
And drank the wine of their libations?
Let them rise up and help you,
Let them be your protection!
See now that I, even I, am he;
There is no god besides me.
I think it's understandable that these passages may be read to imply a henotheistic setting. However, notwithstanding MacDonald's objections above that 'I, even I am he' (אֲנִי אֲנִי הוּא) is not alone strong enough to make a connection between Deuteronomy 32 and Deutero-Isaiah, I think it is yet reasonable to draw a connection between the two.
The comments in the Song of Moses that pertain to other gods are cynical, not straightfaced. The Deuteronomy verse in question, 32.39, comes immediately after a scathing critique of the complete inability of those gods to do anything:
- People turn to other gods, but these gods are powerless
- Yahweh alone is god, there is no god besides him
- Yahweh is the Rock, there is no other rock
The Song of Moses still exhibits a significant overlap with the themes found in Deutero-Isaiah.
Deuteronomy as a whole displays a monotheistic framework, though 4.19 may individually contain elements of a henotheistic perspective.
The Song of Moses (32.1–43) is a little complicated. The strong thematic parallels with Deutero-Isaiah suggests the references to foreign gods being worshiped and honored by Israel are meant critically and sardonically. In the Song, Israel is lambasted for following foreign gods, which the speaker perceives as futile because they are powerless nothings.
However, the references to 'gods' or 'sons of God' in 8 and 43 suggests that some sort of divine figures are acknowledged to exist. Together, verses 1–9 and 43 form a chiasmus: The Song of Moses opens by calling the heavens and earth to listen (verse 1), with reference to God having divided the earth according to the 'sons of God' (verse 8). This is followed by the main body, which criticizes Israel for following false gods. The Song then closes by stressing Yahweh as the one true God (verse 39), while calling on heaven, earth, and the 'gods' / 'sons of God' to worship Yahweh.
Is Deuteronomy 32.39 henotheistic, or monotheistic? In the context of the whole Song, it's somewhere in the middle. The Song's premise and conclusion are that Yahweh is utterly unique; nothing is on par with him. Within the context of the whole chapter verses 8 and 39 together necessitate an ontological superiority of Yahweh over all other gods, whether real or imagined.
However, as I've suggested in a previous answer, attempts to apply modern labels like 'henotheism' or 'monotheism' do not always map perfectly to biblical texts. We should be careful about imposing contemporary categories on ancient worlds.