[ 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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    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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    @GoneQuiet - 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. Jun 16 '12 at 17:43
  • @EliRosencruft - A.) Onkelos: "לְמִניַן בְנֵי ישראל"; Neofiti: "שבטייה \דבני ישראל" Peshitta: "ܕܒܢ̈ܝ ܐܝܣܪܝܠ" ; Jerusalem: "שִׁבְטַיָא דִבְנֵי יִשְרָאֵל:" ; Septuagint: "κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ"; Jonathan: "אומיא כסכום מניין שובעין נפשתא דישראל דנחתו למצרים" ... none of these indicate "gods", ("angels of God" and "souls of Israel" is as close as it gets). B.) The Pharisees have zero credibility in making any conclusion about the Sadducees. So, if Pharisees demonized a text because it is "Sadducean" it might lend to the text's credibility. Jun 21 '17 at 5:33

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.

  • 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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    Eli - I feel this answer would be greatly improved by providing a name for that manuscript - so people can validate it - or perhaps even a URL link to it. Regardless - The "Sons of God" are mentioned in Psalms, and in Job - and does not seem to imply "Demi-God" in Scripture. Perhaps you could ask another question to substantiate/prove that point. I understand the traditions behind that doctrine - but it would be very constructive to see if that conclusion is supported by the texts. For example it is certainly not apparent how Genesis 6:3 states that the "Sons of God" were demigods. Jun 21 '17 at 5:12
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    Eli - A.) A Factual Correction: "...according to the number of b'nei elohim". This reading is also supported by the Septuagint (the "LXX") Greek translation." This is not true. The Septuagint of Deuteronomy 32:8 reads - "κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ", (according to the number of the angels of God). B.) Since this is a primary premise, its falsity is undermining the validity of the rest of the answer. Jun 21 '17 at 5:17
  • "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 expression in my opinion is a bit too bold. We cannot accuse the Pharisees or the MT scribes to have deliberately changed the text (there are far more troubling and disturbing texts in the MT that they have not "expunged"). It is more likely that there existed two versions and that the MT scribes favored this version over the other.
    – Bach
    Apr 5 '18 at 17:38

The most complete scholarly discussion of the "Sons of God," comes from Michael S. Heiser, scholar in residence at Logos Bible Software. He is a biblical languages scholar and also makes a compelling case for the Second Temple literature (written between 523BCE-70CE) being central to the context. If one were to read 1 Enoch 6 and 8 (which was included in the Septuagint) one gets a detailed description of the sin of the watchers, nephilim referred to in Gen. 6, and the judgement of the 200 Watchers, and 70 Sons of God.

Far from being poly or henotheistic, these 70 would be considered angelic in nature. They are created and share in certain governing duties on a divine council. They were NOT supposed to be worshipped ever. They are not children or offspring. They govern humans not create humans to serve the gods as in other polytheistic religions. If we are going to get at the context we are going to need to understand how people 2000 years ago thought about Enoch's account.

Paul, Peter, Jude all quote from the Enochian account. As do several early church fathers. I'm not arguing for canonicity here, just context of how Second Temple Jews would have seen the nations handed over to 70 sons of God who had rebelled. This is a judgement. Luke 10 has Jesus sending out the 70 (mistranslated 72 in some versions).


The link above will give you the context for Gen 10 and an entirely different context than most modern Christians.

Your research should also include psalm 82, 89, Deut 4, Deut 32, Kings 22:19-23 (cf. II Chron. 18:18-22) 1 Cor 11, 2 Peter, Jude.


Once you have done the research the New Testament references to Christians as "adopted sons of God," will make more sense. The message of the kingdom of God as rule and reign expanding to take back power from the 70 nations by destroying Satan's kingdom, will make more sense.

If you just take a college religion class, or a Wikipedia shortcut well...good luck at getting any closer to what the original audience would have understood these passages to mean.

Hope this helps.

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    Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing - this is a great first answer, Uber! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites.
    – Steve Taylor
    Nov 1 '16 at 13:46
  • If the question was about a New Testament verse or Jewish writing from the last Second Temple period, then yes, let's talk about how the people of that time understood these phrases (Heiser's article is helpful). But this question is about a Hebrew Bible text dating from more than half a millennium before that. NT theology is irrelevant here.
    – Schuh
    Apr 18 at 18:54

Some Bible teachers have said that at least 600,000 men with families entered the land of Canaan after Moses gave the Law. That's approximately 2 million people! Therefor Deuteronomy 32:9 cannot be translated as "...according to the number of the sons of Israel", because there never has been 2 million nations on the earth.

  • The 600,000 comes directly from the census taken and recorded in Numbers 26. You are obviously correct that this means about 2 million people. However, I see no connection with Deut 32:9 - please explain this and add some references.
    – user25930
    Mar 4 '19 at 4:52
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    If Deuteronomy 32:9 is taken to mean that God gave each nation to a "son" of his, then that means 70 nations were given to 70 of his "sons" (Genesis 10: the Table of Nations) "Sons" could refer to angels of God, or to lesser gods under Yahweh as the supreme God. If, however, verse 9 is translated "sons of Israel", then the number of nations equals the number of sons of Israel which is 2 million. 2 million nations!? That's ridiculous!
    – richcun
    Mar 5 '19 at 21:29

Look into "The Unseen Realm by Mike Heiser". If you read that verse again and again, it means exactly what it says. You'll need to read and re-read the bible multiple times before you notice nuances in the text, like the one you're talking about. You'll need a bit of hebrew and greek. I feel like Dr. Heisers' view is as close to the truth as possible that I have I've seen except for his view on the trinity, I don't agree on that. Yes the text in the old testament alludes to a 2 in 1 YHVH but that doesn't add up to a trinity to me. If anything it supports a created Jesus as the lesser YHVH(Angel"Messenger" of YHVH) to me. Don't let religions tell you what to believe, let the bible do that. So, read the bible. And if you really feel like you want to associate yourself with a specific religion that's up to you and your understanding of the bible. I still don't understand enough so I won't go one way or another. But there are religions or groups that I see are close to the same understanding that I've come to such as Messianic Judaism, Karaite Judaism, and Jehova's Witnesses. I'm sure there's plenty more. I mean there are things I don't agree with from each one but based on the whole they're are as close as it gets.


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.

  • 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.
    – user862
    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

The sons of God here in Deuteronomy 32:8 are the same sons of God from Genesis 6. Rebel princes (angels) of God's divine council who came down and beguiled human women into idolatry and sex, birthing the race of giants (from whom Goliath descends, and surely where earth hero mythology originates).

Note that this division of the nations occurs right after the tower of Babel. That tower wasn't for climbing into the atmosphere, it was a religious monument aimed at divining the sons of God as the earth was rife with demon worship at the time (it was also the birth of globalism, which failed and which Satan has been trying to reverse ever since). Viz. Matthew 24:37, as it was in the days of Noah so shall it be at the coming of the Son of Man. He who hath an ear let him hear.

So God wiped out the giants and the humans who worshipped them, save for Noah et al. But it was also a supernatural judgment as 2 Peter 2:4 hints at and Ezekiel 31:15 elaborates:

15 “Thus says the Lord God: On the day the cedar [4] went down to Sheol I caused mourning; I closed the deep over it, and restrained its rivers, and many waters were stopped. I clothed Lebanon in gloom for it, and all the trees of the field fainted because of it. 16 I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to Sheol with those who go down to the pit. And all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, were comforted in the world below

Further back from verse 3 it says:

"3 Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon,
with beautiful branches and forest shade,
and of towering height,
its top among the clouds. [1]
4 The waters nourished it;
the deep made it grow tall,
making its rivers flow
around the place of its planting,
sending forth its streams
to all the trees of the field.
5 So it towered high
above all the trees of the field;
its boughs grew large
and its branches long
from abundant water in its shoots.
6 All the birds of the heavens
made their nests in its boughs
under its branches all the beasts of the field
gave birth to their young
and under its shadow
lived all great nations.
7 It was beautiful in its greatness,
in the length of its branches;
for its roots went down
to abundant waters.
8 The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it,
nor the fir trees equal its boughs;
neither were the plane trees
like its branches;
no tree in the garden of God
was its equal in beauty.
9 I made it beautiful
in the mass of its branches,
and all the trees of Eden envied it,
that were in the garden of God

Now obviously Assyria and Lebanon were not in Eden and did not go down to sheol. The rebel angels "who abandoned their first estate", who saw that the daughters of men were attractive, did. Assyria and Lebanon are motifs used to ascribe nations to the evil angelic powers that govern them. The same thing is done in chapter 28, addressing Pharaoh and the King of Tyre as Satan (the first two weren't in Eden either). This is prophetic allegory, ascribing human powers to the demons behind them as though they were the same thing - which they are as Deuteronomy 32:8 shows us that the nations were literally handed over to demonic control.

Also the "trees" are emblems for the fallen angels, interchangeable with the "sons of God". Hence in fact the correct interpretation of Genesis 3 is that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was actually Satan. And he wasn't the only "son of God" there, as after the fall Adam and Eve hid themselves amongst the other "trees" (they didn't hide in a literal forest). Thus eating or partaking of his "fruit" was the first act of idolatry, the first act of demonic worship. In spite of God, Eve prostituted herself to Satan in exchange for power. She made him her god and there's every reason to suspect that the fornication wasn't merely spiritual, but also physical (sexual). Their awareness of their nakedness certainly alludes to this, and then in Genesis 6 we read the other demons likewise seduce more women in emulation of their master.

Is it any wonder why "thou shalt have no other gods before me" and "thou shalt not covet" are in the ten commandments?

The flood then is God wiping the apostate earth populace, human and demi-god, off the face of the earth, and consigning those angels responsible to a special supernatural jail (the abyss). This place strikes terror amongst demons to the point of fainting (Ezekiel 31:15), and centuries later with Legion begging Jesus not to send them there (Luke 8:31).

However afterwards the giants come back, and the descendants of Noah seek the sons of God all over again at Babel.

So enter Deuteronomy 32:8, God gives them over to what they want…which is to worship the fallen angels, the "gods", and he carves up the world into nations and assigns each of them to one or more of the fallen angels. Save for his portion, which was Jacob or Israel. He would do this again later when Israel demands a king to rule over them like the other pagan nations. The kingdom of Saul is a direct mirroring of the heavenly saga, and this is why much of David's Psalms are eschatological. God showed David through revelation and in the experience of his own life, the cosmic saga being played out in the heavenly realm. He also saw premonitions of Christ. Hence David is among the prophets.

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    Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics SE - we're not a forum, so do take the site tour if you haven't already, and see what we're looking for in answers. Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.
    – Dɑvïd
    Jun 21 '17 at 12:59
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    Please also note that this is not a "Christian" site. Much of the "answer" you have posted is not relevant to answering the question posed. There are appropriate venues for it -- but this isn't one of them. I have removed the extraneous material; you should review my edit and adjust accordingly, keeping the link above in mind. Thanks.
    – Dɑvïd
    Jun 21 '17 at 13:06

El Elyon is the Most High God. He had 70 sons. The Hebrew reads Bene Elohim or Sons of God. After the flood of Noah, El Elyon (The Most High God) divided mankind into 70 nations with 70 distinct languages. One of His sons, Yehowah was appointed to be the God of Israel. When Moses was given the Ten Commandments, it's interesting to note that Yehowah says He will have no other gods before him. Meaning, He's number one and won't tolerate the worship of any of the other gods such as Baal etc...

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    Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. Our community looks for answers to reflect a good degree of research and references. Typically, we like answers to cite scholarly references and/or explain how your interpretation arises from the text. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. I would suggest you at least provide a reference (Gen 13?) Jul 29 '16 at 4:58
  • This answer needs scholar support but points in the right direction. The verse dates from a time (or draws on an older tradition from a time) when the people were not monotheistic, when they believed the earth contained 70 nations and each had its own god, each one a son of El. Describing YHWH and Israel/Judah as one of those 70 may be a recasting of an earlier Canaanite myth. See Thomas Romer, The Invention of God (Harvard Univ Press: 2015).
    – Schuh
    Apr 18 at 19:06

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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