Buried away in the Book of Deuteronomy lies a poetic treasure and an exegetical puzzle. In Deuteronomy 32 we find the Song of Moses, an old Hebrew folk song written by Moses to warn succeeding generations about the dangers of apostasy. Moses knew that after his death Israel would fall away from God, and this song enshrines a story of their apostasy and return as a kind of perennial cultural caution (see Deuteronomy 31:27-30).
At the beginning of the Song, in Deuteronomy 32:8-9, we find the following: “When the Most High [Hebrew Elyon] divided the nations [Hebrew goyim] their inheritance, when He separated the sons of man [Hebrew bene adam], He set the boundaries of the peoples [Hebrew amim] according to the number of the sons of Israel [Hebrew bene Israel]. For Yahweh’s portion is His people [Hebrew am], Jacob, the lot of His inheritance.”
This is how the text reads in the King James Version, in the RC Douay version, and in the NASB. But the RSV and the New English Bible have a different reading. They say that God set the boundaries of the peoples “according to the number of the sons of God”. This reading seems to find support in the LXX, which says that He set the boundaries of the peoples “according to the number of the angels of God” [Greek aggelon theou]. If the original Deuteronomic reading was bene Elohim/ sons of God (denoting angels, as in Job 1:6), the LXX translator would then have rendered it as “angels of God” by way of an interpretive reading. But was this the original meaning? What does this all mean? That is the exegetical puzzle.
One exegetical suggestion may be dismissed at the outset. One older commentator (Ellicott) has suggested that both mean the same thing, and that the LXX reading simply meant that Israel were called to be God’s messengers/ angels to the world, bringing the good news of monotheism to the surrounding nations. It is supremely unlikely that this is what the variant reading meant. By the time the LXX was produced Hebrew angelology was in full flower (compare such angelology in Zechariah 1:7f), so that the Greek aggeloi here meant “angels”, not simply “messengers”. Furthermore, Israel did not then regard the surrounding nations as targets for Jewish evangelism, but as potent threats to their independence and survival. We therefore here have an exegetical choice between “Israel” and “angels”; the words cannot denote the same thing. Sorry, Bishop Ellicott.
One other easy way out may also be dismissed—that of always preferring in principle the LXX to the Hebrew Masoretic text. Sometimes the LXX preserves the superior and original reading (such as in Genesis 47:31, where Jacob worshipped bowing himself on the head of his staff, not the head of his bed—see Hebrews 11:21), but sometimes it does not. For example, the Hebrew of Exodus 3:6 says that “Moses was afraid to look at God”; the LXX says that he was “afraid to look down before God”. The Hebrew is clearly the original; the LXX changed it because translator felt that no one could see or look at God. It is the same with Hosea 11:1. The LXX renders it “Out of Egypt I recalled his children” [i.e. Israel’s children]. The Masoretic preserves the true reading, as cited by St. Matthew in 2:15 of his Gospel: “Out of Egypt I called My son”. Always choosing the LXX over the Masoretic Hebrew is based on ideology, not scholarship. Each separate case of variant readings must be considered on its own merits.
The Masoretic reading which says that God apportioned lands to the peoples of the earth after the scattering of the nations on the basis of the number of the sons of Israel makes perfectly good sense. As commentators like Driver long ago pointed out, the text would then mean that God knew that Israel would one day inhabit the Promised Land, and so the land given to the original Canaanite inhabitants was arranged to be sufficiently large to accommodate later Israelite population.
The problem here is how to account for the later LXX reading. A basic principle of textual criticism (i.e. the science of trying to figure out which MS represents the original reading) is the wisdom of choosing the lectio difficilior, the more difficult reading. The rationale for this is that one can more easily explain why an ancient translator would smooth out a difficult reading than explain why he would alter the easier reading to make it more difficult. And the phrase “the angels of God” is clearly the more difficult reading. If the text originally read “the sons of Israel”, one is at something of a loss to explain why the LXX translator would alter it to the more difficult reading “the angels of God”. One can more easily account for why a later redactor would alter the original bene Elohim to read bene Israel—for the reading bene Elohim might give the impression of polytheism in a Mosaic setting. On the principles of textual criticism, the reading bene Elohim/ sons of God—i.e. aggelon theou—is to be preferred.
One sees some confirmation for bene Elohim as the original reading in the Qumran Dead Sea scroll texts. In the 4QDeut fragment, we find this passage rendered as bene El (i.e. “sons of El / God”)—or possibly as “bene Elohim” (only a portion of the text can be clearly read). This would confirm the LXX reading as original.
We also find some confirmation of this in the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum of the text. (A “targum” is a translation or paraphrase of the Hebrew text into Aramaic.) This portion of the Deuteronomy text reads: “When the Most High gave the world for inheritance to the nations…He cast lots with the seventy angels, the princes of the nations…and established borders of the people according to the number of the seventy souls of Israel which went down to Egypt”. This seems to attempt to combine both readings. The idea is that the seventy descendants of Israel went down into Egypt corresponded to the seventy nations traditionally thought to comprise the world. Each nation had a guardian angel, a prince, looking after it. This targum thus witnesses to an original reading in which angelic princes were assigned to look after the peoples under them. This notion also found expression in Sirach 17:17 as well: God “appointed a ruler for every nation, but Israel’s is the Lord’s own portion”. The rulers were the angels of God’s divine court.
I suggest then that Deuteronomy 32:8-9 is an ancient witness to the idea that God’s heavenly angelic council may have had care over the pagan nations of the earth, but Israel occupied a special position directly under God’s own care. The idea of a heavenly council is deeply rooted in the ancient Near East. The pagan peoples believed that the various gods came together in a heavenly pantheon and council. Israel, being monotheistic, could never accept such a notion. But they also could hardly imagine that a king would be without his court, and so Yahweh, their heavenly King, must surely have His court too—not a court of other deities, but of angels, the bene Elohim, the sons of Gods (see 1 Kings 22). The nations mentioned in the Song of Moses exulted in their own gods, whom they imagined had real power over the affairs of nations. Moses knew that these so-called gods were not gods, but idols, nothings. The nations were ruled not by imagined gods, but by Yahweh’s messengers and servants, the bene Elohim, Yahweh’s angels. Israel, however, was different. They came under the direct care of Yahweh Himself.
What does all this mean to us today? This verse in the Song of Moses is of more than merely historical significance. It tells us that God’s people enjoyed—and we as His people enjoy today—an access to Him and His wisdom not available to the nations of the world. As Baruch 4:4 says, “Happy are we, O Israel, for we know what is pleasing to God”. That is true of us as the disciples of Jesus Christ, for God is the Lord and He has revealed Himself to us. Call it divine favouritism, if you must. Better to call it divine faithfulness to His given promises. God promised to bless the descendants of Abraham—i.e. Israel, the Church—and to reveal Himself to them in a way that He never promised to reveal Himself to others.
We Christians have received this divine self-revelation, and we know what is pleasing to God. We know things that the world does not know, for we are the Lord’s portion, His chosen people. And—more alarmingly—we are now responsible to live consistently with this saving knowledge. It is as the Lord said: to whom much is given, much is required. Being God’s people and enjoying unique access to the divine wisdom brings with it the responsibility to act upon the wisdom which God makes available to us. As Baruch 4:4 reminds us, this should make us happy, but should also make us tremble a bit. For the Lord will judge us on the basis of what we have done with the knowledge He has given us. Being God’s inheritance brings with it great responsibility.