Deuteronomy 32 and Biblical monolatry

So I’ve been reading up a bit on Biblical archaeology and textual criticism and something alarming has jumped out at me. I know this is not a new topic, it’s not a new discovery. But it’s new to me and I wanted to discuss it.

In Deuteronomy 32, we find the following in the RSVCE-2. Verses 8 and 9.

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of men,
he fixed the bounds of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of Israel.
For the LORD’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.

In the book The Early History of God by Mark S. Smith, he gives the following translation.

When the Most High ('elyôn) gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated humanity,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of divine beings.
For Yahweh’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.

The Jerusalem Bible says that the verse translated as 'sons of Israel’s can also be translated as ‘gods’. It also remarks that the number of different peoples was believed to be 77.

If I understand Smith correctly (I’ve been reading a lot on this topic so may be mistaking him for someone else), his contention is that the Most High in the first part of the verse refers to El, while the mention of Yahweh later on is a separate being. El was a Canaanite God.

So was the Bible originally saying there was more than one god? That each people had their own god? That would make ancient Israelite religion a system of monolatry, or henotheism.

Has anyone else read up on this? Any thoughts to share?

The Hebrew word is Israel which also means God strives.
It is another name for Jacob and Jacob’s descendents.
The word/phrase is not translated as ‘gods’. It can be translated as the sons of God, or Jacob and his descendents.

There is a real danger in uneducated textual criticism of the Old Testament. To be successful there are a few facets to be considered, the language itself, the context and the cultural setting.
Jacob and his allotted heritage is a good translation of this.

By way of a side discussion, the early Israelites existed in a pagan society where they did know and at times worship different gods. Monotheism took some time to take root, and we read in the Old Testament that God kept reminding people He was the only God and all of these other gods were false dead things.

No offense but though I don’t claim to be educated in this, Smith himself is a professor in Near Eastern Studies. So he’s not just some guy.

Not necessarily defending this but these are coming from educated textual critics. There is a lot that is looked at here for them to draw their conclusions. The OP seems to be a little confused here as it’s not a translation issue, rather it’s based off of the different textual traditions we have for this passage. For example, the LXX in verse 8 has this not as “sons of Israel”, like the MT does, but as “angels of God”, and the Dead Sea Scrolls have this as “sons of God” which can also be translated as “sons of the gods” (also, the Samaritan version has this as “sons of Adam/sons of man”). It’s well known in OT scholarship that Deuteronomy 32 went through a number of revisions in different manuscript traditions, and the oldest layer of Deuteronomy 32 matches up quite well with a lot of Canaanite polytheistic beliefs, particularly the notion of a divine council of gods, all children of the high God El, seventy in number, who were assigned different nations. It seems that in the proper context, Deuteronomy 32 distinguishes between El (Elyon/Most High) and Yahweh, where Yahweh is merely seen as a son of El who was assigned Israel. Again, I’m not necessarily defending the position that the text has to mean that as such, but there are very good reasons as to why educated scholars believe the early Israelites were either monolatristic or henotheistic instead of monotheistic, something they wouldn’t fully transfer to until the Babylonian exile, 500-600 years before Jesus.

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Smith was right in his translation as I pointed out.
Where the issue is in your post is the error of ‘gods’. That is not the correct translation.
There is a huge danger in textual criticism where there has been no education and errors in translation slip through , then people start scratching their heads and say ?

I am sure that the Jerusalem bible says ‘god’ and not ‘gods’. My version of the NJB uses the word ‘god’.
Can you post the version of the JB that has ‘gods’ please.

I think there has been a simple misreading.
We are not looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls as that is extant from the Bible. We should look directly at different biblical translations. Sons of God cannot be translated as sons of gods. They are two different concepts.
We do not have to go through the revisions when we have the Old Testament in Biblical Hebrew and can directly source that.

Educated scholars are very aware of the polytheistic nature of Ancient Israel. This verse is not about that. This verse is directly about those people God has called His own.

Here is an online version of the Jerusalem Bible and here are the verses concerned

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided the sons of men, he fixed their bounds according to the number of the sons of God
but Yahweh’s portion was his people, Jacob his share of inheritance

This is incorrect , YHWH is never ever seen as a son of a God/gods in the Old Testament.

Thank you for this post! That’s what I was going for. As I said I don’t claim to be educated in this but I wanted to discuss it and you summed it up great.

I am not Hebrew Scholar, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but Smith’s interpretation seems to be pretty far out there to me. The word used in the Hebrew where he translates as divine beings is Israel, not Elohim which could be translated as divine beings. So unless he has some textual critical evidence to show that this was the earliest reading of the text of Deuteronomy, this seems to be a spurious translation choice to me.

That being said, it is not uncommon in scripture to talk about other peoples and their gods, but it always to me appears as satirical mentions of other Gods. Exodus has already said you shall have no other gods before me (in my presence). The creation account speaks of God as one. The later writings of Isaiah mock the gods that Israel has taken up and the gods of other nations as being unseeing, unhearing, unable to create as God has done, and unable to make their will come true as God does. So to me, this doesn’t make a lot of sense given the whole context of the OT.

Apparently it’s from an early reading of the verse, I believe at Qumran. I’ll have to look again.

I would be interested in hearing this. I would still be careful of the Qumran documents. We have to remember, these are basically of the same age as the Septuagint, if not younger.

The Haydock commentary discusses the different translations–angels in the Greek, sons of Israel in the Hebrew:

Israel. He suffered the people of Chanaan to occupy as much land as would be requisite for the Israelites. Septuagint, “according to the number of the angels of God.” Hence many of the ancients gathered that there were seventy angel guardians of provinces, and as many languages; while others did not pretend to determine the exact number. But the version which they have followed, is in opposition to all the rest. (Calmet) — They have also disputed, on this occasion, whether the elect will be equal in number to the good angels, as St. Gregory thinks; (hom. 34, in Luke xv.) or they will only fill up the places of those who have fallen. See Mag. Sent. ii. 9. Abenezra observes, that interpreters understand this text as alluding to the dispersion of nations, (Genesis xi.,) when God decreed that the land of the seven nations should belong to and be sufficient for the Israelites. (Amama) (Haydock) — The Hebrew may be rendered, “He fixed the limits of each people. At that time the children of Israel were few in number, (Ver. 9) when the Lord chose his people,” &c. Long after the division of the earth, (which the Lord had ordered, Acts xvii. 26,) the Israelites were very few in number, as Jacob observes, Genesis xxxiv. 30. See chap. xxvi. 5., and Psalm civ. 9, 12. (Calmet) — But this explication does not satisfy Houbigant, (p. 76, Prol.) no more than that of Le Clerc. He is convinced that a word has been transposed, and another left out, as the Samaritan copy has Israel twice, and he would therefore translate, “He divided his people according to the number of the sons of Israel.” In his eternal decrees, He allotted twelve portions of land in Chanaan to the descendants of Jacob, and these Josue was ordered to mark out for them. See Josue iv. 5. (Haydock)

It should also be pointed out that the word “gods” is not always used for divinities/idols, but also for angels and even human judges/rulers at times.

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Clearly no, as we have plenty of historical evidence that Judaism has been and continues to be, a monotheistic religion. To know what people believed is not a matter of interpretations but actual history.

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