The Song of Moses (Deut. 32)

Perhaps the oldest portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, scholars believe, is now part of its end: Deuteronomy 32, also called “The Song of Moses.” The Song, as I’ll call it, is particularly striking in many ways. But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on one: it shows a significant strain of polytheistic thought in the Bible.

After a rather poetic beginning (he asks that his “words descend like dew”), Moses makes a rather odd summary of the Israelites’ past:

Remember the days of old;
consider the generations long past.
Ask your father and he will tell you,
your elders, and they will explain to you.
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 God [Israel].

(Deut. 32:7-8). First, this should be striking because it doesn’t seem to comport with Genesis. When did this division happen? And how were people allotted “according to the number of the sons of God”? Did I miss this part of creation when I went to the bathroom? Apparently, this portion of the prayer, scholars conjecture, was invoking a pre-Israelite creation story.

Looking at these words in detail, there are a couple other odd things to point out. I’ll deal with them in turn.

The first, an maybe most obvious, is the seemingly polytheistic ending: God setting up the boundaries of the world “according to the number of the Sons of God.” This verse is somewhat susceptible to the vagaries of translation, however; in your Bible at home, you may find verse 8 rendered as “sons of Israel,” a much more acceptable—and traditional—translation. But with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this verse was turned upside down. One of the most significant findings in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as you may know, were manuscripts of Biblical texts that pre-dated any then-known copies: as it turns out the oldest copies of the Song finished this verse as the “sons of God.” The traditional translation, “sons of Israel,” was probably a later edit (“How to Read the Bible,” p 356).

If we assume this earlier translation was the correct one, then this verse becomes hard to square with other portions of the Pentateuch. The Song seems to imply polytheism, or some divine (or semi-divine) entities that were important to the formation of the world: scholar James Kugel notes that, according to this verse, “…things were arranged so that each of these lesser deities would have his own nation to look after” (“How to Read the Bible,” p 356). Indeed, looking at it from a Christian perspective—wasn’t there just a single “son of God”?—prompts even more questions. All of these are fixed, though, if the wording is changed just slightly.

There is an additional problem that also doesn’t show up when you read the Song in its English translation. This is a similar problem to one we’ve encountered before, where God is referred to by another name. Here, it is “Most High.” This may appear to be just another way of referencing the same God; however, the actual language, calling God the “Most High” is actually referring to an entirely different god. As Kugel notes, “Most High” (Hebrew: ‘Elyon)  was actually how the Canaanites referred to the top god of their pantheon. (This would be somewhat like hearing a Christian refer to God as “Allah”—it would give you pause.) This “Most High” appears elsewhere in the Old Testament (see Gen. 14:18-21) but in that context, it is clear that ‘Elyon is separate from YHWH, the Hebrew God. At some point, it seems that ‘Elyon and YHWH came to mean the same figure; the text here shows that there was a significant tradition connecting the two.

In fact, these two problems are related: “the Sons of God” line I mentioned above is actually directly translated as “the Sons of El,” a.k.a. the Sons of the Canaanite God El (‘Elyon). The “Sons of El” are then distinct from the Israelites, whose special place in the world was established by YHWH; Deut. 32:8 ends: “But the LORD’s own portion is His People, Jacob His allotted share.” YHWH just got what he was owed.

“It is certainly significant that there is no hint here of monotheism…” James Kugel writes about the Song. “[I]ndeed, the opposite seems to be just the point” (“How to Read the Bible,” p 356). The Song is another relic from a pre-monotheistic time, when the the Israelites’ theology was beginning to resemble what it, and the foundations of Christianity, do today. It is another reminder that the Bible is not perfect, entirely consistent, but shows the gradual development of an important strain of thought.

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