Israel as a Divine Council, Part 3: The Fall of the Nations

Only by understanding the true importance of Israel’s position as a son of God and the Ekklesia’s true relationship to Israel can we hope to understand the Eternal One’s prophetic plan. But in order to understand Israel’s position, we must first understand the events surrounding God’s second use of that mysterious phrase, “Let us,” in Genesis 11, at the fall of the tower of Babel.

"Let us build a tower to the heavens . . ."
“Let us build a tower to the heavens . . .”

As commonly told, the tower of Babel comes across as a charming fairy-tale explanation for the origin of the many languages of mankind and a cautionary tale against hubris, but nothing more. Certainly, it could be completely excised from the Bible without so much as interrupting the flow of Genesis. So why is it there, so prominently in the opening chapters?

It turns out that the story of Babel is crucial to understanding not simply the origin of languages, but the origin of paganism itself. Many readers of the Bible catch the name of the city, so obviously related to Babylon, the “mother of harlots” (Rev. 17:5), and understand that something in the origin of polytheism must be hinted at here, but even then, the full import of the story is lost. Babel is not simply about how mankind rebelled against the true God and began worshipping imaginary deities. It is the story of how very real and very potent spiritual forces were given lordship over all of mankind–save only one tiny tribe that the true Creator chose for himself.

Part of the reason that the true importance of Babel has been for so long lost is a scribal error that has crept into one of the key passages in Scripture commenting on it. Deuteronomy 32:8 reads, in the Masoretic Text, “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the children of men, he set the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel.” However, the Septuagint version reads the final clause as, “the angels of God,” while the Dead Sea Scrolls contain the variant, “the sons of God.” So which is correct?

tableofnationsgenesis10The reference in verse 8 to the Most High giving the nations their inheritance and separating the sons of Adam is an obvious call-back to the tower of Babel event: “So the LORD scattered them abroad from there on the surface of all the earth” (Gen. 11:8). This was many centuries before the Holy One covenanted with Abraham, let alone the sons of Israel (Jacob). Of course, the Lord of Time could have spread apart mankind in a way that anticipated Israel, but if so, the intent of the phrase is ambiguous at best. Some have pointed to the fact that there are seventy nations listed in Genesis 10 and seventy sons of Israel (Jacob) who went down into Egypt in Genesis 46:9-27. While those numbers are far from coincidental, they still do not adequately explain Moses’ reference.

Let us read again the verse, this time in context, with the final clause of verse 8 corrected to match the Dead Sea Scrolls:

Remember the days of old.
Consider the years of many generations.
Ask your father, and he will show you;
your elders, and they will tell you.

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the children of Adam,
he set the bounds of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.

For the LORD’s portion is his people.
Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.
He found him in a desert land,
in the waste howling wilderness.

He surrounded him.
He cared for him.
He kept him as the apple of his eye.

As an eagle that stirs up her nest,
that flutters over her young,
he spread abroad his wings, he took them,
he bore them on his feathers.

The LORD alone led him.
There was no foreign god with him. (vv. 7-12)

There is an obvious contrast being built here, and it isn’t simply saying that Israel is equal to all the nations (though this isn’t false, as we will see). Rather, it is contrasting the nations which were apportioned among the sons of God, angelic beings in the heavenly court, with Israel which the Creator himself took as his own special nation, rescuing Israel from slavery without the aid of any other god of the nations.

We can find further confirmation in the Aramaic translations of the Torah. After the Babylonian exile, a large number of Jews ceased to speak Hebrew conversationally, and therefore needed the Scriptures translated into Aramaic, the language of Babylon and Syria (see Neh. 8:8). These Aramaic translations were not merely word-for-word, but often contained expansions to explain to the masses what the Torah meant. Originally passed down in an oral form, they were eventually written down in several “Targums” (lit. “translations”) in the late first century. These became the standard liturgical text for Jews in the Middle-east, with the Torah being read first in the original Hebrew, then recited in the translation (b.Berakhot 8a). While they were not inspired or canonical (though the early rabbis took them as authoritative, often citing them as “our Targum”), they do present a very useful window into the broadly accepted interpretations of the Scriptures in Yeshua’s time. For example, passages with oblique references to the Messiah are outright attributed to him in the Targums.

In the Palestinian Targum’s (or Targum Yerushalemi’s) paraphrase of Deuteronomy 32:8, we see that not only must “sons of God” be the original reading, but that it can refer to both Israel and the angelic beings:

When the Most High made allotment of the world until the nations which proceeded from the sons of Noach, in the separation of the writings and languages of the children of men at the time of the division, He cast the lot among the seventy angels, the princes of the nations. With them is the revelation to oversee the city, even at that time He established the limits of the nations according to the sum of the number of the seventy souls of Israel who went down into Mizraim (Egypt).

The only way that the Targum’s paraphrase makes sense is if the original Hebrew read, “Sons of God,” which the Targum read to refer to both the heavenly host and to Israel. And as we will see, the Targum is absolutely correct in its interpretation.

What Deuteronomy tells us is that the nations didn’t simply start worshiping idols after Babel out of mere stubborn rebellion, but because the Eternal God had set the spiritual entities that the idols represent over them:

Take therefore good heed to yourselves; for you saw no kind of form on the day that the LORD spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire. Lest you corrupt yourselves, and make yourself an engraved image in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth; and lest you lift up your eyes to the sky, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the army of the sky, you are drawn away and worship them, and serve them, which the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole sky. But the LORD has taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be to him a people of inheritance, as at this day. (Deu. 4:15-20)

We catch glimpses of these “princes” over the nations throughout Scripture. Perhaps most notably, Daniel 10 describes the power of the prince of Persia in holding back an angel sent to answer Daniel’s request for twenty-one days–obviously, this can’t be referring to Darius. Only the intercession of Michael, Israel’s “prince,” allowed the angel to pass. The angel further warned Daniel, “When I go forth, behold, the prince of Greece shall come” (v.20), again, not referring to any human ruler, but to the angelic “prince” set over the sons of Greece. The LXX translates “prince” as archon. Jude (v.9) would later refer to Michael as the archaggellos, or “archangel,” not referring to one of the four cherubim (as in Jewish belief) or in one of seven archangels who stand closest to God (as in Catholicism), but instead referring to Michael’s status as the spiritual guardian and ruler of Israel. Paul refers to these entities as ”the principalities . . .  the authorities . . . the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age, and . . . the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). The word “principalities” is the Greek archas, meaning a prince or ruler, just as in the related terms archon and archaggelos. We will likewise term these more powerful angelic authorities Archons for the sake of convenience: They are above mere messengers, and far above demons, but by no means deserve to be called gods in anything but a sense of irony.

Israel in CovenantThis arrangement of a High or Father God who “begat” the gods and set them over specific nations is actually attested to in pagan mythology as well. The ancient Mesopotamians believed in Anu (or An, lit. “Heaven”), the father of all the gods, but each city had its own principle god that it held to be their own lord. For example, in Eridu this god was Enki, lord of the earth and the absu (abyss, the source of fresh water). Enki was believed to have brought kingship down from heaven to man. He was further believed to be the master of all Me, a word that means civilization, science, magic, and fate. Likewise, Babylon had Marduke as its patron, and Assyria Asshur. A similar arrangement can be found in Egypt. Atum was the uncreated father of all the gods of Egypt, but the Egyptians reserved their greatest devotion for Osirus/Horus, who was believed to be incarnate in the Pharaohs. In the Ugaritic (Canaanite) religion, the father of the gods was El–the same name as often used for the Biblical God–but most Canaanite devotion was given to El’s vice-regent Baal. The Greeks in turn knew El as Cronos, and believed him to have been outright overthrown by Zeus, which was in fact their name for Baal.

While the pagan conceptions of this uncreated Father-God fall well short of the glory of the incomparable Holy One, the fact that each of these cultures recognized that their most important gods were subordinate to another, more distant One is nevertheless an astounding admission that coincides with the Bible’s own teaching that while the pagan world “knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks. . . and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Rom. 1:21, 23). Only Israel could claim to be in a direct covenantal relationship with the uncreated Creator, the true Father of the principalities set over the nations. That relationship, once enjoyed by all mankind together, was now known only to a few.

If that were the only significance of Israel’s covenant with the Eternal One, it would still be astounding, but it turns out to be only the tip of the iceberg. Psalm 82 contains an astonishing rebuke of the angelic princes set over the nations:

 A Psalm by Asaph.

God (Elohim) presides in the council of God.
He judges among the gods (elohim).

“How long will you judge unjustly,
and show partiality to the wicked?”

“Defend the weak, the poor, and the fatherless.
Maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.
Rescue the weak and needy.
Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.”

They don’t know, neither do they understand.
They walk back and forth in darkness.
All the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I said, “You are gods, (elohim)
all of you are sons of the Most High.

Nevertheless you shall die like men,
and fall like one of the rulers.”

Arise, God, judge the earth,
for you inherit all of the nations.

Many commentators, and even translators, uncomfortable with the image of the God of the Bible sitting in a council of other gods, interpret the “gods” of verse 1 to really mean “judges” or “great ones.” However, Dr. Heiser argues in “Should the plural אלהים of Psalm 82 Be Understood as Men or Divine Beings?” that the only reading that takes into account the full context of the psalm is indeed “gods.” In ancient Hebrew, elohim does not refer to a creator or to the other powerful qualities we associate with “God” in the English language–the three “omnis” of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience–but is rather what Dr. Heiser calls “a place of residence term.”

 It labels the entity in terms of its residence, if you will. [Hashem], the lesser gods, angels, demons, and the disembodied dead are all rightful inhabitants of the spiritual (i.e., non-human) world. They may be able to cross over to our world, as Scripture tells us, and certain humans may be transported to their realm (prophets; Enoch), but their proper domain and our proper domain are two separate places. Within the spiritual world there is ontological differentiation, rank, and power: [Hashem] is an אלהים, but no other אלהים is [Hashem]. That was what an orthodox Israelite believed about [Hashem]. He was not one among equals; he was species unique. Our modern term (17th century) “monotheism” is deficient for describing this, since it carries the mental baggage of identifying “g-o-d” with a single set of attributes held only by [Hashem]. However, the thought behind the term–that [Hashem] is utterly and eternally unique–remains completely intact. Our translations and our theology ought to make this clear. We have nothing to fear from letting the text say what it says.

As Dr. Heiser goes on to explain, the final line makes it clear that these “gods” which God is judging are those which rule over the nations, the same princes and principalities that we have been exploring at length. Calling them “the sons of the Most High” is another confirmation. Moreover, it makes it clear that they themselves are not men, since they will die “like” men. He further points to other passages that speak of the “sons of God” in connection with the council of the Most High, such as Psalm 89:5-7:

The heavens will praise your wonders, LORD;
your faithfulness also in the assembly of the holy ones.

For who in the clouds can be compared to the LORD?
Who among the sons of God/the gods (Heb. elohim) is like the LORD,

A very awesome God in the council of the holy ones,
to be feared above all those who are around him?

Hesier continues:

“Psalm 89 rules out the notion that [Hashem’s] council of אלהים sons of God refers to an assembly of humans because it explicitly places that council ‘in the clouds.’ There is no text in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible that says or suggests that there are a group of human judges in the heavens ruling with [Hashem] over the nations. That position is offered only because of a perceived threat to monotheism, not because it has any textual merit.”

As a final argument, Psalm 82 is expressly quoted by Yeshua in John 10:34 in defence that his own Divine claims were not automatically to be rejected as blasphemous: “If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture can’t be broken), do you say of him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You blaspheme,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God?’” (vv. 35-36). As Heiser points out, if Yeshua thought that the elohim of Psalm 82 were simply human judges or rulers, quoting it would either weaken the impact of the Divine claim that he had just made (vv. 30-33) and would immediately make again (vv. 37-38), or else would amount to saying “you mere mortals can call yourself gods, so I can, too.” Neither one fits the argument.

Both Jewish and Christian theologians have long believed in Satan, the Adversary, as some kind of fallen ruler of the demons. In the case of Judaism, Satan’s role has been de-emphasized over the centuries in response to what has seemed to the rabbis to be a lurid preoccupation with the Devil among Christians, but the earlier rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash had much to say about him. Both faiths have struggled with the idea of how to reconcile the existence of a Prince of Darkness with that of the God of Light without falling into a Zoroastrian dualism. In the end, both have come to understand that the Devil as a created being who fell into rebellion, but who was allowed to have a kingdom. This kingdom is comprised of other fallen angels and spirits with which he could tempt and dominate mankind–but always constrained by the will of the Sovereign Creator.

This idea is not far from that of the Divine Council paradigm as expressed in Psalm 82 and Daniel 10. When mankind rebelled at Babel, the Holy One scattered mankind over the face of the earth and set seventy angelic princes over them. These princes may or may not have been fallen in their hearts at that time, but either way they were charged with guiding mankind in giving just judgments, protecting the weak and the fatherless, and rescuing the needy from the wicked. They failed in their task, and in fact encouraged mankind in wickedness. Perhaps they were motivated by envy, and hoped to cause God to utterly destroy mankind by driving us to the very depths of depravity. If so, their plot failed. The Creator judged against them, telling these immortal beings that for their sin they would die like the men they were oppressing, and replaced them . . . with a nation of men.

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