When the Holy One, the Eternal Creator of those worshiped as gods by the nations, entered into covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and ratified that covenant with their multitude of sons at Sinai, it must have shaken the powers of heaven (cf. Mark 13:25). They had been given dominion over the whole world, over every nation of men. Their Father, disgusted at man’s constant rebellion, had withdrawn from human affairs, seemingly forever. The Serpent of the Garden must have thought that he had won, that the promise of the Seed of the Woman who would destroy him (Gen. 3:15) would surely now never be fulfilled.
And then the God of gods appeared to a simple shepherd in Ur of the Chaldees, and made a deceptively simple promise:
“Get out of your country,
and from your relatives,
and from your father’s house,
to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation.
I will bless you
and make your name great.
You will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and I will curse him who curses you.
All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you.” (Gen. 12:1-3)
Christians, content in the fact that the Messiah is superior to all who came before and all who came after him, that Messiah has given a new covenant that fulfills the promise to Abraham, and not understanding the full importance of the events in Babel that immediately preceded Abraham’s call, can easily miss the importance of this statement. It is, in every way, the original Good News: The Eternal One was not just taking a simple, almost hilariously small and unimportant nomadic tribe as his own people. He was throwing down the gauntlet to the powers who had set themselves up as gods to men: “Through this simple shepherd and his children, I will bring back the blessing which was lost to all mankind!” From that time on, the entire history of the Middle-east is one of the nations and their gods attempting to ensnare and/or destroy Israel so as to negate the promise of God.
God’s intent was made even more obvious at Sinai. The Eternal offered the following covenant: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exo. 19:5-6). And Israel accepted: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (v. 8). After giving the Ten Commandments and a few of the laws derived from them, the people once again accepted the covenant being offered and Moses sealed the covenant with a sacrifice and the sprinkling of the people in its blood (24:3-8, cf. Luke 22:20). Immediately after this, God spoke to Moses and commanded him to select seventy elders of the people and bring them up on the mountain to meet with the Eternal (vv. 1, 9-11). Later, God commanded Moses to select seventy elders who would receive the Holy Spirit and share the burden of leading the people with Moses (Num. 11:16-17). Because seventy elders plus Moses communed with the Holy One at Sinai, Israel’s Great Sanhedrin always numbered seventy, plus the High Priest.
Why seventy? Is this connected to the seventy who went down into Egypt with Jacob (Gen. 46:27, Deu. 10:22)? And why were seventy bulls sacrificed during the Feast of Sukkot (Num. 29:12-32)? Why do we keep seeing this number?
The Egyptians mourned for Joseph for seventy days (Gen. 50:3). When traveling to Sinai, Israel passed through Elim, where seventy palm trees were watered by twelve pools of water (Exo. 15:27, Num. 33:9). Adoni-bezek, who was conquered and captured by Israel, boasted that he had reduced seventy kings to beggars at his table (Jdg. 1:7). Gideon’s seventy sons ruled Israel (Jdg. 8:30, 9:2) and were slain for the price of seventy pieces of silver (vv. 4-5). After this, Abdon ben Hillel judged Israel with the aid of his seventy sons and grandsons (12:13-14). Ahab had seventy sons, whom Jehu slew (2Ki. 10:1-7). Israel was enslaved to Babylon for seventy years (2Ch. 36:21; Jer. 25:11, 29:10; Dan. 9:2), during which Tyre, once Israel’s ally but later her jealous enemy, was desolate (Isa. 23:15). And of course, as we have already seen, Genesis 10 lists seventy nations who were ruled over by seventy angelic princes.
Yeshua likewise appointed seventy messengers to go before him, whom he empowered to overthrow all the works of the Adversary just as he had the Twelve (Luke 10:1, 7), a point that will shortly become very important.
What is the unifying thought behind all of these instances of the number seventy? In each and every case, we see either the leadership of Israel, the rulership of the nations, or Israel’s history intersecting–often catastrophically–with that of the nations around her. The seventy rulers of Israel are supposed to stand in opposition to the seventy princes of the nations, but when they don’t, when Israel compromises and rebels, that same number seventy is stamped on Israel’s punishment.
The importance of Israel on the spiritual plane can scarcely be exaggerated. For example, when Israel sacrificed the seventy bulls on Sukkot, the seventy elders of Israel sacrificed for the nations. This was recognized by the rabbis who, after the second temple was destroyed, said, “Woe to the peoples of the world who have lost but know not what they have lost! Because while the Temple stood the altar atoned for them, but now who atones for them?” (b.Sukkah 55b). Since “apart from shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:22), it stands to reason that Israel’s intercession for the nations is the reason that “the times of ignorance [regarding idolatry] therefore God overlooked” (Acts 17:30) until the day could come for the whole world to be reconciled to the Most High God through his Messiah. (Perhaps the loss of the temple sacrifices during the seventy years of exile to Babylon is the reason why the Babylonian empire lasted such a short time in comparison to the empires that preceded and followed it.)
Understood in this light, the Masoretic variant in Deuteronomy 32:8 is not false, but is simply too narrow. Israel is certainly called God’s son (Exo. 4:22, Hos. 11:1), as are the individual Israelites called his sons (Isa. 43:6, 45:11), and given that the number seventy is stamped on Israel’s patriarchs and her government, it would not be unreasonable for a person to conclude that “sons of God” really meant “sons of Israel.” However, as we saw in the Targums, that was only one-half of its true meaning.