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Jonathan Ben-Dov





Are There Gods, Angels, and Demons in Deuteronomy?





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Jonathan Ben-Dov





Are There Gods, Angels, and Demons in Deuteronomy?








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Are There Gods, Angels, and Demons in Deuteronomy?

Several poetic verses in Deuteronomy were used in Second Temple times to support the belief in multiple characters in the divine realm. Thus, the scribes of the early Masoretic text, who opposed this belief, sometimes went so far as to revise or excise these references.


Are There Gods, Angels, and Demons in Deuteronomy?

The Falling Angel by Marc Chagall, Date: 1923 – 1947 © Kunstmuseum Basel

More than other books of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy propagates a divine image of one god, without an accompanying entourage of angels or minor divinities.[1] This is most clearly expressed in the famous declaration of Deuteronomy 4:35, where revelation at Horeb proves,

דברים ד:לה אַתָּה הָרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת כִּי יְ־הוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים אֵין עוֹד מִלְבַדּוֹ.
Deut 4:35 You have been shown to know, that YHWH is god, no (god) beside him.[2]

Such a position might seem obvious to the traditional reader, but many other passages in the Hebrew Bible propagate the view that the God of Israel is indeed surrounded by an assembly of minor divine beings.

This conception is very central in Psalms, where it forms the opening summons of the ancient Psalm 29,

הָבוּ לַי־הוָה בְּנֵי אֵלִים
הָבוּ לַי־הוָה כָּבוֹד וָעֹז
Give to YHWH, O minor gods,
give to YHWH honor and might

This conception appears as well as in an ancient hymn quoted within psalm 89 (vv. 6-8):

וְיוֹדוּ שָׁמַיִם פִּלְאֲךָ
May the heavenly beings[3] exclaim Your wondrousness,
אַף אֱמוּנָתְךָ בִּקְהַל קְדֹשִׁים.
Your steadfastness in the assembly of holy ones.
כִּי מִי בַשַּׁחַק יַעֲרֹךְ לַי־הוָה
For who in the skies can equal YHWH,
יִדְמֶה לַי־הוָה בִּבְנֵי אֵלִים.
Can compare with YHWH among the minor gods?
אֵל נַעֲרָץ בְּסוֹד קְדֹשִׁים רַבָּה
A God worshipped in the vast circle of holy ones,
וְנוֹרָא עַל כָּל סְבִיבָיו
He is revered by all those who encircle him.[4]

Today, “members of the Divine assembly” are usually called “angels” (מלאכים), but in biblical Hebrew this word simply means “messengers,” whether human or divine. Instead, biblical texts use terms which mean “minor gods.”

The belief in the existence of multiple characters in the realm of the divine – whether angels, demons, or minor gods – was quite prevalent among ancient Israelites. This belief does not really contradict monotheism, which is, in any event, a modern concept, whose application to ancient religion is not always justified. What made Israelite religion unique is not necessarily the exclusivity of YHWH, but rather His uniqueness, as a god detached from the natural world and unmanipulated by human acts.[5]

In contrast, some Israelites sought a more unique, singular, self-sustained deity. Deuteronomy, for example, ignores or avoids any account of minor divinities altogether. This polemic was studied in a comprehensive way by Alexander Rofé, to whom we owe much of the knowledge discussed below.[6]

Divine Assembly in Post Biblical Sources

The idea that a divine assembly surrounds God did not disappear with the development of Jewish monotheism. On the contrary, the debate on the multiple dimensions within the Godhead gained new vigor during the Second Temple period, and in fact continues through the polemics of Kabbalah and Jewish magic until this very day.

Advantage of Divine Assembly Theology

Many Jews of the Second Temple period sought an explanation for the hardships of this world – whether political or personal, relating to disease, family trouble, sin, war or any other manifestation of evil. They found an opening for such an explanation in emphasizing the idea that the divine realm is in fact populated with multiple beings, not all of them constantly operating in the same direction and for the same motives.

While full-fledged monotheism is often at a loss in explaining the existence of evil in the world, Jewish apocalypticism depicts a cosmic drama, wherein multiple forces exert their power and the supreme deity orchestrates the entire scene.[7] This drama helps to explain the persistence of evil in this world.

Apocalyptic books such as Enoch and Daniel are deeply committed to this worldview and gained much popularity in Hellenistic Judea. Whether or not Deuteronomy could serve as a proof text for the divine assembly was a crucial question in this religious environment.

The Poems at the End of Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy became particularly central to the apocalyptic theologians because of the two poems at the end of the book: the song of Ha’azinu in chapter 32 and the Blessing of Moses in Chapter 33. The religious attitude in these two poems is distinct from the prose sections of the book. The poems are overall older than the rest of the book, and may themselves contain even more archaic layers, going back to very early stages of Israelite religion.

These archaic layers may not have been all that problematic at the time of Deuteronomy’s composition, when they were likely included because of their hoary antiquity and prestige. Nevertheless, in Second Temple times, when debate about existence of minor divinities in YHWH’s entourage raged, and the biblical text was mined for proofs one way or the other, these poems and their archaic descriptions of minor gods became a focal point in the debate, with opposing parties either underscoring them or explaining them away.

We will look at some examples of archaic description of the divine assembly in these poems.

1. The “Divine Assembly” in Deuteronomy 33

At the beginning of Moses’ blessing of the tribes (33:2), we encounter the following phrase:

יְ־הוָ֞ה מִסִּינַ֥י בָּא֙
וְזָרַ֤ח מִשֵּׂעִיר֙ לָ֔מֹו
הֹופִ֨יעַ֙ מֵהַ֣ר פָּארָ֔ן
וְאָתָ֖ה מֵרִבְבֹ֣ת קֹ֑דֶשׁ
מִֽימִינֹ֕ו אֵשְׁדָּת (‏*אש דת) לָֽמֹו׃
YHWH came from Sinai,
And shone over them from Seir,
He appeared from Mount Paran,
And approached from Rivevot Kodesh,
From south of Eshdat to them.

Much attention has been paid to the word קדש in this verse. The word is the standard term in West-Semitic languages, such as Phoenician and Ugaritic, for a minor divinity or a member of the divine assembly, and was used this way in Biblical Hebrew as well (see Psalm 89:6 quoted above).

Accordingly, the phrase, “And approached from rivevot kodesh” was translated into Greek in LXX as denoting God marching from the south with a myriad (רבבה) of קדש (σὺν μυριάσιν Καδης), with this sense continuing in the Greek translation of the enigmatic last hemistich of verse 2: “on his right, a host of angels with him” (ἐκ δεξιῶν αὐτοῦ ἄγγελοι μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ).[8] This Jewish understanding of רבבת קדש is also reflected in the Midrash Sifre, in the targumim, and quoted by Rashi, who translated the phrase (ad loc.):

ועמו מקצת מלאכי קדש.
And with him was some of the holy angels.

Two trajectories arise from this interpretation. In the apocalyptic tradition, this verse was alluded to in the prologue of the book of 1 Enoch (1:3-4, 9):

The Holy and Great One will come out from his dwelling, and the Eternal God will tread from there upon Mount Sinai, and he will appear with his host, and will appear in the strength of his power from heaven… And behold! He comes with ten thousand holy ones to execute judgment upon them… (Outside the Bible, 2:1365-1366).[9]

In the rabbinic midrashic tradition, the association of angels (rivevot kodesh) with Sinai in this verse was one element in the robust development of the account of the Sinai theophany (מעמד הר סיני). For example, the Talmud states (b. Shabbat 88a):

דרש רבי סימאי: בשעה שהקדימו ישראל נעשה לנשמע, באו ששים ריבוא של מלאכי השרת, לכל אחד ואחד מישראל קשרו לו שני כתרים, אחד כנגד נעשה ואחד כנגד נשמע. וכיון שחטאו ישראל, ירדו מאה ועשרים ריבוא מלאכי חבלה, ופירקום…
Rabbi Simai expounded: “When Israel stated that “we will obey” before “we will hear” (Exod 24:7), six hundred thousand ministering angels came, one for each of the Israelite [men], and tied to crowns [upon their heads], one for “we will obey” and the other for “we will hear.” But once the Israelites sinned, one hundred twenty thousand damaging angels came down and removed them…

The rabbis further connected this verse, with its myriads, with an equally enigmatic statement in Psalm 68:18.[10]

רֶכֶב אֱלֹהִים רִבֹּתַיִם
אַלְפֵי שִׁנְאָן
אֲדֹנָי בָם סִינַי בַּקֹּדֶשׁ.
God’s chariots are myriads upon myriads,
thousands upon thousands;
the Lord is among them as in Sinai in kodesh.

The beginning of Moses’ blessing thus became a proof text for angelology. This is not, however, what the verse originally meant—the difficult term אֵשְׁדָּת was originally a toponym (place name).

Verse 2 depicts a list of places from which God appeared to His nation. The list begins in the south, as usual in such lists (Judges 5:4, Habbakuk 3:3).[11] The first three place names (Sinai, Seir, and Paran) are relatively familiar from other parts of the Torah, but those in stiches 4-5 seem obscure.

Nevertheless, with slightly different spelling, these two are also familiar place names from the Torah, east of the Jordan river: rivevot kodesh is likely a reference to Merivat Kadesh (Num 27:14, Deut 32:51, Ezek 48:28), where Moses sinned while getting water from the rock, while Eshdat may be a reference to Ashdot HaPisga (Deut 3:17, 4:49).[12]

2. Demons in Haazinu (Deut 32)

A poetic description of God’s wrath in Ha’azinu won surprising attention, and gathered interpretive momentum in the minds of later readers. As the poem extolls the extremities of Israel’s sins, it describes the way Israelites, in their desire to worship foreign gods, went as far as worshipping the most contemptible demons (v. 17):

יִזְבְּח֗וּ לַשֵּׁדִים֙ לֹ֣א אֱלֹ֔הַ,
אֱלֹהִ֖ים לֹ֣א יְדָע֑וּם,
חֲדָשִׁים֙ מִקָּרֹ֣ב בָּ֔אוּ,
לֹ֥א שְׂעָר֖וּם אֲבֹתֵיכֶֽם׃
They shall sacrifice to demons, non-divine,
gods which they did not know,
New ones who recently appeared,
whom your fathers did not fear.

In return, God’s wrath against Israel leaves them in the hands of low-level gods, dwellers of the back yard of the pantheon, demons of base reputation (vv. 23-24):

אַסְפֶּ֥ה עָלֵ֖ימֹו רָעֹ֑ות,
חִצַּ֖י אֲכַלֶּה־בָּֽם.
מְזֵ֥י רָעָ֛ב
I shall heap evils unto them,
Shall devour them with my arrows
(They shall be) wasted with Hunger
וּלְחֻ֥מֵי רֶ֖שֶׁף,
וְקֶ֣טֶב מְרִירִ֑י,
fought by Reshef,
and Qeteb (and?) Meriri.
וְשֶׁן־בְּהֵמֹות֙ אֲשַׁלַּח־בָּ֔ם,
עִם־חֲמַ֖ת זֹחֲלֵ֥י עָפָֽר.
The teeth of beasts I shall assign to them,
the venom of reptiles of the earth.

Demons are not a central theme, if a theme at all, in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, finding actual names of demons like Resheph, Qeteb, and Meriri, within the Book of Deuteronomy – albeit in a rather elusive way – is extraordinary. Resheph is the name of a Canaanite god, who is known in the Bible as a demon shooting arrows of disease (Hab 3:5, Job 5:7). The latter names are not fully understood, although they do appear again in the Bible (Hosea 13:14, possibly also Job 3:5).

But the poetic license of the early poets who had incorporated the demonic references as part of the international religious competition was not self-evident to later readers, for whom these poetic lines provided scriptural legitimacy to indulge with demons, as part of a lively theological debate. These passages in Haazinu were read alongside Psalm 91 which also relates to demons (vv. 5-6):

לֹֽא־תִ֭ירָא מִפַּ֣חַד לָ֑יְלָה
מֵ֝חֵ֗ץ יָע֥וּף יוֹמָֽם׃
ומִ֭דֶּבֶר בָּאֹ֣פֶל יַהֲלֹ֑ךְ
מִ֝קֶּ֗טֶב יָשׁ֥וּד צׇהֳרָֽיִם׃
You need not fear the terror by night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
The plague that stalks in the darkness,
or Qeteb that ravages at noon.

Accordingly, Second Temple and rabbinic Jews reintroduced these verses into their theological debates, and Ha’azinu became an especially popular source for those circles in Judaism who indulged with demonology.[13]

3. The Metanarrative of Ha’azinu

The final example is also the most loaded one theologically, and offers an illustration of the very text of the Torah being corrected by ancient scribes. This case deserves a much longer and deeper discussion, which I unfortunately cannot rehearse here. I will rather present some preliminary facts and a short reflection, urging readers to explore it further.[14]

The entire poem of Ha’azinu is framed by a meta-narrative (Deuteronomy 32:8-9, 43) suggesting that YHWH had originally won Israel as His share while that nation was small and insignificant (vv. 9-10) but gradually God and nation gained a powerful and supreme position. This detail matches the biblical story. The poem goes on to explain why He started with such an insignificant nation, unbefitting His position.

In an early reading of verse 8, preserved in the Septuagint and in the fragments of the scroll 4QDeuteronomyj from Qumran, we read (with the variant at the end the fourth line):

בְּהַנְחֵ֤ל עֶלְיֹון֙ גֹּויִ֔ם,
בְּהַפְרִידֹ֖ו בְּנֵ֣י אָדָ֑ם
יַצֵּב֙ גְּבֻלֹ֣ת עַמִּ֔ים,
לְמִסְפַּ֖ר בְּנֵ֥י אלהים
כִּ֛י חֵ֥לֶק יְ־הֹוָ֖ה עַמֹּ֑ו,
יַעֲקֹ֖ב חֶ֥בֶל נַחֲלָתֹֽו.
When Elyon assigned inheritance to the nations,
When he separated mankind,
He established the territories of nations,
According to the number of minor gods.
YHWH’s share is His nation,
Jacob is his allotted inheritance.

The verse describes the division of humanity into nations, and the assignment of territory to each nation “according to the number of minor gods.” Each god thus receives a nation and territory, and YHWH receives (or takes) Israel as His share (v. 9).[15]

According to a reasonable (if radical) understanding of the original verse 8, when all gods in the world received their inheritance from a senior god appropriately named Elyon ([most] high), YHWH was a merely a minor deity.[16] YHWH subsequently raised Israel, making Himself a reputation as a senior and successful god among other nations and their gods. At the end of the poem (verse 43), whose original version is preserved in the scroll 4QDeutq and (in slightly different form which cannot be elaborated here) the Septuagint, all those gods are summoned to praise YHWH, the God of Israel, and acknowledge His greatness, similarly to the summons of Psalm 29:1-2.

הרנינו שמים עִמּוֺ,
והשתחוו לו כל אלהים.
Sing, O Heavenly beings (or: Heavens), with Him,
And bow to Him, all ye gods.

This reading is unusual and seems exceptional in biblical religion, since it admits the existence of other divine beings in addition to YHWH, possibly even acknowledging the initial low standing of YHWH in the divine ranks. This problem was noticed by ancient scribes who made a number of corrections to deal with the problems.

Israelites not Gods (Correction 1) – In verse 8, instead of establishing the territories according to the number of minor gods (למספר בני אלהים), MT and SP have Elyon establishing territories based on the number of Israelites (לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל). Replacing “sons of god” with the neutral “sons of Israel” avoids the theological problem of multiplicity in the divine realm, but it obfuscates much of the message of vv. 8-9.

The original point was that each land has its own territorial god, but what does the corrected text with “sons of Israel” mean? Traditional commentators addressed this problem in various ways. Rashi and Pseudo-Jonathan suggest it refers to the 70 sons of Jacob who went down to Egypt (Gen 46) and the corresponding seventy nations of Genesis 10. Rashbam and Bekhor Shor suggest it refers to the twelve tribes who replace the twelve Canaanite nations. Surprisingly, ibn Ezra declares it to be a secret (סוד). In short, the theological correction creates a serious contextual problem—the meaning of the verse is no longer clear.

Nations not Gods (Correction 2) – Similar corrections were inserted also in the MT and SP versions of v. 43. First, instead of the heavenly beings singing with YHWH, it is now the nations singing about YHWH’s people (הַרְנִינוּ גוֹיִם עַמּוֹ). In addition, the parallel phrase, “bow to him all ye gods” is deleted entirely in MT and SP.

YHWH is Elyon (Polemical Counter-verse) – Without changing the text of Ha’azinu itself, a corrective paraphrase of the same idea in Deuteronomy 4:19-20 places YHWH unmistakably as the senior god:

דברים ד:יט וּפֶן תִּשָּׂא עֵינֶיךָ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְרָאִיתָ אֶת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְאֶת הַיָּרֵחַ וְאֶת הַכּוֹכָבִים כֹּל צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם וְנִדַּחְתָּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לָהֶם וַעֲבַדְתָּם אֲשֶׁר חָלַק יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֹתָם לְכֹל הָעַמִּים תַּחַת כָּל הַשָּׁמָיִם. ד:כ וְאֶתְכֶם לָקַח יְ־הוָה וַיּוֹצִא אֶתְכֶם מִכּוּר הַבַּרְזֶל מִמִּצְרָיִם לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם נַחֲלָה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
Deut 4:19 And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These YHWH your God allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven; 4:20 but you YHWH took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be His very own people, as is now the case.

This passage can be understood as clarifying YHWH’s ambiguous status in Deut 32:8. YHWH is the supreme God and he actively chose Israel on his own – He was not “assigned” them, because He was the one who distributed the land to all peoples of the earth and their (minor) gods.

This polemical counter verse underscores how problematic the original version of Ha’azinu was to these scribes, and why eventually they were revised. These archaic passages in Ha’azinu were too polytheistic in the eyes of ancient readers, so the scribes took the audacious step of correcting them. Even if this left the meaning of vv. 8 and 43 not as sharp as they were in the original, this price was well worth paying for the individual or individuals who sought to present a theologically smooth version of Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy and the Sectarian Debate

Changing the text of the Bible on theological grounds is a grave matter, and would not have been lightly done.[17] In a previous article for TheTorah, “An Altar on Mt Ebal or Mt Gerizim? The Torah in the Sectarian Debate,” I described how the Masoretic text of Deuteronomy was corrected a few chapters earlier (Deuteronomy 27:4), in order to counter the sectarian claims of Samaritans over the hegemony of Shechem to Jerusalem. I believe that the motivation for adjusting the text of Deuteronomy 32 was similar to the motivation of that adjustment: the need to counter sectarian claims.

Whoever produced and promoted the early forerunners of the Masoretic text and the Samaritan Pentateuch was concerned by the teaching of sects who maintained the multiplicity of the divine realm, angels and demons, as part of their worldview. Apocalyptic circles in Second Temple Judaism, like those promoting the Book of Enoch or the circles who later expressed themselves in the Qumran writings (the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness is a good example) sought to promote this multiplicity. They endorsed it both in its weaker form, with YHWH as senior god with multiple inferior deities at his service, and in its stronger form, with some of these deities exercising free action and sometimes opposing the will of YHWH.[18]

Such sects and factions used the end of Deuteronomy as a proof text for their theology, making use of the older, uncorrected versions of Haazinu to support their message. Perhaps understandably, other contemporary Jewish streams sought to smooth out the radical cases of Deut 32:8 and 43, while allowing other demonic references in chapters 32-33 to remain in the text.

From Henotheism to Monotheism? Not Quite

It is often claimed that Israelite religion followed a consistent path of development: from Henotheism or monolatry to more abstract monotheism, which then prevailed in post-biblical Judaism in an absolute way. This view is wrong.

Many Jews throughout history found that the description of the divine realm as inhabited by one character only is insufficient for their religious needs, and they found ways to add more characters to that realm, whether in the form of angels, divine attributes (מידות), or sephirot.[19] At the same time, there were others who opposed this trend, sometimes buttressing their claim by changing the actual text of the Torah.


September 20, 2018


Last Updated

July 13, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Jonathan (יונתן) Ben-Dov is George and Florence Wise Chair of Judaism in Antiquity at the University of Haifa, and senior lecturer of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Literature. He is co-editor (with Seth Sanders) of the book Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature (ISAW and New York University Press).