Deuteronomy 32:8-9


(Jimmy Sellers) #1

8 ⌊When the Most High apportioned⌋ the nations,
at his dividing up of the sons of humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples,
according to the number of the children of Israel.
9 For Yahweh’s portion was his people,
Jacob the share of his inheritance. (Dt 32:8–9LEB)

I would like to get some feedback on this verse.
What is the Most High doing?
When did this happen? I don’t mean what date but when in relation to this 40 yr time span in the desert.
Who are the sons of humankind?
How are we to understand “ according to the number of the children of Israel.”? Remember there was no Israel at this time.
Thanks for your consideration.


(SeanO) #2

@Jimmy_Sellers In my opinion it means that God fixed the boundaries of the nations in such a way that Israel, once they came into existence, would have a land in which to thrive. John Gill, in his commentary, says as much. This is quite a rational line of thought to me.

the sense is, that such a country was measured out and bounded, as would be sufficient to hold the twelve tribes of Israel, when numerous, and their time was come to inhabit it; and which, in the mean while was put into the hands of Canaan and his eleven sons to possess; not as their proper inheritance, but as tenants at will, until the proper heirs existed, and were at an age, and of a sufficient number to inherit; in which may be observed the wise disposition of divine Providence, to put it into the hands of a people cursed of God, so that to take it from them at any time could not have the appearance of any injustice in it; and their enjoying it so long as they did was a mercy to them, for so long they had a reprieve: now here was an early instance of the goodness of God to Israel, that he should make such an early provision of the land flowing with milk and honey for them, even before they were in being, yea, before their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, existed; as early as the days of Noah; and yet, ungrateful as they were despised and set at nought his Son, the rock of salvation, when sent unto them: thus the heavenly inheritance, typified by the land of Canaan, was not only promised, but prepared, provided, secured, and reserved for the spiritual Israel of God, before the foundation of the world, from all eternity, and which is appointed according to their number; there is room enough in it for them all, though they are many; in it are many mansions for the many sons to be brought to glory.

The alternative view, of course, is Heiser’s interpretation that it was according to the number of the divine council. Hesier’s argument for the variant reading ‘sons of God’, as opposed to ‘sons of Israel’ in the Masoretic texts or ‘angels of God’ in the LXX, is possible. But I do not find it a better explanation than the plain interpretation given by Gill. The term ‘sons of God’ could also be taken as a reference to the Israelites or to the godly line of Seth - the godly people of the earth. The term itself does not automatically imply divine council. Also, where in the Bible does it indicate that God surrendered the rule of the nations to a divine council in plain terms? I do not think that it does - it requires a bit of extrapolation to arrive at that conclusion.

Psalms 22:28 - for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.

The Bible often indicates that God rules through other beings that do His will, but it does not anywhere plainly state that a divine council has been handed power over certain nations.

We do know there are other powers at work in the world for ill:

I John 5:19 - We know that we are of God, and the whole world is under the sway of the evil one.


(Jimmy Sellers) #3

I do like the explanation and it fits what I have been taught most of my life but it is dated and is a product of European cultural projection on to a ANE culture. I wonder what Gill would say if he had this point of view as a contrast. From the JPS Commentary on Deuteronomy as it deal with the same view of plain reading:

8–9. God’s benefactions to Israel began when He divided the human race into separate nations and chose Israel as His own. According to Genesis, the division of humanity into nations took place after the Flood, in the aftermath of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 10 and 11:1–9).
According to the Masoretic text, the last colon in verse 8 reads “in relation [i.e., equal] to Israel’s numbers” (le-mispar benei yisraʾel). This reading implies that God created the same number of nations as there were Israelites. He assigned territories to each nation, but took Israel to be His own people (cf. 7:6; 10:15). Since Genesis 10 lists seventy nations, the verse must mean that God created seventy nations, equal to the seventy members of Jacob’s (Israel’s) family who migrated to Egypt (see Deut. 10:22; Exod. 1:1–5).
Tigay, J. H. (1996). Deuteronomy (p. 302). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

So it sounds like the plain reading is in general agreement with a 16th century view but we must read further:

This reading raises a number of difficulties. Why would God base the number of nations on the number of Israelites? According to Genesis, Israel did not exist at the time. And why would He have based the division on their number at the time they went to Egypt, an event not mentioned in the poem? In addition, verse 9, which states that God’s portion was Israel, implies a contrast: Israel was God’s share while the other peoples were somebody else’s share, but verse 8 fails to indicate whose share they were.
Tigay, J. H. (1996). Deuteronomy (p. 302). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

A possible solution would be:

These problems are eliminated if we adopt a reading found in one of the Qumran scrolls, the Septuagint, and other texts (see Excursus 31). In place of “equal to Israel’s numbers” (le-mispar benei yisraʾel) these texts read “equal to the number of divine beings” (le-mispar benei ʾelohim). Verses 8–9 would then be translated as follows:

When the Most High allotted the nations,
and set the divisions of man,
He fixed the boundaries [or territories] of peoples
Equal to the number of divine beings,
And lo, His people became the LORD’s portion,
Jacob His own allotment.
Tigay, J. H. (1996). Deuteronomy (p. 303). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

The author further states that:

This means that when God was allotting nations to the divine beings, he made the same number of nations and territories as there were such beings. Verse 9 implies that He then assigned the other nations to those divine beings, and states explicitly that He kept Israel for Himself. This seems to be part of a concept hinted at elsewhere in the Bible and in postbiblical literature. When God organized the government of the world, He established two tiers: at the top, He Himself, “God of gods (ʾelohei ha-ʾelohim) and Lord of lords” (10:17), who reserved Israel for Himself, to govern personally; below Him, seventy angelic “divine beings” (benei ʾelohim), to whom He allotted the other peoples. The conception is like that of a king or emperor governing the capital or heartland of his realm personally and assigning the provinces to subordinates.50
Tigay, J. H. (1996). Deuteronomy (p. 303). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

So part of what drives my curiosity is, is this an accurate understanding of what a reader of that day
a. understood
b. believed
I will interested in community comments.


(SeanO) #4

@Jimmy_Sellers Yes, those are good thoughts. I think we need to be careful when trying to make arguments based upon chronological divides because even within ancient culture different societies held different views. Yes, many ancient societies, including the Greeks, believed in a pantheon of divine beings. But what set Israel apart was their worship of the one true God who was not attached to a piece of land or territory. And I think sometime when we attempt to use cultural context we can blur the distinctive nature of Israel’s beliefs.

Unlike the commentator you listed, I personally find the idea that God set the boundaries of the nations in such a way as to make a special place for His chosen people perfectly rational and preferable to paganizing (not a technical term, but I think this is basically what is happening) the Israelite conception of God’s rule over the nations. We see elsewhere that God has indeed set the boundaries of the nations even before they existed that all people might reach out and find Him.

Acts 17:26 - From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.


(Andrew Bulin) #5

Interesting passage, @Jimmy_Sellers. I honestly have not thought too much on this.

I think the context of Deut. 32 is set up as Moses’ final testimony of God and His faithful acts. It is a common theme to remind the people of what God has done, and sometimes setup a legal “courtroom” of witnesses to also testify on a cosmic level:

Deuteronomy 30:19 NASB
[19] I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants,

Moses is now at the end of his life and is providing his testimony and praise to God. Chapter 32 is referred to as the “song of Moses” in some translations. That being stated, I would assume it more prose and generalizing, than exact chronology. Therefore, the time period of this is wide ranging:

Deuteronomy 32:7-8 NASB
[7] "Remember the days of old, Consider the years of all generations. Ask your father, and he will inform you, Your elders, and they will tell you. [8] "When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, When He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples According to the number of the sons of Israel.

I agree with the sentiment that on a grand scale, the Moses and the people would be testifying in a more general sense of God’s sovereignty over all nations and throughout history. Perhaps a clue to which epics this refers to is the term “separated” or parad, which is also used at the division of the nations as a consequence of the tower of Babel (Gen. 10:32). [1] God has a sovereign plan in place and thought ahead of time about the needs and intended blessings of Israel.

This statement is then followed by very descriptive language and more prose.

I’m curious if there should be anything more to this one verse besides the general sense of God’s sovereignty over all.

Thanks again for highlighting this passage!

[1] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy in The New American Commentary, eds. E. Ray Clendenen, et al (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994) 413.