Who are the “sons of God” who take part in the divine council?

This is the second in a series of posts in response to a multi-part question.

Part 2 of the question: Who are the “sons of God” who take part in God’s divine council? We hear in the book of Job that they meet and Yahweh delegates tasks to them. Later in the book it mentions that they were there at creation of the universe. In Psalm 82 the council members are called “sons of the Most High.” Moses says in Deuteronomy, “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance . . . he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord‘s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.”  This sounds as if Yahweh took particular care of Israel but assigned the other nations to different “sons of God” at this time. This would make sense to me if they were part of the divine council. But who were they, exactly?

I think the best way to begin addressing this part of your question is to return the article by Dr. Michael Heiser that I discussed in my first post,  “So What Exactly is an Elohim?” There it is explained that the authors of the Hebrew Bible shared the ancient Near Eastern viewpoint that the heavenly beings met in a council to decide the affairs of the universe. However, the biblical authors transformed this viewpoint in significant ways.

Most importantly, while they called all of the participants in the council elohim because of their “plane of existence”—that is, these elohim were all inhabitants of the spiritual realm—they saw an essential difference in “attributes of being” between Yahweh and the others. The others were not self-existent; they were creatures. Yahweh, by contrast, had always existed, and as a matter of fact he had created all the others. This gave Yahweh infinitely greater power and glory, and so he was the uncontested ruler over the divine council. This was a second important difference between the biblical view and that of the surrounding cultures, which envisioned a perpetual struggle for supremacy within the council between various gods of roughly equal power.

Many passages in the Hebrew Bible are actually apologetics for this transformed understanding that Yahweh is unique among the elohim (heavenly beings), and therefore their unquestioned ruler, because of his self-existence and infinitely great power. For example, Psalm 89 says,

The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord,
also your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can compare with the Lord?
Who is like the Lord among the sons of God?
God is revered in the council of the holy ones.
He is to be feared more than all who surround him.

These elohim were often represented by the stars in the sky, and so we hear Yahweh ask similarly in Isaiah,

“To whom will you compare me?
    Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
    Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
    and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
    not one of them is missing.

Yahweh offers a similar challenge to Job towards the end of the book that bears his name, in one of the passages that you mentioned. He asks,

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Or who shut in the sea with doors
    when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
    and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
    and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
    and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?

Here we see Yahweh depicted as the sole Creator, establishing the realm of human habitation (the one relevant to Job) by setting the boundaries of sea and land. The “sons of God,” created some time prior and described as the “morning stars” in a poetic parallel, are looking on and rejoicing. They are subordinate and supportive.

And this gets at the essential meaning of the phrase you are asking about. These heavenly beings or elohim are not actually “gods,” but “sons of God,” that is, they are his creatures. The phrase (sometimes found in equivalent forms such as “sons of the Most High” in Psalm 82) is being used in a different sense from the way that Jesus is described as the “Son of God” who shares God’s very essence—his “attributes of being,” if you will. It’s also different from the way that believers in Jesus become “sons of God” by adoption. It means that these are created but supernatural beings who are supposed to assist God in the administration of the universe.

You noted, for example, that the book of Job portrays them reporting  regularly to God about their assigned tasks. As you also noted, Deuteronomy suggests that various “sons of God” were made responsible for the different nations at one point. But I don’t think this means that God wanted those nations to worship these beings. I noted last time that this whole matter of the divine council is an area about which the Bible gives us very little information, and so we need to be careful not to speculate. However, it seems possible that the “sons of God” who were made responsible for nations accepted and perhaps even demanded their worship, and that this had destructive consequences for which they were judged. This may be the judgment described in Psalm 82.

I’ll address that issue in my last post in this series. But in the meantime, I think we can conclude to this point that in some way that the Bible doesn’t tell us very much about, there are created supernatural beings who assist God. The ones we hear the most about are angels (whom the Bible may  describe as elohim at at least one point). However, I wouldn’t want to develop an elaborate theology about this or try to figure out exactly what’s going on in the spiritual realm. I would recommend instead that we find encouragement in the idea that there may be many more forces at work to further God’s interests than we often realize, and so contribute to that work ourselves with renewed confidence and energy.

William Blake, “When the Morning Stars Sang Together” (detail).

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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