Deuteronomy 32:17 – Gods They Had Never Known

Have I said this before?  I’m sure I have.  Context when reading the Bible is everything.  Consider The Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32.  Yahweh instructed Moses to recite the words of this song to all Israel (Deuteronomy 31:30).  They were Words of warning to God’s children because He knew their hearts and how unfaithful they would be.  He wanted to remind them from where they had come, the dangers of other gods, and the consequences of following them.  The context is that by pursuing other gods, Israel would bring upon herself Yahweh’s wrath.  He gives the promise of abundant blessing, but the primary intent of the song is to show how when Israel would ignore God and worship foreign gods instead, disaster would result.

Deuteronomy 32:8-9 are verses that I’ve cited often as the Deuteronomy 32 Worldview:

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,

    when he divided mankind,

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.

In previously mentioning these verses, I’ve stressed the importance of reading them in the only translation that gets it right – the English Standard Version (ESV).  (The ESV in these verses uses the Dead Sea Scrolls which provide the gold standard for translation.)  The reference of the passage is to the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11.  Mankind disobeys God to scatter throughout the earth.  He comes down and does the scattering for them, in the process confusing their language.  At this time Yahweh places His divine sons – the sons of God (bene Elohim) over all these newly created nations.  The job of these holy ambassadors is to point people to God while He shepherds the new nation of Israel as His special inheritance.

The reason I say this must be read in the ESV is because most other Bible translations, instead of saying “the sons of God,” say “children of Israel” or “sons of Israel.”  Why is this wrong?  Consider the context.

God is declaring that His children Israel have strayed far from Him.  He wanted them to remember the days of old, referring specifically to what occurred in Babel.  God reminds them that He alone was the God who cared for them; it’s always been that way.  But this is a prophetic song.  Yahweh states that Israel will grow fat and lax in following Him.

Why?  Because they looked to other gods.  In fact, Deuteronomy 32:17 is effectively a proof text for Deuteronomy 32:8:

They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,

    to gods they had never known,

to new gods that had come recently,

    whom your fathers had never dreaded.

The Hebrew word for demons is shedim.  It means the rebellious sons of God, having a geographical context; the word primarily coming from Mesopotamian origins.  The gods that had come recently were elohim, which, depending on context, means either gods or God.

Where did these foreign gods come from?  Surrounding nations.  How did they get there?  They were originally faithful princes in the heavenly realm, i.e. sons of God, who turned away from Him in disobedience, just like Satan did.  We get a glimpse of one of these mighty rulers over the nations in Daniel 10:13, when the angel Gabriel attempts to deliver a message to the prophet:

“The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia.”

Who is the Prince of Persia?  Surely no human ruler could cause such delay for a powerful angel like Gabriel.  He is one of the shedim, one of the bene Elohim, who rules over the nation of Persia (now Iran).

Moses’ song continues by stating that these spiritual entities will turn the hearts of God’s children and make Him jealous for them.  They are gods that are no gods (Deuteronomy 32:21).  In other words, they are pretenders to their thrones.  Their very presence causes the Lord’s intense anger.  God’s wrath upon them is so great that in Psalm 82 we see that Yahweh gathers all the heavenly host into a Divine Council meeting and declares judgment upon His faithless sons.  In Psalm 82:6-7 God pronounces their fate:

I said, “You are gods,

    sons of the Most High, all of you;

nevertheless, like men you shall die,

    and fall like any prince.”

Angels cherubim, seraphim, sons of God – these are holy, spiritual beings.  They are immortal, i.e. they never die – right?

The transgression of these heavenly entities is so great, i.e. they’ve turned the hearts of so many against Yahweh – particularly the hearts of His children Israel – that He sentences them to death like any mere mortal.

There is a much larger story in the Song of Moses.  Gods that Israel had never known lured her into apostasy.  This is the context, i.e. that other gods exist and operate contrary to God’s will.

It’s the age-old story of Israel, and it’s our story as well.  Satan and his minions desire to lead humanity to the same fiery place of punishment where they will dwell for eternity.  The demonic powers in high places (Ephesians 6:12) will do everything they can to thwart God’s purposes in the earth, i.e. to redeem mankind so that in our glorified state we will inhibit eternity alongside what is now the heavenly host.

The more we understand the cosmic war in which we’re engaged, the better we can resist the enemy in the power of Jesus Christ.  Let’s study our Bibles well and engage Scripture with greater understanding by reading in context.

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