Sons of God in Deut. 32:8, Husband of One Wife, Pre-existent Messiah

1. Martin Jan Mulder, “The Transmission of the Biblical Text,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 93.

“Another example of the tendency to eliminate ideas felt as ‘pagan’ from the received text is Deut 32:8, which says that YHWH ‘fixed the bounds of the people according to the number of ‘the children of Israel” [(benei yisrael)]. The LXX and a fragment from the Qumran caves, however, clearly indicate what Ibn Ezra had already suspected in the Middle Ages, namely that the original wording must have been [benei el(im)], ‘sons of El [or: gods]’–who might possibly be interpreted as angels.”

I already knew about the different versions of Deuteronomy 32:8, but I had no idea that Ibn Ezra suspected that the original wording was “sons of God.” I wonder what the basis of his suspicion was? The MT’s “Sons of Israel” may not work because, even though seventy people in Jacob’s family went down to Egypt (Genesis 46:27), and there are seventy nations in the world according to Genesis 10-11, not all of those seventy in Jacob’s household were sons of Jacob/Israel. Jacob and Leah were among that number, and they certainly weren’t “sons of Israel.” Maybe that’s why Ibn Ezra concluded the Deuteronomy 32:8 had to mean something other than “God divided the world into nations according to the number of the sons of Jacob, namely, seventy.” I don’t know.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 405.

“The passages 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Tit. 1:5, where Paul directs that presbyter-bishops and deacons must be husbands of ‘one wife’…are differently interpreted. The Greek church takes the words both as commanding…one marriage of the clergy (to the exclusion, however, of bishops who must be unmarried), and as prohibiting a second marriage. The Roman church understands Paul as conceding one marriage to the weakness of the flesh, but as intimating the better way of total abstinence (Comp. 1 Cor. 7:7, 32, 33).”

I wonder what “Paul” of the Pastoral Epistles means when he says bishops must be the husband of one wife. Conservatives love to use this passage to exclude women and homosexuals from the clergy, but couldn’t it also exclude unmarried people? Isn’t there something about raising a family that gives a man the experience he may need to take care of a congregation? As I Timothy 3:5 states, “for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?” (NRSV).

At the same time, Paul wasn’t married. But was Paul technically a bishop? Sort of. Yes, he was a missionary who started churches, but he also saw himself in a parental sort of role (I Corinthians 4:15), with the authority to discipline his churches (I Corinthians 4:21). So maybe he was a bit of an overseer. And yet, he wasn’t married.

So perhaps the Catholic interpretation is right: “Paul” of the Pastorals means that, if a bishop is married, he must be the husband of one wife. And yet, who knows? There’s a sense in which the Pastoral Epistles are more family-oriented than Paul himself. The Pastorals are big on marriage and family and children, which Paul doesn’t focus on as much (unless you want to count Ephesians and Colossians as Pauline). So I wouldn’t be surprised if they did mandate bishops to be married.

3. Jacob Neusner, Judaism’s Story of Creation: Scripture, Halakhah, Aggadah (Boston: Brill, 2000) 184-185.

“‘And the spirit of God hovers’ refers to the spirit of the Messiah, in line with the following verse of Scripture: ‘And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him’ (Is. 11:2).”

This is from Genesis Rabbah. There have been Christians who have maintained that Jews viewed the Messiah as pre-existent. They probably have missionary ambitions in this claim, for they want to show Jews that Christianity is not too different from Jewish traditions, meaning they (the Jews) can receive Jesus as their Messiah and still be faithful to Judaism. I’m not sure what other passages Christian missionaries use (I vaguely recall that they appeal to others), but this is one of them.

I agree with Neusner, however, that this passage doesn’t support the pre-existence of the Messiah, but rather seeks to demonstrate that Israel’s history is foreshadowed or previewed in Genesis 1. In the other parts of the passage, we see rabbinic attempts to tie Genesis 1 to Babylon, Media, Greece, and Rome. Their application of Genesis 1:1 to the Messiah relates to his future coming, in their eyes, not his pre-existence at creation.

I can say this about this particular passage of Genesis Rabbah, but I’m not as sure about other ones that Christian missionaries cite to support the Messiah’s pre-existence in Judaism.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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