This is Part 3 of the series by David Burnett; see Part 1, Part 2

 Part 3 – Becoming as the Stars and the Inheritance of the Nations


The Deuteronomic Vision of the Celestial Bodies as the Gods (or Angels) of the Nations

The precedent for this assumed connection in early Jewish tradition between becoming as the stars and the rule of nations is rooted in the Deuteronomic portrayal of the celestial bodies as the gods or angels of the nations, members of Yahweh’s Divine Council.1 It is necessary to point out here the hermeneutical significance of Deuteronomy for Paul (especially 29-32) that colors much of his engagement with scripture in Romans.2 Lincicum rightly recognizes that Deuteronomy “has been received by Paul with a threefold construal of the book as ethical authority, theological authority, and a lens for the interpretation of Israel’s history.”3 It is precisely the theological authority of Deuteronomy and its function as a lens for interpretation for Paul and Early Judaism that will be necessary to keep in mind.

The aniconic discourse of Deuteronomy 4 surveys all the creatures under heaven, whose images Israel must abstain from fashioning idols. After the creatures under heaven have been catalogued, the author directs Israel’s attention to the heavenly beings. Deuteronomy 4:19 states:

“And do not lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven (πάντα τὸν κόσμον τοῦ οὐρανοῦ), and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the Lord your god has allotted to all the nations under the whole heaven (ἃ ἀπένειμεν κύριος ὁ θεός σου αὐτὰ πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν τοῖς ὑποκάτω τοῦ οὐρανοῦ).”

Here, the celestial bodies themselves are regarded as the “hosts (or ornaments) of heaven (κόσμον τοῦ οὐρανοῦ)” who have been allotted or assigned to (ἀπονέμω) all the nations (ἔθνεσιν) under heaven.4 Later in Deuteronomy, in the same vein, Israel is commanded to refrain from the worship of the heavenly host in Deut 17:2-3:

“If there is found in your midst, in any of your towns, which the Lord your god is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your god, by transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshipped them (καὶ ἐλθόντες λατρεύσωσιν θεοῖς ἑτέροις καὶ προσκυνήσωσιν αὐτοῖς), whether the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven (ἢ παντὶ τῶν ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τοῦ οὐρανοῦ), which I have forbidden…”

The celestial bodies here are referred to as “gods (θεοῖς)”. Likewise in 29:18 (17), 26 (25), these beings are referred to as the gods of the nations:

“so that there will not be among you a man or woman, or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the Lord our god, to go and serve the gods of those nations (τοῖς θεοῖς τῶν ἐθνῶν)… they went and served other gods (θεοῖς ἑτέροις) and worshiped them, gods whom they have not known and whom he had not allotted to them (θεοῖς οἷς οὐκ ἠπίσταντο οὐδὲ διένειμεν αὐτοῖς).

Here in 29:25, we find similar language of the distribution (διένειμεν) of the gods of the nations akin to 4:19. Finally in the Song of Moses we see these ideas come together in the narratival recounting of Israel’s election:

“When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam (ὅτε διεμέριζεν ὁ ὕψιστος ἔθνη, ὡς διέσπειρεν υἱοὺς Αδαμ), he set the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the angels of God (ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ). For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the allotment of his inheritance (καὶ ἐγενήθη μερὶς κυρίου λαὸς αὐτοῦ Ιακωβ, σχοίνισμα κληρονομίας αὐτοῦ Ισραηλ).” (Deut 32:8-9)5

In Deuteronomy, the celestial bodies are portrayed as the gods or angels allotted to rule the nations. While the Lord (YHWH in the MT) appoints the gods or angels to rule the other nations, he elects Jacob (Israel) as his own inheritance (κληρονομίας), ruling over them directly as their sovereign. It is important to note that the language of inheritance (κληρονομία) employed here in LXX Deuteronomy denotes the particular relationship between the divine sovereign and the nation to which He rules. With this relationship in mind, Israel’s election appears to be the reason why they call Yahweh father (πατήρ) (Deut 32:6).

The language of inheritance (κληρονομία) is employed in the same fashion in Ps 82:8. Sharing the Deuteronomic vision, Psalm 82 narrates a scene in the Divine Council where Yahweh passes judgement on the gods of the nations for their ruling unrighteously (κρίνετε ἀδικίαν, 82:2).6 Echoing the language of Deut 32:8 for the gods of the nations, Yahweh pronounces his judgment in 82:6-7 saying: “I said ‘you are gods (Θεοί), sons of the Most High (υἱοὶ ὑψίστου), all of you; nevertheless you will die like men and fall like any one of the rulers (ἀρχόντων)’.” The psalmist then concludes with the following cry: “Arise, O God, judge the earth (ἀνάστα, ὁ θεός, κρῖνον τὴν γῆν)! For it is you who will inherit all of the nations (κατακληρονομήσεις ἐν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν, 82:8).” Corresponding to Deuteronomy, Psalm 82 provides a narrative framework for early Judaism’s understanding of inheritance (κληρονομία) that includes the judgment of the gods of the nations and Yahweh’s restored rule over them.

Philo’s Reception of the Deuteronomic Vision and the “Fathers” of the Nations

In Philo’s interpretation of the territorial law of Deut 19:14, we see an interesting explanation of the identity of the “fathers (πατέρες)” mentioned. In On the Posterity of Cain 89, he states:

“These boundaries were fixed not by the creation to which we belong, but on principles which are divine and are older than we and all that belongs to earth. This has been made clear by the Law, where it solemnly enjoins upon each one of us not to adulterate the coinage of virtue, using these words: ‘thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s boundaries (ὅρια), which thy fathers (πατέρες) set up’ (Deut. 19:14), and again in other words: ‘Ask thy father and he will show thee; thine elders and they will tell thee. When the Most High distributed nations (διεμέριζεν ὁ ὕψιστος ἔθνη), when He dispersed the sons of Adam, He set boundaries of nations (ὅρια ἐθνῶν) according to the number of the angels of God, and Jacob His people became the Lord’s portion, Israel became the lot of His inheritance (κληρονομίας) (Deut 32:7-9).” (Philo, Posterity 89)

Here Philo sees the “fathers (πατέρες)” in Deut 19:14 not referring to human ancestral patriarchs, but to the angels of God apportioned over the nations, citing Deut 32:7-9.

In The Special Laws 1.13-19 we find further explanation on Philo’s conception of the astral gods of Deuteronomy and their role in God’s cosmic πόλις:

“Some have supposed that the sun and moon and the other stars were gods with absolute powers (θεοὺς αὐτοκράτορας) and ascribed to them the causation of all events. But Moses held that the universe (κόσμος) was created (γενητός) and is in a sense the greatest of commonwealths (πόλις ἡ μεγίστη), having magistrates (ἂρχοντας ἔχουσα) and subjects (ὑπηκόυς); for magistrates (ἄρχοντας), all the heavenly bodies (οὐρανῷ), fixed or wandering; for subjects (ὑπηκόους), such beings as exist below the moon, in the air or on the earth. The said magistrates (ἄρχοντας), however, in his view have not unconditional powers (αὐτεξουσίους), but are lieutenants (ἄρχοντας) of the one Father of All (τοῦ πάντων πατρὸς ὑπάρχους), and it is by copying (μιμουμένους) the example of His government exercised according to law and justice (δίκην καὶ νόμον) over all created beings that they acquit themselves aright; but those who do not descry the Charioteer mounted above attribute the causation of all the events in the universe (κόσμῳ) to the team that draw the chariot as though they were sole agents. From this ignorance our most holy lawgiver would convert them to knowledge with these words: ‘Do not when thou seest the sun and the moon and the stars and all the ordered host of heaven go astray and worship them- Deut 4:19.’  Well indeed and aptly does he call the acceptance of the heavenly bodies as gods going astray or wandering … in supposing that they alone are gods … So all the gods (θεούς) which sense descries in Heaven must not be supposed to possess absolute power (αὐτοκρατεῖς) but to have received the rank of subordinate rulers, naturally liable to correction, though in virtue of their excellence never destined to undergo it.” (Philo, Spec. Laws 1.13-19)7, then the celestial- sun, moon, and stars [Deut 4:19; 1 Cor 15:41]). Paul likens the resurrection body to that of the sun, moon, and stars (1 Cor 15:40-42), even going so far as referring to the resurrected ones as “those who are of heaven (οἱ ἐπουράνιοι, 15:48).” This Pauline complex of language fits the same background and pattern found in Romans 4 as argued in the present study. For a discussion of resurrection and astral immortality in Early Judaism, see below.]

Here, Philo describes the κόσμος as the “greatest of commonwealths (πόλις ἡ μεγίστη),” a kind of heavenly government akin to a Greco-Roman city-state where celestial rulers (ἄρχοντας) are delegated rule over subjects (ὑπηκόυς) that consist of all those who live below the heavens. Philo does not deny the divinity of the celestial bodies, but in his use of Deut 4:19, the logic given to not worship them is simply that they are not gods with “absolute powers (αὐτοκρατεῖς),” but are appointed rulers (ἄρχοντας) under the one God who is “Father of all (του πάντων πατρὸς ὑπάρχους)”. The celestial bodies are to carry out their rule by mimetic (μιμουμένους) participation in God’s own rule of the κόσμος in justice and law (δίκην καὶ νόμον).8 For Philo, the use of the appellation “Father of all (πάντων πατρός)” for God is predicated on his unshared, absolute sovereignty over the cosmic polis.

Later in Spec. Laws 4.184-188, we find the similar conceptual link between rulership and fatherhood described in detail, this time actually connecting these concepts with the potential for human rulers to be “assimilated to God (ἐξομοιώσεως της πρὸς θεόν)”:

“The ruler (ἄρχοντα) should preside (χρή) over his subjects (ὑπηκόων) as a father over his children (πατέρα παίδων) so that he himself may be honoured in return as by true-born sons, and therefore good rulers may be truly called the parents of states and nations (ἐθνῶν) in common, since they show a fatherly and sometimes more than fatherly affection. But those who assume great power to destroy and injure their subjects should be called not rulers but enemies (πονηρότεροι)9 … Now “rule” or “command” is a category which extends and intrudes itself, I might also say, into every branch of life, differing in magnitude and amount … For this is to follow God since He too can do both (for good or for worse) but wills the good only. This was shown both in the creation and in the ordering of the world (κόσμου γένεσίς τε καὶ διοίκησις). He called the non-existent into existence (μὴ ὄντα ἐκάλεσεν εἰς τὸ εἶναι) and produced order from disorder … For He and His beneficent powers (δυνάμεσι) ever make it their business to transmute the faultiness of the worse wherever it exists and convert it to the better. These things good rulers (ἄρχοντας) must imitate (μιμεισθαι) if they have any aspiration to be assimilated to God (ἐξομοιώσεωσ της πρὸς θεόν).” (Philo, Spec. Laws 4.184-188)

Here Philo points out that every ruler (ἄρχοντα) should act as a “father over his children (πατέρα παίδων).” Good rulers may be “truly called parents of the nations (ἐθνῶν).”10 As the celestial bodies were called to mimic (μιμουμένους) the rule of the “Father of all (πάντων πατρός)” in the cosmic government (κόσμος) (previously in Spec. Laws 1:13-19), so to now the human rulers must imitate (μιμεισθαι) the rule of God and his “beneficent powers (δυνάμεσι)” (likely a reference the celestial bodies, or ἂρχοντας ἔχουσα, referred to above in Spec. Laws 1:13) if they wish to be “assimilated to God (ἐξομοιώσεωσ της πρὸς θεόν).”11


  1. For support of this idea and further discussion on the Divine Council in Deuteronomy, see Daniel I. Block, The Gods of the Nations: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern National Theology, ETS 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000); Michael S. Heiser, “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Literature” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2004), 68-89; idem, “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God,” BS 158 (2001): 52-74; Nathan McDonald, Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism, FAT 2.1 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003); Patrick D. Miller, “Cosmology and World Order in the Old Testament: The Divine Council as Cosmic-Political Symbol,” HBT 9.2 (1987): 53-78; idem, “God’s Other Stories: On the Margins of Deuteronomic Theology,” in Realia Dei: Essays in Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation in Honor of Edward F. Campbell Jr. at his Retirement, ed. P. Williams et al. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999), 185-94; idem, The Religion of Ancient Israel (London: SPCK, 2000), 23-28; Theodore E. Mullen, Jr., The Assembly of the Gods: The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature, HSM 24 (Harvard: Scholars Press, 1980); Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (New York: Oxford, 2001), 41-53; idem, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 193-214; Ellen White, Yahweh’s Council: Its Structure and Membership, FAT 2.65 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 34-38. Heiser’s work is of special importance to the present study as he demonstrates, quite persuasively, that “the pre-exilic Israelite belief in a divine council under the rule of Yahweh was maintained in Israel’s faith after the exile and survived in at least some strains of Judaism well into the Common Era (quote from 258).” For the full study, see Heiser, “Divine Council.” Following this line of thought, McDonald (Deuteronomy, 96), in a discussion of the gods mentioned in 1 Corinthians 8, says of the Apostle Paul: “Paul, it can be argued, is breathing the same spirit as Deuteronomy 32. Other gods exist, but in another sense they are ‘no-gods’ and ‘demons.’ It is only YHWH that is ‘God’. Paul too wants to express the theme in relational terms. There are indeed many gods that exist, but for us (ἡμῖν) there is only one God. The absolute terms are confessional, not ontological.”
  2. For Paul’s engagement with Deuteronomy and its importance for his interpretation of scripture and thought in general, see David Lincicum, Paul and the Early Jewish Encounter with Deuteronomy, WUNT 2.284 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010); Per Jarle Bekken, The Word is Near You: A Study of Deuteronomy 30:12-14 in a Jewish Context, BZNW 144 (Berlin: De Grutyer, 2007); Guy Waters, The End of Deuteronomy in the Epistles of Paul, WUNT 2 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006); Wagner, Heralds; James M. Scott, “Paul’s Use of Deuteronomic Tradition,” JBL 112 (1993): 645-65; Hays, Echoes.
  3. See Lincicum, Paul and the Early Jewish Encounter, 198.
  4. The term “κόσμον” as a gloss for the “host of heaven” appears 4 times in the LXX, twice in Deuteronomy (4:19; 17:3; both discussed here) and twice in Isaiah (24:21; 40:26). It may be important to note here that Isa 24:21 speaks of the day Yahweh will punish the “hosts of heaven (κόσμον τοῦ οὐρανοῦ)” as well as the “kings of the earth (βασιλεῖς τῆς γῆς),” which is more than likely speaking of the judgment of the gods of the nations and the corresponding kings, sharing the linguistic and conceptual parallels with Deuteronomy and the narrative of Psalm 82 (see below).
  5. For discussions of the difficult text-critical problem in 32:8 regarding the “angels of God,” see Michael S. Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God,” BS 158 (2001): 52-74. This account is more than likely narrating the dispersing of the nations in Gen 11:1-9; the language of “separating the sons of Adam (ὡς διέσπειρεν υἱοὺς Αδαμ)” of Deut 32:8 reflecting the language of the dispersion in Gen 11:8-9, “and from there the Lord God scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth (καὶ ἐκεῖθεν διέσπειρεν αὐτοὺς κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἐπὶ πρόσωπον πάσης τῆς γῆς).”
  6. The tradition of the portrayal of the celestial bodies as the gods/angels of the nations as seen in Deuteronomy will be simply referred to for the remainder of the study as the Deuteronomic Vision. The vision functions as a cosmic-political lens through which many Jews of the period understood their world, their unique relationship to their God with respect to their election, as well as their relationship to the other nations. See e.g. Miller, “Cosmology and World Order.”
  7. The web of connections in Philo’s language here (Spec. Laws 1.13-19) for the celestial bodies (οὐρανῷ) as the rulers or magistrates (ἂρχοντας ἔχουσα) and powers (δυνάμεσι, see Spec. Laws 4.184-188 below) of the cosmos (κόσμος) provides us with an important comparative map when considering Paul’s employment of a similar complex of language for the angels, principalities, and powers (ἄγγελοι, ἀρχαί, ἐξουσίαι, δυνάμεις, cf. Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 6:2-3; 15:24; Eph 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Col 1:16; 2:10, 15) of the cosmos (κόσμος, cf. Rom 4:13; 1 Cor 6:2-3; 8:4-6). An important point for consideration in the present study is Paul’s parallel in 1 Cor 6:2-3 between the expectation that the holy ones will “judge the cosmos (ὑμῖν κρίνεται ὁ κόσμος),” connected with the idea that they will “judge the angels (ἀγγέλους κρινοῦμεν).” Later in 1 Corinthians 15, another important connection is found in the context of a discussion on the glory of the resurrection body. A survey is taken of the terrestrial creatures and then the celestial creatures, following the same pattern of Deut 4:16-19 (the terrestrial- humans, land animals, birds, fish [Deut 4:16-18; 1 Cor 15:39
  8. It is important to note that in Psalm 82, this is precisely why the gods of the nations are to be judged and lose their inheritance (κληρονομία), because they did not maintain the cosmic world order (see Miller, “Cosmology and World Order,” 438-39), but ruled unjustly (κρίνετε ἀδικίαν).
  9. See e.g. Psalm 82.
  10. This is particularly important in Rom 4:17-18 as Abraham is referred to as a “father of many nations (πατέρα πολλῶν ἐθνῶν).”
  11. For the proper context see above, Spec. Laws 1.13-19. For a helpful discussion on the meaning of “assimilation to God” in Philo, see George H. van Kooten, Paul’s Anthropology in Context: The Image of God, Assimilation to God, and Tripartite Man in Ancient Judaism, Ancient Philosophy and Early Christianity, WUNT 232 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 181-98; Wendy E. Helleman, “Philo of Alexandria on Deification and Assimilation to God,” SPA 2 (1990): 51-71; David T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato, PA 44 (Leiden: Brill, 1986), 341ff. It is surprising that van Kooten does not pick up on Philo’s qualitative reading of the promise to Abraham in Gen 15:5, as it may provide a rich exegetical source Philo could utilize in support of his Platonic notion of “assimilation to God.”