Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Divine Council

This week we get to look at the divine council. I personally love the image of the divine council since it forces us to seriously consider monotheism and the ancient Israelites beliefs about YHWH and other gods. 

There are multiple references to the divine council throughout the Hebrew Bible. These explicit references to either the “divine council” or the “sons of God” appear in Genesis, Deuteronomy, 1 Kings, Job, the Psalms, and Isaiah. This concept isn’t limited to one author or redactor of the Bible. It is a long held tradition which deserves to be examined. 

Many of these references to the divine council are ambiguous about what the nature of the beings on the council. The quick, monotheistic interpretation, is that they are the angels in heaven. However, Psalm 82:6 says, “I say, ‘you are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;” and Deuteronomy 32:8-9 speaks of God dividing up the nations according to the number of the gods. With two explicit examples naming these beings as gods it is not so easy to just call them angels. Though this interpretation is not impossible, but it deserves a bit more thought than a quick write off. Another interesting possibility is the satan (or the accuser) being a member of the divine council. Although the two examples in Job where the satan is present with God and the council does seem to also single the satan out as being separate from the council. While still being in the heavenly realm, the satan may not be on the divine council which leaves open the possibility that being a heavenly being doesn’t mean automatic inclusion in the council.

Whether made up of angels, gods, or both, the divine council has very specific roles. In relation to that text from Deuteronomy, the divine council keeps watch over the world. Each member has a specific people they are assigned to. The divine council also does not remain gathered together at all times. The passages from Job speak about the council coming together at specific times. This would be like what you would see in a royal court, where the advisors are out doing their jobs and report back to the king on how things are going from time to time. The This imagery of the royal court is useful for imagining the divine council. There are also examples throughout the Hebrew Bible where God asks a question of the council and a member of the council (or in one case, Isaiah) gives God answers to that question. In 1 Kings 22:20-22 God asks a question and many of the council members answer until one finally gives an answer that God chooses. They advise God on what God should do based on what God wants help on. 

This is all well and good, and at the end of this post I will put the nine examples of the divine council that were given in the prompting for this weeks blog if you want to read them for yourself. However, this post is about more than those nine references to the divine council. There are three times in the book of Genesis where God says “we” or “us” instead of “I”. Those examples are Genesis 1:26, 3:22, and 11:7. For this exercise we will consider what changes in our interpretation of these three verses if we read them as an address to the divine council as is suggested to be the most likely explanation by Bandstra.

The first example from 1:26 says, “ the God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;”” Bandstra suggests that the creation of humanity is so important that God calls together the divine council and asks for their approval (43). This also can have some very interesting effects on our interpretation of what this passage is saying. Is this God making humanity in the image of YHWH, or in the image of the divine council? Certainly, since YHWH is the one saying these words YHWH is included in this image. But is humanity made in the image that is shared between YHWH and the rest of the council or just YHWH? If God’s plan is to make us like the divine council then it makes sense to consult with them first. After all, if they are created by God earlier and then later on God wants to create beings who are similar to them it is only fair and wise of God to bring it before them first. 

The second example from 3:22 says, “Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil;”” This adds an interesting wrinkle to the previous example. If we are made in the image of God and share that with the divine council, but are made not knowing of good and evil like the divine council, then what is it the image that we share with the council? With these two examples put together we are not made equal to the divine council as we are to lack knowledge that they hold. Perhaps it is in the rest of 1:26 which speaks of the dominion given to humanity over the earth. Just as the divine council shares in dominion, so too does humanity. However, humanity oversteps the bounds of this shared dominion and attempts to become even more like the divine council.

The last example is 11:7 says, “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” This comes from the story of the tower of Babel. Once again humanity is trying to become like the divine council by building a tower that reaches into heavens giving humanity the ability to directly access the council itself. So God calls on the council to help disburse and confuse the people so that humanity will not overstep its bounds once again.

Each of these three stories is related to one another. First, God and the council work together to create humanity in the likeness shared between God and the council. Then, God and the council work together to punish humanity for seeking to become even more like the council and God. Finally, they work together a third time to stop humanity from overstepping their bounds again in their quest to become even more like God and the divine council. Unlike the divine council which God consults and works with in creating humanity, humanity is shown to not be content with the role assigned to them and instead seeks to become more the God and the divine council.  

What are your thoughts about the divine council and the we/us statements in Genesis?

Here are the nine scriptures referencing the divine council:
Deuteronomy 32:8-9
1 Kings 22:19-22
Job 1:6
Job 2:1
Job 38:7
Psalm 29:1-2
Psalm 82
Psalm 89:6-7

Isaiah 6:8


  1. To answer your question about my own thoughts, this is all quite perplexing! Contextually I struggle with it being a monotheist and am left wondering how the culture (monarchist) surrounding the writers of the bible affected how they viewed God, etc. I appreciate your well thought out post, and think you did a great job answering Stanley's post, but I wonder, what do you think about a divine council?

  2. Growing up as a fundamentalist background, I always wondered about the odd passages in Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament where God is working in a 'we' capacity. One former pastor told me it was likely a reference to the creative work of the trinity, and therefore trinitarian theology was 'read into' the Hebrew text. I never considered 'the divine council' before this class. Another interesting question you bring is if human beings are created in the image of YHWH - or the other divine beings on the council. I have learned so much from your post!

  3. It's interesting to me how these passages are downplayed or overlooked. I couldn't help but think about Greek and Roman mythology and their "gods" when I read your blog and the similarities between them and the Divine Council in early Hebrew texts. Thanks for your comments and thoughtful synopsis.