Angels and Gods at Qumran

In Michael Heiser’s 2004 doctoral dissertation on the divine council (DC) he argues that the ideologies and terms associated with the DC in Second Temple Jewish literature were not a departure from, or redefinition of, those of the pre-exilic DC. Specifically, he takes issue with the conclusion that the gods and sons of God of the early literature are understood as angels in the Second Temple literature. Here are some representative comments:

First, if the divine council had ceased to exist in Israelite religion by the end of the exile, how does one account for the roughly q75 references in the Qumran material to multiple אלהים and בני) אלים)? How are explicit references to the “divine council/council of El” (עדת אל) and the “council of the gods” (עדת אל/אלוהים or סוד אלים/אלוהים) in these same texts to be understood? Why are these exact phrases understood as referring to polytheistic leanings in pre-exilic canonical literature, but redefined after the exile? Moreover, how can the presumed downgrading of the pre-exilic gods of the divine council to servant angels account for a Second Temple heavenly hierarchy that retained the worldview of territorial control by divine beings?

A tagged computed search of the Dead Sea Scrolls database reveals there are no lines from any Qumran text where a “deity class” term (בני] אלים/אלהים]) for a member of the heavenly host overlaps with the word מלאכים. In fact, there are only eleven instances in the entire Qumran corpus where בני] אלים/אלוהים] and מלאכים occur within fifty words of each other.

First, I disagree that we should expect to find the two sets of terms parallel to each other in order to conclude they are being used synonymously. Heiser seems to agree, since at a later point in his dissertation he argues that Yhwh need not be explicitly identified with the מלאך יהוה in order for the latter’s nature as an extension of Yhwh’s identity to be determined. He states (62, n. 307):

By the time of Judg 2:1-4 in the story of Israel’s journey, it is abundantly clear to the audience who the angel represents by virtue of the implication of Exod 23:20-23, that the angel had been guiding Israel since leaving Egypt. In such “late” accounts, there was no need of identification. Indeed, the reader knows who this being represents from his first appearance in the canonical story . . .

In other words, the identification has been established, so subsequent texts have no need to reassert it. I suggest that the identification of the מלאכים with the אלוהים/בני אלים had also already been established by the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls. First, Hosea 12:4-5 uses the terms מלאך and אלהים in parallel, as does Gen 48:15-16. This was a recognition that the מלאכים were taxonomically divine. Judges 13 gives us an apparent reference to the מלאך יהוה as אלהים, although given the utter lack of any reference in the Hebrew Bible to the lethal nature of seeing angels, the מלאך יהוה is much more likely an interpolation where the text originally referred exclusively to God himself.

In the Septuagint the phrase בני אלהים is often translated αγγελοι θεου (Gen 6:2; Deut 32:8-9; Job 1:6; 2:1), showing the identification of the two. In LXX Deut 32:43 the “angels of God” are parallel to the “sons of God” in a text that originally referred simply to “all the gods.” This identification likely preceded the actual translation of the Septuagint. Later texts show awareness and acceptance of this identification, even at Qumran. See, for example, 4Q180.7-8, where the tradition of the בני אלהים and their procreation with human women from Gen 6:2 is described as only involving עזזאל והמלאכים, “Azazel and the angels.” 1 En 6:1 and Jub 5:1-11 manifest the same interpretation of the בני אלהים as angels. In later Jewish tradition Deut 32:8 is thought to refer to angels. See 1 En 20:5 and Daniel 10:13-20, for example.

For these reasons, I have to disagree with Michael that the divine council had undergone no significant evolution by the Second Temple Period. I agree with him that monotheism is not an innovation found in Deutero-Isaiah, but I contend that the above identification of the gods and sons of Gods with angels represents the definitive move toward monotheism as it is understood today. That monotheism is not the rejection of the existence of any divine beings besides Yhwh, but the understanding that other beings described as divinity in the Bible are ontologically inferior underlings confined to the angelic taxonomy.


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10 responses to “Angels and Gods at Qumran

  • WalkerW

    “[T]he seventy sons of God, originally denoting the gods of the pantheon under El, with whom Yahweh became identified, now became demoted to the status of angels, the seventy guardian angels of the nations attest in 1 Enoch.” (John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, Continuum International Publishing Group: 2002)

    I agree with Day. The demotion was a move towards monotheism.

  • Blake

    I disagree with your assessment of monotheism. I don’t believe that use of the LXX is good evidence for the DSS uses of cognates, especially angels and the elim, elohim or bene elohim. The very fact that the writers of the DSS insisted on using the Hebrew script shows that they were more concerned with preserving what they regarded as a more ancient tradition.

    However, my primary reason is that other literature that likely has close ties to the DSS shows that angels were not regarded as “ontologically” different. I should ask what you mean by this remarkably anachronistic and loaded phrase — but assuming that you mean that God created the angels, I disagree.

    The Melchizedek tradition in Hebrews regards him as uncreated. That is one of the features of his divinity. A similar tradition is attested at Qumran as you well know in 11Q Melchizedek where he is either identified with or closely associated with Elohim of Ps. 82 — as a proper name.

    The Ascension of Isaiah regards the Holy Spirit as uncreated and worthy of worship — as do the Odes of Solomon. Both were probably written by Christians who were strongly influenced by Qumran. That the angels of Azazel are begotten as bastardized offspring of divine beings and human women doesn’t mean that the divine beings were also in the same class. The angel Yahoel in the Apoc. Abr. and 3 En. suggests that some angels reflect the very glory and status of God. Not all angels are just angels — even the angels of the presence who more or less officiate in the heavenly temple are regarded as partaking of divine status.

    Nor do I think that 2nd Isaiah is monotheistic in the modern sense.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comments Blake. I’m always happy to be critiqued. I’ll be honest, though, I don’t understood exactly what you mean with your statement about DSS authors insisting on the Hebrew script because they were concerned with preserving what they thought was a more ancient tradition. The Qumran manuscripts in question were written in the normal script of their day, not Paleo-Hebrew.

      In response to your main concern, though, if you mean they are not ontologically different from other gods, then I agree. If you mean they are not ontologically different from God, then I do disagree. Even before the Second Temple Period you have repeated references to God having created the hosts of heaven (Neh 9:6, for instance), which is clearly a reference to the DC. By the Hellenistic Period it seems clear to me there’s no doubt God was conceived of as “species unique” (Heiser’s term).

      “Uncreated” is something I don’t find anywhere in the Bible. I believe that’s a later innovation, and nothing in Hebrews undermines that. This could be a reference to a lack of legitimate genealogy, it could be a reference to the priesthood and not the person, it could be a reference to Christ, or a number of other things that are more parsimonious than concluding it means Melchizedek was a god. By this time in the Christian tradition the picture of Melchizedek from Qumran was long gone. You mentioned Melchizedek’s association with Psalm 82 at Qumran, but by the time of Hebrews the view had widely disseminated that Psalm 82 referred to humans, thus Christ in John 10 implies it refers to Israelite priests. This would later find its way into a number of rabbinic texts.

      The Ascension of Isaiah and the Odes of Solomon were unlikely to have been influenced by Qumran. They were probably written after 70 CE, and any similarities are most likely the result of drawing from the same general ideological matrix. The Apocalypse of Abraham and 3 Enoch are much too late to be relevant to my discussion, and “partaking of divine status” is a Christian notion that is unrelated to Qumran, the Hebrew Bible, and the Septuagint.

  • Blake

    Daniel: I’ll take your response in reverse order. There is no question that the Odes and Asc. Isaiah were written circa 90-100 C.E. The best authorities (e.g., Charlesworth, de Jonge etc.) recognize, for a number of reasons, that the Odes were probably written by a person who had been a priest at Qumran. Just when to you think Qumran ceased to function? Priests from Qumran could easily have been a part of the diaspora and/or the community in Jerusalem pre-70. You seem to believe that Qumran ceased to function long before 70 C.E. The relationship between the Odes and the Ascension of Isaiah is pretty clear — tho I don’t claim that the Asc.Isa. was written by a priest from Qumran.

    You make two major assumptions that I question: (1) that creation is a form of ontological difference between angels and God; and (2) that all angels are the same and have the same status or reside in the same tier of authority or sphere of influence. It was universally assumed in 2nd Temple Ju. that there were seven heavens and the angels in the various heavens have a very different status and possibly even a different origin. Some are demonic, some are messengers and intermediaries, and some are cantors and priests in the Holy of Holies of the Heavenly Temple. Certainly such a view is present in Test. 12 Patriarchs and the Enoch literature.

    Your assumption regarding creation seems to overlook the fact that creatio ex nihilo is a late development and that the kinds of ontological distinctions required for your view just had not been made. Thus, I believe that your position is anachronistic.

    In the earliest Canaanite materials from Ras Shamra, as I am sure you’re aware, there are various classes of bene elohim. There are at least 3 tiers or classes of sons of God and the lowest class are messengers that later became angels in the Hebrew OT. While I don’t claim, like Heiser, that this view existed virtually unchanged to 2nd Temple times, the notion of various heavens and graded tiers of angels was a constant.

    Thus, I believe that both yahoel in Apoc. Abr. and Melchizedek in Hebrews are viewed as uncreated. They are the “top tier” of angels who are nearest to God and function as priestly divine intermediaries who can appear just as if God. There are lower tiers of angels who aren’t accorded the same status. Just what underwrites your assertion that the notion of Melchizedek maintained at Qumran was long gone when Hebrews was written is a mystery to me. Almost all scholars (I could name them if you want) see the two as part of a continuum of Melchizedek myths and cycles that are part and parcel of a common trajectory. I don’t claim that they are identical — but that they are influenced by the same Jewish myth of melchizedek as Heavenly High Priest is rather indisputable.

    Further, the view that Melchizedek is uncreated is hardly a stretch as you suggest — and your suggested alternative readings make much less sense to me than a heavenly high priest who is like God, uncreated. I guess that we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. I would also point out that my interpretation that Melchizedek is viewed as an uncreated divine being is accepted by Anders Aschim, Astour and Van der Water. You might want to look here:

    Other than John 10, could you give me one other 2nd Temple source that viewed Elohim in Ps. 82 as a mere human — as opposed to a divine human? I’m not aware of any — so I think that you’re overstating it. However, I’m more than willing to be instructed by you on this issue if you have any competent sources.

    I believe that your reading of Nehemiah 9:6 isn’t accurate — or at least is misused. The starry host are created only in the sense that they are fixed in the raquia, not in the sense that they come into being for the first time. The difference is one of ordering; not of ontological being as you see it — which is an anachronistic view of the matter.

    I have argued at length that God is not viewed as “species unique” by the 2nd temple period in my third volume of Exploring Mormon Thought. Further, altho “partaking of the divine status” is not the way it is stated at Qurman , in the OT or LXX (nor did I state it that way), but it is an idea that is clearly present in 2nd temple Jewish source in my view. At Qumran the angels of the presence who officiate in the Heavenly Holy of Holies (e.g, in the Songs of Sabbath Sacrifice) are viewed as partaking of divine glory and they are joined by the singers from Qumran. Your view is strongly challenged by a number of very competent experts in DSS scholarship. A good place to start (if you haven’t already) is James R. Davila, “Heavenly Ascents in the Dead Sea Scrolls” and Morton Smith “Ascent into the Heavens and Deification in 4QMa”. I suggest that deification is the primary focus of 1 En. 14 and 2 Enoch. I think that Andrei Orlov’s various articles are the best sources regarding this matter.

    I’m well aware that the DSS were not written in Paleo Hebrew — what has that got to do with the point I was making? It is well established that those who wrote the DSS were interested in preserving a more ancient and pristine view of the Law that had not been corrupted by the false priesthood at Jerusalem.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comments Blake. I’ll respond to your paragraphs by number:

      1- Could you point me to the publications that argue the Odes were written by a Qumran priest? All I could find from Charlesworth on this topic is the following (The Pseudepigrapha and Modern Research, 190):

      “A relationship with, and perhaps even direct influence from, the ideas peculiar to the Dead Sea Scrolls is widely acknowledged; but the Odes are not Essene as M. Testuz stated. The original language, Syriac, and the affinities with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Johannine literature, and Ignatius of Antioch indicate that the Odes may have been composed in or near Syrian Antioch. The forty-one extant odes are not Jewish but Jewish-Christian. The poetical style is not that of the Qumranic Hodayoth nor the Sibylline Oracles, but akin to and based upon the Davidic Psalter.”

      Charlesworth also dates the Ascension of Isaiah to the late second century CE, and I see no mention of a relationship with the Odes outside of ideological overlap that is the result of geographic proximity or a similar worldview. If you have some scholarship that argues for a relationship between the two, I’ll be happy to read it.

      2 – I don’t think it can be argued that the angels during the Hellenistic period were considered ontologically identical to God. Originally, angels were barely considered divinity. They were never identified with the adjective קדש in the early literature. That identification in the later literature arises from their conflation with the Sons of God, which I contend was not the exaltation of angels, but the demotion of the Sons of God. Their filial relationship with God is gone by the Hellenistic period, as is their independence. In Psalm 82 they’re even asserted to be made mortal. In every sense, except the nominal, the angels are distinguished from deity. The only option left is to argue that angels moved from ontological distinction toward ontological unity. I don’t see how the texts support this reading.

      I don’t think that all angels were conceived of as the same, but I also don’t think it’s possible to argue Hellenistic era angelology was at all systematic or consistent. I don’t see that a seven-tiered heaven was “universally assumed,” or that different angels inhabited different levels of heaven throughout the texts of the Second Temple Period. This simply takes the ideologies of a small group of texts and asserts it lies in the background of all others. I see the literature of the Hellenistic period as exploratory, speculative, and experimental. Inconsistency defines these corpora more than consistency.

      3 – I’m well aware of the lateness of creatio ex nihilo, but I didn’t assert it had anything to do with this. Creatio ex nihilo wasn’t even within view until the second century CE. Whatever the nature of their creation, the angels/Sons of God certainly share no filial relationship with God by the Hellenistic period, and I see no other way to assert their ontological identity. Texts which explain they need to eat (Wis 16:20; LXX Ps 77:25; ExodR 32:4) and have separate souls (3 En 47) clearly distinguish them from God’s ontological nature.

      4 – You’re mistaken here. There are not three tiers of Sons of El in the Ugaritic literature. The Sons of God constitute one tier in the pantheon. El and his consort comprise the top tier, and the messengers, only rarely even referred to as deity, are at the bottom. Craftsmen deities may or may not constitute a third tier, but the messengers of the bottom tier are absolutely never identified as bn ‘il/m, which are unequivocally confined to the quite distinct second tier. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a publication which argued the bn ‘l/m inhabited the entire Ugaritic pantheon.

      5 – I still don’t see “uncreated” anywhere in these texts, even if you can point to a few scholars who think the NT thought Melchizedek was divine (I know Margaret Barker thinks he was the premortal Christ, but I disagree for a number of reasons). There are a number of different ways to read Hebrews 7, and with that sole proof-text being such an interpretive battleground, your notion of an uncreated Melchizedek stands on rather shaky ground.

      6 – I didn’t find the word “uncreated,” just an espousal of Astour’s idea that Melchizedek was “coeternal with the Son of God.” You still have to retroject the later notion of “uncreated” into the NT text to assert it characterizes Melchizedek.

      7 – Hebrews 7 is only one text, though. Also, John 10 is not from the Second Temple Period. It was written decades after the temple was destroyed. It represents a proto-rabbinic perspective that was still developing. Psalms Targum 82:1 is translated with “righteous who are strong in the Torah,” and “righteous judges” where the Hebrew has אל and אלהים, respectively. In v. 6 it reads, “you are reckoned as angels,” and “you are like angels of the height.” Later rabbinic texts have this concept fully unpacked. The following are decent articles on the trajectory of this belief:

      Anthony Hanson, “John’s Citation of Psalm 82 Reconsidered,” New Testament Studies 13 (1966-67): 363-67; Jerome H. Neyrey, “I said: You are Gods”: Psalm 82:6 and John 10,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108.4 (1989): 647-63; Carl Mosser, “The Earliest Patristic Interpretations of Psalm 82, Jewish Antecedents, and the Origin of Christian Deification,” Journal of Theological Studies 56.1 (2005): 30-74.

      8 – I disagree. The verb is עשה, and it applies to the heavens, the heavens of the heavens, the hosts, the earth, and all that is on it. In Ps 33:6 the heavens and all its hosts were created (נעשו) by the word of God. There’s also Cross’ popular reading of the epithet יהוה צבאות, “He who causes the hosts to be.” I don’t see how anything but creation can be in view.

      9 – I think that species uniqueness is what makes the theology of the Hellenistic Period “monotheistic” (if the word must be used). As I see it, monotheism isn’t the rejection of the existence of other deities, but their restriction within the angelic taxonomy. When Deut 32:43 changes “gods” to “angels of God // sons of God” it asserts their identification, which is, by implication, distinct from that of God. I discuss this in these places:

      10 – I’m well aware of the ascension ideologies in Second Temple Judaism. I wouldn’t cast that as “partaking” of divinity, but I understand that’s a blurry line to draw. Angels during this time period were still viewed as divinity, and it seems to me that human ascension was largely ascent to the angelic taxonomy. My point is that “divinity” is bifurcated by this time into God and the angels, whatever their station.

      11 – I agree that the scribes responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls were interested in preserving their particular view of Torah, but there are a pluriformity of Torah manuscript traditions represented at Qumran, as well as “rewritten” Torah texts. I don’t believe they looked at the shape of the text as authoritative in the same sense that the Rabbis did. The script they were using wasn’t an aspect of that preservation. That was the contemporary script, which is why the texts were dated paleographically right from the start.

  • Blake

    Daniel: Let me add that the notion of “monotheism” is itself an anachronistic category (as I’m sure you’re aware from reading Heiser). In addition, the Son of Man in 1 Enoch is also regarded as uncreated tho the dating of the parables is difficult.

  • Blake

    Daniel: I don’t have time to respond to a lot, but I will take up a few rather glaring points:

    1. “They were never identified with the adjective קדש in the early literature.” I must be missing something here. I’m not going to take the time to use Hebrew script because I don’t think my fonts are compatible. It seems to me that you assume that angels aren’t being referred to by the qdshim. As you are well aware, , members of the council of gods are referred to as qdshim repeatedly (e.g., Ps. 89.8) On what basis to do you conclude that these references are not to angels? The bene elohim have all of the characteristics of the various classes of angels — they act as messengers and at El’s request and worship him in the heavenly temple etc. I don’t think that this distinction is at all apparent as you assert.

    I believe that it is rather obvious the quedoshim referred to repeatedly in the DSS are simply the angels who serve in the heavenly temple. I don’t believe that the notion that the qdshim are not angels in the DSS us sustainable.

    2. For Charlesworth and the identity of the writer as a priest from Qumran, see “The Odes of Solomon and the Johannine Tradition,” in Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 2 (1988), 49-69; see also R. Culpepper, “”The Odes of Solomon and the Gospel of John” in Catholic Biblical Quarterly 35 (1973), 298-322.

    I’m well aware that Charlesworth sees Asc. Isa. as later (about 150), but I believe that the argument for an earlier dating is more compelling. See an article that I’m sure will interest you because of the blurring of the relation between the Holy Spirit who is worshiped and the angels who are not, Loren Struckenbruck, “Worship and Monotheism in the Ascension of Isaiah,” in the Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism with which I am sure you must already be aware.

    4. I’m well aware that John is not 2nd temple and that John was written later. Thus it is not evidence of a view that bene elohim were considered humans in the 2nd temple period. I think you’re the one who makes that assertion, not me. I’ve cited (and actually read) all of you sources you identify in your #7 in Exploring Mormon Thought vol. 3. Mosser disagrees with you.

    5. Final point because I have to go — just what do you claim that creation in terms of “asah” means in Hebrew texts? It certainly doesn’t mean to bring into being as you would translate it.

    6. I agree that the angels were lowest tier of the Sumerian pantheon. However, there are several tiers of bene elohim and the messengers artisans are viewed as an extension of the council overseen by Baal who reports to El.

    Thanks for the great conversation, gotta go so I’ll pick it up later.

  • Blake

    Dan: “As I see it, monotheism isn’t the rejection of the existence of other deities, but their restriction within the angelic taxonomy.”

    I’m not sure what this means. Isn’t the real difference one your view as follows: (1) God is a separate species than angels and all other things in reality; (2) you conclude (1) because God created all things that aren’t God?

    So it isn’t just a continuum view as taxonomy goes, it is an ontological distinction based upon uncreated and created orders?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I’m not going to have a lot of time as my exams are getting close, but I wanted to at least respond to this last question. I don’t think creation necessarily has much to do with this move toward monotheism. I think it has mostly to do with the conflation of all the different divine beings into the angelic office, so to speak. The Sons of God, cherubim, seraphim, and all other divine beings in the Hebrew Bible originally quite distinct from angels (messengers) are mashed together and all asserted to be angels in the Hellenistic period. I suggest that conflation is the point where Judaism developed the view of deity that we define as monotheism today.

  • Blake


    I suggest that the notion of monotheism is a modern one that assumes creation ex nihilo and that the distinction is just the one I suggested in my prior post: God alone is uncreated and everything else has an ontologically distinct and dependent (and inferior) type of existence as uncreated beings. That is why I wanted to clarify your view. That is why I’m uncomfortable with ever using the term “monotheism” to describe even Deutero Isaiah and Second Temple period sources — that term is anachronistic and carries baggage that just doesn’t fit. I think that is why I haven’t understood you. You don’t intend to import all of this baggage in your use.

    However, above you speak in several places as if the real dividing line is creation, for instance citing Neh 9.6 as if it supported an implicit monotheism. The problem, as I see it, is that it seems to me that this unintended baggage is logically implicit in your approach.

    Finally, the notion that one can generalize about the conflation of the identity of the bene elohim, seraphim, cherubim, holy ones etc. from the single instance of translation bene elohim as angels in Dt. 32.43 LXX is unconvincing. There is no reason to conclude that even the rest of the LXX translators would agree. There are numerous instances where this conflation is not made such as Gen. 6.1-4.

    Furthermore, Walter Kaiser argues that though the Septuagint translated the expression as being equivalent to “angels”, it is in fact only the Alexandrian manuscript that does so. Alfred Rahlfs’ critical edition does not reflect the angelic interpretation. Kaiser, Walter, et al. Hard Sayings of the Bible Intervarsity press, Downers Grove. 1996, 106-07.

    In addition, wrt Dt. 32.8, many Septuagint manuscripts have in place of “sons of Israel”, angelōn theou ‘angels of God’ and a few have huiōn theou ‘sons of God’. The Dead Sea Scrolls fragment 4QDeutj reads bny ’lwhm ‘sons of God’, ‘sons of the gods’.

    Thus, I don’t believe that there is anything like a consistent approach to the equation of sons of God with angels in Second Temple Judaism — or even among the translators of the LXX.

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