God and His Gods: A Review of Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm

I just finished an extremely interesting book, probably the most deserving of that descriptor which I’ve read in a long time. This is Michael Heiser’s book, The Unseen Realm. It is about the gods. Specifically, it as about the other gods which the Bible assumes to exist besides the true God, Yahweh.

The Unseen Realm begins with Psalm 82, which opens with this very bizarre verse:

God stands in the divine assembly;
he pronounces judgment among the gods:

Heiser, an Old Testament scholar, was in school for his Masters (if I recall correctly) when he read this psalm in Hebrew and was struck by its oddity. God is presented as standing among other gods and prouncing judgment on them for their corruption. He was quickly convinced that this could not easily be explained away, and as he researched more in the Old Testament he came to regard the “gods” in this verse as real beings, members of a divine council among whom Yahweh God was and is the greatest.

This is not the say, of course, that any of the gods mentioned are “God” in a way comparable to the true God. He is the Creator, and they are His creation. Rather, these gods (elohim in Hebrew) are simply inhabitants of the unseen, spiritual realm. They have a range of rank and power, from the lower messengers and fighters (generally associated with the term “angel”, which literally means “messenger”) to higher cherubim and seraphim to the members of the divine council who assist God in administrating the affairs of the created world. In Hebrew, he explains, elohim is a very generic term for spiritual beings, one which can apply as a name or title to Yahweh, who is the Elohim above all the elohim, or can apply as a species to other heavenly beings.

The focus of the book is on the divine council, the highest of the heavenly creatures. I will not go into his argument for this council’s existence in any depth, but he points to passages such as Psalm 82, Genesis 1, 1 Kings 22, Isaiah 6, Job 1, and many others which portray God surrounded by other heavenly beings with whom He discusses plans and decrees action. I think his case is strong, and it explains many otherwise puzzling features of the Bible, primarily in the Old Testament.

More interesting than his case for the council’s existence is his reading of their role in the story of the Bible. It is this which I would like to sketch below.

Creation
At some point, God creates the heavenly beings and puts some of them into His council (which previously was only the council of the Trinity). On the sixth day of creation, God consults with His divine council to create another kind of being which shares their image. (Heiser spends some time arguing that both the heavenly beings and man are made in God’s image, a historically debated point.) The plan is for them to grow up, join the council, and have dominion over the physical realm just as God has placed His heavenly council over the unseen realm.
Fall
Right off the bat, one of the divine council members opposes God’s plan for humanity, so he comes as the “Serpent” to trick Adam and Eve. Heiser argues against many modern scholars that Genesis 3 itself portrays the Serpent as a supernatural being and not merely as a talking animal. Thus Eve would not have been startled or concerned by conversation with someone she recognized as a member of the heavenly host.
Flood
Heiser excellently defends the supernatural interpretation of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6. The Nephilim were the offspring either of a carnal union of heavenly beings and human women or perhaps were miraculously begotten with the help of these beings, like Isaac later was to Abraham. Either way, these people were giants and powerful warriors, more wicked than others. The Nephilim were the primary problem which corrupted the world so thoroughly as to require the Flood to wipe out all life.
Babel
By the time of Babel, the Nephilim were back. Whether this is because of a second event like the one in Genesis 6, a local flood, or some ancestry in Noah’s family, they continue to cause trouble. Nimrod may have been one of them, and under him the Tower of Babel is constructed. When God judges this work, He disowns the nations and assigns them to the rule of divine council members. These council members, however, are eventually corrupted and set themselves up as gods to receive the worship of the nations.
Abraham
God calls Abraham to head the one people who He will still hold close, the people through whom His kingdom will come and bless the world. By Abraham He will create a people through whom He can reclaim the nations from the gods which have corrupted them.
Moses and the Exodus
God defeated the gods of Egypt and led His people free to return to the promised land. At Sinai, God met with Moses, Aaron, and Israel’s 70 elders, the firstfruits of a new divine council including humanity. Those who remained of His original council were also there and helped to give the Torah, which is why in the New Testament it is said that the law was delivered through angels.
Joshua and Conquest
While Israel was in Egypt, the Nephilim and the Anakim (who seem to be related) made their home in Canaan. Joshua’s conquest was primarily for two purposes: (1) give Israel possession of the land and (2) destroy all of the Nephilim. This is why the Israelites made note of the land’s giant inhabitants, and why the book of Joshua repeatedly mentions where the Nephilim and Anakim dwelt, and where they were destroyed (or not). The total annihilation treatment given to certain cities can be found to only apply where there were Nephilim and Anakim. The point was not genocide on normal people living in Canaan. Rather, the few fortified cities were Nephilim dwelt had to be completely eliminated to remove all traces of the corrupted seed.
Daniel
Daniel mentions princes in conflict who are quite obviously supernatural in nature, being mentioned along Michael the Archangel and Gabriel the messenger. The prince of Persia, for example, should be identified as a divine council member who was given authority over the Persian people, but like the others eventually turned against God.
Jesus
Jesus’ day was quite obviously one of spiritual warfare. Demons were rampant and were under the authority of Satan, who can be identified with the divine council member who deceived Eve. Satan could offer Jesus all the kingdoms of the world for the simple reason that they were all under the control of fallen council members who gave him allegiance. Jesus, of course, resisted with an eye to His own plan for reclaiming the nations. Later on, since the Old Testament was (intentionally) obscure about the death and resurrection of the Messiah, Satan and his cohorts mistakenly think it is a good idea to kill Jesus. After Jesus basically declares war on them by announcing His Messiahship right under Mt. Hermon and promising to build His church on that rock (a mountain which Heiser shows throughout the book is associated with the enemy gods), they get Him killed quickly only to find themselves defeated in His resurrection.
The End
Among other points, Heiser explains that in the end humans will be “divinized” in the sense that our glorified, spiritual, resurrection bodies will be equally at home in heaven and earth, which will be one, and we will take our seats on the divine council behind Jesus. This is what it means to reign with Christ, both in Revelation and elsewhere in the New Testament.

As you can surely see, this is a pretty interesting book. I didn’t agree with every jot and tittle, especially his frustrating reiteration every other paragraph that we have to study the culture of the Ancient Near East to understand anything in the Old Testament (I think nearly everything he said in his book could be established biblically without the need for such research, however helpful it may be). But overall, it was stimulating and very willing to shatter the comfortable conventions of modern Christian thought to recover the supernatural worldview of the Bible. We need more stuff like that, so I heartily recommend it.

Here’s the Amazon link, and here’s a link to a shorter, more accessible version for popular level reading titled Supernatural.

God and His Gods: A Review of Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm

5 thoughts on “God and His Gods: A Review of Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm

  1. Carl Naitram says:

    I agree in many ways with your analysis. It is a book that does dare come out of the box. But it is a book. I admire his taking up of spiritual issues that most just gloss over however I have problems with the term divine council. I find it difficult to include these gods in the statement “let us make man in OUR OWN IMAGE”. Our own seems to belong only to the Godhead. Something very unique. Later in the New Testament we learn one of the main purposes of God is for us to be “conformed to the image of His Son the Lord Jesus in who dwell the fullness of the Godhead. Not to be conformed to the image of the Divine council of these gods who were capable of falling.

    The argument that one day we too will be part of the Divine council when we reign with Christ is not equivalent to the Divine council he presents. The divine council got corrupted according to him. Does that mean that this possibility will exist in our case?. The bible gives us greater assurance that we will be changed from mortal to immortality. From corruption to incorruption etc. We shall be like HIM.
    Reigning with Christ means we will carry out His principles of righteousness.
    If we are like them when we reign with Christ then that does not give the assurance that we will never rebel. Rather the Bible teaches we will be changing from glory to glory.
    There are other points I can raise but will let this suffice.

    1. I have problems with the term divine council. I find it difficult to include these gods in the statement “let us make man in OUR OWN IMAGE”. Our own seems to belong only to the Godhead. Something very unique.

      I also share this concern to some degree. I am unsure what to make of it. On the one hand, taking Genesis 1 in its own right, it seems like a plausible interpretation. On the other hand, stuff like Christology and Colossians and the like do seem to uniquely identify the “image” with God and its expression in humanity, without reference to angels. This has been an ongoing debate in Christian theology. I do think, however, that Heiser’s wider account can still function even without applying the image to angels.

      The argument that one day we too will be part of the Divine council when we reign with Christ is not equivalent to the Divine council he presents. The divine council got corrupted according to him. Does that mean that this possibility will exist in our case?. The bible gives us greater assurance that we will be changed from mortal to immortality. From corruption to incorruption etc. We shall be like HIM.
      Reigning with Christ means we will carry out His principles of righteousness.
      If we are like them when we reign with Christ then that does not give the assurance that we will never rebel. Rather the Bible teaches we will be changing from glory to glory.

      I don’t think this danger is necessary to Heiser’s view, either. It makes just as much sense to say that exalted, incorruptible humanity comes to replace the corruptible spiritual beings which formerly populated the council.

      1. Carl Naitram says:

        Thanks for your thoughts. Though I do know that they are different levels of spirit beings in the heavenly realm, my mine concern is to think that The God head included created beings to “let us make man in our own image.”
        That would also imply that these created beings had part in creation..LET US MAKE MAN…”
        When the Bible is crystal clear and repeats over and over that God alone was the creator of all things.

        Another area of concern is that the Satan of the old testament is not the Satan of the New testament and this was not the devil.
        The Lord Jesus did not explain The difference when at the beginning of His public ministry He referred to them as the same person. He just made a statement knowing that when we read we would automatically connect it to the Old Testament.

        1. my mine concern is to think that The God head included created beings to “let us make man in our own image.”
          That would also imply that these created beings had part in creation..LET US MAKE MAN…”
          When the Bible is crystal clear and repeats over and over that God alone was the creator of all things.

          In Heiser’s book, he actually specifies that He doesn’t think these beings took part in creating man. He suggests that even though God is addressing the council with a new plan, He alone actually performs the work of creating man.

          Another area of concern is that the Satan of the old testament is not the Satan of the New testament and this was not the devil.
          The Lord Jesus did not explain The difference when at the beginning of His public ministry He referred to them as the same person. He just made a statement knowing that when we read we would automatically connect it to the Old Testament.

          I’m a bit confused by your wording here. Are you saying that you think the Satan of the OT is not the Satan of the NT, and thus criticizing Heiser for identifying them, or is it the other way around?

          Heiser does take them to be the same.

  2. Carl Naitram says:

    Heiser states clearly in chapter 8 page 57 that the Satan of Job chapters 1,2 as well as in Zech 3:1-2 is not the devil. The Lord Jesus in the temptation passages identifies Satan and the devil as the same. This us in his book The unseen realm.

So what do you think?