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.

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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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’ 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.

Karl Barth on Providence and Heaven

For my last (rather delayed) post on Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence according to Darren Kennedy, I want to briefly address the way that heaven and, interestingly, the angels function in the whole structure. According to Kennedy, heaven and the angels are actually quite important to Barth’s providence. Why this would be the case might not be obvious at all to us, but once he explains it, the coherence is evident.

So, what do angels and heaven have to do with providence? Recall that in my last post on this I mentioned that Barth rejects the idea of miracles which violate natural order, but he understands the natural order in a broad way that allows for many things to take place which we might not be inclined to consider natural. This is where heaven and the angels come in. For Barth (and, basically, N. T. Wright of all people), the term “heaven” does not refer to the uncreated presence of God, but to the second sphere of creation, the other side from earth which is hidden from our perception. The angels belong to this created heavenly sphere, and thus strictly speaking are a part of natural creation. They are not properly supernatural, but simply belong to a different created habitat, the habitat of heaven rather than earth.

In his first brief explanation, Kennedy explains:

If God does not disrupt the causal nexus, how can one account for the specific ‘miracles’ in Scripture? Barth’s answer does not envision a violation of the causal nexus, but an expansion of it to include heaven. This explanation will help to clarify Barth’s interpretation of heaven and angels in III.3. While fully a part of the creation, heaven remains imperceptible to humanity. Nevertheless, as part of the cosmos, heavenly creatures can act and reveal in the earthly realm. Thus God directs angels—whose nature is to obey perfectly—to behave in ways that seem to disrupt creation, but violate no ontic laws of creation.1

So for Barth, then, there is nothing about miracles which necessarily violates the natural causal order. He does not overrule, bypass, undo, or contradict the “laws” by which He governs creation (since, after all, in double-agency they are His own doing, and He cannot contradict Himself). Instead, heaven and the angels are part of the natural, created world, and God from His presence in heaven sends the angels to do His will in ways which affect earthly realities. A blind man, for example, may receive sight not by earthly physical processes but by angelic action, which is nonetheless “natural” in the sense that angels are a part of the created order.

Thus Kennedy argues that the realm of heaven and the angels serve as a so-called “causal joint” in Barth’s theology of providence, the point where God’s action enters into the created world. Many theologians have traditionally had a very difficult time identifying this point, explaining how and where God’s providential action is effective in the natural world. Barth by no means overcomes the mystery altogether, which would be speculative and presumptuous, but he does point to this answer grounded in biblical stories and teachings.

To understand this better, we should see how Barth sees the difficulty in the relationship of the Wholly Other God to the created world. In his understanding, God only is able to act in our world through a particular created “midpoint,” the realm of heaven which He has made to dwell in and to unite with earth. Kennedy cites this from him:

Without this special place of God, and the distance therewith posited between Himself and man in his own place, there could obviously be no genuine intercourse between them. There could be no dialogue, but only a monologue on the part of God (or perhaps of man). There could be no drama, but either God or man could only live in isolation with no relationships to others or significance for them. If this is not the case; if the theme of Christian witness is neither the life of an isolated God nor isolated man, but the history enacted between them of isolation, estrangement, reconciliation and fellowship; and if this history is really enacted in our world, then this means that God as well as man has a distinctive sphere in this real world of ours.2

This is rather similar to N. T. Wright’s view, at least at the descriptive level, of heaven as “the control room for earth..the CEO’s office, the place from which instuctions are given.”3 Kennedy does not specify whether Barth thought God acts on the world through heaven only by the angels or also by other means, but in any case the point is a mediating realm between God and man’s world.

There are oddities to this account, though. For Barth, only God and humans are truly personal beings. Angels, although superficially similar to persons, are actually not. They have no free will (of any kind), and they are used by God similarly to simple tools. On this account, he also denies that demons are fallen angels, instead incorporating them into his doctrine of Nothingness (on which I have written here). If angels have no personal agency, then they cannot have sinned unless God caused them to do so, which of course is absurd. Thus demons are placed into their own category.

This last issue is odd, and I think compromises this apsect of Barth’s providential project on Biblical grounds. Could it be reworked without it? Perhaps. In any case, it is thought-provoking, and I think as a whole Barth’s doctrine of providence seems superior to the traditional Reformed formulations.