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.

Through the EC Book: A Declaration about Union with Christ

I recently started the first volume of Evangelical Calvinism, the big book of essays meant to explain and present the basic mood and mode of this growing development in Reformed theology which goes by that name. It is something of an EC inaugural announcement, showing the basics of what an Evangelical Calvinist approach to the Reformed tradition can look like.

Needless to say, I’m excited. Last night I read the prologue, which was actually just a copy of a declaration by the Presbyterian Church (USA) about union with Christ. It makes for a lovely introduction to how Evangelical Calvinism views theology as a whole, which really is all about union with Christ. Because I love it so much, and because it does a great job indicating the basic mood and direction of EC theology, I’m going to quote it in full (the original can be found here):

Union In Christ: A Declaration

With the witness of Scripture and the Church through the ages we declare:

I.

Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God to the world and for the world.
He is Emmanuel and Savior,
One with the Father,
God incarnate as Mary’s son,
Lord of all,
The truly human one.

His coming transforms everything.

His Lordship casts down every idolatrous claim to authority.
His incarnation discloses the only path to God.
His life shows what it means to be human.
His atoning death reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.
His bodily resurrection shatters the powers of sin and death.

II.

The Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus Christ by grace alone, uniting our life with his through the ministry of the Church.

In the proclamation of the Word, the Spirit calls us to repentance, builds up and renews our life in Christ, strengthens our faith, empowers our service, gladdens our hearts, and transforms our lives more fully into the image of Christ.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore the need for repentance, that discount the transforming power of the Gospel, or that fail to pray, hope and strive for a life that is pleasing to God.

In Baptism and conversion the Spirit engrafts us into Christ, establishing the Church’s unity and binding us to one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that seek unity in theological pluralism, relativism or syncretism.

In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit nurtures and nourishes our participation in Christ and our communion with one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that allow human divisions of race, gender, nationality, or economic class to mar the Eucharistic fellowship, as though in Christ there were still walls of separation dividing the human family.

III.

Engrafted into Jesus Christ we participate through faith in his relationship with the Father.

By our union with Christ we participate in his righteousness before God, even as he becomes the bearer of our sin.

We turn away from any claim to stand before God apart from Christ’s own righteous obedience, manifest in his life and sacrifice for our sake on the cross.

By our union with Christ we participate in his knowledge of the Father, given to us as the gift of faith through the unique and authoritative witness of the Old and New Testaments.

We turn away from forms of church life that discount the authority of Scripture or claim knowledge of God that is contrary to the full testimony of Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Spirit working in and through the community of faith across time.

By our union with Christ we participate in his love of the Father, manifest in his obedience “even unto death on the cross.”

We turn away from any supposed love of God that is manifest apart from a continual longing for and striving after that loving obedience which Christ offers to God on our behalf.

IV.

Though obscured by our sin, our union with Christ causes his life to shine forth in our lives. This transformation of our lives into the image of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit begun in this life as a sign and promise of its completion in the life to come.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in the holiness of the One who fulfilled the Law of God on our behalf.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore Christ’s call to a life of holiness, or that seek to pit Law and Gospel against one another as if both were not expressions of the one Word of God.

By our union with Christ we participate in his obedience. In these times of moral and sexual confusion we affirm the consistent teaching of Scripture that calls us to chastity outside of marriage and faithfulness within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to pray for and strive after a rightly ordered sexuality as the gracious gift of a loving God, offered to us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We also turn away from forms of church life that fail to forgive and restore those who repent of sexual and other sins.

V.

As the body of Christ the Church has her life in Christ.

By our union with Christ the Church binds together believers in every time and place.

We turn away from forms of church life that identify the true Church only with particular styles of worship, polity, or institutional structure. We also turn away from forms of church life that ignore the witness of those who have gone before us.

By our union with Christ the Church is called out into particular communities of worship and mission.

We turn away from forms of church life that see the work of the local congregation as sufficient unto itself, as if it were not a local representation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church called together by the power of the Spirit in every age and time until our Lord returns.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in God’s mission to the world:
to uphold the value of every human life,
to make disciples of all peoples,
to establish Christ’s justice and peace in all creation,
and to secure that visible oneness in Christ that is the
promised inheritance of every believer.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to bear witness in word and deed to Christ’s compassion and peace, and the Gospel of salvation.

By our union with Christ the Church participates in Christ’s resurrected life and awaits in hope the future that God has prepared for her. Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.