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

Hate the World, Or Burn with It

Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For everything that belongs to the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle — is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.

1 John 2:15-17

This world will burn. I don’t mean that the physical, spacetime universe will be permanently destroyed, of course.1 I mean the rulers and systems of this age, the present cultures, structures, and institutions which are beholden to the flesh and the devil, which foster sin and exacerbate suffering. These are what John and Paul often refer to in Scripture as the “world” or “this age.” And as John said just above, they are passing away. The world will be condemned and toppled when Christ returns to judge and recreate.

But it is easy to talk about this stuff in general, abstract terms. What is this condemned world in real, actual life? What does it mean to love it and the things in it, as John warned us against? I’ve been giving this some thought lately, and it is not too hard to see how it works. The world offers its own vision for life in direct opposition to the call of Jesus. Naturally, this vision takes different forms in different cultures, and I do not know much about the way of worldly life presented to people in most cultures, but what I am familiar with is the American one. So what is the world in America?

One easily identifiable component of the world system in America is its relentless pursuit of personal wealth and “success.” Our society is powerfully shaped by this idol. Ideally, we go to school to get qualifications that land us in decent jobs from which we can work our way up to riches. Few make it all the way through this journey to the top, but its role as the standard goal is unquestionable. The life of corporate advancement, complete with expensive clothing, status watches, luxury cars, and all the rest, is taken for granted as an ideal, part of the good life for which we Americans strive.

Yet, while diligently working in a profitable job is by no means an evil or a sin, the system behind this success culture is clearly and certainly corrupt to the core. Quite frequently, it demands that you offer in sacrifice your integrity, your spouse, your children, your commitment to your church, and by all means your sacrificial giving on its pagan altar. It breaks apart families and in fact even individuals under stress and the pursuit of the wind. You are not permitted to give with unlimited generosity, sacrificing wealth and status too thoroughly to help the least of these, but must spend freely and extensively on certain restaurants, gizmos, and fashions with symbolic functions in order to climb the ladder. This system is greed and pride incarnate, the actual reality of the “pride of life.” It may be true that it is entirely possible to have one of these jobs while not participating in these corruptions, but it remains a frightening world, and one which demands intentional, diligent Gospel devotion for a follower of Christ to spiritually survive.

The world also manifests itself in the reigning sexual ethos, where the only thing that matters is personal sexual expression and unrestrained choice. The union of easy divorce, endlessly accessible birth control, affordable abortion options, casual hookups, proliferating online porn, and the de-shaming of adultery brings forth a sexual culture of death. It creates emotional distress, insecure men, unfulfilled women, rapidly spreading diseases, fuel for sex trafficking, and broken homes (the last of which tends to bring with it a host of other problems, such as generational poverty, drug abuse, gang crime, and school violence). What is hailed as “liberation” is actually slavery to the flesh. The culture which asks “What’s wrong with consenting adults doing what they want in the bedroom?” is the very same culture which robs millions of people of their consenting freedom to slavishly serve (in many cases quite literally) the god Sexual Pleasure.

I could go on exposing the systems and structures which make up the world, but I want to move on to make a more important point. We must hate the world. These systems are evil, pure evil, ruining God’s creation and the humans He loves so much, and they will be damned to Hell when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. We are not allowed to flirt and compromise with the enemy of God’s create humanity, even if this enemy is made up in large part of those same humans. Whoever may make up many of the ground troops, the rulers and powers behind the world are Satan and his hordes. To participate in the systems they have set up on earth in their time of power is to participate in cosmic, demonic rebellion against God. The force that might tempt you to a “harmless” casual hookup is the same one that turned a mere man into a naked, superstrength, chain-breaking monster before driving a horde of pigs to cast themselves off a cliff to their deaths.2

This brings me to a related point about human accountability. We often wonder how God could really be justified in condemning so many normal, seemingly decent people. Would it really be right for God to punish polite Jim Bob down the road just because he’s not sure Jesus rose from the dead? Yet I want to say on this that the majority of people are not as innocent as they look. No, Jim would never buy a sex slave, but he does give his money to a porn website that acquires much of its “talent” from trafficking organizations. Yes, Jim pays for welfare with his taxes, but despite his ability to afford a BMW he has politely ignored every email, telephone, and visitation campaign asking for his support for starving orphans in Afghanistan for 15 years. And of course, Jim would never expand his company with a sweatshop filled with impoverished children, but he has no problem making major business deals giving money to companies that do just that. He might be innocent of thousands of awful crimes, but in the end God sees how he is aiding and abetting tens of thousands.

The world is an omnipresent web of wickedness, and to avoid getting caught in it takes great care. But as Christians we must take that care, because to do otherwise is to entangle Christ with Satan. Nothing can result from such a union but pain, suffering, and judgment. As John said above, “the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.” If we do not want to pass away with the world, we will have to cling to Christ, but to cling to Christ is to hate the world which opposes Him and His reign of grace.  There is no other option. Hate the world or burn with it.

This will lead us to some tough questions about the lines and connections in participation with the evils of the world. We know it would be sinful for us to submit children to labor in rough conditions with pitiful pay just because they can’t survive otherwise, but is it wrong to give our money to companies that do so in exchange for affordable shoes? All evangelical Christians would agree that homosexuality is wrong, but does that mean we shouldn’t come to our gay non-Christian friend’s wedding? And while I may just need a job, is there something inappropriate in trying to sell services for a company that I’m convinced is seriously (though legally) ripping people off?

These questions all need to be addressed, but in addressing them all we must remember the enemy. The world is the devil’s kingdom. Let us not get drawn in, but draw our swords and fight to stand for the kingdom of God instead.

Hate the World, Or Burn with It