In the last nine years, I’ve had the privilege of travelling to other nations, visiting people who see the world in a very different way. Because of this, I’ve become painfully aware just how much the prevailing worldview of the west colors everything. That there are aspects of the Bible that make sense to people who live in contexts that more closely resemble that of the ancient near east. That there are assumptions I bring into the text that others might not.
The danger of this, of course, is that if I’m not being mindful, those assumptions can cause me to miss really important aspects of what the Scriptures teach. So when I read and study, I try to be mindful—in my limited ability to do so—of this fact. To acknowledge it and try to move past it. But at the same time, we don’t know what we don’t know. For those of us who strictly use translations for our study and reading, there might be insights we are missing from the text that can only be caught in the original languages—insights that might cause us to rethink our entire understanding of the Bible.
That’s the argument put forward by Michael Heiser, scholar in residence at Faithlife1 in two books, The Unseen Realm and Supernatural (as well as their companion websites). Heiser argues that what we’re missing is an understanding of the supernatural worldview of the Bible, and that we need to rediscover this aspect of the Scriptures and allow it to correct our thinking about the Bible and the redemptive story.
“Do you really believe the Bible?”
Heiser begins these books with a provocative question: “Do you really believe the Bible?” Most of us (I hope) would quickly say yes; but Heiser encourages us to stop and really consider our answer. If we really believe the Bible, we need to take seriously what it says about all things—including supernatural beings.”If our theology really derives from the biblical text, we must reconsider our selective supernaturalism and recover a biblical theology of the unseen world,” he writes (Unseen Realm, 18).
And that’s good advice. After all, the Bible speaks a great deal of supernatural beings, starting at the beginning (or, at least, shortly after it). From the earliest chapters of Genesis on to the end of the Bible, we see these beings playing a role in the created order:
- We see Satan deceiving our first parents
- We see God set the cherubim to keep watch over the garden, so Adam and Eve could not return
- We see angels acting as messengers of hope and judgment
- We see demons tormenting God’s people
On and on it goes. And then there are these parts of the Bible that leave us asking questions like:
- Who is the “us” God is talking to?
- Who or what are the “sons of God”—and what are the Nephilim?
- What does the psalmist mean by the “divine assembly” in Psalm 82?
They are questions worth asking, and questions scholars and every day Christians have been asking for centuries. Heiser felt the weight of finding their answers. After spending 15 years searching, and gaining a greater understanding of Semitic languages, the literature of Second Temple Judaism such as 1-2 Enoch, and other ancient near-eastern texts along the way, he believes he’s come to an answer—though that answer might be hard for some to take.
Elohim and elohim
In The Unseen Realm and Supernatural, Heiser gives us a picture of the heavenly realm that sees God as the God of gods, ruling over a divine council to whom he has delegated authority, one that mirrors the authority structure we see put in place in the creation account. These beings are the elohim—heavenly beings who are subordinate to Yahweh, who is Elohim:
Yahweh possess superior attributes with respect to all elohim. But God’s attributes aren’t what makes him an elohim, since inferior beings are members of that same group. The Old Testament writers understood that Yahweh was an elohim—but no other elohim was Yahweh. He was species-unique among all residents of the spiritual world. (The Unseen Realm, 32)
Clear as mud, right? While it’s easy to dismiss, it’s worth considering—does the biblical account describe, essentially, a pantheon over which Yahweh presides? Does this then change how we read passages referring to idolatry, including the first commandment: “Do not have other gods besides Me”? If so, perhaps an elohim has taken the identity of Baal or Zeus or Krishna. And does it change how we understand what it means to be made in the image of God? Heiser’s answer is yes, for to image God is “not an ability we have, but a status. We are God’s representatives on earth. To be human is to image God” (The Unseen Realm, 43).
In light of this conclusion, the entire Bible is recast as the struggle between God and these other divine beings. Seventy were set in authority over all the nations, and somewhere along the way, decided to refuse to honor and acknowledge Yahweh as their authority. God had effectively abandoned the nations, until the time of Christ and the sending of the seventy out to the nations, thus signaling that God was reasserting his authority over all.
The Jewish Trinity
One of the most compelling aspects of these books is Heiser’s discussion of the awareness of Yahweh as being one God but multiple persons among the Hebrews. He points out that the theology surrounding the Trinity did not originate in the New Testament era, but in the Old:
There are two Yahweh figures in Old Testament thinking—one invisible, the other visible and in human form. Judaism before the first century, the time of Jesus, knew this teaching. That’s why ancient Jewish theology once embraced two Yahweh figures (the “two powers”). But once this teaching came to involve the risen Jesus of Nazareth, Judaism could no longer tolerate it. (The Unseen Realm, 148)
Pointing to several OT texts, Heiser makes a strong case over several chapters of The Unseen Realm (and an equally strong statement in a chapter of Supernatural) that the Scriptures consistently teach this important doctrine. This is something that’s important to us as we consider how to reach modern Jews and Muslims with the gospel, and the Trinity and the divinity of Christ are major stumbling blocks for them. But if we can argue persuasively, if we can show that the claim of Christ’s divinity fits with the Old Testament narrative and its theology, we may have a better chance of persuading them to at least consider it.
Arguing from whitespace
While there is a great deal of intriguing food for thought in these books, and questions worth considering, one difficulty is they inevitably draw a number of its conclusions from the white space of Scripture—that is, many of the conclusions are based upon implications that could be there, but either aren’t explicitly stated in the text (or, in some cases, are stated in extrabiblical literature). So we’ve got to be mindful of reading into the text thing that may not be there, for that can lead us as far off course as our own blindness to the underlying worldview of the Bible. For the sake of time, I’ll limit myself to three issues that came to mind as I read:
Who images God? Heiser writes that the afterlife is all about “about discovering and relishing the unblemished creation in all its unimaginable fullness alongside God himself, the risen Jesus, and our fellow imagers, human and supernatural” (Supernatural, 32, emphasis in original). However, when we look to Scripture, only human beings are called the image bearers of God. Only humans are said to be being made into the image of Christ. In fact, there’s nothing in the New Testament about us ruling alongside heavenly powers (beyond God himself), though there are a number of mentions of us ruling over them. So, while we know very little about how the heavenly realm operates, we ought to wary of making too many direct connections where Scripture does not.
Why was everyone in the promised land killed? Additionally, there comes the challenge of the conquering of the promised land, one that in recent centuries has caused difficulties for a number of people trying to explain the purpose behind the event. Heiser explains it as a holy war, which is true insofar as it goes. But he takes it a step further and recasts the Canaanites and Amorites as being the descendants of the Nephilim, rather than of Noah, and therefore not human. “They were produced by other divine beings. They did not belong to Yahweh, and he therefore had no interest in claiming them. Coexistence was not possible with the spawn of other gods” (The Unseen Realm, 203). While intriguing, this view does present some difficulties, notably was Rahab, the woman who gave refuge to the Israelite spies in Joshua 2—and became part of the family line of Jesus—human? Similarly, what about the other Canaanite women who were taken as brides by the sons of Jacob?
It seems an unnecessarily complicated explanation to a conquest for which God had already given an explanation in Genesis 15:16: “In the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” God was using the Israelites as an instrument of judgment on earth—God’s wrath against sin being revealed on the earth. Is that not a sufficient answer, given that it’s what the Bible says?
Who is God calling “gods”? Finally, there’s the challenge of Psalm 82 itself, which led him upon his search, and one he believes refers to divine beings, not humans. And while that could be the case, as I considered it, I felt it important to ask, “How does the Bible interpret this passage?” After all, this is one of the key principles for biblical interpretation: to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. So I went looking to see where else this verse is referenced, and by whom.
What I found was John 10:34-36:
Jesus answered them, “Isn’t it written in your scripture, I said, you are gods? If He called those whom the word of God came to ‘gods’—and the Scripture cannot be broken—do you say, ‘You are blaspheming’ to the One the Father set apart and sent into the world, because I said: I am the Son of God? (HCSB, emphasis added)
Here, Jesus rebukes the Jewish religious leaders after they’d accused him of blasphemy for calling himself God’s Son, and he uses Psalm 82:6-7 to help them understand why they’re wrong. Verse 35 is of key importance: “If He called those whom the word of God came to ‘gods’”. Now, who did the word of God—the Scriptures—come to? The Jews, which would lead me to think Jesus is using it to refer to human beings (which Heiser disagrees with, naturally, in a paper he’s written on John 10:34, which is available here). There’s not a lot I can say here. While, arguably, we can’t say definitively that Jesus was speaking strictly of humans, it is certainly seems to fit with the way Jesus uses the text, which makes it worth considering.2
So what does it really change?
In the end, what did these books really change in how I interpret the Bible and see the world? Ultimately, not that much. The premise is intriguing, and there was some very helpful information I gleaned from it (particularly the use of Enoch in Peter and Jude’s epistles—I may write on that another time). But all in all, my take is that while Heiser offers a number of helpful insights, he also makes a number of leaps of logic that don’t appear to hold up under scrutiny. So while I wouldn’t say they’re not worth reading, I’m not sure you’ll be missing anything if you don’t. At the end of the day, my worldview was not rocked, nor my mind blown, and I’m pretty sure I’m still reading my Bible the way I did before.
And hopefully that’s a good thing.