If there is one great noteworthy trend going on right now in the realm of biblical scholarship it is the turn towards attempting to re-read the Scriptures in their original context. In the 21st century there are many layers of cultural filters that lay between us and the text; Michael Heiser is one of the scholars working to help peel back those layers and give us a better understanding of what the words of the bible meant to those who originally wrote and read them.
The Unseen Realm is revolutionary in a certain sense – in the sense that G.K. Chesterton used the term – that “a revolution is a restoration.” In this work Dr. Heiser sets out to restore the supernatural worldview of biblical writers, a worldview which has since been watered down, diluted, and at times totally done away with either due to our post-Enlightenment mindset or due to our simple ignorance of ancient near eastern patterns of thought.
The specific goal of Heiser’s book is to explain the notion of “the divine council.” This is the idea that when the bible speaks of God’s “divine council” (Psalm 82), the “host of heaven” (1 Kings 22), the plural uses of elohim in Genesis, references to the gods of other nations, etc, these are all references to actual spiritual beings whom God has given some measure of authority beneath himself.
In standard modern Christian understanding, only two supernatural elements are accepted in Scripture: God, and his angels (which can then be divided into loyal angels and demons). The above references are explained as references to the Trinity (in the case of the divine council or the plural elohim), to the angels (in the case of the hosts of heaven), or to nonexistent figments of the pagan imagination and/or idols (in reference to the gods of other nations). This approach, Heiser argues, is untenable.
In its place Heiser paints a rich backdrop to the biblical narrative. In short, the gods of the other nations exist; not in the manner of polytheism, but in the manner of God having created lower spiritual beings who were given some measure of delegated authority over the nations. Many abused this authority, hence their opposition to God.
As Heiser fills in the biblical portrait with this reality many pieces of the narrative begin to fall into place which – through the modern Western lens – simply make no sense or had only the loosest guesses for answers. Why did Eve trust the serpent? What was the serpent? What’s up with the nephilim? Why was the conquest of Canaan organized the way it was? Why did God continually rely on humanity?
Perhaps even more important than allowing for other divine/spiritual beings to populate the biblical landscape, Heiser also traces the biblical narrative as it relates to these figures. God had ordained that humanity would have dominion over the world and that he would accomplish his will through them. This goal was upset by certain rebellious spirits, beginning a long history of God taking back his dominion via his people, continually returning to his original plan of working through humanity.
Heiser begins his book by laying out the filters that separate us from the world of the bible, working past the post-Enlightenment rationalism to recover a more biblical theology of the supernatural, while paying special focus to those passages that just seem strange to the modern ear because as Heiser argues, “if it’s weird, it’s important” (p20).
With this done Heiser lays out the basic foundation for believing that when the bible refers to other elohim, to Yahweh’s council, to the sons of God, and to the gods of the other nations, it is referring to other actual spiritual beings. Elohim, for Heiser, is a term which properly refers to any inhabitant of the spiritual world. He then begins unpacking the biblical narrative more-or-less chronologically, explaining how this illuminates the entirety of the biblical story beginning in Genesis and going all the way through Revelation, with special focus on those passages or ideas that seem to come out of left field for the modern reader (such as the nephilim or why demons seem to come out of nowhere once we reach the New Testament).
There are many more insights and nuggets buried in this text which there is neither the time nor space to delve into in the span of a book review.
All in all Heiser’s book is a wonderfully refreshing read. It is not without its weakness, but wherever Heiser might err on the details he is surely correct in his larger brushstrokes, strokes which serve to revitalize a section of the biblical mosaic which has long been given to decay through neglect.
–“Our traditions, however honorable, are not intrinsic to the Bible. They are systems we invent to organize the Bible. They are artificial. They are filters.”-p15
–“The believing church is bending under the weight of its own rationalism… We believe in the Godhead because there’s no point to Christianity without it. The rest of the unseen world is handled with a whisper or a chuckle.”-p17
–“Humankind was created as God’s image… The image is not an ability we have, but a status. We are God’s representatives on earth. To be human is to image God.”-p43
–“[L]egalism is not intrinsic to a biblical theology of the law. The heart of salvation in biblical theology – across both testaments – is believing loyalty to Yahweh.”-p164
–“Personal failure, even of the worst kind, did not send the nation into exile. Choosing other gods did.”-p170
–“[Christ’s] arrival marks the beginning of the end of the rule of darkness and the initiation of Yahweh’s reclamation of the nations ruled by the other gods.”-p258
–“An Edenic realization without human participation would mean that the nachash would then have won a victory – the abolition of humankind as God’s image.”-p267
–“The defeat of demons, falling on the heels of Jesus’ victory over Satan’s temptations, marks the beginning of the re-establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.”-p280
As stated, Heiser’s book is not without its imperfections.
Perhaps my biggest complaint with this book is in Heiser’s choice of terminology. In short, his terminology is likely the greatest obstacle for most in accepting the ideas presented in his book, namely in that he insists on referring to these lesser spiritual beings as ‘gods’ or ‘divine’. These terms simply have too much baggage in the English language; Heiser seems to want to use the terms while at the same time completely redefining them. This just isn’t helpful.
“Spiritual beings” may be a mouthful, but it seems closer to the point he’s making. “Angels” would be another option, and although there is a distinction to be made between the Old Testament term for angels and these beings it is worth noting that – as Heiser himself points out – the New Testament “uses for the divine council the umbrella term ‘angels'” (p.164). If it’s good enough for Luke and the author of Hebrews, it seems good enough for us, even if this requires giving a caveat to the term ‘angels’. A caveat to the term ‘angels’ is much simpler than attempting to shrug off the metric ton of baggage attached to the word ‘gods’; sure, readers might not grasp the full measure of the picture being painted if that term is used, but is seems better than blocking many readers with the use of ‘gods’ (this same issue is present when he speaks of believers becoming ‘divine’).
The issue of terminology is my largest criticism of the book. There were some minor issues I took with some parts of the book, and a couple other nitpicks might be the way Heiser ties Arminian theology into his exegesis (nothing in his broader argument relies on Arminiansim) and missing the legal context of Matthew 18:20 (p333), using it to argue that the area where Christians gather is made holy. Again, this doesn’t hurt his overall argument.
As stated already, for whatever errors it has Heiser’s book is a refreshing read; wherever he might err on the details he is surely correct in his larger brushstrokes, strokes which serve to revitalize a section of the biblical mosaic which has long been given to decay through neglect.
May or may not be a Time Lord.