This review will bring a number of threads together, but it won’t give you a comprehensive sense of everything discussed in this book, because it is a long, complex book with lots of things to chew on.
The Unseen Realm is a theological book written at a popular level, but with lots of footnotes. I would say it is for serious lay students of the Bible. It frequently refers to the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Old Testament that was in popular use in New Testament Times), and to other different ancient manuscripts of various Bible passages, some of which have slightly different wording that can be key for Heiser’s arguments. The scholarship on the many topics that this book encompasses is voluminous, so much so that there is a companion web site with additional articles for all the things that this book can’t get into in detail.
All of that said, it is not boring, at least not if you are interested in its main idea, which is that of a divine council of “gods” being present not only in other ancient mythologies but throughout the pages of the Bible. I came to this book for my research into future fiction projects that I may or may not be working on (ooo so mysterious!). I found out less detail than I had hoped to about the divine council, but even when we don’t learn something, we learn something. In this case, I learned that the Bible does not give us a lot of detail about this divine council, its members, or how it supposedly operates. We can assume this is on purpose.
The Main Idea: the Divine Council
It was very common in the Ancient Near East to believe that there was a council of gods or divine beings which would meet, typically on a mountain far away, and decide the affairs of men. That’s why you will often hear the title “Most High God.” Heiser’s contention is that the ancient Israelites shared this view, and that in fact the Bible endorses it. It starts very early, with God saying, “Let us make man in our image.” Though some people see this as evidence for the Trinity, Heiser contends that what is being evoked here is that God is addressing a group of beings which have already been made in His image, but are not humans. God then, all by Himself, makes man in His image, with the other beings presumably just watching.
The flagship Bible passages for Heiser’s thesis are Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32:8 – 9. In the latter, it asserts that God “divided up mankind [and] fixed the borders of the peoples according the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is His people, Jacob his inheritance.” The idea is that God assigned each “son of God” (divine being) a nation to rule over, but He took the Israelites as His own nation. Psalm 82 shows God reaming out the gods for not having done a good job ruling over the nations, promising them that “they will die like mere men” and that “all the nations” will become God’s inheritance.
These are the two most obvious passages that indicate this idea, and even they are often translated to so as to hide the fact that the original authors assumed that divine beings existed and ruled over the nations. My NIV, for example, translates Deut. 32:8 as “… according to the number of the sons of Israel.” It also puts scare quotes around the word “gods” in Ps. 82.
Ugaritic is the ancient Semitic language most closely related to Hebrew. In Ugaritic cosmology, the chief deity was El. He had a divine council that met in a lush garden or on a mountain. He had seventy “sons of El” who made up his council, and he had a coruler, Baal (which means “lord”). Much of the imagery, vocabulary, and cosmology of Ugarit is echoed or riffed off of in the Old Testament, always making the point that Yahweh is the true Most High God, the one who sits on a throne over what looks like a sea of glass, that His garden is the true garden and His mountain is the true mountain. The Israelites, though, did not quarrel with the idea that there were seventy lesser divine beings who served God. This seems to have been accepted cosmology, sort of like we accept heliocentrism. The Bible does not come out and say this directly, because it was common background knowledge in the Ancient Near East.
The Table of Nations, in Genesis 10, shows 70 nations branching off from Noah’s three sons. The idea was that subsequent to Babel, each of these nations was assigned to a son of El – a lesser god. The Most High was done with them. He would no longer be their God directly. Of course, some day the lesser gods, who did not do a good job with their people, would be demoted. Yahweh had plans to bring all the nations of the earth back and make them His own people once again.
The Divine Council in the Redemption Story
Heiser spends the rest of the book tracing this idea of the divine council, of Yahweh as the true God, and of the disinheritance and re-gathering of the nations, throughout the Bible, seeing how it plays in to the big redemption story. He gets into discussions about whether idols are nothing at all or whether they represent something more, and whether the word demon (shadim) means just a supernatural being or something evil. He gets to the giants. He gets to Jesus putting the local gods on notice when He starts crashing around Galilee. He visits the miracle of the tongues of fire at Pentecost. It’s all really interesting, really intricate, with a lot of scholarship.
Some of the ideas in this book were truly mind-blowing. For example, I had never before heard the term Monotheistic Binitarianism. (Wild!!!) “The startling reality is that long before Jesus and the New Testament, careful readers of the Old Testament would not have been troubled by the notion of, essentially, two Yahwehs — one invisible and in heaven, the other manifest on earth in a variety of visible forms, including that of a man. In some instances the two Yahweh figures are found together in the same scene. In this and the chapter that follows, we’ll see that the ‘Word’ was just one expression of a visible Yahweh in human form” (page 134). This is a consequence of mysterious Old Testament passages where Yahweh will appear to, say, Abraham in human form … but sometimes there are two or even three human figures, and the passages seem to be intentionally ambiguous about their identity or how many are there at any given time. There are not just a few of these instances either. Heiser says that this idea of “two powers in heaven” was “endorsed within Judaism until the second century A.D.” (135, footnote). It was the background to the famous passage in John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning …”
Other ideas, if I may venture, were less mind-blowing than Heiser seemed to expect them to be. Perhaps this is because I have been studying what you might call the weirder aspects of the Old Testament for some time, but even for someone who had never heard this idea, I sometimes got the feeling that Heiser was writing to a straw man. For example, he has a whole chapter about how God’s plan for a Messiah was hidden in the Old Testament, in hints that couldn’t be pieced together beforehand, but only made sense in retrospect, types and shadows. This is pretty standard Christian teaching, at least in the Reformed circles I move in, but Heiser seems to think that his readers have been given the impression that God’s whole plan of salvation was spelled out super clearly in the Old Testament. “Chances are good that you’ve heard the New Testament mistakenly read back into the Old hundreds of times. Therefore you might be surprised to hear me say that the Old Testament profile of the Messiah was deliberately veiled” (241). In the rest of the chapter, he proceeds to read the New Testament back into the Old. “It couldn’t be emblazoned across the Old Testament in transparent statements.” Yes, we know. After Jesus rose, He said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything that is written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. (Luke 24:44 – 45, quoted by Heiser on page 242) Yes, we know. The New Testament Christians could not see the significance of the Old Testament passages until Jesus (and, later the Holy Spirit) opened their eyes to see it. In fact, they spent the rest of their lives making “So that’s what that was about!” discoveries. Perhaps some modern Christians don’t realize this, but I think most people do who have spent years doing Bible study. In fact, many of the doctrines that we take for granted had to be worked out by the church through history.
Similarly, Heiser has a whole chapter about why God’s plan included making beings with free will and how this necessitated evil and how He couldn’t just erase everything and start over as soon as we messed up. Heiser is not a fan of Calvinism. Like most Arminian arguments, he seems to have a shallow understanding of what “free will” means and a shallow understanding of Calvinism as a sort of dystopian vision wherein people (and gods) are mere sock puppets directly controlled by God. I am willing to accept that God is sovereign, and that beings other than Him exist in the universe (human and supernatural), which make real choices that are in some sense free. I get that these two things should not go together, but that we have good evidence for both. So it is a paradox. I don’t need to choose between sovereignty or free will to understand the idea of a divine council.
What We’re Not Told
After reading Heiser, I am convinced that it is a biblical idea that there are spiritual “divine” beings that exist in an unseen realm. (Heiser points out that the word for these beings, elohim, is a place-of-residence word. They live in the unseen realm, therefore they are elohim. The word itself says nothing about their moral status.) Their existence plays a role, though I would still say not the major role, in God’s plan of salvation for humankind. In some ways, they are relevant, especially in their role as rogue gods of the nations. In other ways, a lot of what goes on in the unseen realm is none of humankind’s business.
Perhaps this is why the Bible does not tell us — and thus, Heiser does not tell us — the sort of details about the elohim that a researching novelist would naturally want to know. Here are a few unanswered questions:
- Are there really only seventy of them? What happened when the seventy nations multiplied into many more?
- There appears to be a hierarchy in the unseen realm, but what is it like? How many levels?
- Are the beings on the different levels different species/different in appearance (if that question even means anything)? Does the unseen realm have the equivalent of animals?
- We know some elohim rebelled against God, but how many? When? Was there more than one rebellion? Are all the rebel spirits organized under Satan, or are there rogues and factions?
- How does or did this divine council even work? In almost all of the glimpses we are given of it, it’s basically just God announcing His intentions and the council members just watching.
- There is a well-established association between the gods and the stars or constellations, but how does this work? Are they the same or symbolic? Is it a one-to-one correspondence?
This is the kind of thing that a really good novelist would get all nailed down before writing a book like, say, This Present Darkness … but it’s impossible to nail down because we are not told this stuff. Again, this is probably because it is none of our business. So if you are going to write a novel that includes gods, I would recommend you just delve into the mythology of one particular nation (Ugarit, say, or Greece as many authors have done to great success), accepting that you are riffing off of one particular nation’s interpretation of all of this, an interpretation that is based on something real, but is definitely not going to be accurate in all its details.