Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Back in the Unseen Realm

I’m back in the unseen realm this week.

It wasn’t my idea really. One of the men who attends our weekly Bible study proposed we have a look at Genesis 6:1-4, the much-disputed “sons of God” passage. That was fine by me, but studying it together opens up a can of worms best addressed in the late Michael S. Heiser’s The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, a book I last read through a few years ago but never got around to reviewing here.

Heiser was probably the most recognizable modern proponent of something he calls the “divine council worldview”.

The Divine Council Worldview

Short version: The divine council worldview is the idea that there exists an elite group of seventy (or perhaps seventy-two) spirit beings to whom God has assigned administrative responsibility for each of the nations listed in Genesis 10. Scripture refers to these beings several different ways: as elohim (small-‘g’ gods), as the “sons of God” (a concept I have looked at briefly here and here), as “princes” and perhaps “archangels” (archangels may also be a subset of this group). The divine council idea does not spring directly from Genesis 6, but understanding it certainly illuminates what is otherwise a very contentious passage.

That God has some kind of regular council or court of spirit beings in heaven should not be considered an outrageous idea, though it is admittedly not much discussed from the pulpit. We see this deliberative body referred to explicitly in Job, 1 Kings and especially Psalm 82 (where it is actually called a “divine council”), and mentioned in passing in so many passages of scripture it would be impossible to list. The idea that these spirit beings have each been assigned responsibility for specific nations comes from references to “princes” and “chief princes” in Daniel 10.

Why a Divine Council?

For various reasons, some people find the idea of a divine council mind-blowing. They will accept the resurrection and the virgin birth of Christ, but are otherwise reluctant to engage with too many of the obviously supernatural aspects of scripture. Heiser candidly admits he had never considered a divine council prior to coming face-to-face with it in Psalm 82, an experience that propelled him into the fifteen-year deep dive into scripture that produced The Unseen Realm and several other books, a website and a plethora of YouTube videos.

What does God need with a council? I’ll let Heiser answer that:

“This is an obvious question. Its answer is just as obvious: God doesn’t need a council. But it’s scripturally clear that he has one. The question is actually similar to another one: What does God need with people? The answer is the same: God doesn’t need people. But he uses them. God is not dependent on humans for his plans. God doesn’t need us for evangelism. He could save all the people he wanted to by merely thinking about it. God could terminate evil in the blink of an eye and bring human history to the end he desires at any moment. But he doesn’t. Instead, he works his plan for all things on earth by using human beings. He’s also not incomplete without our worship, but he desires it.

I’m not saying that the question of whether God needs a council is pointless. I’m saying that it’s no argument against the existence of a divine council.”

I never found the idea of a divine council particularly shocking, which is probably why I am only now getting around to reviewing The Unseen Realm. I grew up in a family that had a Bible reading time every morning and with a father who accepted the supernatural elements of scripture at face value. From the time I first learned of heaven, for me it has been populated with a whole lot more than just the spirits of the righteous dead, and God’s determinative counsels have frequently involved more than just the members of the Godhead. To me, the notion that the sovereign God should choose to administrate his universe through the principle of delegation has never posed an intellectual hurdle, but that’s because the idea is so familiar to me that I never thought to question it.

Processing the Implications

Where Mike Heiser helps me is not in introducing a startling new concept, but rather in working that concept through the entire canon of scripture and seeing what other apparent difficulties it clears up, and what its theological ramifications might be. For these purposes, Heiser’s writing is perfect: he’s not the least bit technical, rambling or overly-wordy. Heiser is relentlessly logical, patient and careful in building his case, and quite reluctant to speculate about anything he can’t rigidly demonstrate from scripture. The sheer number of Bible references quoted in The Unseen Realm is incredible. Heiser has an unshakeable commitment to trying to understand and interpret scripture the way its original audience would have understood it, without filtering it through the assumptions and prejudices of our own generation. That’s no easy task, but to the extent we are able to do it, it’s a very fruitful one.

I’ll be frank: I like the divine council worldview for a number of reasons, not least because it suits me theologically. It hits me right where I live and reinforces numerous truths I had already come to believe and principles of understanding scripture I find useful. That will not be the case for everyone. Here are some of them:

1/ Genuine Agency Rather Than Determinism

Heiser is a big believer in what he refers to as “free will”. (I prefer to call it “genuine agency” to avoid triggering the determinists.) Here he is on the subject:

“If humanity had not been created with genuine freedom, representation of God would have been impossible. Humans would not mirror their Maker. They could not accurately image him. God is no robot. We are reflections of a free Being, not a cosmic automaton.”

I have always felt deterministic interpretations of scripture fail at the most basic levels. What would be the point of commanding conduct from those whose choices you are already determining comprehensively and externally, let alone punishing the failures of those whose sins were preordained? But the divine council worldview also presupposes an understanding of the phrase “made in God’s image” as something like “made to reflect God’s image in the world” or to “image God”, as Heiser puts it, something the Hebrew syntax of Genesis admits as a legitimate possibility. He turns “image” into a verb rather than a noun.

I find this a satisfying resolution to the endless debate about what it means to be made in the image of God, as well as yet another good reason to believe Christian determinism is fundamentally flawed.

2/ Foreknowledge Distinct from Predestination

Heiser also distinguishes between foreknowledge and predestination:

“The theological point can be put this way: Since foreknowledge doesn’t require predestination, foreknown events that happen may or may not have been predestined. This set of ideas goes against the grain of several modern theological systems. Some of those systems presume that foreknowledge requires predestination, and so everything must be predestined — all the way from the fall to the holocaust, to what you’ll choose off a dinner menu. Others dilute foreknowledge by proposing that God doesn’t foreknow all possibilities, since all possibilities cannot happen. Or they posit other universes where all the possibilities happen. These ideas are unnecessary in light of 1 Samuel 23 and other passages that echo the same fundamental idea: foreknowledge does not necessitate predestination.”

This way of looking at it appeals to me as both intellectually satisfying and eminently sensible. The implications are considerable:

“This has significant implications for not only the fall, but the presence of evil in our world in general. God is not evil. There is no biblical reason to argue that God predestined the fall, though he foreknew it. There is no biblical reason to assert that God predestined all the evil events throughout human history simply because he foreknew them.

There is also no biblical coherence to the idea that God factored all evil acts into his grand plan for the ages. This is a common, but flawed, softer perspective, adopted to avoid the previous notion that God directly predestines evil events. It unknowingly implies that God’s ‘perfect’ plan needed to incorporate evil acts because — well, because we see them every day, and surely they can’t just happen, since God foreknows everything. Therefore (says this flawed perspective) they must just be part of how God decided best to direct history.

God does not need the rape of a child to happen so that good may come. His foreknowledge didn’t require the holocaust as part of a plan that would give us the kingdom on earth. God does not need evil as a means to accomplish anything. God foreknew the fall. That foreknowledge did not propel the event.”

3/ Idolatry as the Worst Sin

The divine council worldview also posits idolatry as the worst sin. “You shall have no other gods before me” is job one for anyone who claims loyalty to God. This explains a lot about God’s dealings with the kings of Israel and Judah, and some things about David with which Christians I know have great difficulty. Heiser again:

“The history of Israel’s kings illustrates the point. King David was guilty of the worst of crimes against humanity in the incident with Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam 11). He was clearly in violation of the law and deserving of death. Nevertheless, his belief in who Yahweh was among all gods never wavered. God was merciful to him, sparing him from death, though his sin had consequences the rest of his life. But there was no doubt that David was ever a believer in Yahweh and never worshiped another. Yet other kings of Israel and Judah were tossed aside and both kingdoms sent into exile — because they worshiped other gods. Personal failure, even of the worst kind, did not send the nation into exile. Choosing other gods did.

Amen to that. Contrast David with Saul, stripped of his kingdom for a single failure. But what was that failure? He rebelled against God and refused to devote the Amalekites to destruction as he had been commanded. Samuel told him, “Rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.”

That last bit is crucial; Saul had effectively disobeyed the first commandment. If you can do that and then rationalize it when confronted with your guilt, even murder is a piece of cake. David’s sins, though egregious and corrosive, were well downstream of the first commandment.

4/ A Non-Mythical Flood

The divine council worldview also presupposes an actual Noahic flood (not a mythical one). Heiser provides interesting evidence for a local catastrophe of epic proportions rather than a global one, but does not insist on it. What he does insist on is a literal flood regardless of size:

“There are two alternatives for explaining the presence of giants after the flood who descended from the giant Nephilim: (1) the flood of Genesis 6-8 was a regional, not global, catastrophe; (2) the same kind of behavior described in Genesis 6:1-4 happened again (or continued to happen) after the flood, producing other Nephilim, from whom the giant clans descended.”

I dislike both these options, not least because the Flood caused an observable genetic bottleneck in scripture that even modern science is starting to acknowledge, one that would not exist if the Flood was merely local. I think it’s Heiser himself who came up with a third option in a later book; at any rate, it was instantly obvious to me. That’s the distinct probability that Ham’s wife carried Nephilim genes into the new world. The fact that the giants of Joshua’s day through to David’s day were all Canaanites lends plausibility to this theory; Canaan, if you remember, was the son of Ham and grandson of Noah. It might also explain why Noah cursed Canaan rather than Ham, when Ham was the real offender.

There’s more to like about the implications of the divine council worldview. I’ll get into that tomorrow.

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