A guest post by Ashley Hibbard
Michael Heiser’s documentary The Unseen Realm, based on his 2015 book of the same name, is a fascinating examination of the Old Testament’s approach to the spiritual world. He masterfully explains how the Ancient Near East understood God or the gods to operate, and how that is reflected in the pages of the Old Testament. Heiser finds himself in murkier waters, however, when he proceeds to apply these findings theologically.
There is much to appreciate in Heiser’s approach and close reading of the text. Too often, Christians are prone to collapse the perspectives of the Old Testament and New Testament into each other, and he provides a helpful corrective. For example, I appreciate the identification of the “angel of the Lord” with Yahweh himself. I’ve argued that for quite a while now, and thanks to Heiser I now have more evidence for that position.
I really appreciate the view of the conquest of Canaan as primarily about spiritual warfare. (Not that this denies earthly warfare against humans, but it does help to answer the question of why God commands what he does.) My friend Helen Paynter of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence is among those who advance this view (see particularly her book God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today?), and projects are forthcoming from the CSBV that may continue to support this view of the conquest.
I appreciate the picture of the Edenic rebellion being largely the moment of both earthly and heavenly rebellion. It would explain why later in Job we read that the sons of God rejoiced at creation, but the only other two references to “sons of God” are either negative, as in Genesis 6, or ambiguous, as in Job 1.1
He suggests, I think quite rightly, that “let us make man in our image” likely refers to the divine council, rather than being a reference to the Trinity, or the “royal ‘we’.” As with other Ancient Near Eastern people groups, there are several texts in scripture that seem to assume that God’s rulership operates by means of such an arrangement. However, I am not clear why Heiser is so intent on drawing a strong distinction between angels and the divine council. Does it not make the most sense that God has spiritual “sons” both who form a divine council and who operate as messengers (which is the primary meaning of both the Hebrew malak and the Greek angelos)?
And although this is deeply debated, and often looked down on even by evangelicals, I think that the interpretation that the Nephilim are somehow offspring of spiritual beings (which again, I would suggest are demons/ fallen angels) deserves serious consideration. I actually think that interpretation causes the fewest issues. And could not some demons have been imprisoned for their role in the creation of the Nephilim, and some have remained free as part of God’s judgment on wicked humanity? Such an arrangement would be similar to God choosing to see some wicked nations destroyed, but some allowed to persist as part of the enacting of his plan.
I am far less convinced by his understanding of Babel: that God is distributing the peoples of the earth into the hands of demons in charge of the nations. Further, he relies heavily on Deuteronomy 32:8, which is a disputed text. While the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint read “sons of God,” most of our standard Hebrew texts read “sons of Israel.” Now, I actually think that “sons of God” is *probably* the correct reading, but I’m really uncomfortable using a disputed text as foundational to a theological argument. Further to that, here and in several of the Psalms Heiser tends to make major arguments based largely on literalistic readings of difficult poetic texts, which again is not the safest exegetical method. Further, he contradicts himself by saying that the nations are in the hands of spiritual “princes,” but that Israel is Yahweh’s nation, but then he seems to demote Michael, the prince of Israel (Dan 10:13), to a sort of protector.
My greatest objection to Heiser’s work comes from his prioritization of the Old Testament over the New Testament. The problem is that the Old Testament communicates about many Ancient Near Eastern cultural realities, including how they conceived of the spiritual world. And so the Ancient Near Eastern spiritual world has features like throne guardians and divine councils and each god having a nation to rule, and so too does Yawheh. But in the New Testament, the writers don’t talk about that (almost) at all. And when they do, they’re usually quoting OT. They don’t try to explain to the Gentiles, “Hey look, the ANE people had a largely accurate view of the spiritual world, so here’s what you need to know.” But instead they look at the spiritual world a little more in line with how the deeply philosophical Greco-Roman world did, with God having spirit servants (Heb 1:7, 14).
And so while there is much in Heiser’s readings that I appreciate, I feel like it would be more reasonable to suggest that the Old Testament is not completely literal on the matter of “the sons of God” and “the divine council,” but rather that this is one of many occurrences of divine accommodation, where God condescends to work within the paradigms of his people as far as he can, rather than presenting them with a completely alternative paradigm.
Unseen Realm is a helpful conversation partner for ministry leaders and interested laypeople who want to understand the Old Testament on the Old Testament’s terms, and that is always a laudable goal, and a necessary first step for responsible interpretation. However, as a work of theology that describes the workings of the spiritual world, I believe that it falls short, and I do not expect I would recommend it to newer Christians, or broadly for the education of the people of God.
- “Sons of God” in Job 1 is typically read positively. I am skeptical of this traditional reading, but am not yet certain enough of the validity of my position to place this text on either side. ↩︎
Ashley Hibbard is currently a research associate at the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence, and adjunct faculty at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, Ontario. She has a BRE from Great Lakes Bible College (2010), and an M.Div. from Heritage Theological Seminary (2014). She defended her Ph.D .dissertation, “Deep Calls to Deep: an investigation into a chain of intertextualities between some Genesis narratives and Deuteronomic laws” in November 2019, and is expected to graduate from Trinity College Bristol/ University of Aberdeen in early 2020.