Book Review: Unseen Realm by Michael Heiser
The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael S. Heiser is an excellent book that is a challenge to many of our presuppositions of what Scripture says about the unseen, spiritual world.
In the first chapter of the book, Heiser points out a watershed moment in which his friend told him to read Psalm 82 in Hebrew:
“The verse hit me like a bolt of lightning: ‘God [elohim] stands in the divine assembly; he administers judgement in the midst of the gods [elohim].” (Genesis 1:1, Lexham English Bible)
This verse, Heiser says, unmistakably links the Hebrew word elohim to two completely different uses in the same verse: one referring to the one true God elohim, and the other referring to “the gods.”
Starting with the premise that the Hebrews believed in other “gods” and that these were not merely idols, but real divine beings, both good and bad, Heiser reveals a “non-traditional” theology of the unseen world:
“There it was, plain as day: The God of the Old Testament was part of an assembly—a pantheon—of other gods. . . . I’d always thought—and had taught to my students—that any other ‘gods’ referenced in the Bible were just idols. As easy and comfortable as that explanation was, it didn’t make sense here. The God of Israel isn’t part of a group of idols. . . . I immediately set to work trying to find answers” (pp. 11-12).
Heiser goes on to point out how various attempts by Evangelicals of explaining away Psalm 82:1 and verses like it were weak and incorrect. For example, some contend elohim (“the gods”) was referring to human leaders, or the Trinity. In response, Heiser says, “Psalm 82 states that the gods were being condemned as corrupt in their administration of the nations of the earth” (pg. 12). This rules out the Trinity for obvious reasons, and God never appointed a council of Jewish teachers to rule over foreign nations.
Heiser goes on to tie the concept of a “divine council” into a variety of other subjects and themes in scripture (e.g. the Nephilim, the divine council, angels, Satan, evil spirits, and much more).
This quote encapsulates Heiser’s intention for the reader: “My goal is simple. When you open your Bible, I want you to be able to see it like ancient Israelites or first-century Jews saw it, to perceive and consider it as they would have. I want their supernatural worldview in your head” (pg. 13).
The structure of The Unseen Realm includes laying out some “rules of engagement” with the biblical text, and goes on to explain how a variety of subjects fit into the idea of a “divine council”: The Households of God, cosmic geography, garden and mountain imagery, the giant Nephilim, conquest of Canaan, and much more.
In chapter 4, Heiser explores the different possibilities of what elohim can mean and how this fits within Israelite monotheism.
He teaches that the places in the Old Testament where God refers to Himself as “us” (Gen. 1:26, 11:7; Isaiah 6:8) are not referring to the Trinity or to the “royal we,” but to the divine council. This would not mean that the Trinity were not present, but that the ancient Jews would have understood these Scriptures to be speaking about the divine council, or heavenly host whom God involved in His decisions.
Heiser uses a few examples in scripture to back up this idea. For example, in 1 Kings 22:16-23 God clearly meets with a divine council in order to make a decision concerning King Ahab.
A few names throughout the Bible for the members of this divine council are “divine assembly,” “elohim” (Psalm 82:1, 6) “the holy ones,” (Psalm 89:5-7), “the watchers” (Daniel 4:17), and “the sons of God” (Gen. 6:1-4; Job 38:4-7).
This is not polytheism. Rather, God is presiding over an assembly.
The Bible is consistent in calling God “The Most High” and showing His dominance over all other gods and creation. Scriptures like Psalm 38:7 clearly have these elohim as at least an audience to God’s creation of the world. Elohim elsewhere are called to ascribe to Yahweh the glory that is due Him (Psalm 29:1-2).
This quote clearly encapsulates what the book teaches about polytheism:
“Since elohim is so often translated God, we look at the Hebrew word the same way we look at capitalized G-o-d. When we see the word God, we instinctively think of a divine being with a unique set of attributes—omnipresence, omnipotence, sovereignty, and so on. But this is not how a biblical writer thought about the term. Biblical authors did not assign a specific set of attributes to the word elohim. That is evident when we observe how they used the word.”
Heiser goes on to give a half-dozen entities described using the word elohim:
- The members of Yahweh’s council (Psa 82:1, 6)
- Gods and goddesses of other nations (Judg 11:24; 1 Kgs 11:33)
- Demons (Hebrew: shedim—Deut 32:17)
- The deceased Samuel (1 Sam 28:13)
- Angels or the Angel of Yahweh (Gen 35:7)
“The importance of this list can be summarized with one question: Would any Israelite, especially a biblical writer, really believe that the deceased human dead and demons are on the same level as Yahweh? No” (pp. 29-30).
I felt this book really challenged many of my presuppositions of Christian tradition on what Scripture really says about the spiritual, unseen world. It may dramatically jolt your current theology of the supernatural.
However, I think the jolt is worth it for the ability to dig deeper and challenge our current understandings. To quote Heiser, the reader may find himself “reading the Bible again for the first time” after reading this book. For a shorter and less scholarly book with much of the same information, Heiser has also written Supernatural for a more general audience.
(For more from Jonathan, check out jonwalt.com.)