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Impressions of “The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible,” by Michael Heiser

In the past two years, two scholars have changed the way I think about the Bible. Robert Alter introduced me to the idea of the Bible as literature, specifically a mosaic of literary traditions including the Epic, Dramatic, and even Comedic. And Michael Heiser’s lead me to read more of the intellectual context of the Bible, including the Old Religion of the Canaanites and Pseudoepigraphic work.

And now I dived right in to Heiser’s massive — and massively rewarding — Unseen Realm. It is an intimidating combination of great writing and academic weight. This same combination intimidated me from even bothering to post impressions of most of Alter’s translations (with the exception of the Book of Psalms). But it does no good to leave a mental record of regrettable works without recording those which changed my thinking in a good way.

Most of what follows is my summary of the world painted in The Unseen Realm. But before I do that, I want to compare it against the two works it is closest to: William Dumbrell’s Covenant and Creation, and The End of the Beginning. Heiser and Dumbrell have spent a considerable part of their life developing an expressing a novel interpretation of the Bible by carefully looking for threats in the Bible. Neither use literalism or obviously favor one set of books over the other. Both can serve to open up the Scriptures, by helping the reader see how the reader’s favorite sections understand to other which are harder to understand.

But Heiser is certainly the better scholar. For one, I never feared that Heiser was lying to me, while that is a constant worry reading Dumbrell. From inexplicable and unexplained translation choices, to the silent redefinition of well known terms, to a remarkable blindspot of the meaning of the critical term “Covenant,” Dumbrell’s work is “prophetic” at best, academic malpractice at worst. Dumbrell’s books may well be important in the history of Christian thought — he is the only Christian writer I know who looks forward to not having to follow Jesus and for the Son’s kingship to end — but his logic is so obscured that it’s impossible to tell.

Heiser is superior on every level. He is careful with translations, citing rival translations where possible, and discussing how this or that understanding of the ancient text would impact his writing. He is careful with the social context of the work, paying attention to Canaanite, Babylonian, Second Temple, and (elsewhere) Greco-Roman sources of ideas. While Heiser’s work adds a new layer to the narrative of the Scriptures, unlike Dumbrell he does not present a heretical doctrine. Dumbrell’s poor reader has no idea where any of these ideas come from. Heiser is generous in encouraging the reader to follow-up and dig deeper into the sources.

With that, I will try my best. What follows is a rough sketch of Heiser’s translation, methods and the broad strokes of his conclusions.

If the Bible would be re-written as a modern drama, where should it start? Heiser’s interpretation implies at at the foundation of the church, with Christ speaking the the words to Peter.

When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter,

and on this rock
I will build My church,
and the gates of Hades
shall not prevail against it.

And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Then He commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.
Matthew 16:13-20

Catholics read “this rock” as meaning Peter, that to Peter and his successors would be the charge of a church that would last to the end of the world. Protestants have tried to argue that “this rock” perhaps means pebble, implying that Peter’s leadership would die with him.

Only Heiser, as far as I know, argues in the logic of biblical parallelism. If this verse has parallelism, “this rock” is magnified into “the gates of hell” — which must be referencing Mount Ararat, on whose slopes was the city of Caesari Philipii.  Heiser also gives the first reason for the silence I’ve heard: so that those things that live on Ararat do not know either.

This is not simply the foundation of a church in Peter, or in Peter’s apostolic successors — it is a declaration of war.

In our re-written epic, the story would then flash back to the first man. Adam was intended to be King,

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

And God said, “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food”; and it was so. Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
Genesis 1:17,26-31

But unlike the Only Begotten Son, the First Created Man failed in his Kingship. He listened to his wife and not to God. Corruption entered the world.

Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’:

“Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life…

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the LORD God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life
Genesis 3:9,22-24

The cycle repeats once more with another First Born Son, the nation of Israel. Israel the man was not first born of course — he was the younger twin of his brother Esau — but the nation of Israel is adopted by God as first born. Yet when this is announced the cycle is intensified. The declaration of Israel’s first born status is immediately followed by blood. Not just the fruit of the vine, but the fruit of veins:

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.”’”

And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a husband of blood to me!” So He let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!”—because of the circumcision.
Exodus 4:22-26

But like the man Adam, the nation Israel fails. It is corrupted. The line did not end with Adam of course — Seth continued after him — and God offered Moses a similar status as sub-father of all:

And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.”

Then Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, and said: “Lord, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?
Exodus 32:9-11

And even Moses is fallen at last.

And Moses said to them: “Have you kept all the women alive? Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately
Numbers 31:15-17

The wicked ones win again.

Now that the good guys have lost twice in a row, who are the bad guys? What is the opposition that keeps corrupting the pattern that God wants, his first-born son ruling as king of the Earth?

Here Heiser, like Dumbrell, is on weaker ground.  He seeks a novel reading with limited Scriptural support.  here the victory goes to Heiser. While Dumbrell continues on and makes claims without support or explanation, Heiser is open about his approach.

He emphasizes two New Testament verses, which describe the rebellion of the angels, and which reference the apocryphal Book of Enoch:

And the angels who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day;
Jude 1:6

and

 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment;
2 Peter 3:4

Both passages appear to reference the pseudo-Enoch’s elaboration

And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’ And Semjâzâ, who was their leader, said unto them: ‘I fear ye will not indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.’ And they all answered him and said: ‘Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.’ Then sware they all together and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And they were in all two hundred; who descended ?in the days? of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon, and they called it Mount Hermon, because they had sworn and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it.
Enoch 6:1-6

This and other adventures (later, in the Book of Enoch, the angels are indeed in prison, and beg Enoch for intercession to the Almighty) appear to be elaborations of the following passage in Genesis:

Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose.

And the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown
Genesis 6:1-4

These same Sons of God appear to have a role similar to a consultative legislator:

Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them to present himself before the Lord.
Job 2:1

Yet it is a faulty assembly:

God stands in the congregation of the mighty;
He judges among the gods.

How long will you judge unjustly,
And show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy.
Deliver the poor and needy;
Free them from the hand of the wicked.
They do not know, nor do they understand;
They walk about in darkness;
All the foundations of the earth are unstable.
I said, “You are gods,
And all of you are children of the Most High.
But you shall die like men,
And fall like one of the princes.”
Psalms 82:1-7

The Assembly of the Gods is also an aspect of the stories from ancient Canaan.

Do these and other such passages support Heiser’s argument? You should read the book and judge for yourself. What I will say though is that, unlike Dumbrell, Heiser cites his sources and provides accurate translations, allowing you to judge him on his merits, and not through his deceptions.

Now, back to our story…

It is Diablos, either the leader or a representative of these Sons of God, who offers this control to Jesus. The Devil tempts Jesus in three geographical locations: the wilderness, Mount Zion, and a an exceedingly high mountain — even today Mt Herman is so high it is called the “eyes of the nation

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”

But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written:

‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’
and,

‘In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’”

Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’”

Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.
Matthew 4:1-11

But Herman is not just an exceedingly tall mountain. It is home to Ba’al

namely, five lords of the Philistines, all the Canaanites, the Sidonians, and the Hivites who dwelt in Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal Hermon to the entrance of Hamath. And they were left, that He might test Israel by them, to know whether they would obey the commandments of the Lord, which He had commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses.
Judges 3:3-4

Thus: : A Declaration of War on the slopes of Mt Herman. The promised, and foiled, rule of the first man, Adam. The promised, and foiled, rule of the firstborn Israel. And now things happen quickly. Christ promises it will happen again! This is going to be a suicide mission!

From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.

Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!”

But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
Matthew 26:21-24

Immediately following this, the mission is ratified — again on a “high mountain.” Peter’s line that is it “ood” they are there is striking for the location, and in its optimism. There is but one God. And He is transfigured on top of the gateway to Hell, that rock, Hermon. They saw no evil spirits, no Ba’al, but they heard the voice of God, and beheld Jesus only:

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
Matthew 17:1-8

Michael Heiser integrates both Testaments (except the Deuterocanon), Second Temple Literature, and Canaanite and Babylonian stories to present a plausible reading of the Scriptures as they would have been understood by literate Jews of the 1st century. The establishment of the Church is a declaration of war. The Transfiguration is its endorsement. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem appears to be a retreat, the Crucifixion the decisive battle — where Christ defeated Death – or rather the rebellious Sons of God — in a stunning entrapment.

The reconcilliation and peace of the Crucifixion is not the peace between equals — it is the peace after a stunning victory over a defeated kingdom:

For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.

And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight
Colossians 1:19-22

Whether or not you agree with Michael Heiser, like The Lost World of Genesis One, Judaism and Christianity: A Contrast, and The Crucified Rabbi, it should be ready by anyone looking to critically understand the Bible.

I read The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible in the Audible edition.

The Academic Papers of Michael Heiser

Heiser, Michael. (2006) “Are [the LORD] and El Distinct Deities in Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32?. ” Faculty Publications and Presentations. [PDF]
Heiser, Michael. (2007) “Anthropomorphism in P.” Pacific Northwest Regional Meeting of the Social of Biblical Literature. [PDF]
Heiser, Michael. (2009) “The Old Testament Respond to Ancient Near-East Pagan Divination.” Of Global Wizardry: Techniques of Pagan Spirituality and a Christian Response. [PDF]
Heiser, Michael. (2017) “The Divine Council in the Pentateuch.” Evangelical Theological Society 2017, San Antonio. [PDF]

Dr. Michael Heiser is one of my most influential Hebrew Bible scholars. Along with Rev. Steven Boint and Dr. Robert Alter, Dr. Heiser focuses on what the Hebrew writings meant to the people who wrote them. These translators come from different religious and academic traditions — Alter is a Jewish professor, Boint is a Reformed minister, and Heiser ministers in the Evangelical tradition.

Both Alter and Heiser argue that the literary background of the Hebrew Bible was the Canaanite religion, which I’ve referred to as the Old Religion of the Habiru. Because of this I read the Ba’al Cycle and paid attention to how the Canaanite gods were referenced in the Scriptures. Heiser also argues that Second Temple Literature, such as the adventures of the deuterocanon and the First Book of Enoch, are part of the literary background to the New Testament.

The four articles above, which are linked to as PDFs but which are also available as Kindle singles, concern the murky period when the Canaanite religion was becoming what we would recognize as Judaism. An aspect of the Old Religion were the Divine Councils (plural). Perhaps a Catholic reader might call these Communions, in the sense of the Council of the Dead… the Communion of Saints?

Scholars whose divine council research focuses on Canaan and Israel see either three of four tiers within the council, with members of all tiers engaged somewhere in the council’s activities… Even ancestral spirits of the human dead are called as council (“sod”) at Ugarit….

So what’s the point of the divine council? God certainly doesn’t need one, but he chooses to allow his intelligent creations participate with him in how he wants things done — sort of like the Church. God doesn’t need us, either, but he has chosen to propel his will on earth through his believing household.”

From these short papers I was able to see a particular passage in a new way. I had already learned from Alter that when the text states that a superior says X, and then immediately the superior says Y, with no response from the inferior, it indicates a meaningful silence. The inferior party might disagree, or be shocked, or distrustful, but out of deference is not interrupting the inferior.

So take this passage in Genesis, as translated by Alter. The scene is Jacob and his smart, greedy uncle Laban. Laban has deceived Jacob into accidentally marrying a daughter he did not want, leading to the grief of both. But Laban has done well.

I’ve highlighted a specific verse for reference.

And it happened, when Rachel bore Joseph, that Jacob said to Laban,” Send me off, that I may go to my place and to my land. Give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served you, that I may go, for you know the service that I have done for you.”

And Laban said to him, If, pray, I have found favor in your eyes, I have prospered and the LORD has blessed me because of you.”

And he said, “Name me your waves that I may give them.”

And he said, “You know how I have served…”

The New King James Version translates the highlighted portion differently:

And it came to pass, when Rachel had borne Joseph, that Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own place and to my country. Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me go; for you know my service which I have done for you.”

And Laban said to him, “Please stay, if I have found favor in your eyes, for I have learned by experience that the Lord has blessed me for your sake.” Then he said, “Name me your wages, and I will give it.”
Genesis 30:25-28 (NKJV)

Heiser’s translation of that verse, and his exegesis, reads

But Laban said to him, ‘if I have found favor in your sight, I have learned by divination that [the LORD] has blessed me because of you.

The root of the word ‘divination’ here is these same as that practice condemned in Deut. 18:9-14. ”
The Old Testament Response to Pagan Divination

Indeed, Alter in his footnotes acknowledges this!

I have prospered. Everywhere else in the Bible, the verb niesh means “to divine,” but that makes little sense here, and so there is plausibility in the proposal of comparative semiticists that this particular usage reflects an Akkadian cognate meaning “to prosper.”

Laban, the greedy the smart man, who sacrificed his daughter to ensnare Israel, divined the cause of his blessings: Jacob was in his house. He persued knowledge without love.

Heiser looks not only for the cultural and linguistic context of the Scripture, but into its grammar too. For instance, its widely expected that the the earliest part of the Bible we have is the result of editing work conducted in Babylon after the First Temple was destroyed. One source for this, one of the ancient written or oral traditions combined into the Torah, may have been a “priestly” source that particularly focused on sacrifices. Some have argued that these “priestly” sources did not understand God to be as anthropomorphic as others. Heiser quotes another academic as writing

Blatant anthromorophisms such as God’s walking in the gardens of Eden, making Adam’s and Eve’s clothes, closing Noah’s ark, smelling Noah’s sacrifice, wrestling with Jacob, standing ont he rock at Meribah, and being seen by Moses at Sinai/Horeb are absent in [the priestly source].

(The view of God as anthropomorphic, of having human attributes, was widespread in the ancient and classical near east, from God hosting a heavenly feast with wine in the canaanite religion, to the Son of God hosting a last supper with wine in Christianity.)

But Heiser argues against this, using a database driven approach that reminded me of the debunking in The Treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau:

The comparative totals are quite interesting and defy expectations. Rather than [other sources, called “J” and “E”] containing more instances of clear anthropomorphisms, it is [the Priestly source, “P”] that outnumbers J and E. There were sixteen instance for P compared to a total of nine for J and nine for E. P, therefore, has almost as many anthromorphisms as J and E combined with respect to these searches.

Yet Heiser is also willing to address controversies that are foolish. The 82nd Psalm includes the striking opening

God stands in the congregation of the mighty;
He judges among the gods.
How long will you judge unjustly,
And show partiality to the wicked? Selah…
All the foundations of the earth are unstable.
I said, “You are gods,
And all of you are children of the Most High.
Psalm 82:1-2,6

Which Christ on earth referenced:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? If He called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?
John 10:34-36

In a triumph of pedantic scholarship, some read this and conclude

1. God is judging the Gods
2. But God is standing
3. That means God is acting as both prosecutor and judge
4. But prosecutors re lower than Judge
5. Therefore the psalmist means to write “The LORD stands in the congregation of the might; God judges among the gods.”
6. This is not biblical parallelism, but a statement that the LORD is separate, distinct, and inferior to God

Heiser argues against this not only on literary but contextual and historic grounds. A bad argument easily dispatched.

Ironically, there may be a different way to see the One True God as both seated and standing in the Psalm, but neither academic mentions that.

So what is the point? Heiser, directly, does not tell us. These articles appear to stand alone.

But behind them appears to be an internally consistent cosmology. Both The LORD and God are presented with human attributes in Genesis. The LORD and God are not distinct entities, but the same One God. He, the One God, creates and guides creation, with both natural and supernatural creatures assisting in this work. But as there as bad natural deeds so can there be bad unnatural deeds. Discerning this is important for what is to come.

I read these articles in the Kindle editions.