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Review: The Unseen Realm by Michael S. Heiser

painting of an angel, one of the supernatural being discussed in The Unseen Realm

by Rev Dr. David Instone-Brewer, Cambridge

We tend to read the OT as though God is the only spiritual being, and at the first hint of plurality (e.g., “let us create”) we look ahead to Jesus. There are of course “strange bits” like Psalm 82 and Job 1, but these can be ignored. In the NT things become a bit more complex, with Satan, demons, and angels, and we assume that these will somehow explain the strange bits of the OT. 

Michael Heiser, in his The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, pushes us to take various difficult texts seriously and shows that the situation is far more complex. He largely succeeds in building these ignored details into a coherent picture. He comes to the text as a self-confessed non-charismatic and scholar. These are two obstacles that he and many of us need to be aware of, because they may encourage us to ignore what the Bible plainly says. He leads the reader, gently but firmly, to acknowledge that the text cuts across many of our presuppositions. 

What he finds is a complex world of divine beings with as much free will as humans. Controversially he interprets the Bible literally, not only with regard to their existence but also their roles in deciding what will happen. He finds the overall decision being ordered by God, but the means and implementation are left to others. He makes a novel and strong argument against predestination based on 1 Samuel 23:12 where God says David will be betrayed at Keilah—so he doesn’t go there (the predicted betrayal never happens). Gradually this book describes a model of divine activity where God is in overall control of the outcome, but he is happy to trust various created beings to decide how to carry it out. 

Throughout the book, he points out parallels with myths and terminology found in literature from Ugarit, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, though it is sometimes preserved only in Neo-Babylonian or Enochic sources. He sees this ancient terminology behind the language of biblical authors, so when Jerusalem is described as “the heights of the north” (Heb. tsaphon, Psa 48:1–2; Isa 14:13), it is a direct reference to Tsapanu—the mountain where the council of gods lived. I found myself balking at that idea until I considered that someone could refer to the United Nations skyscraper as “the Olympian heights of world government” without implying that any gods lived there because it is just part of our language. 

The actual stories in these ancient myths are also important for understanding the Bible, but Heiser doesn’t interpret stories of Eden and the flood as Jewish versions of these myths. Rather, he sees them as intentional corrections. These are often convincing, but not always. For example, Eden is regarded as the “garden” where the council of the gods met in Tsapanu, so the message is that God wanted humans to join the gods in helping to look after the earth. This is a wonderful connection, but the only link between them is the fact that both are called well-watered gardens. There are much stronger links between Eden and the garden of Ninti (“lady of the rib”) where Enki ate her favorite plants and was punished. 

Heiser argues that the fall of evil angels occurred not before Eden or even in Eden, but at some time described by Genesis 6:1–4. This, he points out, has close parallels to ANE myths, and the fact that the New Testament takes these seriously (albeit via Enoch) should make us do so too. In Mesopotamian myths, the apkallus were divine sages, some of whom were evil and were banished to the underworld, and some who mated with humans after the flood to produce children who were two-thirds apkallus. Figurines of them were buried in the foundations of buildings in boxes called mats-tsarey (“watchers,” i.e., Enoch’s name for the fallen angels in Genesis 6:1–4; see sources at p. 102–5). 

Heiser is keen to follow the LXX tradition that understands these Nephilim as “giants.” This helps him to link them (in chap. 24–25) with the giants conquered by Israel, including Og and Goliath. Interestingly he points out that giants had previously been defeated by descendants of Lot and Esau whom God said should not be displaced by Israel (Deut 2:8–23). The “Anakim” was a term used for a national group but also for Canaanites in general (e.g., Josh 7:7; Num 13:28–33) and specifically for the dangerous giants. He suggests this may explain why God appears to sometimes command genocide.

The fact that the proud kings of Tyre and Babylon can be compared to the fall of a great cherub (Isa 14; Ezek 28) shows that Old Testament readers were familiar with such stories. He points out there is a link with “Eden” at Ezekiel 28:13, though this isn’t necessarily a link with Adam because he regards Eden as identical to the garden on top of the mountain at Tsapanu. He also makes a tenuous link between “morning star” or “shining one” (Heb. helel, Isa 14:12) with “serpent” in Genesis 3 (Heb. nachash), which in Aramaic is used for shiny metals (e.g., Dan 10:6).

The rival gods of surrounding nations are regarded much more seriously in the OT than we normally notice. Baal’s victory over the sea monster was well known to OT authors and their first readers, and the use of similar language in the creation narrative and Psalm 74 has long been noted. Heiser finds similar references elsewhere. They amount to a claim that Israel’s God reigns over the others. Deuteronomy 32:8–9 says the nations are no longer allocated among the 70 members of the council of the gods, but allocated to Israel. This is taken up by the NT where the Church is portrayed as the future rulers of nations. 

There are many occasions in the OT when “the angel of the Lord” and God himself are regarded as the same personage (e.g., Gen 18:32.24-30). Heiser finds many more of these than I’d noticed before (see chaps 16–18, 29). He concludes, like many others, that these are preincarnate appearances of the one later revealed as Jesus. However, on occasions where God refers to plurality (“let us create” in Genesis 1 or “who will go for us?” In Isaiah 6.8) he sees the council of gods. I couldn’t see what made him decide when plurality might portend the incarnation and when it refers to the council. 

When we reach the NT the link between the “angel of the Lord” and “the Lord,” it confirms the OT texts using both are applied to Jesus. More interestingly (and controversially), a text addressed to the council of gods is applied to John the Baptist. Isaiah 40:1–5 has five plural commands (incl. “Make a highway”), which are spoken by God (so it’s not performed by a plural godhead) and it includes “comfort my people” (so it’s not performed by Israel in general). Therefore, it is addressed to the council of gods (see p. 271f). However, if John the Baptist is seen as the one who fulfills this, then presumably he is one among others (because the verbs are plural). I expected Heiser at this point to suggest that John was, in many ways, the first NT believer so that the role of the council is taken up by believers. He does later point out that believers inherit the role of ruling from the council (ch. 35–36). 

This is the most thought-provoking book I have read in a long time. Sometimes Heiser presents theories I’ve dismissed when other authors presented them—but he makes compelling cases based on scholarly arguments so they are harder to reject. Some details with which he makes his case are entirely new—at least to me. His case is not always equally convincing, but none of the weak portions undermine his general thesis that the supernatural personages envisioned in the OT are both central and coherent in the text. 

I suspect this book may be dismissed by most readers because it undermines either their theology or scholarly presuppositions. However, Heiser’s thesis presents a strong case for an alternate coherent worldview underlying biblical writings, and its rejection requires an equally robust response.   

Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible is available on the Logos Digital Library, and in print from Lexham Press.

To deepen your study into the supernatural in Scripture, take advantage of low pre-production pricing on Heiser’s accompanying Further Investigations into The Unseen Realm, only on Logos Mobile Ed.

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