This is a post I’ve literally wanted to write for years, ever since I was first introduced to Dr. Michael Heiser’s work on his first A View From the Bunker interview with Derek Gilbert. I’ve spent the last six years gleefully stalking the good Doctor, reading everything that he’s published online (particularly on TheDivineCouncil.com), several lectures that were uploaded to Youtube, his podcast series on The Naked Bible, an e-book or two, and both of his novels (which really need their own reviews on this website. Short version–go read them. Right now). I check his website, drmsh.com, for updates daily, and am always saddened when there isn’t one.
In many ways, reading The Unseen Realm was almost like reviewing old material for me. That’s not because I was ahead of the curve, but because of the aforementioned stalking of its author. I’ve actually written a few articles here that grew from seeds planted by either something from the good Doctor himself or from an article or book that he pointed me towards, like Where is Satan in the Old Testament or The Day Israel Conquered Hell. The experience of reading all of his work collated together was by no means lessened by the “spoilers,” but I suspect that many readers discovering him for the first time will be shocked, amazed, and/or appalled by The Unseen Realm.
I say “appalled” because there’s something in here to shock and/or offend just about everybody. That’s fair enough, because Dr. Heiser describes how he himself was shocked when he was first challenged by a friend to read Psalm 82 in the original Hebrew rather than through a translation that tries to soften it. Here’s the first verse in the NASB (normally my go-to translation): “God takes His stand in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the rulers.”
Now here it is in the ESV, which doesn’t attempt to protect you from what the Hebrew words actually mean: “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.”
Dr. Heiser describes the effect of realizing just what this passage was saying had on him:
How was it possible that I’d never seen that before? I’d read through the Bible seven or eight times. I’d been to seminary. I’d studied Hebrew. I’d taught for five years at a Bible college.
What did this do to my theology? I’d always thought–and had taught 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. But I couldn’t picture him running around with other real gods, either. This was the Bible, not Greek mythology. But there it was in black and white. The text had me by the throat, and I couldn’t shake free. (p. 9, Nook version)
The result was a couple of decades of research leading to an outstanding book pulling all of the threads together.
While The Unseen Realm certainly connects with the concept of “spiritual warfare” and is going to be the first in the trilogy of books I use to teach on the subject from here on out (the other two being Dr. Ed Murphy’s Handbook On Spiritual Warfare and George Otis’ The Twilight Labyrinth), it’s far more holistic than that. The real core issue that Dr. Heiser tackles head-on in this book is what does it mean to be a child of God? Since the Bible repeatedly affirms that we who put our faith in the Messiah Yeshua are made children of God even now, but with a greater glory yet to come, that question turns out to be perhaps the most important in Scripture.
Along the way, Dr. Heiser tackles what the Bible says about other heavenly beings (elohim, or “gods”) who dwell with, but are distinct from and less than, the Most High; about the original creation and the relationship of Adam and Even to their Father; about the disinheriting of the nations and the election of Israel; about the uniqueness of Yeshua’s Sonship (tackling the relationship of the Father and the Son from a different angle than most) and how the Messiah set about reversing all of the prior falls and failures; and about the ultimate destiny of the Ekklesia. It is an amazing journey that will change the way you look at Scripture and let you tie together and understand so many “difficult” passages of Scripture that have troubled so many through the centuries.
The short, short version, which hardly does the topic justice: Before the creation of mankind, Hashem already had a family of “sons of God,” divine beings who ruled with him just as a king’s court rules with the king. While these divine beings are sometimes called elohim (“gods”), they are still created beings, far inferior to the Eternal Creator who indeed created them, though they inhabit the same realm. Hashem determined to create the earth and to create Man as another member of his family–unique in that mankind could reproduce and thus pass on the Image of God to our children.
However, as we all know, the serpent tempted mankind into sin and thus marred our ability to be proper “imagers” of the Most High. Moreover, mankind continued to sin until Hashem disinherited the nations, retaining only the nation of Israel for himself. Israel too fell into sin, so Hashem sent his unique Son, Yeshua, to reverse the effects of all of the sins of all of his children and to enable those who believed in him to once again be sons of the living God regardless of nationality. His ultimate purpose is to defeat evil for all time and to rule creation with his many children ruling as vice-regents with him.
Nor does Dr. Heiser just toss out his opinion based on his own personal reading of the text. No, he delves deep into the cutting-edge of Biblical scholarship–so deep, in fact, that he ended up creating a supplementary site, MoreUnseenRealm.com, just to contain the extra sources and information that would have bogged down the main book too much. More than that, he’s currently working on a full bibliography of every scholarly book, dissertation, monograph, and article ever written that connects to the Divine Council paradigm. That is dedication to one’s scholarship.
That’s not to say that either the book or the author are perfect, of course. I find Dr. Heiser’s comments to the effect that Israel had a built-in obsolescence to completely miss the mark. (Did I become obsolete when my parents added a couple of younger brothers to the family?) I don’t think he gives the rabbis their due when it comes to Scriptural interpretation. (My review of Rabbi Shapira’s Return of the Kosher Pig and the book itself will illustrate why.) I disagree with his casual use of the Tetragrammaton. (The Apostles didn’t write it for us in Greek letters, so I don’t see any Scriptural warrant for writing it in English.) And on the whole, while I appreciate his affirmation of Scriptural inspiration and authority, I think he’s too ready to dismiss the “jots and tittles” of Scripture as simply being the products of a more primitive time.
That last point is possibly the most troublesome from the perspective of this review, because it points towards an inconsistency in his methodology. On the one hand, he would argue that we shouldn’t worry too much about what the Bible says about physical cosmology, for example, because, after all, these were pre-scientific people. Okay let’s grant that. Why not apply it in the same way to their perceptions of “the gods”? That is, should we take their perceptions of real spiritual entities given power over the nations any more seriously than their perceptions of the sky being a metallic dome held up by the “pillars” of the highest mountains? That is, after all, what more liberal scholars would (and have, and do) argue.
Maybe God just wasn’t bothering to argue with their misconceptions of other gods based on the polytheism of their neighbors or their errant belief that mental illness is caused by demons because all the Most High cared about was bringing them to believe in himself rather than (falsely) deified nature or tutelary (place guardian) gods.
It’s a logical flaw that amounts to special pleading. It bugs me more than our other differences in opinion because it’s one that can potentially be exploited by Dr. Heiser’s secular critics.
But despite the flaws, I still consider Dr. Heiser’s work to be required reading for everyone who wants to really understand their Bible. I don’t have to completely agree with someone in order to learn from them. Actually, how can I learn from someone I already completely agree with? And Dr. Heiser is someone who I’ve learned a lot from, both in The Unseen Realm and in his other work, like the aforementioned Naked Bible Podcast.
Shalom, and good reading!