Question of the Week: Is Dr. Michael Heiser’s view of the Divine Council biblical?
For those who are unaware of who Dr. Michael Heiser is, he is an expert in ancient biblical languages including Hebrew and is one of the preferred scholars in his field for insights into these languages on the Logos Bible Software program. He has a lot of teaching experience and is a regular guest on very popular and powerful internet apologetics ministries like Cross Examined. He identifies himself as a trinitarian monotheist, meaning that he believes in the Bible’s explanation of God’s nature and that He’s the only being like Him in all of existence.
Within the spiritual world, as in the human world, entities are differentiated by rank and power. Yahweh is an elohim, but no other elohim is Yahweh. This is what an orthodox Israelite believed about
Yahweh. He was not one among equals; He was unique. The belief that Yahweh is utterly and eternally unique—that there is none like Him—is not contradicted by plural elohim in the OT.
-Dr. Michael Heiser, “Elohim as “Gods” in the Old Testament” page 3
So far so sound when it comes to the non-negotiables of Christianity. However, if you preface a statement with truth, then proceed to speak in error, you’re still in error. The Divine Council, largely expounded upon in Heiser’s book “The Unseen Realm” as well as his website “thedivinecouncil.com” where his articles on the topic are encouraged to be read to understand his position on the topic, is grounded upon his interpretation of Psalm 82:1. And using that interpretation as the groundwork for similar conclusions about the supernatural realm in 1 Corinthians 10:20, Ephesians 6:12, Deuteronomy 32:17, and others, Heiser’s position ends up taking you a long way from very plain truths given to us in scripture.
“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel,
And his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
‘I am the First and I am the Last;
Besides Me there is no God.
Isaiah 44:6 (NKJV)
It is worth noting in this passage that the term “God” in which the LORD, YHVH, says there is no other besides Him is Elohim. That is what brings us to Heiser’s foundational text that put him on this journey to his conclusions that we should be extremely critical of given the entire witness of scripture. If the foundational truth for his interpretation of other passages is faulty, another standards should be applied to those passages. The clear passages should always be a foundation over the unclear passages, especially when it ends up contradicting those plain statements like there being no other God but YHVH. Likewise, if the argument in Heiser’s favor is that he’s a scholar in Hebrew and we aren’t, this is what is known as an appeal to authority fallacy. Dr. John Lennox, a student of C.S. Lewis and graduate of Oxford University rightly observed that “Nonsense from the mouths of genius’ is still nonsense.”
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
Psalm 82:1 (ESV)
The plain statement in this passage is that God judges the gods. The Psalm then goes on to clarify these “gods” aren’t actually gods and will die like men.
“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!
Psalm 82:2-8 (ESV)
Regardless of the translation you look to, the point made in this Psalm is the same. The ESV is used here because it is Heiser’s preferred translation in his articles and academic papers. In order to get to the heart of the issue, we need to understand how he is choosing to handle the term “God.”
This fact alone should immediately and unambiguously tell us that the word Elohim ought not be identified with one particular set of attributes. That is our fundamental mistake. We are accustomed to equating the word spelled g-o-d with the God of Israel and his unique attributes. As a result, the idea that other gods are indeed real—even if that is what the biblical text says—has been something to escape or obscure.
-Dr. Michael Heiser, “The Divine Council” page 7
In the spirit of full context, he gave a series of example to support his claim before making the following statement. YHVH is referred to as Elohim over 2000 times, but also notes individual instances where the term is used to describe YHVH’s divine council in Psalm 82, the gods of foreign nations in 1 Kings 11:33, demons in Deuteronomy 32:17, dead human beings in 1 Samuel 28:13, and Angels in Genesis 35:7. The problem is that all of these examples are either begging the question or making the assumption that using the word “God” means God in the sense of a divine being. Every example given either assumes they aren’t mistaken, or using that term based on the perception of other nations in contrast to their own.
because they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and they have not walked in my ways, doing what is right in my sight and keeping my statutes and my rules, as David his father did.
1 Kings 11:33 (ESV)
Given a plain reading of the passage and read in light of Isaiah 44:6, is God providing special revelation that Ashtoreth is an actual goddess whose territory and authority is limited to the Sidonians, Chemosh to Moab, and Milcom to Ammon? Or is it more consistent to claim these actions on the part of Israel are the problem being addressed? You can behave like pagan nations and not acknowledge their reasons for doing so are an insight to a deeper spiritual reality. Even if you read this passage in light of 1 Corinthians 10:20 and Deuteronomy 32:17 and clarify these are only referring to the demons behind them, it’s still begging the question. Doctrines of Demons is referring to false doctrine, not an insight to these demons being divine authorities over their respective territories. Which Heiser concludes in his exposition of Deuteronomy 32:17.
The concept of cosmic geography is illuminated by other examples. Israel, as Yahweh’s inheritance, was holy ground. Similarly, the territory of other nations, according to Yahweh’s decree, belonged to other gods. But in the course of Old Testament history, Israel had become enslaved to the Egyptians and required supernatural deliverance from Egypt and its gods. To subsequently inherit the promised land—now occupied by nations who worshiped other gods—Israel would have to reclaim its landed
inheritance by holy war. Thus, once in the land, Israelites still believed that their land belonged exclusively to Yahweh and was His sacred domain: other nations, even if they were in Israel, were under
the dominion of evil, lesser gods.
-Dr. Michael Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:8-9 and the Old Testament Worldview,” page 2
The same kind of error is performed in his exegesis of 1 Samuel, given the fact he neglects to mention in his scriptural support that his source on this “human” being referred to as an Elohim/God was from the witch of En-Dor trying to defraud King Saul unaware of the fact her séance was even going to work.
The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.”
1 Samuel 28:13 (ESV)
Heiser uses this conclusion on the part of a witch as the foundation for his conclusion that Elohim is merely a description of a spiritual being existing in the spiritual realm, rather than a term only rightly applied to the True and Living God.
All the things called elohim in the Hebrew Bible have one thing in common: they all inhabit the non-human realm. That is, they are by nature not part of the world of humankind, a world of ordinary embodiment. Elohim as a term describes residence—it identifies the proper domain of the entity described by it. Yahweh, the lesser gods, angels, demons, and the disembodied dead are all rightful inhabitants of the spiritual world. They may cross over to the human world, as Scripture informs us, and certain humans may be transported to their realm (e.g., prophets; Enoch), but their proper domain and humanity’s proper domain are two separate places. Within the spiritual world—as in the human world—there are differences of rank and power.
-Dr. Michael Heiser, “The Divine Council” page 9
The problem with Heiser’s conclusions aren’t in what he gets wrong. It’s the things he gets right. We do agree that the enemy and his demons have authority and exist in heavenly places. Ephesians 6:12. We do not agree that the enemy is rightly referred to as a god, or his demons are rightly identified as the gods of the nations. Let alone function in a council that YHVH is only distinguishable within due to his ability to create. All of these premises are either banking on obscure passages with much simpler interpretations available to them, or are stated without the opportunity for recourse given the fact he’s a scholar and you aren’t. The plain things of scripture are the main things of scripture. And if someone’s thesis banks on an assumption that directly contradicts plain statements made in scripture, then we should seek another source of spiritual edification and insight to the scriptures. There is no passage of scripture that can’t be understood in its proper context without a working knowledge of the original languages. Heiser’s entire stance on these kind of interpretations bank on the assumption that it would be obvious if we only had a working knowledge of the Hebrew language and culture.
A close reading of Deuteronomy and Isaiah shows the denial language’s context (Heiser, “Monotheism”). The denials are not based on any claim that other יםִ להֱ ֹא) elohim) do not exist, but on Yahweh’s unique qualities. In Isaiah 43:10–12, the reference points are Yahweh’s pre-existence, ability to save, and national deliverance. In Isaiah 45, the focus is on Yahweh’s justice, salvation, the deliverance of His children, and the impotence of the other gods. Yahweh is being compared to lesser gods—it would be empty praise to compare Him to beings that did not exist.
-Michael Heiser, “The Divine Council” page 10
The Hebrew Bible has phrases that explicitly parallel these Ugaritic expressions (Parker, “Sons of [the] God[s]”; Cooke, “The Sons of [the] God[s]”). Psalm 82:1 is perhaps the best example. It calls the council (לֵ ת־אַ דֲ ע ,adath-el) and describes gods under the authority of Israel’s God: “God (יםִ להֱ ֹא , elohim) stands in the council of El/the divine council (לֵ ת־אַ דֲ ע ,adath-el); among the gods (יםִ להֱ ֹא , elohim) he passes judgment.” The second occurrence of יםִ להֱ ֹא) elohim) must be semantically plural due to the preposition “in the midst of.” This does not refer to the Trinity—Psalm 82 goes on to describe how Israel’s God accuses the other יםִ הֹלֱ ֹא) elohim) of corruption and sentences them to die “like humankind.” This plurality does not refer to human beings. Psalm 89:5–7 places the God of Israel “in the assembly of the holy ones” (יםִ שֹדְ קֹלַ הְ קִ ב ,biqhal qedoshim) and then asks “For who in the clouds (קַ חַ שַ ב ,bashshachaq) can be compared to Yahweh? Who is like Yahweh among the sons of God (ֹיֵ נְ ב יםִ לֵ א ,beney elim), a god greatly feared in the council of the holy ones (יםִ שֹדְ וד־קֹסְ ב ,besod-Michael S. Heiser, “Divine Council,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary, John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz, eds. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012). Page 2. Exported from Logos Bible Software, 10:29 PM December 11, 2013. qedoshim)?” Psalm 29:1 commands the same sons of God (יםִ לֵ אֹיֵ נְ ב ,beney elim) to praise Yahweh beney, בְ נֵ יֹהָ אֱ ֹלהִ ים ,elim beney, בְ נֵ יֹאֵ לִ ים) “God of sons “Divine. obeisance due him give and ha’elohim; or יםִ להֱ ֹא יֵ נְ ב ,beney elohim) appear in other biblical texts (Gen 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; and Deut 32:8–9, 43 (Septuagint; Qumran); Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:8”)
-Michael Heiser, “The Divine Council page 1
Translations which translate ֹ ַהֹ֔ לֱ ֹא) eloah) as plural produce a reading that denies that יםִ דֵ ש)shedim, “demons”) are gods. Such translations, however, are forced to juxtapose this denial with the next clause, ום֑ ּעָ דְ יֹא ֹֹ֣ לֹיםִ ִ֖ להֱ ֹא) elohim lo’ yeda’um) (“gods which they did not know”) which appears to
clearly contradict that denial. How can the demons be gods and not gods in the same verse? Translations which take ֹ ַהֹ֔ לֱ ֹא) eloah) as singular do not suffer this tension. There are in fact no occasions in the Hebrew Bible where ֹ ַוהֹלֱ א) eloha) is contextually plural or is used as a collective noun
(Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:17”). Denying the existence of gods in Deut 32:17 means denying the existence of these demonic entities.
-Michael Heiser, “The Divine Council page 7
For these reasons and others, we do not believe that Michael Heiser’s conclusions about Psalm 82 and the divine council are biblical. It plays far too much into the hands of the Mormon doctrine of Plurality of Gods, which is a heresy and false doctrine we stand adamantly against. Even if Heiser’s conclusions don’t necessarily take it that far, it is nonetheless a dangerous concession to make when the doctrine of monotheism is a non-negotiable salvation issue that separates us from cult groups regularly citing this kind of material to deceive them into further false doctrine.
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