Book Review: The Unseen Realm (Heiser)

Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm is a book that every serious student of the Bible should take up. This book challenges conventional interpretations of Scripture and provokes the reader to consider a more supernatural view of the world than he likely holds. Hence the subtitle of the book, Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible.

The Divine Council

Heiser’s thesis in the book is that Scripture teaches that God has a “divine council” made up of spiritual beings (or angels), some of whom rebelled against God. The main text from which he derives this is Psalm 82:

God [elohim] has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods [elohim] he holds judgment (v. 1).

I said, “You are gods [elohim], sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince” (vv. 6-7).

Heiser argues that the Hebrew elohim, which can be translated “God” or “gods,” refers to the divine council in Psalm 82. Thus elsewhere when the Bible speaks of “other gods,” it is often referring to the spiritual beings of the divine council. Of course, Heiser is not advocating polytheism. He is simply arguing that the Bible refers to members of the divine council as elohim. (See also Psalm 8:5.) This divine council is seen in other texts, such as 1 Kings 22:19-22.

Heiser argues for what he calls “the Deuteronomy 32 worldview.” This is because he not only argues that there is a divine council, but he also argues that the fallen spirit beings ruled over the nations in the Old Testament. He gets this from Deuteronomy 32:8-9:

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

This translation from the ESV adopts the reading “sons of God [elohim]” from both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint. The Hebrew Masoretic Text has “sons of Israel,” but this is a weak reading both on textual and interpretive grounds. In regards to interpretation, it makes no sense to say that God divided the nations of the earth “according to the number of the sons of Israel” when Israel as a nation did not exist at that time (p. 113).

Thus the nations were placed under the authority of members of the divine council. But Yahweh has conquered these “sons of God” through the work of Christ on the cross and has regained authority over the nations.  

Genesis 6 and Other Texts

The above Scripture passages form the foundation of Heiser’s thesis. No doubt some will be skeptical of his application of the divine council to other parts of Scripture, particularly of his interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4. There Heiser argues that the “sons of God” were members of the divine council who came to earth and mated with human women, producing giants known as the Nephilim. As odd as this sounds, Heiser’s view is not novel. Many in pre-Christian Judaism, as well as the church fathers up until Augustine, took this view of “the sons of God.”

Heiser shows the implausibility of the view that the “sons of God” were the Sethite line who married the daughters of Cain (pp. 94-95). He then links Genesis 6 with 2 Peter 2:1-10 and Jude 5-7. This is probably the best part of the book, as Heiser has some interesting material on the Nephilim (pp. 105-109). He even takes up the problem of the Nephilim being mentioned again after the flood in Numbers 13 (pp. 183-191). Unfortunately, Heiser seems to favor the explanation that the Genesis flood was merely local and not worldwide. However, he does offer the alternative explanation that intermarriage of the sons of God with humans happened again. Either way, Heiser connects the Nephilim with the Rephaim and the giants in the land of Canaan, which the Israelites were commanded to wipe out (pp. 228-229). The presence of these giants helps explain why the Israelites were so fearful of the people in the land. 

At 387 pages, The Unseen Realm is too long for this review to engage all of the author’s interpretations. In short, it must be said that no one will agree with all of Heiser’s conclusions. This is partly because Heiser seeks to find the divine council in every nook and cranny of Scripture—which is one of my chief criticisms of this book. While I agree with Heiser’s initial thesis and the belief that the divine council is in the background of many texts, some of Heiser’s interpretations are a stretch. He also takes some unconventional views that do not always seem to relate to his main thesis.

Criticism

One final criticism. Though not of the essence of Heiser’s thesis, an erroneous understanding of God’s sovereignty and salvation infects the entire book. Rather than speaking of Christians as those who have been chosen by God, Heiser emphasizes the Christian’s choosing of God. Heiser believes such free will is part of being “imagers” of God, and He constantly speaks of humans as “free imagers.” However, Heiser’s understanding of “free will” fails to take into account the effects of the fall on man’s will and is thus entirely foreign to Scripture.

This error is most explicit in Heiser’s appeal to 1 Samuel 23:1-13, where David asked God if Saul would come to Keilah if he remained there. God said yes, so David fled, and Saul did not go to Keilah. Heiser draws from this event that God knows conditional events, and he then concludes that predestination and foreknowledge are separable (pp. 64-65). Heiser reasons that “God may know and predestine the end . . . without predestining the means to that end” (p. 65). He then says, “God can decree something and then leave the means up to the decisions of other free-will agents” (p. 65). The reason this issue comes up in the first place is that Heiser is trying to deal with whether God predestined the fall of man. He thus concludes, “There is no biblical reason to argue that God predestined the fall, though he foreknew it. There is no biblical reason to assert that God predestined all the evil events throughout human history simply because he foreknew them” (p. 66).

Heiser appears to be advocating some form of Molinism in regards to conditional knowledge. But whatever it is, it has no basis in Scripture. Though Heiser seems to want to “rescue” God here, God does not need his man-made defense. For someone so acquainted with the Bible, Heiser would do well to orient himself with God’s sovereign election of individuals in Romans 9, as well as His saving of a particular people, Israel, in the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul makes clear that salvation “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). God not only chose individuals for salvation, but He also predestines all events. Paul says that we as Christians have been “predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). It does not say God predestines only “the ends,” but “all things”—which includes “the means.”

Conclusion

Overall, this is too unique of a book to pass up. There are not many scholars out there willing to tackle passages dealing with the sons of God, the Nephilim, and giants in the Old Testament. Heiser could have made the book a little shorter by limiting the passages he addressed. But outside of Heiser’s dabbling in free will nonsense and his occasional forced interpretations, The Unseen Realm is a welcome addition to biblical scholarship. Even with some technical arguments and many long footnotes, Heiser’s treatment of the divine council is a fairly easy read. He has written an interesting work that is accessible to both scholar and layman alike.