July 23, 2020

BEN: So let’s see if we can sum up some of the basic conclusions of Chapter 2: 1) Ha Satan of Job 1-2 fame is not the chap we later came to call the Devil. He is the prosecuting attorney of the heavenly council, so to speak—the ‘adversary’ as opposed to the advocate in legal terms; 2) the rebel/serpent in the garden of Eden is indeed the one later called Satan, but he is a throne guardian/cherubim, and so rather like the chaps in Isa. 6 but not like angels (which you say have no wings); 3) though Gen. 3 says nothing about a ‘fall’ of the snake from heaven, you assume that it’s assumed by the writer??? I would rather say that personal evil is simply present in the garden, and that text doesn’t tell us how it got there, or where it came from. That amplification comes from later more developed thinking and texts; 4) Adam and Eve were not inherently immortal, but before the Fall they had access to the tree of life and could become so. They had to be shooed out of the garden so they didn’t become eternal fallen creatures?? Yes? 5) Where in either Gen. 3, Ezek 28 or Isa. 14 is the serpent/devil associated with the underworld, and it is suggested he becomes the ruler of the dead and death? And one more question— I don’t agree with your suggestion equating the malak Yahweh with Yahweh. It seems clear to me he is the agent of Yahweh, authorized to speak and act for him, even as his mouthpiece, much like the concept of the shaliach—‘a man’s agent is as himself’. In this regard the malak is no different then ‘ha satan’ in Job 1-2 who is not Yahweh but goes and acts on his authorization. It leads me to wonder whether the snake in the garden is not just the pawn for the devil/rebel not the devil in person. Comments?

MICHAEL: I don’t think the writer of Gen 3 tells us anything about when the rebel / serpent decided to oppose God’s plan. The only possible hint to that would be the line in Gen 3:5 – read in concert with 3:22, which is clearly plural – that, if the humans eat from the forbidden fruit they will become as gods / elohim, knowing good and evil. One *could* read that line like so: “Hey, if they eat of that fruit they’ll know what evil is, like we do – we’ve seen that happen before” (as an allusion to the rebel’s rebellion). However, there’s no way to be secure in that reading. It’s possible but that’s about all you can say. Without that, we have no chronology. When I get this question, I’ll typically say that the rebel fell the moment he decided to oppose God’s plan. God wasn’t blind about that. He let the test play out, having already decided on a plan of action to restore humanity and his creation in the event of disaster (which was bound to happen at some point because humans aren’t Him).

July 22, 2020

BEN: Let’s talk a bit about the 3 key OT texts about the Nefarious One, the Great Deceiver— Gen. 3, Isa. 14, Ezek. 28. While I am all for comparing these, I don’t think they should just be mushed together. More to the point, I think that the latter two texts are further developing what is at best implicit in Gen. 3, in various ways. I think the traditions in Gen. 1-11 are in various places quite primitive, and do not reflect the later situation during the monarchy or the exile. Indeed, I’m not opposed to the idea that some of these pre-patriarchal stories go back to Moses and before him, in light of the other ANE stories about creation and flood. My point is this— the understanding of angels or supernatural beings good or bad is further developed in those later texts? Would you disagree???

MICHAEL: A full response here would have to get into my suspicion that Gen 1-11 is either written during the exile or heavily edited at that time (due to the numerous touch points with Babylonian religion, some quite specific with respect to texts). That of course would be Ezekiel’s time. Some have argued Isaiah 14 should also be there due to the fact that the king of Babylon in the 8th century BC was a nobody – there was no Babylonian empire – as opposed to much later. One could argue (and I have) for Canaanite motifs in Isaiah 14 being in play (e.g., the “above the stars of El” line), but the truth is you can find good parallels to that and other elements in Babylonian Elil material. I’m saving that stuff for “more Unseen Realm” content in book form. But setting all that aside, I think all three passages are related by virtue of a supernatural rebellion story / event. The idea of a divine council member gone bad is very old – in the case of either Babylon or Canaanite material. The latter would be more recent, but that would pre-date Isaiah by centuries even if we go with an 8th century BC Isaiah. So I don’t think the idea of rebellion in council must be late. Incidentally, I’m going to steal “Nefarious One”; love that!

July 21, 2020

BEN: The image of God concept is a critical one to understanding so many things in the Bible, especially in regard to both the nature and the status of human beings (and angels). While I agree with you that the image concept does convey something about the status of its recipients, I think it also tells us something about their nature. The connection between theology and ethics in the Bible (see my The Indelible Image) is this image concept— ‘be ye holy, as I am holy’ is only possible because we are in God’s image, and in due course can be reconstituted in the image of his Son, Jesus, ultimately by resurrection. Being in God’s image gives one the capacity to image forth the moral character God— angels doing so in the spiritual realm, we do in the material realm. I take Sandy Richter’s point that tselem can mean image or idol seriously, which means we are God’s ‘idol’ on earth (not to be confused with American Idol J), his image, which is one reason why it’s idolatrous to worship anything else— animals, nature, or fellow image bearers etc. And yes, you are surely right that not only are image bearers created with the capacity to freely relate to and worship God, but also with the capacity to do the opposite— to attempt autonomy. So, I have no problem with your understanding that the ‘serpent’ is guilt of presumption, and attempted autonomy from God and his will. But are you saying the snake/cherubim/guardian in the garden was not fallen prior to his tempting Eve—in other words his sin happens almost simultaneously with the original human sin, or just before? I agree that Rev. 12 is not about a primordial fall of Satan before creation. (N.B. Bill Arnold’s Genesis commentary has an interesting note about the pun involved in nahas).

MICHAEL: Taking the image as an idol is basically my view – representation. But an idol was not an ontological being; it was the “home” or place of attachment to an ontological being (a spiritual being), and so that model can’t say anything about ontology. The ontological side of what I’m saying comes with the communicable attributes. Imaging refers to status. To perform in that status, God shares his attributes with humans. Saying it that way allows the imaging idea to not be overturned by “human ontological features” present in the animal world, ET (if there is one), or AI (if it gets to that point). Those are all important items that a purely ontological view of the image cannot abide without collapsing. And that doesn’t even get into the ethical problems with an attribute-based view, which are deeply serious. So what all this means is that the view I put forth includes ontology but doesn’t put all the image eggs into that basket.

July 20, 2020

BEN: I entirely agree with you that Gen. 1.26 and 3.22 is not about the Trinity but rather about God and his heavenly council. As you say on p. 64. n.14, that God announces to the ‘us’ the project of making humans in his image makes no sense if he is talking to the rest of the Godhead who already knows this, being omniscient. So instead, this is a revelation to the angels or supernatural beings that make up God’s heavenly council. I also agree that “the Trinity is never transparently expressed in the OT”. What this means to me is that without a clear understanding of the progressive nature of God’s revelation and also the gradual increasing understanding of that revelation by the recipients of the revelation we can’t really make sense of the Bible. A flat and abstract view of the Bible that does not taking into account salvation history and progressive revelation simply does not do justice to the nuances and subtle way revelation works. Comments???

MICHAEL: I think that certain biblical writers do have a theology of a Godhead if what we mean by that is a sense that God can be more than one person extant at the same time. As Benjamin Sommer (Jewish Theological Seminary in NY) has shown in his book Bodies of God, that way of thinking is a lot older than the Hebrew Bible. So it’s no surprise to me that we’d find this sort of thought in the Hebrew Bible. The binitarian model is, I think, pretty easy to demonstrate. I also think this approach to God / Godhead is the way biblical writers adapted the regent/co-regent structure of the Canaanite divine council leadership (see my BBR article on that (vol 26, no 2, 2015). They couldn’t have two distinct deities in charge, but they could have Yahweh in both “slots” of leadership. The Spirit (it seems to me) gets looped into the “two-ness” in later biblical texts in a couple places. But none of that is refined, precise Trinitarian thinking (and if we’re honest, it took quite a while to articulate what we’d now call precise thinking in that regard even from the New Testament). But the New Testament writers observed, understood, preserved (i.e., didn’t undermine), and repurposed Old Testament thinking in the way they talk about God, Jesus, and the Spirit and their relationship to one another. The New Testament builds on the foundation of the Old Testament. A Trinitarian theology is not a late contrivance.

July 19, 2020

BEN: The use of the LXX in the NT is a bit of a mystery to many Christians who study the Bible. They ask questions like if the original Greek and Hebrew is so important for understanding the Bible, why did various NT writers rely on a translation like the LXX? How is that different from us relying on a good English translation? Of course, in the case of some like Paul, it seems clear he knew both the Hebrew and the Greek text of the OT, and relies on one or the other depending on which version best suits his purposes. And probably sometimes, as the work of Ross Wagner shows, he did his own translation of the Hebrew. This is different from say Luke and others who don’t appear to know any Semitic languages and rely instead on the Greek OT. Can you help my readers understand the importance of the LXX, especially since, it was relying on a Hebrew original that considerably pre-dates the Masoretic text (cf. the Qumran text of the OT which also differs from the MT). Do you think 2 Tim. 3.16 is talking about or includes the LXX?

MICHAEL: I think Paul is talking about all of the material that a faithful Jewish community (and the emerging Christian communities) would call “Scripture.” That is, I don’t think Paul was asking his audience to distance themselves from any textual tradition. That would have been a fool’s errand. (How would you even attempt it in days of hand copying, or without a means to know what text existed where?) As you sketch in your question, Paul shows no concern to marry himself to any textual family / tradition. Given that reality, he wouldn’t be asking his readers to do what he himself wasn’t doing.

July 18, 2020

BEN: I assume you think that the LXX was indeed done by multiple translators with multiple levels of ability. I remember by old colleague Sandy Richter saying that some part of the translation is more like ‘the Message’ more of a paraphrase in some books, and in some cases a more literal rendering. This surely makes it difficult to generalize about the semantics of vocabulary choices for divine beings in the LXX, or do you think the LXX had some form of final editor that smoothed things out in terms of consistency when it comes to talking about supernatural beings?

MICHAEL: I’d agree with you and Sandra. Some LXX translators conflate Hebrew vocabulary for supernatural beings (e.g., angelos becomes the go-to term for the good guys of the heavenly host). But others don’t; they preserve terms and phrases more literally. So it’s incorrect to presume that “the LXX translators were offended by ‘sons of God’ terminology” and had to move toward the “monotheistically acceptable” term like “angel”. Sure, except where they don’t, which is a lot of places. And once we’re done admitting that, see Qumran. The Qumrani writers certainly weren’t Hellenists, and there’s a lot of divine plurality language there. The idea in modern scholarship that phrases like “sons of God” and plural elohim / elim are evidence of polytheism before the exile simply doesn’t account for what we see at Qumran. Those writers didn’t get the “don’t sound like a pre-exilic polytheist” memo, and neither did certain LXX translators. I think the sort of discussion I have in Chapter 2 of the Demons book about this shows how an academic premise can just get repeated again and again for generations without ever being critically examined. We like neat categories and when we don’t see them, we’ll invent them and move on.

July 17, 2020

BEN: If I’m reading Chapter Two right, you are arguing that there are not really vestiges of polytheism or henotheism in the worldview of the ancient Hebrews and their later scribes who assembled the OT, but rather they believe in monotheism, but they acknowledge: 1)other spiritual beings both benevolent and malevolent and so some form of ‘divine plurality’ (p. 41 n.8), and 2) they acknowledge that other peoples they live with or near are polytheists. Right?

MICHAEL: I’d say Israelites in general were like Christians today – some of whom even deny a Trinity (e.g., oneness Pentecostals). What I mean here is that “Israelites” would fall into many perspectives with respect to their thoughts about Yahweh. I think the Old Testament testifies to that pretty clearly. One manifestation of that would be aberrant Yahwism or “polytheistic Yahwism” (henotheism, with its idea that the lead deity could be displaced and was not
ontologically unique). That said, I don’t believe the biblical writers, a very small subset of “Israelites,” were polytheists, henotheists, or aberrant Yahwists. What they write tells us that they knew what those things were and didn’t approve of them. A different but related question concerns what biblical characters may have thought about Yahweh before there was much revelation (written or otherwise). For example, should we assume that Abraham could articulate the relationship between Yahweh and other gods with as much precision as Isaiah? Probably not. But if you asked Abraham whether he thought Yahweh was one among equals, he’d probably slap you. All this is to say that I think our academic categories are sometimes articulated with a bit of conceit. Academics on the non-confessional side like to pretend everyone was a polytheist until Isaiah (and then they summarily ignore – or redefine the terms – the divine plurality language of nearly 200 instances at Qumran, where Qumran writers use naughty pre-exilic phrases from the OT that scholars say telegraph polytheism). On the evangelical side, we tend to think every biblical writer and all biblical characters had the same body of theological knowledge in their heads simultaneously. This is simplistic thinking. My concern, though, is that some scholars, even evangelicals, have biblical writers embracing heretical thoughts about God. I’d say the earliest writers may not have known as much as the later ones, but they knew a small set of important items with clarity.

July 16, 2020

BEN: Your distinction in Chapter One between divine and supernatural causation is helpful, with the latter referring to demons etc. unleashing disease, death, natural forces on unsuspecting humans, things not generated by the God of the Bible. I wonder however what you make of those who say that once the Fall happened, and as Paul puts it the whole of creation was subjected to ‘futility’ and longs for liberation, why would it be wrong to leave out demons from the explanation and simply say, this is the ongoing effect on humans of a fallen world gone wrong? Why do we need to predicate supernatural causations of say earthquakes, like many ancients and some moderns do? I like to point to 1 Kings 19 as a response to insurance companies and others that want to call natural disasters ‘acts of God’. No, I say, God was not in the earthquake or the conflagration etc. which as a minimum means you can’t read God’s will for us from such things. Right?

MICHAEL: If by predicate (“Why do we need to predicate supernatural causations of say earthquakes, like many ancients and some moderns do”) you mean “assert,” I’d say we don’t need to assert that. I think the point of what the OT does by putting the Canaanite deities thought to be behind such things under the authority of Yahweh is theological messaging – i.e., it informs readers that these things happen only under the control (sovereignty in our lingo) of the God of Israel. Nature functions as it does because of the way God created it. As I noted in Unseen Realm, creation was imperfect save for Eden (and even Eden had to be maintained, but the verbs used to describe that task aren’t the same as the wider creation mandate to “rule” and “subdue”). I take the description in Gen 1:31 (“very good”) not as perfect (that would require a different Hebrew term), but in a state of being what God wanted it to be—habitable for human beings (in our lingo again, “fine-tuned” for human existence). The curses could be used to argue that chaos is “less restrained” in the wake of the fall, but the curses shouldn’t be used to suggest that nature couldn’t kill humans prior to the fall. Adam can’t live under water, for example. He wasn’t the gill man. Animals could eat plants that would kill humans. The bio-diversity was needed just as much then as now. But since I don’t think that Genesis is designed to teach science, I don’t think we can take Scripture and map out what life forms existed or not before and after the fall (e.g., viruses), or what parts of nature are worse because of the curse. (Personally, I suspect the point of the curse on Adam is to highlight that his “in Eden” task will now be transformed to the “outside Eden” level of work, and so the curse may be more focused than “now everything bad in nature comes into existence” sort of thinking).

July 15, 2020

BEN: I appreciate your take on the much debated term ‘elohim’ which seems to be a generic term for supernatural or spiritual beings, which in some cases polytheists viewed as gods. I wonder what sort of conversation you would have with Mormon scholars about this matter who think we are headed for divinity in some form.

MICHAEL: Glad you asked, as it allows me to direct readers to something unique. I’m actually published in a Mormon journal critiquing Mormonism’s use of Psalm 82. Incidentally, that article was first an ETS paper – where a Mormon Middle Eastern scholar was in attendance. We had chatted online before the event and he assured me he’d be there, and he was. He is in the habit of attending ETS and SBL. He asked for the paper for publication and was very gracious through the whole process. The article makes clear where I disagree with Mormon thought. To cite one item in a nutshell, Mormons affirm (correctly) that the plural elohim of Psalm 82 are supernatural beings. But they then presume that all elohim are interchangeable – that is, they neglect the unique descriptions of Yahweh elsewhere and the denial of those unique descriptions to the other elohim in their theology. This is why Jesus and Satan are brothers in their thought (they’re both an elohim, a supernatural being). This is a serious flaw. Readers can go through the whole article if they wish. In the same issue of that journal, a Mormon scholar responds to me. Then I got the opportunity to respond to him. Most of his article and my rejoinder, though, have us talking about different things (apples and oranges) so those two articles are of less value, at least in my mind). But kudos to them for publishing an evangelical critique in their own journal.

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