Interview with Michael Heiser: The Unseen Realm

Interview with Michael Heiser: The Unseen Realm July 14, 2017

Today I interview my friend Michael Heiser on his book, The Unseen Realm.

If you’ve read my book Insurgence: Reclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, Michael’s name should be familiar to you since I quote him in several places in my discussion on the fallen principalities and powers later in the book.

Countless books pass through my hands each year. Evangelical publishers send me their new titles routinely. Once in a while, I will interview the authors. Most of the time I don’t.

Michael’s Unseen Realm was significantly helpful to my own thinking in regard to the principalities and powers mentioned in the New Testament.

Given how much I’ve read over the years, such discoveries rarely happen. Most Christian books today simply repeat what others have already written.

Here’s the story.

While doing my research on Insurgence, I began reading everything I could find on the world system (which is one of the primary enemies of God’s kingdom). This led me to take a fresh look at what Scripture calls the “principalities and powers.”

In exploring the “principalities and powers” in the world of biblical scholarship, I came across Michael Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm.

While reading the book, Heiser and I began an email dialogue that delved deeper into the themes of his book and my specific area of interest. I then followed that dialogue up with the following interview for this blog. Below you can read Heiser’s answers to my interview questions regarding the content of his book The Unseen Realm. (Our own private dialogue isn’t reflected in this interview.)

The most important contribution of The Unseen Realm in my own thinking is Heiser’s treatment of cosmic geography. His work on this subject colored in many gaps that I never observed or considered before, particularly the detailed parallels between Pentecost and Babel as well as God’s relationship to the nations of the world in biblical history.

I can’t say this about most authors today, but I owe a debt to Heiser for showing me aspects of the principalities and powers that I’ve never seen before nor read in any other scholar, theologian, or commentator.

Here’s the interview.


Instead of asking, “what is your book about,” I’m going to ask the question that’s behind that question. And that unspoken question is, “how are readers going to benefit from reading your book?”

Michael S. Heiser: Several ways. First, if reviews on Amazon and interactions I’ve had with readers over the last year are any indication, Unseen Realm trains readers to contextualize their Bible. We think “reading the Bible in context” means thinking about the handful of verses before and after the verses we’re looking at on the page. That isn’t the case. While that’s important, context is so much wider than a handful of verses.

What I mean by context is worldview—having the ancient Israelite or first-century Jew in your head as you read. How would an ancient Israelite or first-century Jew read the Bible—what would they be thinking in terms of its meaning? The truth is that if we put one of those people into a small group Bible study and asked them what they thought about a given passage meant, their answer would be quite a bit different in many cases than anything the average Christian would think. They belonged to the world that produced the Bible, which is the context the Bible needs to be understood by.

Our contexts are foreign. They derive from church tradition that is thousands of years removed from the people who wrote Scripture and the audience to whom those people wrote. Unseen Realm demands people read the text of Scripture—particularly in regard to supernaturalism—the way ancient people would have read it. Second, it exposes people in the church to high scholarship—peer-reviewed material produced by biblical scholars—but in readable, normal language used by non-specialists.

It’s important for people in the Church to realize that the way they talk and think about the Bible isn’t the way Bible scholars talk and think about it—and I’m including “Bible-believing” scholars there. There is a wide gap between the work of biblical scholars, whose business it is to read the text of the Bible in its own worldview context, and what you hear in church.

Scholarship aimed at truly understanding what the biblical writers meant often does not filter down into the church and through the pulpit to folks who show up on Sunday. I think that’s just wrong, but scholars rarely make any effort to decipher their own scholarly work for people outside the ivory tower. Unseen Realm deliberately does that. Though readers might think that things in the book are novel since they never heard them in church or read them in a creed, every paragraph is the result of peer-reviewed scholarship. People need to know what they’re missing.

Over the years, I’ve met some Christians who deny the reality of the demonic/satanic world. They believe that the cosmology of Jesus and Paul was archaic. Mental illnesses were ascribed to “demons.” And “Satan” and “principalities and powers” were metaphors for personal and structural evil, etc. What would you say to such people in order to convince them that the spiritual worldview of Jesus and Paul does in fact reflect reality, even in the 21st century?

Michael S. Heiser: Well, the first thing I’d say is that their worldview isn’t the worldview of Jesus, Paul, or any of the biblical writers and characters. And if you don’t have the worldview of the people who produced the Bible (under inspiration no less), you can’t understand what they were trying to communicate in many respects. Biblical people weren’t modern people. That’s self-evident no matter how much we try to deny it. We doubt the supernatural because we’ve either been taught to deny it (thinking—wrongly—that it’s incompatible with science) or because we just want to be comfortable.

We impose our modern worldview on the Bible to make it conform to our intellectual happy place. But we deceive ourselves into thinking this works or is legitimate. We fail to realize that the supernatural things we want to avoid are no more supernatural (or “weird”) than the things that define the Christian faith. What’s so “normal” about the virgin birth, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the hypostatic union of the incarnation (Jesus was 100% God and 100% man)?

Why don’t we “de-mythologize” those things in our Bible while we earnestly try to deny supernaturalist interpretations of other parts of the Bible? It’s a hopelessly inconsistent and self-focused approach to say part of what the Bible says about the supernatural spiritual world are fine but other aspects of its portrayal of that same non-human world are too strange and in need of being explained away.

What is the difference between a cherub and a seraph in Scripture? They appear to be different from their biblical descriptions (number of wings, faces, etc.).

Michael S. Heiser: There’s no difference conceptually. Both terms are job descriptions of a divine being whose role it was to protect sacred space from defilement—to guard the presence of God. The terms and the descriptions are not anatomy lessons—spirit beings are not embodied by definition. Rather, the descriptions in the visions of the prophets serve as metaphors for describing a role. They are basically job descriptions.

The terms are drawn from ancient Near Eastern iconography (Mesopotamian and Egypt, respectively). They utilize the imagery these civilizations used to describe divine beings who guarded the presence of gods or god-kings. We know that because we have the iconography (sculptures, paintings) in their appropriate context. The Babylonian context for Ezekiel’s cherubim is obvious from the first chapter. Most Bible readers don’t realize, though, why (historically) Israelites living during the eras of Ahaz, Uzziah, Hezekiah, and Isaiah would have recognized Egyptian motifs. There was a lot of royal interaction with Egypt then.

What does it mean, exactly, that Satan (the devil) is “the ruler of the dead?” And where can we find this in Scripture? Related: What does it mean that Satan once had “the power of death” — Hebrews 2:14 — implying that he doesn’t have it anymore.

Michael S. Heiser: The idea comes from several trajectories. On one hand, you have verses like Heb 2:14 (“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself [Jesus] likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”).

The point isn’t that Satan pulls a lever somewhere and someone dies. The idea is that all humans will die—we are not immortal—because of the transgression of the Eden that the serpent instigated. He was cast down to the underworld, the realm of the dead (I discuss the terms and motifs behind that at length in Unseen Realm), which is where all humans are destined to go and remain because of the Eden tragedy. God’s plan of salvation was designed to remove humans from the realm of the dead. Humanity followed the serpent in rebellion, and so his domain is where humanity goes.

But our destiny can be different because of God’s plan. On the other hand, there are theological ideas running in the background that produce the same idea. In Canaanite religion, for example, Baal was lord of the Underworld. He was called baʿal zebul. Sound familiar? In Ugaritic it means “prince Baal,” but by the time of the New Testament it became a descriptive title for Satan. Baal, of course, was the major deity-rival to the God of Israel. He was the lead adversary to Yahweh in Israelite religious context. What people thought about Baal informed the way they thought about the Devil later on.

Regarding the origin of the devil (“Satan” as the NT calls him), in your view, specifically when, why, and how did he fall?

Michael S. Heiser: I believe that all Scripture tells us is that the being the New Testament calls Satan (and which it associates with the serpent in Eden) fell when he engaged Eve to steer her out of God’s will. Eve’s existence, purpose, and destiny were of no concern to the serpent figure (which I don’t believe was a mere animal—he was a divine being in rebellion against God). Fiddling with what God told her was above his pay grade; i.e., contrary to the supreme authority, which was God. We are not told he rebelled earlier than this. We have only this initial act of rebellion. Some folks appeal to the notion that he rebelled before the creation of humanity and took a third of God’s angels with him, but there is no passage in Scripture that teaches that. In fact the only place you find the “third of the angels” talk is in the last book of the Bible—Revelation 12.

But in that passage, the war in heaven is explicitly associated with the birth / first coming of the messiah, which is considerably after creation (and the Fall). As far as why he rebelled, we aren’t told specifically. But why would an otherwise intelligent being (like you and me) overstep authority? Several reasons come to mind, like self-interest and arrogance. Since there are a number of (Hebrew) inter-textual relationships between Genesis 3 and Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, and since those prophetic chapters use the tale of a divine rebel filled with hubris to malign the kings of Babylon and Tyre, respectively, I’d say we’re on safe ground to presume that self-interest and hubris are at the core of the rebellion.

The divine rebel story behind Isaiah 14:12-15 has the villain wanting to be like the Most High and above the stars of God (a term drawn directly out of Canaanite material for the divine council / heavenly host), it’s clear the villain wanted to be the highest authority in the supernatural world. He was a usurper propelled by his own arrogance.

How does your view fit in with Ezekiel 28:14, which some believe is a reference to the devil before he fell. However, assuming that interpretation is correct, he is called “an anointed cherub.” How does that fit into the idea that the devil was once a member of the Divine Council, which some believe?

Michael S. Heiser: I believe the “anointed cherub” phrase in this verse points to a divine rebel, not Adam as many biblical scholars want to suggest. There are many reasons for this, some of which are very technical. Readers of Unseen Realm will get the overview, but if they really want the details, they should read through the companion website to the book, (click the tab for Chapter 11).

Since the Old Testament doesn’t use terms like “devil” and never applies the term “satan” to the serpent (in any passage), this question requires more unpacking than an interview can provide (i.e., it’s best to just read the book where I can take two chapters to go through it). But I’ll try and compress a few thoughts.

On one level, by definition every divine being loyal to God is a member of the divine council, presuming “council” is understood as the collective body of heavenly beings who serve God. There are of course tiers of authority in the council, but the idea can be collective as well. So, prior to his rebellion, the being that came to Eve and caused her to sin and that later became the known as the devil was a member of God’s council, broadly defined, merely because he was a spirit being. But since we have no prior history of him before Genesis 3, we can’t say much beyond that. (The serpent of Genesis 3 is not the satan figure of Job 1-2 because of a certain rule of Hebrew grammar [again, you have to read the book], so Job 1-2 isn’t much help there).

Some scholars want to restrict the term “divine council” to the “sons of God” tier, presuming them to be the only decision makers, but this understanding doesn’t reflect the variability of the terms and ideas found in ancient texts parallel to the Hebrew Bible from which the council metaphor is drawn in many instances. The analogy of human government in civilizations that had a conception of a divine council makes that point clear. Not all members of a king’s “government” would be directly involved in decision making. There are layers of advisors who have input. But these governments had service staff or “lesser bureaucrats” who were nevertheless part of the king’s administration.

Perhaps a modern analogy of government in the United States will help make the point. We can speak of the federal legislature, by which we mean that branch of government responsible for passing laws. The term “Congress” is a synonym. However, our Congress has two parts: the Senate and the House. Decision-making members of these two bodies, and hence the Congress, are elected. The House and Senate both have service staff (e.g., “guardian officers” like the Sergeant at Arms). Though they have no decision-making power, they are nevertheless part of “Congress” in certain contexts where that term is used.

For example, saying “Congress was in session” does not mean that all service staff were given the day off. “Congress” can therefore refer to only those elected officials who make laws, or can refer to the entire bureaucratic apparatus of the federal legislature. As we will see in this discussion, the heavenly bureaucracy (council) is layered and its members serve God in different but related ways.

Rebellion against God results in being cast out of his service. God doesn’t run the affairs of the spiritual world or our world with rebels on his payroll. They are cast to the Underworld (in the case of the Eden rebel), or a special place in the Underworld (e.g., the offenders of Genesis 6:1-4, who are, to quote Peter and Jude, “kept in chains of gloomy darkness” or “sent to Tartarus”). There are more divine rebels than that in the Bible, but hopefully that scratches the surface enough.

In the book, you argue persuasively that Deuteronomy 32:8 and Psalm 82 are speaking about God assigning heavenly beings to oversee each nation in the world (after Babel). How do you envision an unfallen heavenly being specifically carrying out the tasks listed in Psalm 82? Namely, defending the just, defending the weak and the fatherless; upholding the cause of the poor and the oppressed. This was God’s role for them before they rebelled, but how do you envision them doing this work exactly?

Michael S. Heiser: He would do what God would do. God’s standards for justice are revealed in his moral laws, in how he tries to get humans (his imagers) to relate to each other, and in true worship. Biblical theologians encapsulate all that in the concept of “order” (the opposite of which is “chaos”).

Ruling the way God wants you to rule means fostering the ordered relationships he desires, not because he is a killjoy, but because that order maximizes human happiness and love for God. Part of that is worshipping only the true God and no other. Psalm 82’s diatribe against the fallen gods is directly linked to justice because, in the biblical worldview, failing at just living produces chaos on earth—and it’s the job of superior beings to make sure that doesn’t happen. Instead, the picture we get in Psalm 82 runs from neglect that causes chaos to stirring the pot of chaos, thereby making the lives of people miserable.

Satan is called “the prince of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2. What do you think that means exactly?

Michael S. Heiser: On one hand, “air” is part of the vocabulary for the spiritual world—the world which humans do not inhabit, but which divine beings do inhabit. But “air” was also a descriptor for the heavens below the firmament in Israelite cosmology—still distinguishable from God’s abode, which was above the firmament (Isa 40:22; Job 22:13; cp. Gen 1:7 to Psa 29:10). The “air” metaphor allowed people to think of the spiritual world in terms of (a) not being the realm of humans, and (b) still beneath the presence of God, or the place where God lives.

That meant Satan wasn’t in God’s presence or in control of God’s domain. Angels could be sent into the world to assist humans and would of course be opposed by those spiritual beings in control of earth’s “air space” so to speak. Ultimately, the spiritual world has no measurable parameters, or latitude and longitude (the celestial sphere is no help locating it!). Human writers have to use the language of “place” to describe something place-less (in terms of what we, as embodied beings, can understand). For that reason, it isn’t always a neat picture.

Throughout Ephesians, the phrase “heavenly places” is used in a positive sense. God’s people are seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph. 2). All spiritual blessings reside in Christ in heavenly places (Eph. 1). However, also in Ephesians, we are told that evil principalities and powers operate in heavenly places (Eph. 6). In your view, what are the “heavenly places” in Ephesians and how can both evil spirits and Christians occupy them at the same time?

Michael S. Heiser: Both ideas are valid. The reason is that the same term really means “spiritual world.” The powers of darkness are still part of the spiritual world—they don’t become something else when they rebel against God. Disembodied believers are, by definition, also part of the spiritual world. So are God and Christ. The various uses of the phrase are what they are to communicate both the presence of God in the spiritual world and conflict in the spiritual world between spiritual beings loyal to, or in rebellion against, God. If we substituted “earth” for “heavenly places” and said holy people (believers) and evil people live “on earth” we wouldn’t see a conundrum. It’s the same with “heavenly places.”

Regarding Amar Annus’ article on Genesis 6 and the Watchers, which you recommend, here’s a response by an OT scholar. He writes,

“The author makes a persuasive case that some second temple texts may be have drawn inspiration for some of their imagery from certain Mesopotamian texts. This is analogous to how some material in the Bible appears to be aware of Mesopotamian stories and offers a demythologized version of them. Since books like 1 Enoch and the Book of the Giants are intentionally trying to offer quasi-mythological retellings of Bible stories, it is no surprise that they would draw inspiration from extant mythological texts. Why reinvent the wheel. The Second Temple Jews do not mean to adopt the worldview of the mythologies they pillage, but in keeping with the genre of apocalypse they are depicting natural and ordinary human events with supernatural and extraordinary images. Some images are from the Bible, some from wider culture, and some from the authors’ imaginations. I am not convinced, as this author is, that the author of Genesis is aware of an early Watcher tradition that 1 Enoch grew out of. I believe that the Genesis account came first and 1 Enoch later. 1 Enoch draws on both Genesis and other Babylonian traditions. This article does a good job of identifying one such tradition, but I am not sure it gets us any closer to what Genesis 6 is saying or even to early Jewish understandings about demons.”

What say you to this?

Michael S. Heiser: I think it’s evasive and surprisingly under-informed. Peter and Jude adopt the elements of this Second Temple literature into their own books and they make theological arguments from them. They aren’t offering winks to their readers when they do so. They reference the “angels that sinned” to tarnish false teachers precisely because the Watchers are blamed with teaching forbidden knowledge that led to idolatry and self-destruction. The comment about “Genesis came first” tells me that the scholar didn’t read Annus (or me) with clarity. Of course Genesis was earlier. That isn’t the point.

Peter and Jude provide information about the “angels that sinned” that does not come from Genesis (“they were kept in chains of gloomy darkness” or “they were sent to Tartarus”). It comes ultimately from Mesopotamian material (anyone who has read deeply in the field knows that the Titan story borrows from Mesopotamia – see West’s East Face of the Helicon, or Lopez-Ruiz’ work, When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East). Second Temple material interacts with ancient Mesopotamian texts (Gilgamesh is even named in the book of the Giants).

The writer of 1 Enoch knew the Mesopotamian apkallu material very well—1 Enoch preserves all its elements, and those elements in turn mirror (with precision) all the elements of Gen 6:1-4. The point is that 1 Enoch preserves the original Mesopotamian backdrop to Genesis 6. Peter and Jude feel quite free to add those “extra” details, and in the context of the inspiration of Gen 6:1-4 (it had a context—a response to the Mesopotamian theology about the apkallu), what they add is consistent with the original Genesis 6 context.  The Mesopotamian material that prompted the inclusion of Gen 6:1-4 in the book of Genesis existed long before 1 Enoch. But this misunderstanding of the data is even more problematic once one considers what the response of this scholar suggests. There are dozens of connections between Gen 1-11 content and Mesopotamian content.

This scholar would have us pretend the writer of Gen 1-11 got all that other stuff but missed the apkallu material. He didn’t. So, in addition to the above titles, I’d also suggest he read Archie Wright’s book (based on his dissertation), The Origin of Evil Spirits, and Helge Kvanvig’s two lengthy works, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enoch, and Roots of Apocalyptic: The Mesopotamian background of the Enoch figure and of the Son of Man. I could go on and on (maybe throw in Berossus or scholarship about Berossus as well). You cannot compartmentalize the material so that the Bible “escapes” making us uncomfortable about some point of the supernatural world. Basically, it’s incoherent to argue that the writer of Gen 1-11 wasn’t aware of the apkallu material, or that the Second Temple Jews didn’t understand it. Neither are true.

This same scholar goes on to say,

“I agree that Jude and 2 Peter refer back to 1 Enoch. But that doesn’t tilt the interpretation of Genesis 6 in one direction or another. They may be referring to it as the apocalyptic book that it is and not as a literal commentary on Genesis 6. E.g., 1 Enoch points to a final day when God executes judgment on all powers and principalities against God’s people. The NT writers clearly see Jesus as God’s agent of executing that judgment. So first century false teachers must watch out. That is the standard view among Second Temple lit and apocalyptic lit. scholars. A trademark of Apocalypses is that extraordinary figures are made to stand for earthly figures. Thus the multi-horned creatures of Daniel and the dragon of Revelation.”

What is your response to this?

Michael S. Heiser: Again, he should read Kvanvig’s book, Roots of Apocalyptic: The Mesopotamian background of the Enoch figure and of the Son of Man. You really can’t speak well about apocalyptic and deny the Mesopotamian roots to it all. Biblical writers (not just apocalyptic genre) are responding to Babylonian material and a conceptual matrix about “Babylon” (a metaphor for chaos and rebellion if there ever was one) throughout Scripture. Divorcing it from Genesis 6 is simply a willful choice to avoid the implications. It’s as plain there as it is everywhere else.

But many just don’t want to acknowledge it. Why? That takes us back to the uncomfortable question that Unseen Realm raises: How much of what the biblical writers believed about the supernatural world do I believe? They weren’t us. We are products of the Enlightenment; they were not. So let’s stop denying that reality. Rather than sitting in judgment on them from our Enlightenment perches, we ought to have them sit in judgment on us when it comes to informing us about the supernatural world. After all, what they wrote was ultimately overseen by God.

We like to pretend the core ideas of the faith are more palatable or workable within our modern rationalistic approach to Scripture than the stuff we want to call “too weird” because of our own intellectual sensibilities. The truth is they are not. So we come up with interpretations to eliminate the weirdness of the biblical worldview that makes us uncomfortable. Problem solved!

As I wrote in the introduction to The Unseen Realm, there are of course interpretations that appear to “work” (i.e., that give us relief from what biblical writers believed) in passages in isolation. But the best interpretations are the ones that honor the original supernaturalist context of the people who wrote the material and which inform other passages at the same time.

Some folks also comfort themselves with thoughts like “Well, supernatural beings couldn’t have done X because that doesn’t conform to what science has taught us.” Without realizing it, those who think such things have just argued that tools that apply to the natural world are fit for service in a world that isn’t natural. That simply isn’t coherent. When biblical material touches on the natural world, we can legitimately use the tools of science. Sometimes that shows us (no shock here) that biblical writers didn’t know as much as we now know about the natural world – but God knew that when he picked them, so that alone tells us that “doing science” that would satisfy a 21st century (and beyond) audience wasn’t what God was interested in with respect to the enterprise of producing Scripture for posterity).

The truth is that we don’t know much about the spiritual world except for what Scripture tells us, so it’s unwise to think we can speak with clarity about what a divine being can or cannot do. The tools of analyzing the natural world are of no use for analyzing the supernatural world. For the latter we need rules of logic, and the supernatural beliefs of the biblical writers are quite defensible in that arena. I’ll end this response by rephrasing the earlier question: Why are you uncomfortable with the supernaturalist worldview of the biblical writers? Evangelicals don’t want to just say, “Well, the inspired writers were wrong about some of their beliefs about the spiritual world and its inhabitants.”

That really doesn’t work in a confessional situation! So instead we come up with excuses and interpretations that allow us to remake the biblical writers in our own post-Enlightenment image. I understand that impulse, but it’s not honest.

In the NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NKJV, KJV, and the Jubilee Bible, 1 Corinthians 6:3 says we (God’s people) shall one day “judge” angels. Is this the correct translation? If so, what does it mean that we will one day judge angels? If it’s the wrong translation, what does the text and why do so many translations have it incorrect?

Michael S. Heiser: The idea of “judgment” is of course very malleable. I tie Paul’s comments to things John says later about elevating believers over the nations and Christ sharing his ruling messianic authority with believers. The point of these passages taken together is that we rule the nations with Christ, which means we displace the fallen sons of God presently over them. In that sense they are judged by us—we take their jobs and former positions in God’s family-council.

You’ve stated that your view of eschatology can’t be categorized by the standard labels, postmillennial, amillennial, premillennial, etc. In a few paragraphs, what is your view of eschatology?

Michael S. Heiser: True. I agree and disagree with all of them at points, so I don’t adopt any of them. I don’t have a label for my own position. I affirm things like an earthly kingdom of Christ but “millennium” is too short for it. And I affirm that idea for reasons tied to the Deuteronomy 32 worldview, not for reasons theologians usually offer.

1 Peter 3:19-20 says,  Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit,  by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison,  who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared …

Who are these “spirits” that Jesus preached to in “prison,” who were “formerly disobedient?” And that was the desired goal of this “preaching?”

Michael S. Heiser: I think they are the offending, fallen sons of God of Gen 6:1-4. All the Jewish traditions would agree with me there, and the primary sources upon which that view are based. Certain early church fathers held the same view, too, Christian tradition is divided.

I am persuaded by the lengthy analysis of the passage (and related passages brought into the discussion) by William Joseph Dalton: Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 (Pontifical Institute, 1989). Dalton interacts with all the issues at length and creates a pretty compelling case for the position noted above.

Jude 8-10 says,

“Likewise also these dreamers defile the flesh, reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries. Yet Michael the archangel, in contending with the devil, when he disputed about the body of Moses, dared not bring against him a reviling accusation, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’ But these speak evil of whatever they do not know; and whatever they know naturally, like brute beasts, in these things they corrupt themselves.

I have two questions about this text:

Question 1: What’s this business about Michael disputing about the body of Moses?

Michael S. Heiser: I’m in general agreement with Bauckham, who argues that the idea is based on a Second Temple tradition, evident in some Qumran texts and some pseudepigrapha, that believed two angels, or two groups of angels, contend for possession of the departed soul at death. He also suggests (I can’t say I see much evidence of this) that the devil wanted to take advantage of Moses’ guilt (he wasn’t allowed in the Promised Land) to claim the body for himself.

That’s interesting, but I have a different take that I think is better. I’ll grant that Jude 9 is related to (part of the same tradition), or borrows from, 2nd Temple thinking that the lord of the dead tried to claim the body of Moses. The tradition may extend from some of elements in Ezekiel 38-39. Bauckham doesn’t seem to be aware of them. I talked about this in some detail on my Naked Bible Podcast – both the second episode on Ezek 38-39 and in a Q & A. I’ll try and distill things here.

First we should note the place of Moses’ burial. Deuteronomy 34:6 says: “and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day.” The description doesn’t give us a precise location, but what it does say is very interesting. “The valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor” sounds a lot like the “valley of the Travelers (Hebrew: ʿōbĕrîm) mentioned in Ezek 39:11. As the Dictionary of Demons in the Bible entry on “Travelers” notes:

The valley of the ʿōbĕrîm is located ‘east of the sea’ (v 11), which is probably the Dead Sea. So it was part of Transjordan. This is a region which shows many traces of ancient cults of the dead, such as the megalithic monuments called dolmens and place names referring to the dead and the netherworld, viz. Obot (‘Spirit-of-the-Dead’), Peor (cf Baal of Peor), and Abarim.

Oboth and Abarim were places associated with the realm of the dead and Rephaim. It seems possible, even reasonable, that Moses would have been buried in a place associated with the realm of the dead. The Rephaim were part of that underworld, and they are part of the conceptual matrix from which biblical demonology generates.

The lord of the dead was, of course, the original rebel of Genesis 3, the Devil in New Testament terms. Consequently, given the cosmic geography of the place where Moses was buried, it is in turn quite understandable if a 2nd Temple tradition arose about the body of Moses—arguably the central figure in Israelite history—being contested by the lord of the dead – Satan by the time of the 2nd Temple period. Michael was Israel’s prince, the guardian of Yahweh’s portion according to Daniel 10 and 12, so he would also be the logical candidate to claim the body of Moses for the eschatological land of promise, or the domain of Yahweh in the afterlife.

If this scenario is coherent – and I’d suggest it is, though it cannot be conclusively proven – then Bauckham’s speculation is both on target and a misses some relevant details.

Question 2: The parallel text (2 Peter 10-11) says, “They are not afraid to speak evil of dignitaries, whereas angels, who are greater in power and might, do not bring a reviling accusation against them before the Lord.”

What is the meaning of “speaking evil of dignitaries” and “even angels do not bring a reviling accusations against them before the Lord” – who are these “dignitaries” and how does this instruction apply to God’s people today?

What else would you like readers to know about your book?

Michael S. Heiser: The “dignitaries” (literally, “glorious ones”) are divine beings who outrank angels. As I discuss in Unseen Realm, “angel” isn’t really an ontological term; it’s a term or role or rank—a job description, and low-level one at that. But that understanding is based on Semitic thinking. There are many terms in the Old Testament for various members of the supernatural world. During the Hellenistic era, those terms tend to get conflated into “angel” and “demon,” and so hierarchical nuancing gets lost in the New Testament. Passages like this one, though, still let us know there is hierarchy. Angels—a low-level position—take care to not speak against higher spiritual authority. And so we should be careful as well.

As far as what else people should know about my book, it’s not marketing copy when I say that, if you read and absorb the content of The Unseen Realm, you’ll never read your Bible the same way again, and you might just read it through again for the first time. I can say that because that was my experience over the course of fifteen years of focused research during graduate school and for my dissertation on the supernatural worldview of the Bible. When I hit grad school I’d already earned a masters in a respected ancient history program and had taught biblical studies for five years.

But I’d never read passages like Psalm 82 in Hebrew, nor had I been exposed to how Israelite religion needed to be contextualized in light of its religious environment. “Context” to that point was about ancient pots and pans, so to speak, dug up by archaeologists. I’d been sheltered from “worldview artifacts,” especially ancient texts that the biblical writers intentionally engaged. It rocked my world, but in God’s providence, I had the sense to realize that none of what I was discovering would have been new to the biblical writers or Jesus.

I decided to take the plunge and divorce myself from my own comfortable (Enlightenment and Christian) tradition and really read the Bible the way the ancients did. So, over fifteen years and over 5,000 sources later I can say that, while committing myself to this course has cost me some relationships, I don’t regret it for a minute.

The Bible has come alive like I never imagined it could. I want the ancient Israelite and Jew living in the heads of my readers. It will transform the way they read Scripture and perceive the supernatural epic story of God’s love for humanity. I’d much rather be focused on the text of the thing we say is inspired, read in its own worldview context, than get all that filtered through the Enlightenment or a denomination. God doesn’t save us to perpetuate a particular Christian sub-culture. He saves us to advance a supernatural kingdom that is not of this world.

Ezekiel 28 calls the entity who later became the Devil “an anointed cherub” – you say cherubim were part of the divine council in the general sense (if I understood your answer correctly – all heavenly beings were generally part of that council). That being so, where do the cherubim fit into the celestial hierarchy in your view? Are they over or under archangels, for example?

Michael S. Heiser: Well, since we don’t get the term “archangel” in the Old Testament, it’s hard to say anything precise. That said, we do have Michael called “one of the chief princes” which (I think) is a reasonable counterpart to (and likely the impetus for) later “archangel” language. To be honest, we aren’t given the sort of hierarchical information we’d like for such questions. But we can certainly think well about what we do know, though there are inherent difficulties.

For example, since the role of cherubim is to guard the presence of God, one could argue there was no higher position—no greater or more desirable role. To have one of those guys rebel is high treason because of his close proximity to God. But we tend to view throne guardians like Star Trek security guards. They’re expendable and the job you get if you aren’t smart enough to do anything else but muscle people. I think that’s wrong-headed.

A more reasonable contrarian point would be that the cherubim could also be viewed as “confined” and never “used” to do the really cool jobs, like being part of the heavenly army, or engaging in spiritual conflict with a supernatural enemy. But that’s just us thinking about which job we’d want.

On my question about how the unfallen heavenly beings were to specifically carry out their functions in Psalm 82, I’m really looking to understand how they PRACTICALLY and FUNCTIONALLY were to do this. How does an unseen being “defend the just”? “defend the weak? “deliver the poor and the needy?” To make this concrete, let’s put you and me back into Genesis 10. Babel has occurred. You and I are in some kind of leadership position over one of the new nations. We of course are human. How, then, do these celestial beings over us do their job? They are invisible beings. You see what I’m getting at?

Michael S. Heiser:  I’ll base my answer by applying some other passages of Scripture. If I were one of the gods who just wound up supervising humans, I’d want to influence the decision-makers to live according to the morals that Israel would eventually get in the Torah, and to teach those same principles to their people. I’d also want to make sure they worship no other god but the Most High.

In regard to the first, elsewhere angels have explanatory roles. It’s not reasonable to assume God wouldn’t want his moral law taught / explained to the other nations since (a) the gods get judged for not following that moral law, and (b) Paul has positive things to say about the moral law of God written on the Gentile heart (Romans 2). God wants the world to function in an orderly way, not a chaotic way, so teaching humans to do what’s right and what will make for the happiest life isn’t going to be off limits. (And part of the Genesis 6 problem was that divine beings decided to do the opposite in that regard.)

This takes us into some passages I didn’t discuss in The Unseen Realm (as anyone who has visited the website knows, there is plenty of material for one or two follow-up books). For example, in Job 33:23 we read, “If there be for [a man] an angel, a mediator. . . .” The Hebrew term translated “mediator” is mēlı̂ṣ. It occurs in the phrase malʾāk mēlı̂ṣ, a grammatical construction that denotes apposition or modification (“angelic mediator”).

The result is that Job 33:23 puts forth the concept of angelic mediation for human beings. But what does that mean? Without dipping into the book on angels I’m now working on (I just finished this section, so it’s hard) mediation can be understood as “turning” to someone for an explanation of something, in this case, God’s activity. The coherence of the idea requires understanding the genuine (not programmed) participation within the divine council that God extends to members of his heavenly host. D. J. A. Clines notes in regard to Job 5:1, for example:

We have heard of such beings previously at 5:1, where Eliphaz warned Job that there was no point in calling out to such a heavenly being for deliverance from the web of sin and punishment in which he was now caught. There too the angel was envisaged as a mediator between humans and God who would seek mercy from God for the suffering human. The angel is an “interpreter” or “mediator” (מליץ), apparently meaning that its function is to . . . explain God’s purpose in the infliction of suffering. (David J. A. Clines, Job 21–37, 735)

Unfortunately, in Psalm 82, the sons of the Most High are causing the suffering they are supposed to be helping minimize. Elsewhere God makes comments that make it clear that angels aren’t infallible mediators, but he never says they shouldn’t explain things to humans (Job 4:17-18; 15:15).

The context of these passages is not that angelic mediators are evil. Rather, it is that they are lesser and can fail. In Job 15, the passage aims to establish the perfect wisdom and righteousness of God compared to his other intelligent creatures (Job 15:7-16). Though fallible, the angels are still explicitly called God’s servants in that passage. That the holy ones are capable of making less than correct (or even optimal) decisions in mediating God’s will, this cannot mean that those fallible decisions were God’s decisions, as though the decisions of the holy ones had merely been programmed into them by God. Rather, angels can fail because God allows them to make decisions and they are lesser beings than the perfect God. They can go astray, but the task is legitimate. God never tells they aren’t allowed to instruct people (“just shut up and babysit them”).

In Psalm 82 the problem likely describes anything from neglect or apathy about God’s moral law to the intention to create chaos. The latter notion is consistent with the fact that these elohim are blamed for seducing Israel into idolatry in Deut 32, so that’s part of what I’d want to avoid if I were one of them. Paul had a sense that what happened at Babel was somehow related to the gospel (Acts 17). And of course it was. Christ was the promised seed who would bless the nations per the Abrahamic covenant.

It sure would have been nice if the gods of the nations had at least taught the nations there was an unknown God whom they could honor and seek, who would one day bring them back into his family. But that isn’t what happened. So, again, if I were one of them, I’d be trying to make those things clear either by direct instruction or influencing circumstances to get humans to honor God and their fellow imagers.

Order The Unseen Realm on discount.

See also my interview with Michael on his book Angels.

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