I wanted to take the opportunity at the beginning of this New Year to write a brief review as well as highly recommend a new book (2015) tilted The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (UR) by Michael S. Heiser. Dr. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence at Faithlife (the makers of Logos Bible Software). He earned his PhD in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Languages at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Reading his book, The Unseen Realm has been a truly revolutionary experience in my own life and ministry. One of the great strengths of this book is the author’s insistence that the Bible must be interpreted in light of the original ancient context in which it was composed (and this truly needs to be heard by the contemporary church).
In Part One (“First Things”) Heiser gives a brief overview of his own story and how he arrived at the idea to write UR. His contention is that if “our theology derives from the biblical text, we must reconsider our selective supernaturalism and recover a biblical theology of the unseen world” (p. 18; emphasis in original). In Part Two (“The Households of God”) the author explains the fascinating subject of the “sons of God” and presents how the Hebrew biblical writers used the term elohim in different ways and contexts. The Old Testament refers to God’s divine council and calls them elohim which is a familiar Hebrew term translated either as God or gods. Heiser’s primary passage is Psalm 82 (see vv. 1-7) which he shows to be to be a critical section of Scripture that deals with the divine nature of the God’s council. This perspective indicates that many types of supernatural beings are referred to as elohim.
Although there are many types of elohim this is not advocating polytheism for even though the God of Israel is referred to as an elohim he is also named Yahweh. Heiser concludes that the term elohim does not refer to a set of attributes but rather designates a place of abode (i.e., “inhabitants of the spiritual world” p. 32; emphasis in original). Yahweh is ontologically distinct and unique from the other elohim in that he is their creator and sovereign. Part Two also includes foundational chapters on the image of God in man, the Garden of Eden, and the idea of gardens and mountains in the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context of the Hebrew Bible. An important point that Heiser makes is that even though heaven and earth are separate they are at the same time “connected realms” (p. 68).
Part Three (“Divine Transgressions”) provides an excellent summary of the fall of mankind (Gen. 3), the subsequent transgression of the “sons of God” (Gen. 6) , the resulting flood, and the scattering of the nations at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11). In this section the identity of the Serpent (nachash), and Nephilim are also discussed in light of corresponding ANE and Second Temple Jewish literature. A focus of Heiser’s positon is what he calls the “the Deuteronomy 32 Worldview.” Because the nations reject Yahweh at the Tower of Babel he disinherits the them and gives them over to rule by the “sons of God.” Heiser convincingly shows the common reading of Deuteronomy 32: 8-9 which says “sons of Israel” cannot be correct and bases his translation of “sons of God” on the older Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts, the LXX, as well as the fact that Israel did not even exist during the episode at Babel. Even though God rejects the nations and judges them by giving them over to lesser divine beings he also chooses one nation for himself and that nation was Israel. Israel was now holy ground in the cosmic geographical battle between Yahweh and the lesser “sons of God” (beney Elohim) help make sense of many difficult passages in both the Old and New Testaments.
Part Four is titled “Yahweh and his Portion” and shows how the truth of the godhead is taught in the Hebrew Bible. In my estimation this is one of the most important parts of UR. The idea of plurality in the godhead is not just a New Testament concept but rather is clearly seen in the Old Testament. This is really a strong apologetic especially when engaging in Jewish evangelism. The idea that God was one but at the same time many is something found in the Hebrew Bible and was called “the two powers in heaven” view in the ancient Jewish world.
In Part 5 the subject of the Nephilim is again discussed in more detail and the reasons for the Joshua’s conquest and “holy war” are presented. It is Yahweh against the gods and the goal is to reclaim the nations and spread and establish the kingdom of God with victory in the real spiritual war that rages. In Part 6 Heiser traces the divine council theme through Israel’s monarchy and the prophets. His exposition of Daniel 7 is a highlight of this section and gives a wonderful description of “the cloud rider” in light of ANE literature. I want to also make the reader aware that Heiser throughout the book is constantly bringing relevant New Testament passages into the discussion.
In Part 7 Heiser writes about the present reality of the kingdom of God and moves into the text of the New Testament. The narrative of the Gospels, epistles, and every other New Testament book continues the saga of the ongoing cosmic conflict. Jesus is shown to be the visible Yahweh of the Old Testament, and with the inclusion of the Gentiles into the new covenant a remarkable leap forward is achieved in bringing about the final destruction of the dominion of the hostile spiritual rulers of the world.
In the final section of UR (Part 8) the future nature of the kingdom is addressed. Heiser’s approach is to “show how the divine council cosmic-geographical worldview …sheds significant light on how the long war against Yahweh ends” (p. 349). The author provides an exegetical and encouraging perspective on the end times. The consummation of redemptive history will be one of victory “with God’s return to permanently dwell with his family on a new earth” (p. 383).
Heiser carefully works through the entire Bible to expose what the Scriptures actually say about the supernatural world. An understanding of this real realm in which there is so much going on “behind the scenes” is absolutely critical for all Christians to understand and be very much aware for both right doctrine and practice. Borrowing a phrase that Heiser himself utilizes, this book indeed has caused a “watershed moment” and “critical turning point” in my own life. The book certainly provides a much needed correction to many prevalent misconceptions about the world beyond the physical material reality. The “unseen realm” is just as real and is vital to God’s dealings with humankind in the earthly domain. What goes on in the earthly sphere is directly a result of what takes place in the heavenly dimension.
The Unseen Realm is a masterful work of biblical theology that displays the unfolding plan of God in and through his divine council. Heiser effectively and carefully constructs from the biblical texts a worldview that is based on the reality of the existence of God’s heavenly council who both submit and serve his call and plan. This worldview perspective offered by Heiser helps to make sense of the many difficult biblical passages that have either been largely ignored or horribly twisted in various attempted interpretations. Looking at the biblical accounts from the perspective of the actuality of the divine council renders a clear understanding of God’s sovereign plan both in redemption and the restoration of all things. I would recommend this book be read by pastors, seminarians, and laypeople. The book presents some challenging and most-likely new approaches to the biblical texts. However, given the goal to interpret the Bible in its original context this book succeeds in its presentation of the truth and reality of the “unseen realm.”