An Analysis Of How Dr. Michael Heiser Interprets Scripture In Relation To His Divine Council Concept

In this article I will examine Dr. Michael Heiser’s views on the Divine Council, as found in various articles on his website The Divine My purpose is to offer a critique of Dr. Heiser’s methodology in arriving at the conclusions he does regarding the biblical texts and to offer alternative interpretations. I find his interpretation of certain passages in both the OT and NT to be faulty. When one discerns what are the underlying beliefs which lead him to interpret Scripture the way he does, it then becomes clear that  the interpretive conclusions he arrives at are really the conclusions he began with.

What is my motive in this exercise? I have been listening to Michael Heiser’s podcast for a number of years now but had never read any of the available online material of his work until recently. I have heard a few radio interviews he has given regarding his books and on various topics for which he is known. When I was first introduced to his ideas I was intrigued. It was something I had not heard before and I was always willing to learn new things. I tended to accept what he was saying at first because he was a scholar and though I really did not fully grasp everything he was putting forth (some of it was technical), I was taken in by other personalities, who I admired, who were fast becoming devotees of Dr. Heiser’s work. But over the ensuing years I just lost interest in his work, due mainly to the fact that I was constantly in disagreement with him on his interpretation of specific verses of Scripture. This was while I was still trinitarian in my theology. Since renouncing trinitarianism in favor of biblical unitarian monotheism I have taken a closer look at Dr. Heiser’s work and I now understand more than at any time before what he is promoting. This is because I have actually read his material on a deeper level than ever before and have also listened multiple times to his lecture series Biblical Theology of the Spiritual World. Now that I more fully understand his theses and the underlying presuppositions he holds, I find that I am even more at odds with his biblical interpretation than before.

But so what, I am sure that I am at odds with many scholars’ interpretation of Scripture; why focus on Dr. Heiser? Michael Heiser is one of those rare scholars who have broken through the scholar / layperson divide. He has been able to bring his work down from the heights of academia to the level of popular Christianity. It is not often that scholarly work has such an influence on the folks in the pew. And coupled with that is the sort of awe with which many in the pew regard scholars, especially those who are as accessible as Dr. Heiser. I fear that many will and do take his conclusions for granted, without critical analysis, simply because of his status as a scholar. Many will assume that he knows what he is talking about, he is the scholar and they are just a layperson. To be sure, Dr. Heiser does know what he is talking about when it comes to his specific field of study. He knows the languages and the literature of the ancient near east (ANE) as well as the literature of the second temple period (c. 516 BCE – 70 CE). So when Dr. Heiser is giving data concerning ancient Semitic languages and ANE literature, listen to him, for he knows that material. I have learned a lot about the biblical text and about ANE studies from listening to his podcast. But many laypeople fail to distinguish between that kind of knowledge and biblical interpretation. They just assume that if he is knows what he is talking about with regard to those things he must be correct in his interpretation of Scripture. But this is just not the case. The fact of the matter is that the data he has collected from his field of study has caused him to develop certain presuppositions (along with presuppositions which exist due to orthodox dogma) which then determine how he will interpret Scripture. If the presuppositions are wrong then the interpretation of Scripture that flows from them will also be wrong. It is my contention that his presuppositions are indeed wrong and so his interpretation of Scripture cannot automatically be trusted by virtue of his scholarship.

The Priority Of Extra-Biblical Literature

In introductory material from Heiser’s websites and his podcast one will hear of “Dr. Heiser’s approach to the Bible.” What exactly is his approach to the Bible? Does he regard the Bible as inspired revelation or as a product of purely human invention, or perhaps a mixture of the two? It is hard for me to determine precisely his thinking on this matter as he seems a bit ambivalent. Sometimes he will make  statements in which he seems to regard scripture as revelatory, but at other times he will appear to regard Scripture on a completely human level, speaking of how the biblical authors borrowed from the literature of the surrounding nations in their portrait of the true God. One specific example involves a discussion about the visions of Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7, in which Heiser makes this statement:

This writer (i.e. Dr. Heiser himself) concurs with Collins’ carefully argued rejections of an Iranian or Babylonian background for the visions in favor of a Canaanite provenance, specifically that of the Ugaritic Baal Cycle.

He goes on after this to show the congruence between the imagery in Daniel’s vision and material found in the Baal Cycle. What is he saying here? Is he saying that the source or origin of these visions is Canaanite literature, i.e. the Baal Cycle of Ugarit? Is he suggesting that the authors of both Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7 were borrowing from a Canaanite source when they wrote these portions of Scripture? The texts themselves claim to be visions given directly by God to the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel. Does Dr. Heiser believe that to be the case? It is unclear what he believes. Again, there is a certain ambivalence with him regarding how the biblical texts came about. Was it by divine revelation or was it by the Hebrew authors adapting Canaanite religious concepts and imagery to fit their Yahwistic religion?

Assuming that there is indeed a similarity of concepts about God and of imagery used to speak about God, and I have no reason to doubt that to be the case, how does that coincide with the self claim of much of the Hebrew Scriptures to be direct revelation from God? Because the extant ANE literature is chronologically prior to the Biblical texts, it is assumed by scholars in general that the authors of the Hebrew Bible borrowed from and accommodated the ideas found in these writings in the setting forth of their own religion. Many of the scholars that Heiser quotes no doubt fall into this category. Heiser himself seems to agree, at least to a degree, with this assessment. I might note here that most, if not all, of the scholars quoted by Heiser, do not regard the Scripture to be of divine origin, i.e. they do not believe in divine revelation. They view the Hebrew Bible the same way they view other writings of the time – products of human ingenuity and the result of an unguided process.

For what it is worth I offer here my understanding of why there is much similarity between the Hebrew Scriptures and ANE literature. Although the ANE literature is prior in time to the Hebrew Bible, the religious ideas and concepts of the Hebrew Bible were prior to ANE religion. If we go back to the beginning, when God first created man, we see that God revealed himself to the original human pair. Even after man sinned and was exiled from the garden we can still see that the knowledge of the Creator was still among the human race for a time. Eventually however, man’s knowledge of the Creator degenerated into false religion and the worship of false gods. This led to widespread immorality and debauchery and violence. God eventually destroyed the human race, by means of the flood, with the exception of eight people: Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives. These were spared because they were righteous, maintaining the worship of the Creator. As they began to repopulate the earth after the flood, they no doubt passed on the knowledge  and worship of the true God. So there would have been a time when the true worship of the true God would have been prevalent in the earth. Once again though, as time went on, men turned from the worship of the Creator and were eventually spread over the whole earth, bringing with them their false religions, with remnants of the true religion contained therein. Is it any wonder that similar religious concepts are found in various religions, especially those within the same cultural and linguistic environment. False religion was not a pure invention out of thin air, but rather a perversion of the true religion, and therefore elements of the original will still be seen in the false, only now in a mythologized version. Just because these false religious concepts were recorded prior to the recording of the true concept of God, the Creator, in the Hebrew Scriptures, does not mean these concepts predated those of the Hebrew Bible, or that the Hebrews developed their religious concepts from these false religions. In fact, the false religions were developed out of whatever revelatory knowledge of the true God would have been available to man after the flood. So yes we should expect to see an overlap of concepts and imagery between the Israelite religion and the false Canaanite religions.

The Divine Council

It should be clear to anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Heiser’s work, that the concept of the ‘Divine Council’ is the overarching idea that governs how he will interpret any given passage. Indeed, this is what he is mainly known for. Although the concept is not original to him, he more than any other scholar has brought these ideas to the people in the pew, and has made them popular, at least in some circles of American Christianity. The idea is that there is a council or pantheon of divine beings under the one true God, who administrate God’s rule upon the earth in various ways. It is confirmed by scholars that all ancient near east cultures had such a divine council in their religious systems. This only came to light after the discovery of  cuneiform tablets from ancient Ugarit in the late 1920’s. This is why there is no talk of a divine council among the commentators prior to this time. But if the concept of the ‘divine council’ is so clearly taught in the Hebrew Bible why did no one see it there until this discovery? The concept seems to be derived from the Hebrew Scriptures only by inference, while it is unambiguously laid out in Canaanite literature; and the inference from the Bible only appeared after the discovery of this literature. While I do not doubt that some such a system is employed by God, I do think that Heiser may be overstating it’s importance in understanding OT theology. He seems to think that one cannot fully or accurately understand the Hebrew scriptures without first understanding this concept. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he is obsessed with the idea of the divine council. This is proved by how he tends to see this concept in biblical passages where it really is not found. An example is Deut. 4:19-20, where God says to the people of Israel:

And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, and the moon and the stars, all the host of the heavens, beware lest you are driven to worship them and to serve them, which Yahweh your God has apportioned to all the nations under the whole heavens. And you Yahweh has taken and has brought out of the iron furnace of Egypt to be his people, a possession, as you are this day.

Heiser interprets the ‘host of  the heavens’  here to be the divine council members which he believes Yahweh gave to the nations, to be their gods, while he chose Israel to be his nation. But it seems plain enough to me that ‘the host of the heavens‘ is simply the corporate designation for the sun, moon and stars which were just mentioned. The phrase ‘the host of heaven‘ does not have a single meaning – it can refer to all of the heavenly bodies, as here, but it can sometimes refer to the angelic armies which serve at God’s pleasure {1 Kings 22:19}. It can even refer to the people of God as in Daniel 8:10-12. The context must determine the meaning in each specific passage. The context here speaks of the sun, moon and stars, not of members of a divine council. These gifts God gave to all nations for their benefit, not to be worshipped as the pagans did. Israel is being reminded of their privileged status as God’s possession, and as such they must not follow the practices of the other nations who have gone astray {see Deut. 17:2-5}.

Another passage heavily utilized by Heiser is Deut. 32:8-9:

When the Most High apportioned to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the boundaries of the nations with regard to the number of the sons of God (or Israel). For Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance.

Heiser interprets the verse to be saying that when God divided up the nations he did so according to the number of divine council members (sons of God), to whom he then allotted the nations as their inheritance, while taking Israel as his own inheritance. But the context has to do with the geographical boundaries of the nations in relation to Israel’s numbers. What would national boundaries have to do with God giving dominion over the nations to divine council members? Heiser, of course, prefers the DSS reading of ‘sons of God‘ rather than ‘sons of Israel.’ But this makes no difference to the meaning of the verse. For in this whole chapter Israel is synonymous with the sons (or children) of God {see vv. 5-6, 18-20}. The LXX’s  ‘angels of God‘ is irrelevant, being a sort of paraphrase of ‘sons of God‘ from the DSS, though it does show that ‘sons of God‘ is probably original. The point is that ‘sons of God‘ in this context is not referring to angels or to divine council members, but to the people of Israel who are God’s children. When God divided up the nations (Gen. 10-11) he set their boundaries taking into account his planned intention to place a people of his own in the land of Canaan, which would be of sufficient size for his chosen nation.

Psalm 82

Of course there is Psalm 82, which in the first verse reads:

God takes his place in the congregation of God, he executes judgment among the gods.

Heiser translates the verse as “God has taken his place in the divine council… ” Obviously he assumes this passage to be referring to this divine council concept. But is this the absolute necessary way to understand this passage. Heiser thinks so. But why did no one prior to the discovery of the Ugarit literature understand the passage that way? The almost universal way of understanding this passage prior to the Ugarit discovery was that the psalmist was speaking metaphorically of rulers or judges in Israel. Heiser decries this interpretation and insists that the passage should be understood in light of the Ugaritic concept of a divine council (i.e. a group of gods, who, along with and under the authority of the supreme God, administer the affairs of the cosmos). It is clear that Heiser makes the correct understanding of the biblical text dependent upon the extra-biblical texts. Unless we read the biblical text in the light of the Canaanite text we will fall short of accurately ascertaining the meaning of it.

If we remember that Psalm 82 is poetic literature, then we should not find it strange to find the use of poetic imagery as metaphor. The psalmist is metaphorically portraying the human rulers of Israel, specifically the Davidic kings, but possibly the kings of the Northern kingdom also (judges may be included, as those who administer justice on the king’s behalf – see 2 Chron. 19:5-7), as an assembly of gods, who are being called to account by the Most High, who gave them their authority and commission, for failure to properly fulfill their divine duty. The charge against them is laid out in verse two. In vv.3-4 their divine commission is delineated:

Vindicate the poor and the fatherless; bring justice to the afflicted and the needy. Deliver the weak and the oppressed; rescue them from the hand of the wicked.

These are not the duties of heavenly beings but of earthly kings, as can be seen from the following verses – 2 Chron. 9:8; Ps. 72:2-4, 12-14; Jer. 21:11; 22:1-5. Here we have a number of passages that clearly set forth the divine duty of the Davidic king in the exact language used in Ps. 82:3-4. My question for Dr. Heiser is this – where in the Hebrew Bible is the commission and duty of the members of the divine council even spelled out at all, much less in these exact terms?  It isn’t; but perhaps it is spelled out in these terms in the Canaanite literature. If that is the case, then he is letting extra-biblical literature determine how we should interpret this passage rather than the Hebrew Scriptures themselves.  Therefore, vv. 3-4 are more conducive to the human ruler view than to the divine council view. But what of verse 6, where God says of these rulers:

I designated you gods, every one of you sons of the Most High.

The mistake of Heiser is to take this literally, but that is because his underlying presupposition is driving his interpretation. Why can’t human rulers, and even more specific, the David kings, be addressed in this way? They can be, but not in an ontological sense, but in a representational and functional sense. The reigning Davidic king is so designated in 1 Chron. 28:5-6 (son); Ps. 2:6-7 (son); Ps. 45:6 (elohim). If the common translation of Ps. 45:6 is correct, “Your throne O god is forever,” this should be understood as a representational and functional designation, i.e. the Davidic king is the visible representation of Yahweh’s rule over Israel, functioning as Yahweh’s vicegerent. It is not referring to the king’s ontological nature. On Heiser’s website The Divine, in a PDF titled The Plural Elohim of Psalm 82, at the end of page two he says, “there are actually five (he really gives six) different entities referenced as elohim in the Hebrew Bible.” In the list that follows he fails to include Moses, who is so designated in Ex. 7:1 and the Davidic king in Ps. 45:6, as noted above. The reason for this omission is found in the next section of the PDF (2.2):

All the figures called [elohim] in the 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 …

Again, his underlying presupposition prevents him from seeing that certain humans can be designated by the word elohim.

Another reason Heiser thinks Ps. 82 can only be referring to divine beings is because of Ps. 89:5-7. But what does Ps. 89 have to do with Ps. 82? He is simply assuming (being driven to do so by his presuppositions) that a similar phrase in Ps. 89 is referring to the same thing as Ps. 82. I do believe that Ps. 89:5-7 is speaking about the angelic host that surrounds God in the heavens, but it is unclear to me why this has to determine the meaning of Ps. 82. Just as we saw above, regarding the phrase ‘the host of the heavens,’ even the exact same phrase can have completely different meanings according to context. So a similar phrase in Ps. 89 which does indeed refer to heavenly beings does not really have any bearing on Ps. 82, which to my mind has a totally different context.

In the same document, on pg. 13, after discussing Jesus’ use of Ps. 82:6 in John 10, Heiser makes this claim:

The human [elohim] view (of Ps. 82) derives from two assumptions brought to the text: (1) that it is required by the assumed impossibility of their being other [elohim] because of Judeo-Christian monotheism; and (2) that the phrase (used by Jesus in John 10) “to whom the word of God came” refers to the Jews who received the law at Sinai.

But I have argued for the human king view without any reference whatsoever to these two asumptions. In fact I do not accept either of those assumptions as fact. Heiser doesn’t even address the reasons that I have presented here for seeing the Ps. 82 ‘gods’ as human kings . Is he unaware of the points that I have made? Or is he just picking the low hanging fruit? I would be interested to hear how he would answer these objections to his view.

Verse 7 offers only a slight challenge to the human view:

But in fact, you shall die like men, and fall like one of the rulers.

Heiser interprets this as saying that the divine council members who have rebelled will lose their immortality. Does the phrase “you shall die like men” require that the recipients of these words are not men? Of course not. The phrase is in contrast to their exalted status and to God’s own designation of them as ‘gods’. Read Psalms 2, 45 and 72 and see the exalted ideal of the Davidic king ruling on Yahweh’s throne. God is reminding them of their mortality and that their exalted status will not prevent God’s hand of judgment from bringing them down because of their rebellion to him. That they will “fall like one of the rulers” signifies the exalted status of the Davidic king in relation to the kings of the nations. In Ps. 89:27 God calls him “... my firstborn, the most high (elyon – one of God’s titles) of the kings of the earth.” But this will not prevent God from bringing the rebellious in their ranks down to the ground. I think the NIV captures the intent of the psalmist here, “But you will die like mere men; and fall like every other ruler.” {see also Ps. 73:3-5}

Heiser then interprets the final verse in line with the divine council concept. He envisions the psalmist calling upon God to take back the rule of the nations from these corrupt members of the divine council. But what if the psalmist is simply recognizing that God’s ideal for the Davidic king ruling his kingdom in such a way as to bring under the shadow of his rule, as it were, the Gentile nations, had up to this point not been fulfilled. And this is a plea for that ideal to become a reality. Note the similarity of language with Ps. 2:8-9, where the Davidic ruler is promised the nations as his inheritance. And also note the apostle Paul’s declaration that God

…has set a day in which he intends to judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has furnished assurance of this to all men by raising him from the dead.                 Acts 17:31

John 10:30-38

Michael Heiser’s presuppositions regarding the divine council and orthodox Christology surely lead him to his faulty interpretation of John 10:30-38. In typical orthodox fashion he sees v. 30 – “I and the Father are one” – as a claim to deity by Jesus. This is simply assumed by Heiser and most other orthodox trinitarian believers. There is nothing in the words themselves which necessitate that meaning. In other words, the words, as they stand, do not definitively mean that Jesus is claiming deity; this meaning is merely assumed based on the presupposition of orthodox Trinitarianism. Because they believe Jesus is deity, then that must be what he means by saying these words. This is an example of how orthodox dogma stifles inquiry into a text of scripture. If you think you already know the meaning of any particular passage, based on orthodox dogma or creedal declarations, then why seek for other possible or more plausible meanings of the text. But we must ask, “One what?” The orthodox answer is ‘one substance.’ And so we are told that Jesus was claiming to be one in substance with the Father and that the Jews to whom he was speaking understood him in this way. This is why they picked up stones to stone him, they said, “because you, being a man, make yourself a god.” Yes I said ‘a god‘, but we will get to that soon.

But is ‘one substance‘ the only way or even the best way to interpret Jesus’ words? Is there no other possible tenable alternative? Of course there is, but many trinitarians may be completely unaware of it due to orthodox conditioning. I believe a much more adequate way to interpret these words is in light of the Semitic understanding of agency. As I have explained in other articles on this blog, the concept of agency is ubiquitous in the Scriptures, both in the OT and the NT. The main idea of agency in the ancient Semitic world was that the agent was to be regarded as the one who sent him, since he carried the name, authority, and resources of his lord. The agent came, not to carry out his own will or plans, but those of his master. In this sense it could be said of any faithful agent,  that he and his lord are one. The identity of the agent is in a sense hidden in the one who sent him. The lord is in his agent and the agent is in his lord. Forty times in the gospel of John Jesus is spoken of or speaks of being sent by God. I think that qualifies the idea of Jesus as God’s agent as being a major theme of John’s gospel. This language of being sent is the language of agency. There are other phrases and words in this gospel, other than sent, which also denote agency, such as:

  • Jesus makes the Father known – 1:18
  • Jesus is ‘come from God’ – 3:2; 7:17; 8:42; 13:3
  • Jesus is ‘given authority’ to act on the Father’s behalf – 5:27; 17:2
  • Jesus comes in the Father’s name – 5:43; 10:25
  • Jesus is given a task to do by the Father – 5:37; 17:4
  • The Father is in Jesus and he is in the Father – 10:38; 14:10-11; 17:21
  • Jesus speaks only the Father’s word -7:16-18; 8:28; 12:49-50; 14:10,24

The idea that Jesus was speaking of a metaphysical unity with God, and that the Jews understood him to be so speaking is out of context with the Hebraic culture and mindset. Heiser should know this but seems unaware of it. The Jews did not think or speak of God in such metaphysical terms. It was later Gentile Christians, who were imbued with the Greek mindset, who introduced metaphysical concepts about the relationship between God and Jesus into the church’s thinking. The Jews thought of God in terms of functional relationship, i.e. the ways God acted toward them in covenant relationship. The relationship of Jesus to the Father is laid out in terms of divine agency not divine metaphysics.

I was very delighted to find a prestigious Evangelical commentary that agrees with this understanding of Jesus’ words, the Expositor’s Greek Testament, whose comment on this verse I could not have said better:

An ambassador (another term for agent) whose demands were contested might quite naturally say: “I and my sovereign are one”; not meaning thereby to claim royal dignity, but only to assert that what he did his sovereign did, that his signature carried his sovereign’s guarantee, and that his pledges would be fulfilled by all the resources of his sovereign. So here, as God’s representative, Jesus introduces the Father’s power as the final guarantee, and claims that in this respect he and the Father are one. Whether this does not involve metaphysical unity is another question.

How refreshing to see an Evangelical, orthodox trinitarian commentary actually get it right on a passage that is all too often touted as a proof text for the deity of Jesus. Of course they did have to add the final sentence so as to not lose all credibility and respect with their peers.

The agency view is further borne out in what Jesus says in vv. 34-38. Heiser, working under his presupposition of orthodox trinitarianism and his divine council model, sees not only v. 30 as a declaration by Jesus of metaphysical equality with God, but also v. 38, where Jesus declared, “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” But Heiser is simply reading his predilection of some sort of metaphysical unity into this statement. The statement on it’s own accords well with the concept of Jesus as God’s agent, as does the rest of what Jesus says here.

But the fact that the Jews wanted to stone Jesus for blasphemy, for “making [himself] a god,” surely proves that they understood his statement as a claim to ontological sameness with the Father, doesn’t it? Not at all. First off, there is no definite article before the word theos in the Greek and so the better translation is ‘a god‘ rather than ‘God.’ It is absurd to imagine these Jews as understanding Jesus’ words to be a claim to being ‘the God‘ of Israel, Yahweh himself, or that he was claiming some sort of metaphysical sameness with Yahweh. These opponents of Jesus were prone to exaggerating Jesus’ claims and his actions {see John 8:56-57} to make him look foolish or guilty of sin, therefore to use their words as a proof that Jesus was indeed claiming deity in his statement is ridiculous. What if they understood him as I have proposed i.e. that Jesus was claiming to be the special agent of God who was foretold in the prophets, the Messiah, the final and ideal son of David. Then they would have understood his statement as a claim to functional equality with God, not of ontological equality. Then their accusation would be an extreme exaggeration of Jesus’ claim. Jesus was not claiming to be a god in a sense that would threaten the monotheism of Judaism, but he was claiming that as God’s set-apart  and sent agent {v.36} he would carry out the same function as Yahweh, that of shepherding the flock {vv.1-30}. But why should this be controversial? In the Hebrew Bible the chosen and anointed ruler was tasked with shepherding God’s flock {2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7-8; Ps. 78:70-72; Is. 63:11}, while God himself was seen as the ultimate Shepherd of Israel {Ps. 80:1}. The coming ideal Davidic ruler is also portrayed in these terms {Ezek. 34:23-24; Micah 5:2-4 (see also Matt 2:7)}. The idea is really quite simple – God, the ultimate Shepherd, carries out that function of his covenant relationship with his people, by means of an empowered human agent, the anointed of the Lord. God, as Israel’s ultimate King rules over his people through his appointed agent, the Davidic king.

But why would it be blasphemy for Jesus to be making this claim? If the Jews were exaggerating Jesus’ claim it may be because they saw it as a usurpation of God’s role by Jesus. These Jews did not consider Jesus to be the Messiah. They thought he was a false claimant to that title; he did not fit the bill of what the Messiah was supposed to be, a military leader who would lead Israel to victory against the oppressive Gentile nations. Such a claim by one who obviously didn’t meet the standard would be considered blasphemous. The idea that blasphemy is defined only as a claim to be God is nowhere found in the Bible. To blaspheme is to speak of one in such a way as to defame them. Hence, Jews held that Moses (as well as the patriarchs), and even the law and temple could be blasphemed {Acts 6:11-14}. In the Hebrew Bible a false claim to speak for God was punishable by stoning {Deut. 18:20}.

Jesus answers the Jew’s false accusation against him by referring them to Psalm 82:6:

34.”Is it not written in your law, ‘I have said you are gods’ ? 35. If he called them ‘gods’ to whom the word of God came — and the Scripture cannot be broken —36. what about the one whom the Father set-apart and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s son’ ? 37. Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does.”

Heiser thinks that the only way to make sense of Jesus’ use of this passage is if Ps. 82 is speaking about the divine council. In his document titled Jesus’ Use of Ps. 82 in John 10:34 he summarizes his conclusions as follows:

(1) Jesus uses Ps.82 to identify himself as belonging to the divine realm.
(2) Jesus also identifies himself with the Father, who belongs to the divine realm.

Briefly, I view John’s use of Ps. 82:6 in John 10:34 as making the point (from Jesus himself) that there are other non-human sons of God. By referencing Psalm 82, which is not about “human elohim,” Jesus is in effect tweaking his opponents by claiming to be more than human … John is both asserting Jesus is divine and distinct from other divine sons of God. In effect, Jesus is lord of the council.

I am sorry, but none of Heiser’s conclusions follow from the text itself. He is simply assuming his concept of the divine council (as well as orthodox trinitarianism) and forcing that upon the text.

Now I agree with Heiser that Jesus’ statement “to whom the word of God came” is not referring to the Law being given to the Israelite nation, so that all Israelites are being called ‘gods‘ here. But he acts as though that is the only alternative one has if they don’t take it his way. Yes “to whom the word of God came” refers to those whom God is specifically addressing in Ps. 82, but Heiser sees them as the members of the divine council, when, as I have shown, it is the kings who rule God’s people who are addressed there. Jesus’ point is simple – if God himself referred to his appointed representative rulers as ‘elohim’ (all of whom, by the way, failed to live up to the ideal), then what of the special, ideal and final representative agent, the long awaited coming one (this is the significance of the words “the one the Father set-apart and sent into the world“), who Jesus was claiming to be, is it blasphemy for him to claim to be God’s son? No, in fact he has a right to that title. Note that in Ps. 82:6 the designation ‘gods‘ is equivalent to the designation ‘sons of the Most High’, which, as we saw earlier, are both designations given to the Davidic kings. Far from the divine council view of Ps. 82 being necessary in order to make sense of John 10:30-38, it does not even adequately address the language of Jesus in the whole passage. If the divine council members are ‘sons’ of God, and Jesus is claiming to be God’s son also, how does that establish the distinction between Him and the other council members that Heiser envisions?

One final point, Heiser sees v. 38 as parallel to Exodus 23:20-23, where Yahweh tells Moses he is sending an agent ahead of them and that his name is in this agent. Again, driven by his presuppositions, Heiser  sees a metaphysical relationship between Yahweh and this agent, who he describes as “Yahweh in human form”, or at other times “the visible Yahweh” as compared to the invisible Yahweh i.e. the Father. But this is simply reading his foregone conclusion into the text. That Yahweh’s name was in the agent is completely intelligible from the agency view. Of course the name of an agent’s master is in him, this is what gives the agent the authority to speak and act in the master’s stead. No metaphysical or ontological connection between the two need be posited for this language to make sense, in fact it only brings confusion into what really is a simple concept.

The Divine Council Of Ugarit vs The Divine Council Of The Hebrews

In his Old Testament Godhead Language pdf, Heiser tells us the difference between the divine council in Ugaritic literature and the Hebrew Bible. In Ugarit religion there was a divine council consisting of three tiers, maybe four. The first tier consisted of El and his wife; the second of the royal family, the sons of God, of whom Baal served as El’s co-regent; and the third was for ‘craftsman deities’ (Heiser doesn’t explain what these are); and a possible fourth tier consisted of mere messengers, the malakim.

Heiser then explains the divine council according to the Hebrew Bible as follows. It is a three tier system, where Yahweh occupies the top tier. The second tier consisted of the lesser ‘elohim‘, called the ‘sons of God.’ The third tier consisted of the malakim, or angels.

Now let’s look at what Heiser says next in this paper:

Orthodox Yahwism replaced the co-regent spot that Baal occupied with a sort of binitarian Godhead, in which Yahweh occupied both slots … Within Israelite religion, Yahweh’s occupation of both of the two highest tiers resulted conceptually in two Yahwehs – one visible, the other invisible. At times both speak as characters in the same scene, but more frequently, they are virtually interchangeable.

Heiser sees Jesus as the second Yahweh. Even though he is called son of God, like the lesser elohim of the second tier, he is not a lesser elohim, but occupies the top tier along with the Father, as a second hypostasis in the Godhead, a second Yahweh figure, while remaining distinct from the Father. Heiser has simply fused his divine council concept with orthodox Christology. But please notice how he had to adjust the Ugarit divine council to arrive at an Israelite divine council that would accommodate orthodox Christology. How convenient. In Heiser’s scheme Jesus replaces the Baal figure of Ugarit; but a second tier deity won’t do for orthodox, creedal Christianity, so Heiser bumps him up to a first tier Deity along with the Father. He then asserts that this binitarian Godhead was simply a part of the orthodox worship of Yahweh.

This is quite an assertion; what evidence does he offer for it. Well he begins with the OT figure known as ‘the angel of Yahweh‘. I have dealt with the popular notion promoted by many trinitarian teachers and apologists that the angel of Yahweh was the pre-incarnate son of God in Part 1 of my series Pre-Incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT, so I won’t go into it too deep here. He mentions Ex. 23:20-23, where the angel has God’s name in him, which I dealt with above. He mentions Judges 6 but doesn’t explain much, except to say, “Yahweh and the Angel can be simultaneously – but seperately – present.” Judges 6 can be understood easily when one understands Semitic agency, where God would be acting in and through his agent so that the authors of Scripture can speak of the agent’s speech as Yahweh himself speaking and the agent’s actions as Yahweh himself acting. No postulation of a metaphysical unity between the two is necessary. He next mentions how Israel’s deliverance from Egypt is sometimes attributed to God and sometimes to the Angel of Yahweh, which is supposed to imply this metaphysical sameness. The solution to this is so simple that the fact that Heiser misses it is inexcusable. When God does a thing through an agent then surely it can be said that God did it or that the agent did it. Not only is the bringing of Israel out of Egypt attributed to God and to the angel but also to Moses {1 Sam. 12:6-8}. Should we then postulate a metaphysical relationship between Yahweh and Moses? God was acting in and through his agents (whether human or divine) and so he gets the ultimate credit, but Scripture still recognizes the role of the agents. This is why in the book of Judges Israel’s deliverance from their enemies is attributed to both Yahweh and the human judges {Judges 2:16-18}.

He next mentions Gen. 48:15-16, which reads, regarding Jacobs blessing of Josephs two sons:

May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm — may he bless these boys.

Heiser thinks that this establishes the identity of the angel of Yahweh as Yahweh himself, a sort of metaphysical sameness which he describes as “a tight fusion of the two divine beings.” But why can’t it just be understood that Jacob realizes that God’s deliverance of him from all harm was accomplished not by God’s direct involvement but rather by an agent assigned by God to protect him. He knows that ultimately God is the source of his protection, but he also knows that God accomplished it through an agent, whom he recognizes in this blessing. The singular verb bless in the phrase “may he bless” would be referring to God alone not to the angel who acted on God’s behalf.

Heiser then mentions the Rider on the Clouds of Daniel 7:13 which I will be examining in my next article, so I won’t here.

Next he references how Yahweh speaks sometimes of himself in the third person, as in Amos 4:11. This is a phenomenon known as illeism. There is a dissertation by Ervin Roderick Elledge on illeism in the Bible and in ANE literature, which is available online, which documents the widespread use of this rhetorical device among ANE gods and ANE kings, as well as in the speech of Yahweh and kings in the OT and Jesus in the NT. It really has nothing to say about whether their might be multiple persons in the Godhead.

Next he mentions the two powers in heaven doctrine of Judaism, which I will also deal with in the next article.

None of these supposed ‘evidences’ really merit the over confidence of Heiser in his assertion that orthodox Yahwism made room for a binitarian Godhead which consisted of a visible and an invisible Yahweh. Heiser never really tries to explain on too deep of a level how he conceives of the relationship between these two Yahwehs – how they are the same person but yet distinct, he just asserts it and expects his followers will accept his word for it. If Heiser wishes to view things the way he does, fine, he is free to do so. But he should tell his followers that this is just one way to see things, that there are other viable ways of explaining the data. Instead, he presents his interpretations as the only plausible way of reading the text. But as we have seen there are other alternative interpretations of these passages that are really much better than what Heiser offers.

In my next article we will examine Heiser’s interpretation of Daniel 7. Please come back.






Author: Troy Salinger

I am 55 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 32 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 36 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

4 thoughts on “An Analysis Of How Dr. Michael Heiser Interprets Scripture In Relation To His Divine Council Concept”

  1. Very well written article. The sons of God sometimes refers to fallen angels. The high ranking ones were given regions of the earth to rule over. To say these sons of God given this authority are men (kings) seems to overlook the fact of the spiritual powers of darkness that control the men (kings). Israel was set apart from these nations to be ruled by Yahweh through his sons (men). This is how I understand it.


    1. Hi Mr. Augie and Mr. Salinger,

      I was conducting research, trying to track down a few comments a colleague made regarding how Dan Wallace’s views on verbal aspect have forever changed the aorist is a tense aspect combination, i.e., not a fixed point in the past, present or future. Also, I’ll be upfront with full disclosure. If someone is looking for an impartial opinion on Dan, I am not such a person. I believe “Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament,” written by Dan Wallace should be in every seminary, assuming they have an objective to graduate Pastors who truly understand Koine. 🙂

      That said, what in the world does a search on verbal aspect in Greek Grammar have to do with Michael and his Divine [A]ssembly? Divine Council is NOT the best rendering IMHO. Nothing, unless the discussion focused on Psalm 83 in the LXX, and was a comparative discussion on Psalm 82. While Michael does draw from the LXX, my guess is 85% of his work comes from the Masoretic Text (the critic post DSS) .

      So, I have no explanation how the search terms I employed led me here the link and to this discussion.

      I would ask that none here take offense at my comments regarding ALL discussions on biblical exegesis in English. Had I stumbled on this page and the discussion centered around the Pauline Epistles in English, I would never have selected the link. In no way am I saying this means any discussion not in the original languages is any better or worse, it is simply what I am accustomed to, and I very likely would make mistakes unless, at the very least, a witness and MSS are cited, I would not be able to render an honest opinion, since there are many people who continue to refrain from using the best MSS available. One example and I’ll move on.

      Your comments Mr. Augie either reflect an understanding of the underlying text, or you read a good English version and have a superior ability to connect the dots. If someone is using an English bible which is based on the LXX or MT for 90% I have no idea which LXX, if the MT is from 1,000 A.D., or if it is the critical text written after the Dead Sea Scrolls. That said, based on your comments and some additional comments made Mr. Salinger which I enjoyed, I’d like to comment on what you have said above. I’m also accustomed to accurately quoting people, thus if you have made a comment I do not agree with, I will explain exactly why, but I just realized I should have left 15 minutes ago, so I can only post what I wrote and not spell check.

      “The sons of God sometimes refers to fallen angels.”
      The above is incorrect. Remove [sometimes] and [fallen].
      The “sons of God” ALWAYS refer to spiritual beings created by God.
      The Hebrew used is (assuming it posts) is:
      אֱלֹהִים (’elohim plural, gods, c.f. Genesis, “let US make man in our image,” was NOT the Trinity talking to itself. The creating language goes back to singular, and also at times, will of course employ “Through Him (The Logos) Christ all things were created.)

      “The high ranking ones were given regions of the earth to rule over.”

      Yes and no. Remove the idea of a hierarchy. The BIBLE (I do not mean the apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts). While they are extremely valuable, I would steer clear of the translations. There is only one single angel in the bible called an Arch. Michael, the Angel who watched over God’s Elect Nation throughout all dispensations.

      To those who claim (I do not mean here) that Human Rulers are being referenced, the same claim was attributed to Genesis 6.1-4.
      This is the word for a human ruler is: אֱלֹהִים

      I apologize, I am late and when I return, I will try a different Hebrew Font, or use proper transliteration and just add the Hebrew words. Sorry all.

      What I mean is something like this: The phrase “to make a covenant,” is literally to CUT a covenant. KaRaTh B:RiYTh,
      Ex 1. David and Jonathan solemnly agreed to befriend each other for life. They had to cut a sacrificial animal in half, lay out the pieces, and walk between them, saying something like: “May the Lord God do to me and worse, if I break this Covenant.”

      YHWH is serious about His and human covenants. Remember this one?

      Pharaoh Necho of Egypt agreed to a non-aggression covenant with Josiah (2 Chronicles 35.21). Josiah broke it, and what happened to Josiah? DEAD at Megiddo (c.f. 22-24).

      Dean Poulos

      I also blame running late on Mr. Salinger, I found one of his quotes and I’ll explain why I enjoyed it when I return.

      “Dr. Heiser asserts that in Daniel 7 what we have is a divine council scene, and we can be assured of this because this is [[“not disputed among scholars.”]]


    2. Mr. Augie, thanks for your comments. If the sons of God of Gen. 6 are angels it is not necessary to see them as fallen angels at the time of their rebellion. Rather they became fallen as a result of their rebellion. In other words, they didn’t fall first and then commit the sin recorded there, but they fell in the act of the sin committed. I do not see men as puppets in the hands of either God or spiritual powers. Surely they can be influenced for good or evil. God has his ways of influencing kings to do his will and if not he can just remove them from power. Likewise, spiritual powers have their ways of influencing rulers to act on their behalf. I think all that we can say according to scripture is that these heavenly powers fight among themselves in the spiritual realm for control over the nations. As for whether human rulers can be called sons of God I think the scripture answers in the affirmative. If you read my blog article Son Of God Part 1 you will see where I am coming from.
      I visited your website and must say it looks interesting. I will be checking it out.


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