The Rider On The Clouds – A Critique Of Dr. Michael Heiser’s View Of Daniel 7

I will be critiquing Michael Heiser’s view on Daniel 7 as found in the condensed form of chapter 6 of his dissertation on the Divine Council. Here is the PDF: daniel7

Daniel 7 – A Divine Council Scene?

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.” But these are the same scholars who do not believe the book of Daniel, much less chapter 7, to be a divine revelation from God, i.e. that Daniel actually saw a vision from God. As a result they look for ways to explain the contents of Daniel chapter 7 on a natural human level, i.e. the author is drawing on material from other ANE literature and they believe that the best source is the Ugarit divine council. But how does Dr. Heiser, who seems to believe that the scriptures are a divine revelation, reconcile this belief with the assessment of these scholars, with whom he seems to agree? He never really tells the reader how he is able to hold these two contradictory views in conjunction. Just to be certain as to his view of Daniel 7, I quote:

This vision has long been considered to have derived from outside the Hebrew Bible… This writer 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 Ugarit Baal Cycle.       pp.6-7

Now it is true that neither Dr. Heiser nor the scholars he quotes would believe that the author of Dan. 7 simply reproduced the Baal Cycle of Ugarit in his own work, but rather that he, being cognizant of the pagan myth, borrowed imagery from it and incorporated that imagery into his dream vision. But this does not alleviate Heiser’s dilemma. If Heiser wants to hold that Dan. 7 is divine revelation while at the same time hold that it borrows imagery from Ugarit literature, then the only way I can see for him to do so is to say that God himself borrowed this imagery from a pagan religious source and incorporated it into the vision which he gave to Daniel. Does anyone else have a problem with this kind of thinking? Imagine God, having sent his chosen people into captivity because of their persistent idolatry, which included the worship of Baal, then using  pagan religious imagery connected to Baal, to portray himself in a vision to one of his prophets. Wouldn’t this make God guilty of sending a mixed message to his people?

I want to state, for the record, that I believe that there is in Scripture the concept of God as a heavenly king, and that surrounding him is a host of heavenly ministers, agents who carry out his will and purposes in the earth. That there is some sort of order and structure among these beings is also evident from Scripture. But whether this concept was ever intended by the authors of Scripture to mirror the divine council of the pagan nations surrounding Israel is another question. Heiser, following the scholars he quotes in his work, believes this to be the case. As a result he ends up using this pagan religious concept as a grid through which he interprets biblical passages. I noted in my previous article a few of the biblical passages into which Heiser reads this concept – Deut. 4:19-20; Deut. 32:8-9 and Ps. 82. I, personally, do not think these verses say anything about a divine council and have offered alternative interpretations for them which better fit their contexts. Could it be that with Daniel 7 Heiser is once again reading this concept, which has become for him an over-arching paradigm, into the passage?

What is clear is that in the pagan divine council the members of the council are deities, under the authority of the supreme deity. In the biblical concept this is not so. In the Hebrew Bible the host of heavenly beings who do God’s bidding are not considered deities, i.e. they do not share an ontological divinity with Yahweh. They may at times be designated as ‘gods’ (Heb. elohim), even as certain human agents of God have been, but this should be understood in a representational or functional sense, not in an ontological sense. Yet this does not keep Heiser from constantly referring to the Israelite divine council as ‘divine plurality‘, which is certainly a misleading designation. The word ‘divine‘ connotes deity and ‘plurality‘ connotes more than one. Of course Heiser does not believe that the ‘host of heaven’ in the Hebrew scriptures are actual deities in the sense that Yahweh is. I believe the reason he uses the phrase ‘divine plurality‘ is to set up his readers at the beginning for his conclusion. He just keeps referring to this ‘divine plurality‘ in Israelite religion as if it were a given, setting up his readers for his conclusion that there are multiple, ontologically divine hypostases in the Godhead. As we will see, Heiser thinks that this idea is evident in Daniel 7.

It is not even clear that the events of vv. 9-14, as seen by Daniel in this vision, are taking place in heaven, despite Heiser’s confident assertion:

Specifically, the plurality of thrones in heaven (as opposed to an earthly throne or thrones / earthly ruler[s]), and hence a divine bureaucracy, is evident in Daniel 7:9. p.2 emphasis in original

When you  carefully follow the vision from the beginning it is evident that the events are taking place on earth. First, there is a succession of four earthly kingdom, portrayed as four beasts, in vv. 2-8. Then comes the supposed divine council scene in vv. 9-10. Then vv. 11-12 focus again on the beasts. In vv. 13-14 we see the son of man figure come on the scene. If the events of vv. 9-10 and 13-14 are taking place in heaven this results in a shifting back and forth between heaven and earth in the vision, which I suppose is possible but I’m just not sure that it’s necessary. Why can’t all of the events of the vision be taking place on earth? Heiser and others may object, claiming that it is obvious that these events are taking place in heaven, but is it really that obvious? The language in vv. 9-10 describe what appears to me to be a courtroom scene, where God is preparing to pronounce judgment upon the beasts (earthly kingdoms). This is very reminiscent of Joel 3 where Yahweh gathers the nations to the valley of Jehoshaphat to enter into judgment with them there. Verse 12 reads:

Let the nations be roused; let them advance to the valley of Jehoshaphat. For there I will sit to judge all the nations on every side.

The two passages seem to be closely related and may be referring to the same end time event. In both passages God is taking his seat as judge to pronounce judgment on the nations that have oppressed his people. In both passages the oppressing nations are destroyed and the people of God are exalted. But in the Joel passage it is specifically stated that Yahweh is sitting as judge in the valley of Jehoshaphat, not in heaven. The Daniel passage does not specify the location of the courtroom scene, it is merely assumed by most to be in heaven. Of course, Daniel 7 is a vision and the images within the vision are not to be taken literally, they are representative of certain realities that will take place (from Daniel’s perspective). Therefore it is plausible that vv. 9-10 should be understood to be happening upon the earth rather than in heaven. Also, it is often just assumed that the “one like a son of man” is coming from earth to heaven, but this is not conclusive from the text itself. It could, rather, be portraying the ‘son of man‘ coming from heaven to earth.

Plurality of Thrones

A plurality of thrones is clearly described in the vision. Contrary to the view that the plurality is incidental since only one individual is seated for judgment, or the rabbinical interpretation that the plurality here denoted one throne for God and another for David, the text clearly states that it was the council that was collectively seated along with the Ancient of Days. The setting for this meeting of the divine council is apparently in heaven, but these thrones are not located in the clouds. This observation is important since it rules out the idea that the plurality refers to a second throne upon which the “one like a human being”, who receives everlasting dominion, was seated. This figures comes with the clouds later in the scene, after the court has already been seated.      p.5 emphasis in original

Heiser sees the plurality of thrones as referring to the members of the divine council, which he says is clearly stated in the text. But where? I fail to see it clearly stated. He must be interpreting the phrase in v. 10, “the court was seated,” as a reference to the council members, but this is hardly “clear.” The phrase literally translated is “the judgment was seated” which is unusual. The phrase appears again in v. 26, in the angel’s interpretation of the vision. If ‘the judgment‘ here is meant to denote the ones who judge, as most commentators think, how do we know it refers to the divine council members? Some see it as ‘the Judge’, singular. Of course, Heiser reads it according to his paradigm which is drawn from ANE literature. The phrase in question is obscure and therefore open to interpretation. We see a parallel in Rev. 20:4: “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge.” Once again, this scene in Rev. 20 appears to be on earth, and again, who these are who are seated on these thrones is not explicitly stated. It could be resurrected believers since, if the events of Rev. 19-22 are consecutive, the rapture/resurrection of believers would have already taken place. Perhaps it refers to the Twelve, who were promised by Jesus to  sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel in the kingdom age {Matt. 19:28; Lk.22:29-30}. Both the Daniel and Revelation scenes are both taking place at that time in history when the kingdoms of this world are being made subservient to the kingdom of God.

Dr. Heiser dismisses out of hand the rabbinic interpretation that the plural ‘thrones‘ refers to God’s throne and the throne of David, which would be occupied by the promised son of David, the Messiah. He also dismisses the interpretation that a second throne is for the ‘son of man‘ figure who comes on the scene afterwards. His reason for this seems rather confusing. He says it’s because the “thrones are not located in the clouds,” though he says they are “apparently in heaven,” and because the ‘son of man’ figure comes with the clouds “after the court (literally judgment) has already been seated.”  But this assumes the correctness of his interpretation of this ambiguous phrase. Why couldn’t a second throne be set in place awaiting the arrival of the ‘son of man‘ figure who would then take his place on that throne? It is true that the passage no where explicitly states that the ‘son of man’ figure sits on a throne, but v. 14 does say that “he was given sovereignty, glory and a kingdom” which is certainly what is signified by the concept of sitting on a throne. It seems that Heiser is taking the visionary imagery much to literal. This may be because he is attempting to associate the images in Daniel 7, which are being seen in a vision, with the imagery in the Baal Cycle of Ugarit, which to my understanding, is not the record of a vision but rather a  mythological religious narrative. In the Hebrew Bible images seen in visions are not literal reality, but only representations of literal reality; e.g the four beasts in Daniel 7 are not literal beasts but instead represent literal earthly kingdoms. I’ve noticed in  Dr. Heiser’s written and audio teaching that he does not make a distinction between things which were literally seen by prophets and patriarchs, and things which were seen in visions and dreams. The two are not the same and to treat them as such leads to misunderstandings of the texts.

Identifying The Son of Man

We come now to the crucial question regarding the vision of Daniel 7, the identification of the “one like a son of man” in verse 13. On pages 18-20 of Heiser’s paper, where he refutes the identification of the ‘son of man’ figure as Michael and leads the reader to his ultimate conclusion, we read the following statements:

The above proposal is congruent with the divine character of the “one like a human being’ in Daniel 7. The imagery and flow of Daniel 7 points to a deity figure that shares the sovereign rule of the highest tier of the council … Neither Michael nor any other angel is associated with the throne-chariot theophany, which motif is only mentioned in Daniel at 7:13, and is elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible only attributed to a being of the first tier of the council. It is one thing to be a member of the second tier… but quite another to be spoken of as being at Yahweh-El’s level … The picture that emerges from Daniel’s vision and it’s description is that Yahweh-El’s vice-regent represents the interest of the divine council and Yahweh-El’s chosen people, Israel, in such a way that the everlasting dominion envisioned is shared under the authority of Yahweh-El … If Michael, who is Israel’s prince, is not the figure of Daniel 7, what other being could be so associated with the divine council and the chosen nation?
The New Testament answer to this question is clear … Jesus quotes Daniel 7:13 (cf. Matt. 26) when pressed by Caiaphas the high priest to confess who he was – HE is the rider on the clouds, the “son of man,” the “one like a human being’ who is Yahweh’s co-ruler, the “Prince of princes,” the “Prince of the host,” and therefore “THE Prince of the host of Yahweh” in Joshua 5.   emphasis in original

While I agree that the ‘son of man’ figure is not Michael the archangel, and that Jesus did apply the designation to himself, I have to disagree with Heiser’s overall impressions of the passage and the exegetical details that frame his conclusion. It seems that Heiser, as a committed Trinitarian, had really begun his investigation of Daniel 7 with his conclusion already in mind. Wanting to find support from the Hebrew Bible that Jesus really is somehow Yahweh, yet distinct from Yahweh, he simply interprets Daniel 7 to fit that conclusion. In order to get there though he has to do some finagling with the specific details of the text.

First of all, it must be understood that the ‘one like a son of man‘ in Daniel’s vision, who receives dominion, glory and a kingdom, is a representational image and not the actual reality which it represents. The actual reality is given to us in the interpretation of the vision given by the angel in vv. 15-28. The angel interprets the images of the vision for Daniel in those verses. If we follow the vision through from the beginning we see a succession of four beasts. The first was “like a lion,” the second “like a bear,” the third was “like a leopard,” and the fourth was apparently not like any beast Daniel had seen before, for he simply describes it as an exceedingly powerful beast that inspires dread and fear. Now if we look to the angel’s interpretation of what these four beasts represented, we find that “the four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth” {vv. 16-17}. While Daniel did indeed literally see a lion, bear, leopard and an unidentifiable terrible beast, these were not the reality themselves, but only images representing the reality. The reality is the four earthly kingdoms. These four kingdoms coincide with the the four kingdoms in Daniel’s interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 2. These are four successive kingdoms, each replacing the one before it as the dominating world power, and each one oppressing and dominating over Israel, the kingdom of Yahweh, to some degree or another.

Now after this Daniel sees the courtroom scene where “one that was ancient in days took his seat.” The translation ‘the Ancient of Days‘ does not appear to be correct although it is the predominant one among the English versions. This phrase in v. 9 is anarthrous i.e. without the definite article. The other two occurrences of the phrase, vv. 13 and 22, do have the definite article but are anaphoric in nature, referring back to the first anarthrous mention. This phrase is not a title for God as ‘the Ancient of Days‘ suggests. Rather this is an image that is being seen in the vision; the image of an elderly man (that’s what ‘one who is ancient of days’ means) taking his seat on the throne. This image represents God, who is repeatedly throughout the interpretation, given the title ‘the Most High.’ I did find four versions that confirm this translation – the ASV, the ERV, the JPS Tanakh, and the Jubilee Bible 2000.

In verses 11-12 Daniel sees the demise of the fourth beast and how the other three had been deprived of their dominion but allowed to continue for a time.

Verse 13 then picks up where verse 8 left off. Using the same exact language as in verses 2 and 7, “I was watching in visions of the night and behold one like a son of man coming…” The most logical way to understand this figure is in the same vein as the four beasts which preceded it. In other words, the “one like a son of man” is an image representing another reality, in this case a fifth kingdom which succeeds and replaces the fourth kingdom as the dominating world power. Actually we do not have to guess as to it’s meaning, for the angel gives Daniel the interpretation of the vision in vv. 16-18:

… so he spoke to me and made known to me the interpretation of these things: “The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever — yes for ever and ever.

I see an inherent contradiction in Heiser’s interpretation of the passage. First he interprets the ‘son of man‘ in v. 13 as Jesus, understood as deity and a first tier member of the council. This one is said to be given authority, glory and a kingdom. Yet in the angelic interpretation it is the ‘holy ones‘, whom Heiser sees as the second tier council members, who receive the kingdom and authority {vv. 18, 22, 27}. Heiser tries to obscure the contradiction by stating that:

Yahweh-El’s vice-regent represents the interest of the divine council and Yahweh-El’s chosen people, Israel, in such a way that the everlasting dominion envisioned is shared under the authority of Yahweh-El …

Represents the interest of the divine council and Israel? What does that even mean? It is a vague attempt to cover over a glaring contradiction.

The mistake of Heiser and others (I myself made the same mistake for many years) is to take the imagery of v. 13 as literal reality while at the same time taking the four beasts as representational images. But the image of “one like a son of man” must follow the same pattern as the preceding images. The angelic interpretation does not say that the “one like a son of man” is a first tier divine council member and vice-regent of Yahweh, who is deity himself, but instead identifies this image as the Most High’s kingdom people, Israel, who in the coming age will receive “the sovereignty, dominion and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven” {v. 27} (Gentile believers do not worry, we are grafted in and will share in the inheritance of the holy ones in the kingdom of light – see Col. 1:12). In other words, it is likely that the “one like a son of man” does not refer to a single individual, whether of a divine, angelic or human nature, and so all discussion as to the identity of this image along the lines of a specific individual, like Michael or Gabriel or David or Jesus, may be superfluous. The interpretation of the image of the “one like a son of man” is given to us in the text, and it appears to be a corporate entity, the holy ones of the Most High {see vv. 18, 22, 27}.

But even here Dr. Heiser’s presupposition of the divine council prevents him from reading the text properly. He understands “the holy ones of the Most High” in v. 18 to be the members of the council instead of the people of God. He then translates v. 27 like this:

The kingdom and dominion and the greatness of the kingdom under all heaven, shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High …

He takes the phrase to be referring to two groups, the people, whom he rightly understands to be Israel, and the holy ones, whom he understands to be the second tier members of the divine council (see p. 19 of Heiser’s paper). He doesn’t really explain what the phrase would mean if taken this way. In what way would the people of God be regarded as the people of the members of the council? If the members of the divine council have been apportioned to the Gentile nations, as Heiser teaches, then how can Israel be said to be “the people of the holy ones.” It doesn’t make sense. But is the translation “the people of the holy ones of the Most High” preferable to “the people, the holy ones of the Most High,” which would refer to one group, i.e. Israel (with engrafted Gentiles included), the inheritors of the kingdom. The English versions are split on this verse with the ASV, ERV, ESV, NASB, NET, KJV and the JPS translating “the people of the holy ones“; The HCSB, ISR, YLT, NIV, ISV and the Jubilee Bible translating the people and the holy ones as the same group. In favor of the former wording is first, the fact that this phrase forms a construct state which results in a genitive or possessive construction, and second, the fact that ‘holy ones‘ in Daniel, outside of chapter 7, refers to heavenly beings.

In answer to the second point I will say that while it is true that every other usage of ‘holy ones‘ in Daniel, outside chapter 7, is referring to heavenly beings, this does not preclude it’s usage in Chapter 7 from having a different meaning. The Aramaic word occurs six times in this chapter and refers to the same thing in each instance. Since chapter 7 is a separate and distinct vision there is no reason to assume the word, as used in this chapter, must mean what it meant in other places in Daniel. In 8:24 the corresponding Hebrew word is used and refers to people, not angels. God’s people are referred to as ‘holy ones‘ elsewhere in Scripture. So the most that can be said is that the designation ‘holy ones‘ can refer to both men and angels, the meaning being determined by the context. In the context of Daniel 7, in verse 21, the little ‘horn‘ of the fourth beast is said to wage war and prevail against these ‘holy ones‘. We know from the angel’s interpretation (vv. 24-25) that the horn represents an earthly king. Does Heiser think that an earthly king will wage war and prevail against the members of the divine council?

As for the phrase “the people of the holy ones of the Most High” being a construct state, this would not disallow the meaning “the people, the holy ones of the Most High.” The word people is singular and can be translated nation. The phrase would then read “the nation of the holy ones of the Most High” and would mean “the nation consisting of the holy ones.” Another possibility is that the ‘holy ones‘ in the phrase in v. 27 is referring back to the ‘holy ones‘ who are being persecuted and given into the hand of the ‘horn’ in v. 25. The people of those holy ones is Israel.

The Rider On The Clouds

So why does Heiser think the “one like a son of man” is a first tier member of the divine council, whom he identifies as none other than Jesus, whom he also identifies as the Prince of the host of Yahweh, from Joshua 5:14? Because his exegesis is not being driven by the text but by his predilections, namely the divine council concept and the Trinity doctrine. Heiser believes that the “one like a son of man” in Daniel’s vision is meant to fill the role that Baal filled in the Ugarit divine council as found in the Baal Cycle. There, Baal serves as El’s vice-regent and his “stock epithet” is ‘Rider of the Clouds.’ Heiser asserts that this epithet marks one out as a deity figure. Not only was this one of Baal’s titles but it was also said of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible – Deut. 33:26; Ps. 68:4, 33; 104:3; Is. 19:1. Heiser reasons that because Baal, a deity in Ugarit religion, and Yahweh, the deity of Israel, are both said to ‘ride on the clouds’, then this epithet can be used only of one who is a deity. But this is just an assumption on his part. And since the “one like a son of man” comes on the clouds, he reasons that the author of Daniel 7 wanted his readers to understand this one to be a deity figure. But my question to him is this – If the author of Daniel 7 wanted his readers to understand “the one like a son of man” to be a deity figure then why did he not use the same terminology that was used for both Baal and Yahweh. The same word is used of both Baal and Yahweh, rkb in Ugarit and rokeb in Hebrew, both meaning ‘to ride‘. Why did the author of Daniel 7 not seal the deal by using this term in his description of ‘son of man‘ figure? Instead he simply says that he saw “one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven.” If his intention really was for his readers to make the connection that this figure is a deity why did he not write that he saw “one like a son of man riding on the clouds of heaven?” This is one of the weaknesses of Heiser’s interpretation. To seemingly add strength to the assertion that the ‘son of man’ is a deity figure, Heiser says:

… the Ancient of Days (El) is depicted as riding a fiery throne-chariot, a stock Baal descriptor not used of El at Ugarit. The fact that both the Ancient of Days and the “one like a human being” are associated with Baal throne-chariot imagery mars a strict El and Baal model for Daniel 7 …      p. 12

Is Heiser serious here? Where in Daniel 7 is the “one like a son of man” associated with a fiery throne-chariot? We see the ‘one ancient of days‘ associated with a fiery throne -chariot in v. 9, but where is the ‘son of man‘ figure depicted in the same way? If Heiser is referring to the fact that this figure is seen “coming with the clouds” then he is overstating the case; how does “coming with the clouds” equal riding in a fiery throne-chariot? It appears that he is reading into the imagery what he needs it to say in order to arrive at his conclusion, the conclusion he obviously began with.

We have already seen in the angel’s interpretation that the “one like a son of man” is more likely than not, an image representing the “holy ones, the people of the Most High.” So what does it mean that this image is seen coming with the clouds? Let’s first deal with the preposition used in the phrase – is this ‘son of man‘ coming with or on the clouds of heaven? If he is coming on the clouds this might give support to the idea that he is ‘riding on the clouds‘ although it would not prove it. But if he is coming with the clouds this would further weaken the assertion that he is ‘riding on the clouds‘. Heiser touches on this point only briefly:

The inquiry of R.B.Y. Scott into the issue has demonstrated that the prepositions im and be (Hebrew characters in original) are interchangeable and can mean “on” or “in,” appealing to Daniel 2:43 and 7:2 as examples. J. Collins follows Scott, noting that “there is no basis for the distinction,” since the act of coming upon or in the clouds, or with an “entourage of clouds” denoted divine status in ancient Israel and Canaan.

Now I am not a Hebrew scholar, so whether or not the statement that these two prepositions are interchangeable is accurate or not I cannot say. But I did look at the 22 occurrences of im, the preposition in 7:13, in the books of Ezra and Daniel and could not find one instance where on or upon or in would fit the context; with was the predominant meaning. Even the two passages mentioned in the above quote do not bear out a meaning of on or upon for im. The LXX has meta = with. The NT references to this verse are not helpful, for in Rev. 1:7 meta is used, but in the Gospels epi is used, which means on or upon. We should, however, interpret Daniel 7:13 according to what is in that text, which is with.

It could be possible that the “one like a son of man” is a reference to an individual i.e. the Messianic son of David, and the clouds are representative of the armies of heaven and together they make up the ‘holy ones‘ of the Most High. There is precedent for this metaphor in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Jer. 4:13 we read with reference to the army of Babylon:

Look! Like clouds he comes up, his chariots come like a whirlwind, his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe to us! we are ruined!

In Ezekiel 38:9, 16 the armies of Gog are depicted as a cloud:

You will come up as a storm, like a cloud covering the land, you and all your troops and many nations with you.

If invading armies could be analogized to clouds in prophetic declarations, then it is certainly fitting for clouds to represent armies in prophetic visions. Is there any other evidence from Scripture that would support the idea that the clouds in Dan. 7:13 could be representing armies? It may be that the New Testament authors saw it this way. In Rev. 19:11-21 there is a scene which appears to coincide with the vision of Daniel 7 and is believed by many to be a depiction of the return of Messiah to overthrow the ruling world power and establish the kingdom of God upon the earth. In the vision, John sees the returning Messiah neither riding upon nor accompanied by clouds but by the armies of heaven:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war … The armies of heaven accompanied him, riding on white horses …             vv. 11-14

But of who do these armies consist? In Rev. 17:14 we get a clue:

They (the ten kings of the last world power) will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings — and with him are his called, chosen and faithful followers.

Also we are told in the NT that Messiah, in his coming in glory to reign over the kingdom of God, will be accompanied also by angels – see Matt. 16:27; 25:31; 2 Thess. 1:7. So the plural ‘armies‘ in Rev. 19:14 could refer to an angelic army and an army of redeemed, immortal humans, the ‘holy ones‘ of the Most High.

Although I have shown that it may not even be the case that the ‘son of man’ figure in Dan. 7 is being depicted as ‘riding on the clouds‘ in the same way as Baal and Yahweh do, let’s just assume that such is the case. Is Heiser’s assertion that ‘riding on the clouds‘  designates one as a deity even valid? What does it even mean in the Hebrew Bible when Yahweh is depicted as riding on clouds? In other words, can one who is not an ontological deity ever be depicted in this way? The concept of one riding on the clouds does seem to denote a high and exalted status, but could this status be bestowed on one who is not an ontologically divine being?

When we examine the passages that describe Yahweh in these terms it doesn’t seem that the point of the authors is to establish, by this language, that Yahweh truly is God. After all, how could this be an attestation that Yahweh is God, since these statements are evidently poetic, hyperbolic descriptions of Yahweh. I mean has anyone ever actually seen Yahweh riding across the sky on a cloud and as a result come to believe that Yahweh is really a deity? And it matters very little to me what the adherents of the Ugarit religion thought about this i.e. whether this epithet of Baal was to be taken literally or only symbolically. It is clear that in the Hebrew Bible this poetic language is meant to convey something about Yahweh, but what exactly? In the context of most of these passages Yahweh is being portrayed as a heavenly warrior coming to fight on behalf of his people.

There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. He will drive out your enemy before you saying, ‘Destroy him!’ so Israel shall live in safety alone … Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by Yahweh? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will trample down their high places.
Deut. 33:26-29

He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind … He shot his arrows and scattered the enemies … He reached down from on high and took hold of me … He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.        Psalm 18:9-17

May God arise, may his enemies be scattered; may his foes flee before him… may you blow them away… may the wicked perish before God. But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God… Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds — his name is Yahweh…       Psalm 68:1-4

An oracle concerning Egypt: See, Yahweh rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, and the hearts of the Egyptians melt within them… In that day the Egyptians will be like women. They will shudder with fear at the uplifted hand that Yahweh Almighty raises against them.  Isaiah 19:1, 16

Even Psalm 104:3, although the context is about the wondrous works of God seen in creation, at least suggests the idea that Yahweh is a warrior: “He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.” Are not chariots instruments of war? Elsewhere Yahweh is portrayed as a mighty warrior. In Exodus 15 we have a song composed by Moses recounting God’s victory over the Egyptian army. Verse 3 reads: “Yahweh is a man of war; Yahweh is his name.” 

So my point is this – even if someone insists that the ‘son of man‘ figure in Dan.7 is a reference to the future coming of Messiah, and that he is depicted as riding on the clouds, this would not necessitate understanding him to be an ontologically divine being. At best it would denote that he is a mighty warrior on a divine mission, coming to deliver God’s people from their enemies. And this is the precise picture we get of Messiah’s return in Rev. 19:11-19. There we are told he “judges and makes war” {v.11}; “Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” {v. 15a}; and “he treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” {v.15c}. The last statement shows that this one is not God Almighty but the agent who carries out God’s vengeance on God’s behalf.

Jesus – The Son Of Man

I have offered two possible ways to understand the ‘son of man‘ figure in Dan. 7:13:

  1. If we take the “one like a son of man” as a representative image, following the pattern of the four kingdoms which were likened to different kinds of beasts, then it is an image representing the “holy ones of the Most High.” This is consistent with the angel’s interpretation in vv. 17-18, 22 and 27.
  2.  The figure might indeed be more literal and be referring to the Messianic warrior coming to conquer the enemies of God’s people. In this case the ‘clouds’ would be representative of the armies of heaven, the redeemed, immortalized people of God. The Messianic warrior and these redeemed ones with him, together constitute the “holy ones, the people of the Most High” to whom the kingdom is given. This is also consistent with the angel’s interpretation.

If option 1 is correct, how would this coincide with Jesus’ application of the designation ‘son of man‘ to himself. If the ‘son of man‘ figure in Dan. 7:13 is representing the collective people of God, the holy ones, then how can Jesus assume it as a self referent? Jesus, in the gospels, refers to himself by this title numerous times and as Heiser points out, affirms his identity as this son of man before Caiaphas, the high priest.

The phrase, as it appears in the gospel’s and in it’s one appearance in Acts, is different than any of the uses of the phrase in the Hebrew Bible. In the Hebrew Bible the phrase never appears with the definite article. But, with Hebrew, as with Greek, the definite article is not always necessary for a word or phrase to be understood as definite. But when the definite article is given in the text then it serves a definite purpose (no pun intended) and should be given full weight. In it’s every occurrence in the gospels, with the exception of John 5:27, and in it’s only appearance in Acts, the phrase is always doubly definite, reading literally, the son of the man. The phrase in Dan. 7:13 is certainly non-definite, for definiteness is used to specify a person or thing and what specific son of man would be being denoted in the context of Daniel’s vision? A noun or phrase which is without the article in the text could be considered as definite if there was a previous mention of the same noun or phrase in the context, and so it would be pointing back to that specific noun or phrase. But such is not the case in Daniel 7. Therefore all English versions which render the phrase in Dan.7:13 as “one like the son of man” rather than “one like a son of man” are wrong.

Jesus’ application of this epithet to himself is specific, hence the double definite article. The epithet in the gospels is only ever found on the lips of Jesus; no one else calls Jesus this. Jesus never came out and said, “I am the son of man,” but rather he would refer to himself in the third person by this epithet. This is surely one reason why the phrase is definite in the gospels but not in the OT. Since Jesus is referring to a specific person – himself – then the definite article is appropriate. Whenever Jesus said, “the son of man” it was tantamount to him saying “I.” But another reason for the definiteness of the phrase is that it points back to a specific son of man, the one seen in Daniel’s vision. If this is so, how could Jesus assume this epithet if “the one like a son of man” in Daniel 7 represented the collective people of God?

The answer to this question is to be found only in the NT. In the NT we learn that not all Israelites have an automatic assurance of entrance into the kingdom age simply because they are descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Of course, this has always been true. Just being a natural descendant of the fathers was not sufficient; one was also required to be faithful to Yahweh. What has evolved is what exactly it means to be faithful to Yahweh. Faithfulness to Yahweh had always involved a sole allegiance to him as the only God {Deut. 6:4-5, 13}, faith in his word, as given through the prophets {Ex. 14:31; 2 Chron. 20:20}, humilty and contrition before him {Is.66:2b; Ps. 51:17; Micah 6:8}, and to act justly toward your fellowman {Micah 6:8; Prov. 21:3; Hosea 12:6; Zech. 7:9-10}. But now that Messiah Jesus has come and has been made Lord, as the first man to receive immortality, one must acknowledge him as such in order to be faithful to Yahweh {Rom. 10:9-10; 1 Peter 1:21 – read “those who, through him, are faithful to God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory… “}. From that time forward the people of God, the holy ones, are reckoned in the Messiah, Jesus. Therefore, as the one in whom the whole body of holy ones is subsumed, he stands as the preeminent holy one and representative of the whole. He is the head of the whole body and as so he stands in for the whole, much like the leader of a nation would represent the whole nation. We see a hint of this concept in Isaiah’s depiction of ‘the servant of Yahweh‘ in chapter 49:1-6:

…Before I was born Yahweh called me; from my mother’s womb he has made mention of my name … He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will glorify myself” … And now Yahweh says – he who ordained me, from the womb, as his servant, to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of Yahweh and my God has been my strength – he says, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved ones of Israel. I will also appoint you a light for the Gentiles, that you should be my salvation even to the ends of the earth.”

The servant of Yahweh i.e. the Messiah, is here called Israel because, I believe, he is the one in whom the ideal Israel shall finally come to be. Only in association with this one will anyone, Jew or Gentile, have an inheritance among the holy ones of God in the kingdom age. We see this same idea in John 15:1 where Jesus says “I am the true vine.” The vine was an ancient symbol for Israel {Ps. 80:8-9; Jer. 2:21} but here the Lord applies the metaphor to himself and appears to make final salvation dependent upon a vital connection to himself.

Therefore, Jesus’ application of the epithet ‘son of man‘ to himself is just another way of expressing the idea that he is the ideal ‘holy one‘ and the representative head of the whole body of ‘holy ones.’

The Psalm 89 Connection

Heiser also sees Psalm 89 as following the Baal Cycle but admits that it is the human Davidic king who fulfills the Baal imagery there. But if the Davidic king is fulfilling the role of Baal as Yahweh’s vice-regent then why is it necessary to see the ‘son of man‘ in Dan. 7:13, who is supposedly fulfilling the same role, as a co-deity figure and a first tier member of the divine council? Does Heiser think that the Davidic king is a member of the council, and a first tier member at that? On pages 14-15 of his PDF Heiser acknowledges that in the Hebrew Bible the Davidic king is called God’s son, has a divine status bestowed on him, is also called God in Ps. 45, has an everlasting rule, and yet remains “manifestly a human being.” Now since the NT clearly portrays Jesus as the ideal and final Davidic king, who shall rule over God’s kingdom forever {Luke 1:31-33}, and in view of the testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures regarding the exalted status of the human Davidic king, how does Heiser extricate himself from an apparent conundrum?

In chapter 6 of his full dissertation Heiser spends a number of pages attempting to show a correlation between Dan. 7, Psalm 89, and the Baal Cycle. He even makes the highly untenable equation of the ‘son of man‘ of Dan. 7:13 with the ‘witness in the clouds‘ in Ps. 89:37. Once again, reading Scripture through the lens of his divine council paradigm, he sees this ‘witness in the clouds‘ as an “exalted… member of the divine council.” But this is pure fantasy on Heiser’s part. Nothing in the context of Psalm 89 even suggests that this ‘witness in the clouds‘ is even a living, personal being. Heiser simply imports that idea into the text from an outside source i.e. the Baal Cycle. If you follow the flow of thought from v. 28 down to v. 37 you will see that Yahweh is speaking of his covenant with David, his promise to establish David’s line and throne forever, for “as long as the heavens endure.” In vv. 33-35 Yahweh is saying in unmistakable terms that he will never go back on this promise to David; he has sworn and his faithfulness is at stake. Then in v. 36 he compares the enduring nature of the line and throne of David to that of the sun, and in v. 37 to that of the moon. Now some English versions make the final clause “the faithful witness in the sky” simply a parallel line to the previous line about the moon, i.e. the moon is the faithful witness in the sky. This is a possible translation and interpretation of the clause. Another possible translation would be “and like the witness in the sky it endures.” The preposition of comparison prefixed to the word for ‘moon’ in the previous line would be carried over and applied to the word ‘witness.’ Thus the meaning would be ‘and like the witness in the sky/clouds the throne of David will endure.’ Hence, Yahweh is pointing to three things in the heavens which have an enduring nature and comparing them to the everlasting nature of the Davidic dynasty – the sun, the moon, and another witness in the sky/clouds. Heiser thinks this witness in the clouds is Yahweh’s vice-regent, first tier member of the divine council, none other than the son of God. He believes this witness, through intercession, “obligates Yahweh to keep the terms of the covenant with David’s line.” But does Yahweh really need someone to hold him to his promise when he has already sworn by his holiness to fulfill it? Not only that but to make this witness in the clouds a member of the council is to break the congruence between it and the other two heavenly witnesses to the everlastingness of the Davidic line, the sun and the moon. I mean how effective can a witness in the sky be if it is completely unseen? The other two witnesses are visible for all to see, but who can see this divine council member in the clouds making intercession with Yahweh to make sure he keeps his promise? The whole idea is ridiculous. Heiser tries to prove his point by showing how Baal made intercession to El on behalf of some king  who had no son to keep his dynasty going, but the comparison falls flat.

So what is this witness in the sky/clouds? I contend that this third witness must be as visible to all as the other two are i.e. the sun and the moon. This leaves us with only one possibility, the rainbow:

“I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant between me and you… for all generations to come. I have set my rainbow in the clouds and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you… Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life…”           Gen. 9:11-17

This view keeps the passage consistent with itself, with vv. 36-37 expanding upon v.29 which states, “I will establish his line forever, his throne as long as the heavens endure.” While it is true that vv. 5-8 of Psalm 89 do refer to the multitude of heavenly beings who surround Yahweh {see also 1 Kings 19-23}, the reason for their mention is to show how even they fear and praise Yahweh for his awesome wonders and his faithfulness. The faithfulness of Yahweh to keep his promise to David is the main theme of the Psalm {see vv. 1, 2, 5, 8, 14, 28, 33-35}. To turn this Psalm into a divine council meeting patterned after the Baal Cycle is, in my opinion, sheer eisegesis.

Therefore, the connection between Psalm 89 and Daniel 7 is tenuous at best, and the ‘witness in the clouds‘ has no correlation to the ‘one like a son of man‘. As to how Heiser extricates himself from the seeming incompatibility of the “manifestly” human king of Psalm 89 with the supposed first tier, co-deity member of the divine council of Dan. 7, he does so with a mere assertion:

In point of fact (that is debatable), the truth is that Daniel 7 and Psalm 89 are two sides of the same coin — one has God’s co-ruler as a deity, the other as a human being in David’s line. This is why the New Testament portrays Jesus as both god and man (does it really, where?).

Heiser has simply wedded his divine council paradigm to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. I hope that everyone can see that this conclusion is not a necessary deduction from the text of Scripture itself. The conclusion which Heiser arrives at (which really he began with) is the result of ideas drawn from sources outside of the Hebrew Scriptures – the Ugarit divine council and the fourth century Trinity doctrine, which was developed mainly from a Greek metaphysical mindset.

Although there is much more that can be said on this subject, this must suffice for now. I am examining the two powers in heaven concept and hope to post on it next month. That article may expand further on this one.

Conclusion

I cannot be certain of this, but it seems as if Heiser may have had trouble, at some time in the past, explaining the Trinity from a biblical, Hebraic perspective. Wanting to remain orthodox in his doctrine may have spurred him on to find some way to ground the Trinity doctrine in the Hebrew Scriptures. It may be that only after discovering the divine council concept and other concepts, like the two powers in heaven, did he find a way to make sense of the Trinity within a Hebraic framework. Of course, this is just conjecture on my part. But what I can say with certainty is that these concepts, which have their source in ANE literature and ancient rabbinic writings, are being superimposed upon the biblical text rather than being derived from the text. For scholars like Heiser, these concepts become the grid through which the biblical text must be interpreted.

I want to reiterate that I have no personal animus toward Dr. Heiser, and that I have learned much about the historical setting of OT passages and original language issues etc. from his teaching. I am here simply critiquing his exegesis of specific passages of Scripture, which he has made public, and showing how his exegesis is being driven by certain presuppositions which are being imposed upon the text rather than drawn from it.

 

 

 

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.

One thought on “The Rider On The Clouds – A Critique Of Dr. Michael Heiser’s View Of Daniel 7”

  1. Thanks for the analysis. Your observation that the Son of Man coming with the clouds in Daniel 7:13, and then interpreted by the angel in 7:18, 27 as a “people, the holy ones of Most High”, is right on. And yes, Jesus is the ideal representative of that people, the ideal Son of Man.

    Heiser, et al, want to make a big deal out of interpreting the biblical narrative from Ugaritic Canaanite myth. As if the finds at a Canaanite ruin (Ras Shamra) north of Lebanon in modern Syria excavated in the mid-1900s are the key that unlocks the meaning of the biblical text. But the polytheist Ugarit Baal Cycle myth is exactly the kind of mythological story that Israel’s prophets mocked and condemned.

    Apparently Heiser, et al, want us to believe that a pious Jew like Daniel who rejected pagan ways, who was removed from the Ugarit scene by 700 years and hundreds of miles, drew his inspiration from that Canaanite myth. Stretching the imagination even further, Jesus and the authors of the New Testament, who lived 1200 years after the Ugarit scene and hundreds of miles away – also drew the meaning of the Son of Man coming with/on the clouds from that Canaanite, Ugarit myth! I don’t think so.

    What Heiser, et al, are saying is that Christians can believe that Jesus is God because the Canaanites had more than one god.

    It also should be noted: perhaps the main reason why Baal was depicted as riding on clouds is because for Canaanites, Baal was the god of thunderstorm and rain. A big part of the Ugarit Baal cycle myth is Baal’s contest with Sea-god and River-god, and Mot (Death). It’s much about who is the master supplier of water. In the eastern Mediterranean Sea board, water means life. Neither the sea (because of salt) nor rivers are the main source of water for human or animal life. Without the rains that come in the winter, there is no life. Canaanites attributed the rain to Baal.

    The pious Israelite attitude to Baal was: “Baal is less than hogwash, nothingness”. Yahweh, the only God, the One who made heaven and earth, gives rain.

    Like

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