The Divine Council
Seeing the ‘Gods’ Through Christian Eyes
ABSTRACT: Several biblical passages speak of what some theologians call a “divine council,” an assembly of heavenly beings or “gods.” For Israel’s neighbors in the ancient Near East, such councils reflected polytheistic worldviews, where rival gods vied for power and supremacy. For Israel, however, the members of the divine council, though heavenly and supernatural, remained subject to the providence and decrees of the one Creator God. Furthermore, God disarmed all these malevolent spiritual powers at the cross of Christ, and one day he will strip them of all authority entirely.
When studying Scripture, it is always helpful to understand more about the particular historical, cultural, and linguistic setting in which the story of the Bible unfolds. Michael Heiser’s 2015 book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible has introduced many ordinary readers of Scripture to a new concept with ancient roots: the divine council.
This term, although not found in the Bible, is best illustrated with reference to the famous prologue in Job 1–2, where “the sons of God” present themselves before the Lord. Heiser’s work has been lauded by such established evangelical scholars as Darrell L. Bock, John Goldingay, and Tremper Longman III. It has also received favorable reviews in Themelios, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Review of Biblical Literature. In his book, Heiser presents the divine council as an assembly of lesser divine figures, presided by a higher, supreme being. While in ancient Near Eastern (ANE) societies, such a concept entails a polytheistic pantheon of deities, its occurrence in Scripture is variously interpreted and debated.
How might Christians today approach the divine council theme in Scripture? We can begin by looking at the Old Testament’s ANE context.
Israel’s Ancient Near Eastern Context
In exploring the divine council theme and potential connections to extrabiblical contexts, it is useful to understand the ancient setting of the Bible itself. For the Old Testament, the context is largely ancient Canaan, a land situated in the Levant, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The books of the Hebrew Bible span approximately one thousand years, from the Late Bronze Age up to the Persian period. These centuries witnessed the rise and fall of major world empires, as well as innumerable smaller local kingdoms. Within this relatively small territory, many languages and cultures came into contact with God’s people.
The linguistic context of the Old Testament is particularly important to us because culture and language go hand in hand. Words, concepts, and ideas are conveyed through language, and these connections are often more transparent when examining genetically related languages. Linguistically speaking, biblical Hebrew is the language of the vast majority of the Old Testament (just a few chapters in Ezra and Daniel are written in Aramaic), and it was the language spoken by the ancient Israelites themselves. Its closest relatives are the other Canaanite languages: Moabite, Edomite, Ammonite, and Phoenician. These languages are unfortunately very poorly attested, being found only occasionally in a few inscriptions.
More distant languages, yet still closely related to biblical Hebrew, are Aramaic and Ugaritic. The former was the language of various kingdoms in the region of Aram, mostly located in present-day Syria. This language would later greatly spread in influence and become the lingua franca of the entire ANE for centuries. Many important religious texts, both Christian and Jewish, were written in varieties of Aramaic.
The latter, Ugaritic, is of more interest for our purposes because of its very early collection of clay cuneiform tablets, discovered by accident in 1928.
When archaeologists and other scholars began working on this significant collection of Ugaritic texts, they were amazed to discover extensive documentation of a language and a culture that flourished north of Israel, around the time of the biblical judges. Many of the cuneiform texts (an ancient writing system that made use of various combinations of wedge-impressions made in wet clay tablets) are records of mundane economic activities and other facets of daily life. A select few, however, provide invaluable information about the religious practices of the ancient city-state of Ugarit, including the deities worshiped there, and the temple rituals carried out within the kingdom.
A famous series of large tablets, called the “Baal cycle,” contains epic texts that depict a divine council of deities, headed by the chief god ’Ilu (a word that is related to the generic words for God in biblical Hebrew: ’Ēl and ’Ĕlōhîm). Featuring prominently in the epic is the deity Ba‘lu, parallel to the Hebrew word Ba‘al. He was perceived by the ancient Canaanites as a storm deity who brought life-giving rains in the winter season.
In the epic, Ba‘lu engages in annual combat with Môtu, the god of death and drought. The Mediterranean cycle of rains and drought was thus conceived of as a struggle between rival deities for supremacy. Although Ba‘lu is defeated and descends into the underworld, he is subsequently assisted by ‘Anatu and Šapšu (the sun deity), who resurrect his body and transport it to Mount Ṣapunu (a mountain directly north of Ugarit, and whose name is related to the cardinal direction ṣāfôn, “north” in biblical Hebrew). It was here, in fact, that the autumn rains broke, as the sea-borne clouds were trapped by this towering landmark.
Other deities could be named as part of the divine council of gods: ’Aṯiratu (related to Hebrew ’Ăšērâ, “Asherah”) was seen as the wife of ’Ilu and his consort. Kôṯaru-wa-Ḫasīsu was the craftsman of the council, who helped fashion a mace for Ba‘lu. Yammu (related to Hebrew yām, “sea”) was the god of the seas and another adversary of Ba‘lu. Together, they paint a portrait of an Ugaritic cosmology in which the various deities are active in their respective domains, forming alliances and also vying for power.
Key Passages and Concepts in Scripture
With this ANE background in place, one can now compare and contrast some of the various passages and concepts associated with the divine council theme in Scripture. Certain passages in the Bible seem in particular to give evidence to a spiritual realm beyond that of our physical world. Generally, students of the Bible conceive of only two broad categories — angels and demons (fallen angels) — but there is much more.
Although in modern parlance we equate the term “angel” with any non-physical heavenly being, in the biblical languages (both Greek and Hebrew), the words translated “angel” (Hebrew mal’āk; Greek ángelos) are more properly descriptors of messenger activity (in particular from the heavenly realm to the earthly realm). Thus, it would not be precise, for example, to speak of the śerāfîm in Isaiah 6 — or indeed the four living creatures described in Revelation — as “angels.”
Beyond these more familiar categories is an additional term that may not be as apparent to students of the Bible: “sons of God” (Hebrew bnê hā’ĕlōhîm). It appears to be related to the equivalent Ugaritic expression banū ’ili, “sons of ’Ilu,” a descriptor for the various non-human divinities in their pantheon. We can examine its occurrence in a few biblical passages.
The phrase occurs in key passages in Scripture, most notably in Genesis 6 and Job 1–2, as well as in a number of psalms. According to Genesis 6, one precursor for the flood was the intermarriage of the “sons of God” with the “daughters of men.” Although the understanding of this passage is difficult, it seems likely, when taking into account the references to this passage in Jude and 2 Peter, that “sons of God” here refers not to men from the godly line of Seth, but rather to fallen spiritual beings. Thus, Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4 appear to be describing the unnatural union of fallen angels and humans.
The primary objection to this interpretation is Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 22 in response to the Sadducees’ question about marriage in the resurrection. However, when Jesus states that in the resurrection people “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30), he probably did not intend to claim that an (unlawful) union of this sort had never occurred in history. The offspring of this unholy union are called Nephilim (Genesis 6:4), a word in Hebrew that means “fallen ones.”1
Other intriguing references to the “sons of God” can be found in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 32:8, Moses speaks: “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” This is the rendering from the ESV. Most English versions have “sons of Israel” here instead of “sons of God.” “Sons of Israel” is the reading reflected in various ancient translations of the Bible; it is also the reading in the Masoretic Hebrew tradition, which is the basis of our English Old Testament. The Greek Septuagint, however, features the reading angélōn theou, “angels of God,” and most intriguingly, a Dead Sea Scrolls manuscript has “sons of God.”
The context of the verse appears to allude to the Tower of Babel and the subsequent dispersal of the nations. If so, the “sons of God” would seem to be heavenly beings assigned by God to the various nations of mankind. By contrast, the Lord’s inheritance is Israel, specifically (Deuteronomy 32:9). An alternative interpretation, which cannot be excluded, is that the (approximately) seventy nations listed in Genesis 10 correspond to the seventy members of Jacob’s household (i.e., Israel), which went down to Egypt to Joseph (Genesis 46:27). On this understanding, however, it is not entirely clear what kind of connection between Israel and the nations Moses would have intended.
Probably the best-known reference to the “sons of God” is found in the prologue to the book of Job (chs. 1–2). Here we learn that the “sons of God” present themselves before the Lord, and furthermore, that Satan is among their number. The word “Satan” is a transliteration of the Hebrew śātān, “(the) accuser.” Strictly speaking, it is an epithet, not a personal name, and yet we know from other passages of Scripture, especially in the New Testament, that Satan is a particular fallen angel who is the originator of sin. Revelation 12:9 describes him as “the dragon . . . that ancient serpent,” a clear allusion to the serpent who tempted Eve in the garden. In the Septuagint and the New Testament, the equivalent term in Greek for Satan is diábolos (also meaning “accuser”), transliterated in English as devil.
Yet another, less well-understood reference to this member of the divine council is “Beelzebul,” sometimes also spelled “Beelzebub.” The Pharisees and scribes describe him as the “prince of demons” (Matthew 12:24), and Jesus calls him the “master of the house” (Matthew 10:25). This title appears to be equivalent to the Old Testament “Baal-zebub,” who is described as the god of Ekron (a Philistine city) in 2 Kings 1. The epithet ba‘al zəbûb, “lord of the flies,” is apparently a deliberate corruption of ba‘al zəbûl, “exalted lord,” whose equivalent is found in Ugaritic literature (ba‘lu zabūlu).
Interpreting the Divine Council Passages
Mainstream secular scholarship argues that passages hinting at the divine council theme are remnants of the original polytheistic cult of Yahwism, the religion peculiar to the ancient Israelites. In particular, it is asserted from archaeological evidence that Yahweh was worshiped alongside his consort, Asherah.2 These scholars claim that the majority of the Hebrew Bible, considered to have been written late, witnesses a kind of anachronistic polemic of the worship of deities beside Yahweh (when in fact there was no such taboo originally). Concomitantly, over time Yahweh increasingly assumes roles that were previously assigned to other deities, or to his wife Asherah. Thus developed the classical conception of monotheism, which is the foundation of Western Judeo-Christian civilization. Despite this paradigm shift, these scholars argue, extrabiblical evidence, together with clues such as the divine council theme in Scripture, allow for the reconstruction of the Israelites’ original polytheistic system of worship.
By contrast, evangelicals, such as Heiser, maintain that the divine council in Scripture, while influenced by the surrounding ANE cultures, nevertheless is distinctive, and does not contravene monotheism. Another scholar who has popularized the use of ANE backgrounds in studying Scripture is John Walton, whose Lost World book series examines various Old Testament passages in light of the ANE context. A common distinction he makes is the following: “Although the Bible was written for us, it was not written to us.” If the Bible was not written to us, then it seems we must adjust to the worldview of the biblical authors, at least to some degree, in order to properly understand the Old Testament, including the theme of the divine council.
Given the work of these scholars (and others), however, ordinary Christians might be wondering how they could possibly access the meaning of the Old Testament (almost eighty percent of God’s word!) without an adequate understanding of its ANE background. What is more, if the Hebrew Bible is a product of its own cultural and historical setting, does it even make sense to speak of it as Christian Scripture?
As is so often the case, one’s hermeneutics plays a decisive role in determining the interpretive outcome. A critical component in any hermeneutical process is the assessment and incorporation of various types of contexts. There are near and far biblical contexts (e.g., verse, chapter, book, canon). There are also extrabiblical contexts situated around the ANE milieu in which Holy Scripture arose. It is precisely here — the proper adjudication of biblical and extrabiblical contexts — where significant hermeneutical battles are fought. When faced with apparently conflicting contextual evidence, which type of context ought to play a more primary role? Should the ANE context of the Old Testament be dominant, with the Bible’s internal textual context playing a subservient role?
The proper context for interpreting the Bible is the context of the biblical writers — the context that produced the Bible. Every other context is alien to the biblical writers and, therefore, to the Bible. Yet there is a pervasive tendency in the believing Church to filter the Bible through creeds, confessions, and denominational preferences.3
Heiser appears to be arguing that certain key elements about the biblical text (here, especially the divine realm) were essentially obscured to Christians over two millennia because they lacked access to the extrabiblical resources that we now possess, thanks to archaeology and other historical disciplines. Thus, he goes on to state,
The biblical text was produced by men who lived in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean between the second millennium BC and the first century AD. To understand how biblical writers thought, we need to tap into the intellectual output of that world. A vast amount of that material is available to us, thanks to modern technology.4
Just how unique was Israel in its ancient context? On the one hand, Israel, as we have seen, was a nation and a people with a language and culture that was situated in a specific historical context, one that we dare not ignore. On the other hand, Israel was a distinct entity, constituted by God to be a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Its God, Yahweh, the true God, was unlike the false gods of the nations (Jeremiah 14:22). We must be careful not to assume that the true meaning of divine Scripture (both New and Old Testaments) is somehow ultimately inaccessible to modern people apart from specialist knowledge of the ancient cultural context. While the Bible is indeed the product of multiple human authors, the ultimate author of Scripture is God himself, and it bears witness to a fundamental unity from Genesis through to Revelation.
“Israel was a distinct entity, constituted by God to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ and a ‘holy nation.’”
In general, Heiser’s work offers interesting and sometimes illuminating exegeses of many passages. Unfortunately, it is sometimes imbalanced and suffers from a deliberate attempt to downplay the church’s historical engagement with Scripture. Some of the language in the book on Trinitarian matters, for example, is unhelpful, and potentially dangerous. Certain terms that Heiser uses to point out a distinction between the Father and the Son in the Old Testament (such as “a second Yahweh” and “two powers in heaven”) are at best careless, and at worst ignorant of historic orthodox Christian doctrines such as divine simplicity.5 More broadly, in emphasizing the reality of other spiritual beings, especially malevolent powers, Heiser tends to downplay the central problem described in Scripture (our sinful state before a holy God) and its only solution (the substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for us and in our stead).
Divine Council and Christian Theology
Consequently, while it is helpful to consider the ancient cultural context, it is vital to always think theologically and canonically when studying Scripture, especially in the context of the historical theology of God’s church. When thinking about the divine council theme, one vital component of historic Christian theology is the Creator-creature distinction. God is not merely the greatest of all beings, as though he were somehow a species of a genus of “things” in common with plants, galaxies, and humans. Rather, God is utterly unique, separate from his creation. God is in a class of his own.
“God is utterly unique, separate from his creation. God is in a class of his own.”
A major section in Scripture devoted to the uniqueness of God is the so-called “trial of the false gods” in Isaiah 40–45. There, Yahweh sets himself in distinction to both the false gods and more broadly his entire creation. God cannot be likened to anything (Isaiah 40:18), neither to the idols of men nor to his majestic creation. Yahweh challenges his opponents to “tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come” (Isaiah 41:22). The “former things” in history may be known, but their deep purposes in the hand of a sovereign God are beyond the grasp of his creatures. Because of this, the Lord does not give his praise or glory to anyone else in creation (Isaiah 42:8). Indeed, the Lord declares, “Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me” (Isaiah 43:10). It is the Lord who created the heavens, and there is no other (Isaiah 45:18). God’s creatorship and sovereignty are thus vital indications of his uniqueness.
Given this, how are we to understand the divine council theme? Where do these beings fit? Clearly, they fit on the creature side of the Creator-creature division, and as such they share none of God’s incommunicable attributes (for example, his aseity, his omnipotence, his omnipresence). Consequently, it is better to speak of the members of the divine council as “heavenly beings” and not “divine beings.” For although the council is of a heavenly, spiritual nature, and although Scripture portrays God as heading this council, these beings are not in the same class as him. As A.W. Pink so eloquently states in his book The Sovereignty of God, even the loftiest creatures of all, the awe-inspiring seraphim who dwell in God’s presence (as seen in Isaiah’s vision), are infinitely closer to the tiny insect with its fleeting life than they are to Yahweh. They cover their feet before their Creator because they too are made by him.6
“God, although he maintains a divine council, is not in any way subject to it, but is in fact ultimately sovereign.”
It is also important to understand that God, although he maintains a divine council, is not in any way subject to it, but is in fact ultimately sovereign over both it and the rest of his creation. By employing the important theological concept of secondary causation, we can thus properly understand how 1 Chronicles 21:1 states that Satan incited David to number Israel in a census, and yet 2 Samuel 24:1 claims that it was the Lord who ultimately incited David. Although Satan and other members of the divine council are genuine agents and active in the world, nevertheless, none of their activities is ultimately independent of God’s providence and his divine decree.7
The ‘gods’ Behind Idols
Given this theological foundation, what should we make of the fact that in a number of passages, Satan and other members of the divine council are described as “god(s)”? For example, Satan himself is described as “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4, an apparent reference to his temporary domination of fallen mankind by means of blinding them to the “gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” When Hebrews 2:7 quotes from Psalm 8, it appears to be interpreting the occurrence of ’ĕlōhîm in that passage as a reference to the members of the divine council (i.e., angels). This word is ambiguous in Hebrew, since it has a plural form (the -îm suffix indicates plural), yet it usually refers in context to God (singular). Thus, one could translate the verse as follows: “You have made him [man] a little lower than the gods.”
Likewise, Psalm 82, although exegetically challenging, appears to be describing a council of non-human beings as gods: “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” If this interpretation is correct, it seems that these beings had some kind of jurisdiction over the nations (as is also hinted in the passage discussed earlier, Deuteronomy 32:8). They are faulted for judging unjustly (Psalm 82:2) and hence condemned by God in verses 6 and 7: “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.’” Astonishingly, the psalm ends with the promise that God will one day both judge all the nations and inherit them (i.e., redeem them).
It is crucial to observe what Paul’s theology both says and does not say about other gods in the context of idol worship. In his extended discussion of food offerings to idols, beginning in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul does not deny the existence of malevolent spiritual realities behind the physical idols worshiped by the pagan nations. On the one hand, he states that the physical object (the idol) “has no real existence” (1 Corinthians 8:4), something that even the ancients acknowledged. Nevertheless, there is an actual demonic realm behind idol worship, for Paul later warns the Corinthians not to be “participants with demons” like the pagans, who, when they sacrifice, “offer to demons and not to God” (1 Corinthians 10:20). Consequently, Paul is not being sarcastic or speaking hypothetically when he says the following:
Although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Corinthians 8:5–6)
The gods behind idols are “gods” for the pagan unbelieving nations, not for Christians. One day, all such “gods” will be judged, and their authority over the nations will be stripped away. Indeed, this process began at the cross and the resurrection of Christ, where God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15).8
For the believer, everything in the new covenant is new. Not only does he have a new relationship with God, but he has a new relationship with sin, the flesh, and indeed the fallen heavenly beings who presently are in this world. There has been a fundamental shift in allegiances, to the point that Paul boldly declares to the Colossians that God has “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13–14).
Furthermore, the Gentile nations are now progressively turning to God and becoming part of his eschatological people. This was already promised in the Old Testament prophets and was inaugurated with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is very significant, therefore, in Acts 2, when the disciples begin to speak in the languages of the nations and three thousand are added to their number. Later in Acts, Paul is specifically told that he is being sent to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).
As modern Western believers, we should be aware of the supernatural realm that exists around us. Yet just the same, as Christians we must always put these spiritual realities into their proper context in terms of our theology of God. Furthermore, as new-covenant believers, we joyfully recognize that we have been delivered from genuine spiritual darkness and that our gospel witness to the nations is truly a matter of life and death.
The only other place they are mentioned is in Numbers 13:33, where the Israelite spies bring back a false report about the land. Because they are untrustworthy eyewitnesses, we should be cautious about drawing any confident conclusions about the continued existence of the Nephilim after the flood (or indeed that they were giant in stature, to the point that the Israelites felt like “grasshoppers” in comparison to them). ↩
One is sometimes puzzled that non-confessional scholarship makes so much of the archaeological evidence for Israelite idolatry (as though that were a defeater for the reliability of the Bible), when it is even more pervasive on the pages of Scripture. ↩
Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 16. Emphasis original. ↩
Heiser, Unseen Realm, 16. ↩
Heiser, Unseen Realm, 252. ↩
Biblically speaking, the feet, as R.C. Sproul explains in The Holiness of God, are symbols of creatureliness. This is seen, for example, in God’s command for Moses to remove his sandals from his feet at the burning bush. ↩
To that end, certain theological approaches are quite unhelpful here in setting up a “cosmic warfare” model and delegating a measure of ultimate sovereignty away from God and to the divine council. Sometimes it is even claimed that God is constrained in some way by this council and is therefore unable to prevent evil that he otherwise would have. Although this theology is intended to provide a kind of theodicy for evil in our world, it cannot ultimately succeed in so doing, and in fact undermines any basis in our confidence that God is truly in charge of our destiny. See, for example, Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), or more recently, John C. Peckham, Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018). ↩
That non-human authorities and rulers are implied here is clear from several other passages in the New Testament. In Ephesians 3:10, the rulers and authorities are located in the heavenly places. In Ephesians 6:12, the character of these authorities is clearly described: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Finally, 1 Peter 3:22 lists “authorities and powers” alongside “angels” and claims that these have now been subjected to Christ who is in heaven. ↩