I decided to re-read Michael Heiser’s principal work: The Unseen Realm: Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible (2015). This book had been in print for a while, but I purchased and read it earlier this year. As with a good deal of Dr. Heiser’s work, this book deals with the supernatural (unseen) world, and attempts to delineate what it is and who presides in it from a Biblical perspective. Today I want to summarize his introduction to the book, which I feel also presents an introduction to how he sees the Bible and what motivates his work.
How to Read the Bible (without filters)
In the first two chapters of the book, Heiser walks us through his turning point, where he realized that he, like most western Christians, was not reading the Bible in its own terms, and discovered that the best way to understanding the Bible is to read it through the eyes of the Ancient people who composed and read it. The main claim is that denominational traditions have filtered out the interpretation of certain Biblical texts, and that has resulted in a generation of Christians who fail to see or understand the supernatural worldview of the Bible.
The chief example to support this claim is found in the translation of Psalm 82:
God stands in the divine assembly;
he administers judgment in the midst of the gods. – Psalm 82:1 (LEB)
In this text, the Hebrew word elohim (gods) appears twice: the first instance to refer to Yahweh, God of Israel, whereas the second time refers to other spiritual beings. The plural word elohim conjugated in the singular form is used thousands of times in the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to Yahweh; it is translated as God (with a capital G). However, the word in Hebrew simply refers to beings that preside in the spiritual word (e.g. divine beings, or spiritual beings). This is evidenced by the many usages of the word elohim which do not refer to Yahweh. Some examples presented in the book include: evil spiritual beings (Deuteronomy 32:17), members of God’s council (Psalm 82:1), and even spirits of deceased human beings (1 Samuel 28:13).
The Lexham English Bible (quoted in Heiser’s book) translates the second elohim as gods, based on Heiser’s work, this could count as a literal translation that reflects what the psalmist intended to say. Whether or not the correct interpretation of the word is gods may be up for debate, but it is clear that an appropriate translation can be gods (or the generic word for a spiritual, divine being), whether we agree with the theology behind it or not. However, as Heiser notes, several English translations of the Bible have opted to avoid this controversial reading in favor of a more filtered version (in this case, filtered through the lens of a particular interpretation).
Though Heiser doesn’t cite direct examples of other English versions in his book, I decided to take a quick detour to present a few in this post. An example is found in the widely popular New International Version:
God presides in the great assembly;
he renders judgment among the “gods”: – Psalm 82:1 (NIV)
If the quotation marks surrounding gods had the intention of conveying that these are not gods in the same way that we thing of God (capital G), then the translation is accurate. However, the NIV Study Bible (1995) explains that these “gods” were merely rulers and judges, who where given the honorific title of “god” in the Ancient Near East. Again, this presents a good case and the correct interpretation of the word can be debated. However, this is interpretation, subject to our own limited understanding, and attempting to reel this interpretation back into the biblical text ends up creating these unchecked filters that Heiser talks about. These filters become more evident looking at a translation like the New American Standard Bible:
God takes His stand in His own congregation;
He judges in the midst of the rulers. – Psalm 82:1 (NASB)
Here, the word elohim has already been interpreted to mean rulers and that interpretation was brought back into the translation. Now, according to Heiser, translations such as these take away from the Bible’s supernatural view. He gives several reasons for those types of interpretations, attributing them mostly to denominational traditions and a desire to steer away from “uncomfortable” or “controversial” texts that may require further explanation.
Now, what is the solution to these filters? According to Heiser, the solution is to read the Bible in its own context, free from any denominational filters. Doing this, however, is not a simple task. The reader must acquaint him/herself with the worldview of the writers, in particular, their supernatural worldview. Throughout the rest of the book, Heiser introduces the reader to the “unseen realm” that the Biblical writers believed in.