Recently, I read Michael Heiser's book The Unseen Realm: Recovering The Supernatural Worldview Of The Bible. I mentally wrestled with his prospect of "the divine council". Heiser talks about this in this lecture as well btw.
Sometimes I do a soliloquy or write out my thought process when there is subject matter or information that I need to digest, especially if I find that subject matter new or troubling. That is what this blog post is all about.
In the first chapter, Heiser introduces us to "The Divine Council" worldview of The Bible, which is what he based his doctoral dissertation on. The key passage examined is Psalm 82. Heiser's proposal seems to be that the Jews viewed angels and demons as lesser "gods" (lowercase g) which were subservient to the supreme God; Yahweh. Heiser rightly points out that Psalm 82 must be referring to angelic beings because all other interpretations have fatal flaws. To interpret the second usage of elohim (the Hebrew translated as God and gods) as referring to other persons of the Trinity entails that God The Father is judging the Son and The Holy Spirit for corruption. This is blasphemy. To interpret them as being Jewish leaders doesn't work either as there is no biblical or extra-biblical evidence that the Jews ever ruled nations outside of Israel (which is what Psalm 82 says the "gods/elohim" did, and did so in a corrupt manner). The only alternative candidates are other supernatural entities.
First of all, I really have no issue with the word "god(s)" being referred to super powerful, supernatural entities. After all, it has traditionally been understood that 2 Corinthians 4:4 is referring to Satan ("The god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers"). Elohim, according to Heiser simply refers to some supernatural spirits. Yahweh is an Elohim, but not all Elohim are YWWH. There's only one Maximally Great Being. For the ancient Israelite, Elohim was like our modern term "Spirit". We would say God is a "Spirit", but not all "spirits" are God. There's The HOLY Spirit, and then there are evil spirits. But certainly, Satan is not on the same level as God. He's not as powerful as God, not as knowledgeable, and he's not everywhere present.
To refer to angels and demons as elohim (i.e supernatural, immaterial entities) isn't theologically objectionable. Just as I wouldn't object to saying "God is a spirit" and "Satan is a spirit". If the Hebrew term "elohim" simply carried the same connotations as "spirit", then to say that there are many gods wouldn't violate traditional monotheism anymore than saying there are many spirits. There's only one God (capital G) even though there are many gods (lower case g). There are many spirits, even though there's only one Great Spirit.
Should "god" Be Taken As A Metaphor?
On the other hand, Heiser's position seems to open the door for Mormonism. As he himself pointed out, Elohim was applied to Samuel in 1 Samuel 28 when Saul had the medium call upon Samuel's spirit. If Elohim even applies to the souls of deceased humans, doesn't that mean that humans become divine upon death? Perhaps angels and demons could be considered "gods" with a lowercase g, but only in a metaphorical sense and divinity proper should not be ascribed to them. Doesn't it open the door to the Mormon contention that we become gods after we die, that we become divine if the lesser elohim literally posess the property of divinity. There's only one supernatural entity that literally possesses the attribute of divinity, and that's YHWH: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There can be many elohim (gods), but there can only be one divine Elohim (God). There are many spirits, but there is only one Great Spirit (YHWH).
Perhaps, then, Psalm 82:1 should be properly translated as "God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the spirits." or we can take the text at its face value meaning and ascribe the term "gods" as a metaphor. This could possibly be the reason why the NIV places the second rendering of elohim in quotation marks.
What About The Mockery Of Idols?
In the book of Isaiah, Yahweh mocks the idols that people bow to. In the book of Isaiah is where we find the most repeated assertions from God that He is the only God that there is.
“This is what the LORD says— Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come— yes, let him foretell what will come. Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one.” (Isaiah 44:6–8, NIV)
After proclaiming the glory, and majesty and power of the Lord Almighty, the prophet turns his attention toward the idols that Israel is so prone to worship. He reminds them of the shame of idol worship.
"All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing? People who do that will be put to shame; such craftsmen are only human beings. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and shame. The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm. He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint. The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, 'Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.' From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, 'Save me! You are my god!' They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, 'Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, 'Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?'" - Isaiah 44:9-20
The implication of Yahweh's mockery is that the reason it is supremely stupid to make idols and worship them is that they are nothing but man-made objects. God essentially says "Look, you chop down a tree, use part of the wood to warm yourself and cook food, and you use what's left to make yourself a deity? How stupid could you possibly be?" In Isaiah 46, God says of the idols "They [humans) lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they set it [the idol] up in its place, and there it stands. From that spot, it cannot move. Even though someone cries out to it, it cannot answer; it cannot save them from their troubles." (verse 7). Now, I could perhaps understand it if we say that behind every idol, there is a demon, or perhaps that every idol of wood and stone is inhabited by some demonic spirit. But here, God seems to be denying the idols of any real existence or power at all! He says they cannot move. He says they cannot speak. He says they cannot answer when spoken to, or save people from their troubles. If demon spirits were really behind the idols, Yahweh's mockery here makes no sense. Certainly, a demon could answer back when spoken to. Demons can certainly move. After all, the book of Job says that when Satan stood before God and God asked him where he had been, he responded "From roaming about the Earth. From going back and forth on it" (see Job 1:6-7).
I don't know how to reconcile Michael Heiser's divine council view with the text of Isaiah. It's one thing to say that demons are, in some sense "gods" and that they are lesser gods than Yahweh, and that they are the ones worshipped by idolaters, but how do we account for the fact that in Isaiah 44-46, Yahweh treats the idols like they don't even exist? As though they are simply man-made objects and figments of man's imagination?
The apostle Paul seemed to have been divided on this issue himself, for in 1 Corinthians 8:4 he says that an idol is really nothing at all, using a proclamation of monotheism to justify his claim "For we know that there is no God but one", so the Corinthians shouldn't worry about eating meat sacrificed to one. But elsewhere, he seems to say that behind every idol is a demonic spirit, which obviously wouldn't be "nothing", (see 1 Corinthians 10:20).
So is an idol a non-existent entity or a demonic one? Either would be consistent with monotheism (there is only one Maximally Great Being). Deuteronomy 32:16-17 also seems to imply that demonic spirits are behind idols. Deuteronomy 32:16–17 states, “They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger. They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded” (ESV).
Perhaps Paul meant that they are "nothing at all" in a hyperbolic term, to denote the powerlessness demons have in comparison with the power Yahweh has. It would be like saying to someone who lost a position of great influence or fame "You are nothing now". It's possible that this is what Yahweh was doing in Isaiah 44-46. Not that they are literally nothing or powerless, but that they are in comparison to Yawheh. You can't even begin to compare finite power with infinite power.
It could also be the case that some idols are inhabited by demonic spirits while others aren't inhabited at all, and it's these latter that Isaiah 44-46 and 1 Corinthians 8:4 refer to.
This blog post was written immediately after I read the first two chapters of Heiser's book. This concluding section, however, was written a week after the fact.
After wrestling with this concept in my mind for a week, I've come to this conclusion. I think Heiser's proposal is a powerful one, and it explains much. It doesn't threaten monotheism as I first thought. It might entail Henotheism at worst. However, although Heiser never explains it like this (these are my own words), it appears that for the ancients "elohim" carried the same meaning as what we might call "a spirit" to be an "elohim" simply meant to be a powerful, immaterial, supernatural entity. Certainly, Yahweh, angels, demons, and even deceased humans would fall under this definition. We would consider all four categories "spirits". The ancients would consider all four "elohim". There is only one Ultimate Supreme Elohim. There is only one Maximally Great Spirit. That is Yahweh (The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). All others are lesser elohim/gods/spirits.
Michael Heiser's proposal explains much of The Bible's teaching on the unseen realm.
I think the idea of the pagan gods being demons is very credible. Not only does 1 Corinthians 8, 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, and Deuteronomy 32 say that (and the nearly universal agreement that 2 Corinthians 4:4 is referring to Satan), but when you think about why the angels rebelled against God in the first place, it makes sense. Satan wanted to be God, and part of being God is receiving worship. When tempting Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4, Satan said he would give him all the kingdoms of the Earth if only He would worship him. It's plausible to think that demons would desire worship, and ergo, plant it in the minds of human beings to build statues dedicated to them and then bow. It is part of the demonic mindset to get what properly belongs to God alone.
Isaiah 44 and 1 Corinthians 8:4 appear to be denying that the "gods" have any real existence at all at face value, but when you interpret these passages in light of the rest of scripture, this interpretation fails. The Bible is quite clear that false gods/idols are demonic entities. So what do we make of the denial passages? I think the most plausible interpretation is that of hyperbolic language. Even today, when we want to belittle someone to the most severe extent possible, we would say "You are nothing! NOTHING! You're nobody!" Of course, the one who says this doesn't think he's talking to an imaginary person. Rather, he's speaking as though he's making an ontological denial in order to demote that person's status or worth. If someone is a nobody, they are of no significance. It makes sense to call the gods/demons/idols "nothing at all" since all of their great-making properties are pitiful when compared to the Maximally Great Being (i.e Yahweh). God and Paul are simply belittling the demons. Compared to Him, they are nothing.