The gods are real.
This is a shocking truth most Old Testament scholars have come to understand that has not made its way in the pews.
The gods of Israel’s ancient Near Eastern neighbors were not literally made of stone, gold, or any other material. Rather, they were real spiritual beings that had a dramatic—and demonic—influence in the lives of their worshippers.
If this sounds unlike anything you’ve ever heard, I’m not surprised. However, this idea is not new. It has been buried in the scholarship for decades (or longer).
I’ve alluded to it in recent posts, and since I’ll probably allude to it often, I’d like to offer a concise explanation of the view here.
What is a “God”?
The Hebrew word for God or gods is elohim. It would be a mistake, however, to associate the word elohim—and therefore, the word “god”—with a particular set of attributes.
This is a wholly Western idea that often colors our reading of the biblical text. The word simply refers to beings of a spiritual nature. For example, the Bible calls Samuel an elohim, after being summoned by the witch at Endor.
In Psalm 8:5, we see the word used to describe what is translated in the New Testament as “angels” (angelous—Hebrews 2:9). Of course, there are deeper layers to uncover.
The term angelous is not describing an ontological status. Meaning, it’s not describing a type of being, rather it denotes a role. The word simply means “messenger.”
What we should not miss is that the word elohim is used often of beings that are not necessarily angels, but neither are they God.
There are many elohim, but there is only one Yahweh. Similarly, Yahweh is an elohim, but no other elohim is Yahweh.
The Divine Council
So then, who are these elohim, and what do they do?
Dr. Michal Heiser1 explains:
The gods of Psalm 82:1 are called “sons of the Most High [God]” later in the psalm (v. 6). The “sons of God” appear several times in the Bible, usually in God’s presence (as in Job 1:6; 2:1). Job 38:7 tells us they were around before God began to fashion the earth and create humanity. And that is very interesting. God calls these spiritual beings his sons. Since he created them, the “family” language makes sense, in the same way you refer to your offspring as your son or daughter because you participated in their creation. But besides being their Father, God is also their king. In the ancient world, kings often ruled through their extended families. Kingship was passed on to heirs. Dominion was a family business. God is Lord of his council. And his sons have the next highest rank by virtue of their relationship with him. 2
This is often referred to as The Divine Council Worldview.
In this worldview, there is an entire spiritual dimension—or meta-narrative—behind nearly every Bible story you’ve had memorized from Sunday School.
To be sure, many continue through life never knowing this information, and one can be a committed Christian having no knowledge of this deeper meaning.
Once you see it, though, you can’t unsee it, and for good reason.
This “Unseen Realm”3 is very spiritually significant, and has implications for how we understand the Bible, understand God, and even how to understand ourselves.
This is not high-minded spiritualistic theolo-jargon, but spiritually significant, practical truth that can change everything in our Christian walk.
The Truth About Babel
It’s impossible to understand much about this worldview if you don’t understand the true nature of the events of Genesis 11.
Many rightly consider this event to describe the rebellion of the post-flood culture, where God retaliated by dispersing the people and dividing their language, culture, etc.
In brief, the nations of the world (Genesis 10) were given over to the rule of these gods. Such an event is not made obvious in Genesis 11, but is made clear from other period writings along with Second Temple Jewish literature.
But we’re not left to pull all of our information from extra-biblical texts.
Deuteronomy 32:7-9 describes the event:
Remember the days of old, Consider the years of many generations: Ask thy father, and he will shew thee; Thy elders, and they will tell thee. When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, When he separated the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the people According to the number of the children of Israel. For the LORD’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.
Although this text says the bounds of the people were set according to the number of sons of Israel, this is not a good translation. The textual debate surrounding an alternative interpretation can be read about
Suffice it to say for now there is an overabundance of evidence to suggests that this passage should read “according to the number of the sons of God,” and refers back to an event (Babel) that took place before Israel was even a nation.
To strike up a correlation in your mind, remember when all Israel begged for a king and God gave them Saul? Same situation.
The rebels at Babel built a tower (called a Ziggaraut) that was meant to be a place to “summon” the gods. To bring the gods on their level. This was not the relationship God had in mind, and so as a judgment, he alotted the nations to these lesser elohim.
But they rebelled, just like Adam and Eve in the garden.
They turned the people toward magic, idol-worship, and other practices meant to draw worship for themselves, rather than for Yahweh.4
God’s judgment of these elohim can be read about in Psalm 82:1-8:
God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; He judgeth among the gods. How long will ye judge unjustly, And accept the persons of the wicked? Selah. Defend the poor and fatherless: Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: Rid them out of the hand of the wicked. They know not, neither will they understand; They walk on in darkness: All the foundations of the earth are out of course. I have said, Ye are gods; And all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, And fall like one of the princes. Arise, O God, judge the earth: For thou shalt inherit all nations.
So, at this point you may be wondering what this means for you. Well, for one, it illuminates something about the Bible that has always seemed odd to me.
And secondly, it means something about the nature of redemption—the life and work of Jesus Christ.
We’ll discuss these in turn.
Have you ever wondered about the unusual obsession with land among the biblical writers?
The entire Old Testament seems to be concerned—in near exclusivity—with who has what land.
From the conquests of Israel to their displacement into Babylonian exile, from the sacred spaces set up in the tabernacle to the grandiose temple built by King Solomon—it’s all about the land.
Dr. Heiser sums it up:
God’s allotment of the nations to other gods frames the entire Old Testament. How? The rest of the Old Testament is about the God of Israel and his people, the Israelites, in conflict with the gods of the other nations and the people who live in them.5
Every conquest, every instruction to ritual cleanliness, and every measure taken to approach God in absolute holiness has to do with the concept of Cosmic Geography and Sacred Space.
Perhaps no other biblical story nicely and concisely demonstrates the nature of this motif than that of Naaman:
My favorite Old Testament story that makes this point is found in 2 Kings 5. Naaman was a captain in the Syrian army. He was also a leper. After he followed Elisha’s instructions to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River, he was miraculously healed of leprosy. Naaman told Elisha, “I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (5:15). The prophet wouldn’t take payment, so Naaman humbly asked if he could load a mule with dirt to take home with him. Dirt? Why ask for dirt? Because that ground belonged to Israel’s God. It was holy. It’s no accident that we see the same kind of thinking in the New Testament. Paul uses a range of terms for hostile divine beings (Eph. 1:20–21; 3:10; 6:12; Col. 1:16; 2:15): rulers, authorities, powers, thrones. What do they have in common? They were all well-known terms used to describe geographical rulership.6
When read against this backdrop, the connections made throughout the text of the Bible light up like a well-lit Christmas tree.
The Mission of Jesus
But much more than just helping to understand the Bible, this worldview also illuminates the work of Jesus.
According to Heiser:
The cosmic geography that is the result of God’s judgment of the nations at Babel is the backdrop for Israel’s struggle. It also sets the stage for the gospel. The good news of Jesus’ work on the cross is that the people of God are no longer only Jews but rather all who believe in Jesus (Gal. 3). As the disciples go out into the world, the domain of Satan is transformed into God’s territory. The kingdom of God advances, regaining control of the nations.7
The work of Jesus Christ is therefore about more than the redemption of sin in the sense of breaking God’s law.
It’s about God’s reclaiming the nations and their constituents from the forces of evil to whom they were once allotted.
Why did Jesus send out 70 disciples in Luke 10:1? It was to spread the good news of the gospel to the 70 disinherited nations (Genesis 10). The entire book of Acts, in fact, is one big nod to this worldview.
There are many details within biblical accounts that make much more sense in light of this worldview, and are extremely mysterious without it.
In short, it’s impossible to understand the entirety of biblical revelation without understanding the drama playing out in the spiritual realm adjacent to the drama playing out in our physical world.
Both are interesting, interconnected, and important to a truly biblical worldview.
This piece was meant to be a short introduction to the Divine Council Worldview. If you’re intrigued and want to understand more about it, I invite you to read Dr. Heiser’s
To go even deeper, his in-depth and scholarly yet still highly readable treatment, The Unseen Realm, is also available.
- Heiser is, more than any other, credited for popularizing this view, and he will therefore be referenced throughout.
- Heiser, Michael S.. Supernatural: What the Bible Teaches about the Unseen World And Why It Matters (pp. 21-22). Lexham Press. Kindle Edition.
- This is the title of Dr. Michael Heiser’s tome on the subject of the Divine Council.
- This is another series of events that is only hinted at in the biblical record, but is expanded upon in great detail within extrabiblical period literature.
- Heiser, p. 49-50.