Helpful survey on demons, but unclear in places
A review of Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness, by Michael Heiser Lexham Press, 2020.
Michael Heiser (Ph.D., Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies) is the author of many books, including The Unseen Realm, Angels, and the latest in that series, Demons. He is a well-respected, prolific writer, and much of his work is useful and genuinely helpful. That makes it all the more important that we point out where his work is insufficiently clear.
In some ways, Demons is a good book, and he has important points of agreement with CMI published views. He agrees that the Bible presents the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4 as the offspring of angels and human women. He goes further and suggests that demons are actually the disembodied spirits of the dead Nephilim. He also refutes common views, like demons being the same as fallen angels, the NT view of demons and the devil being adopted from Zoroastrianism, and more. He also explains other mysterious groups and figures such as the Rephaim and Azazel.
Heiser’s survey of the development of the doctrine of demons, including non-biblical documents from the ancient world that would have been known to the biblical authors, is informative. His refutation of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 being various categories of human is comprehensive and convincing. He also shows how the different ‘pieces’ of the New Testament teaching about Satan were already present in the Old Testament, so not invented by the NT authors or appropriated from a false religion.
How is the OT different from other ANE1 documents?
However, clarity in one area would have been very helpful. The non-biblical documents contain obviously mythical elements, and it would have been helpful for Heiser to differentiate a bit more in his discussion of these things. The reader could (wrongly I believe) come to the view that Heiser views the OT as no more than another ANE document.
However, Heiser’s documented errantist view of the Bible (for instance, he believes the Bible teaches a 3-tier cosmology including a flat earth) does raise the question of what he believes is true about the Bible’s teaching. This isn’t calling his salvation into question.
For instance, he says:
“The question of whether the biblical writers thought this way [with a mythical view of natural disasters] is one that arises from the text.
The short answer is ‘yes and no.’ On the one hand, in biblical thought, everything that threatens life is the result of such rebellion. Natural disaster, disease, and death extend from humanity’s failure to fulfill the Edenic mandate, a failure provoked through the deception of a divine rebellion. The earth was under a curse. Eden was lost. Demonic spirits derivative from the transgression in Genesis 6:1–4 became an ongoing scourge of human well-being. God disinherited humanity at the Babel event, assigning the nations to lesser gods who sowed chaos among their charges (Deut 32:8–9; Ps 82). For Israel, raised up by divine intervention on the part of Yahweh after Babel’s judgment, things like plague, infertility, sickness, natural disasters, and external threats of violence were only to be feared in the wake of apostasy (Exod 15:26; Lev 26:14–39; Deut 28:15–68)” (p. 31).
But were the biblical authors correct to think in this way? Heiser’s next paragraph and particularly his footnote show that he is not a materialist and believes that God interacts with creation in response to prayer. But were the biblical authors (both OT and NT) correct to think that the ultimate reason all of these things happen is Adam’s historical rebellion in the Garden of Eden? Elsewhere he refers to John Walton’s view published in The Lost World of Genesis One that the Garden of Eden is described in Temple-like terms. However, that view has come under significant criticism from scholars such as the late historian Noel Weeks, none of which is addressed by Heiser. He says:
“The archetypal nature of Eden as the house-temple of God is why Eden is described as a well-watered garden and a holy mountain. There is no contradiction. An ancient reader would have embraced both descriptions” (p. 63).
However, it is also possible to interpret those details historically. See Where was Eden? Part 1 and Part 2.
Of Behemoth and Leviathan, he says:
These monsters were not considered real animals one could encounter with unfathomably large dimensions and powers. The metaphor communicated the fearful (and often fatal) struggle with earthly and heavenly rebellion and chaos. The entire world might irrupt in chaos, defying the restraint of a good God (p. 33).
Leviathan is at least sometimes described in mythic terms, but the descriptions of Behemoth and Leviathan in Job, though colourful, are not necessarily mythical. (Behemoth, literally ‘beast of beasts, was probably a sauropod, while Leviathan was probably a giant armoured crocodilian such as Sarcosuchus or Deinosuchus.)
The book jacket promises: “You’ll come away with a sound, biblical understanding of demons, supernatural rebellion, evil spirits, and spiritual warfare.” And in a sense, the book does explain all that. But Heiser also rejects the Bible’s history of Eden and the Fall that he acknowledges forms the foundation of the biblical understanding of the origin of evil. He says that demons are the disembodied spirits of the Nephilim that died in the Flood—but is that Flood an actual event that happened in history?
Someone with a biblical creationist perspective actually has the foundation to gain more from a book like this than someone with a mythical view of Genesis. And we shouldn’t default to simply ignoring books by people with whom we disagree on some important points. We can benefit from the information Heiser presents while maintaining a biblical creationist view.
- Ancient Near East. Return to text
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