Friday, March 06, 2015

The divine council

In this post I'm not going to comment directly on Michael Heiser's interpretation of the divine council. Instead, I will sketch my general approach to the "divine council" in Scripture.

i) I have no antecedent objection to the notion that Scripture sometimes uses mythopoetic language–especially in genres suited to poetic imagery and/or polemical zingers (e.g. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Job, Psalms, Revelation). 

ii) That said, as I've remarked on other occasions, one problem I have with many Bible scholars is their myopically textual focus. They act as though every text must be understood in light of another text. That the ideas or images in one text must derive from another text. 

Suppose, for discussion purposes, that the divine council in Scripture is adapted from a pagan pantheon. Even if we grant that contention for the sake of argument, it only pushes the sourcing back a step–for what's the ultimate source of that framework?

When Jews or pagans attempt to conceptualize or visualize the divine abode and its residents, what supplies the raw materials for that imagery? Is it always a matter of chasing down textual allusions and literary parallels? Offhand, I can think of several potential sources:

a) The human family

The pagan gods are modeled on human families. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, &c.

Scripture uses fatherhood and sonship as archetypal theological metaphors.

b) Royalty

Kings, queens, princes, princesses, mistresses, courtesans, courtiers, palaces, palace guards. Pagan mythology and the pagan pantheon make extensive use of these archetypical roles and images.

(a) & (b) also furnish the basis for palace intrigue and civil war, as younger "gods" strive to seize the throne. 

Scripture is, of course, far more selective. God is a king, his Son is the heir. Angels are analogous to palace guards, royal emissaries, and courtiers. 

c) Institutional religion

Priests, temples, temple guards, religious art and iconography, including hybrid creatures.

Not surprisingly, Scripture makes greater use of these conceptual resources. 

d) The military

Ancient nation-states require soldiers and fortified cities. 

In Scripture, this is used to depict the warrior-God with his angelic army–or should we say, air force? 

In Revelation, the New Jerusalem is like a fortified city. The saints are inside while the damned are outside. 

e) The natural world

Celestial temples or palaces. Sacred mountains with a divine palace on the summit. Storm-gods. Storm theophanies. Orbital bombardment. 

Both Jews and their pagan neighbors lived in a social and physical world which often supplies the metaphorical palette to depict an unseen realm. That's not something they had to get from a text. That was all around them.

Why should we first reach for an Ugaritic parallel to illuminate an OT passage rather than considering the common source for many of these images and metaphors? Much of the stock imagery comes, not from a text, but from their physical and social environment. They got that directly. 

iii) In the case of Scripture, this can operate at two different levels:

a) There's direct revelation, here the immediate source is from God. Even in that case, God made depict things in culturally recognizable garb.

b) Written revelation can become a storehouse of stock imagery for later Bible writers.

There is, moreover, a dialectical relationship between (a) & (b). On the one hand, written revelation is a source of stock imagery. On the other hand, God made reveal truths in stock imagery. So there's cross-pollination. 


  1. Good post!

    I am frustrated when believing scholars sometimes seem to bracket their belief in the factuality of the historical record of scripture when trying to explain scriptural phenomena, specifically ANE parallels.

    E.g. Why is both Baal and YHWH mentioned in connection with storm theophanies?

    For the unbelieving critic, the Israelites simply copied from Baal literature.

    But for the believing scholar sometimes the answer is equally dissatisfying. The Israelites' polemically appropriated ideas about Baal. God inspired the writers of scripture to use the true things in the literature of the surrounding cultures. But the enterprise usually stops there.

    But this seems to me to not go back nearly far enough. For if God truly is who the Bible says He is, then God has in fact appeared in storm theophanies. It seems to me that a real memory of these things would be what is ultimately underlying every cultures' similar ideas about their deities. This (while not convincing to liberal scholarship) often has better explanatory power than simple literary borrowing. Especially when there is no known propinquity between the authors for any borrowing to have happened.

    If you are a believing scholar then you must acknowledge that both the people at Ugarit and the Israelites inhabited the same REAL world, not just literary worlds.

    1. The theophany in Ezk 1 is a good example. From a distance it looked like a desert storm. Or at least it looked more like a desert storm than anything else Ezekiel had seen. But as it drew closer, it was clearly far more than a desert storm. God was using enhanced natural media. Something that initially resembled lightning and thunder, but had a much more specific emblematic appearance as it came into close range.

  2. Jeremiah makes good comments.

    I can't speak for Heiser; perhaps you're engaging with his position better than I am. But your comments seem to strike at right angles to my own position.

    For example, while the Bible undeniably borrows certain language from pagan culture (usually for polemical purposes), I have never assumed that borrowing language implies borrowing concepts. I've never assumed that Ugarit, for instance, is the conceptual source for the divine council imagery in the Bible. On the contrary, I tend to assume that Ugarit is a bastardized version of an original source, presumably going back to Adam. And of course, as Jeremiah observes, both Canaanites and Israelites inhabited the same real world, so inasmuch as spiritual events played out in that world, they would share similar stories—even if one was forced into a monistic pagan paradigm.

    Moreover, I tend to assume the parallels between theological motifs like the divine council, and family, royalty, institutional religion, the military, and the natural world, are due at least in part to God creating the world to reflect those common themes.

    1. This post wasn't specifically directed at either you or Heiser.

  3. Maybe I'm just getting paranoid in my old age :)