The handwriting of offences

Scholar Michael Heiser has made it his business, in books, blogs and YouTube clips, to rehabilitate the supernatural beings who are, in fact, prominent in both Scriptural Testaments, but who are usually airbrushed out by that wonderful ability we have for selective inattention to what the Bible actually says.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Heiser refers particulary to the Divine Council mentioned, or implied, in many passages of the Old Testament, and the “powers and principalities” more prevalent than one would suppose in the New.

The depopulation of heaven has nowadays reached the end stage where any discussion is usually about the existence of “a personal devil”, rather than accounting for the host of divine, but created, beings the Bible describes.

I suppose the historical motivation for the abolition of “elohim“, “sons of God”, “powers and principalities” and so on follows much the same line that early-modern science took in denying Aristotelian final causes to nature – so that God would be the sole supernatural power, thus avoiding perceived or actual idolatry. By the time we got to 18th century Deism, even the Trinity became an embarrassment to the idea of the utterly transcendent and aloof Clockmaker God, dwelling in distant solitude.

So how much more untidy a multitude of the heavenly host not only existing in some sort of governing hierachy under God’s control, but presumably serving actual functions within the created Universe? Science and reason leave no space for such interfering busybodies, so they cannot exist. And of course, we can’t see any signs of God, either, so he’s up for debate, too.


I was reminded of this today in reading John Chrysostom’s (349-407AD) comments on what, largely because we have abolished “the powers”, seems to us a particularly “difficult” passage, Colossians 2:13-15:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the handwriting of offences, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

First, it’s interesting that Chrysostom clearly interprets this in terms of atonement by penal substitution – despite the fact you may have been told that’s a recent and purely Protestant doctrine. But in interpreting the meaning of this handwriting that, somehow, gives the spiritual powers and authorities a hold over us, he includes this:

…the devil held possession of the handwriting which God set down against Adam – “In the day you eat from the tree of knowledge, you will die” (Gen. 2:17). This handwriting, then, which the devil held in his possession, Christ did not hand to us, but Himself tore it in pieces, as One who joyfully forgives.

Now, I think Michael Heiser’s thoughts on the garden of Eden make this passage helpfully transparent, though I’m not claiming they are necessarily correct for that reason. He suggests that, since the garden is described as Yahweh’s sacred space, it would to any ancient Israelite imply that God was not alone there, but would be assumed to be surrounded and assisted by his divine council. Adam and Eve would then be seen as being newly privileged to live and serve within God’s own “seat of government”. Heiser of course argues that this, to the original readership, would be taken as a matter of course.

He then argues from ANE precedents that this explains the presence in the garden of “the serpent” as a subtle, speaking being. Etymologically, he claims, “serpent” was used to describe divine beings, so that rather than being a mere animal which astonishingly talks and tempts, and only later in Scripture becomes understood as “Satan, that ancient serpent”, Genesis is already overtly describing  an encounter with a powerful spiritual being who had a good reason to be there, and sufficient authority to bring into question the motives of Yahweh in forbidding the couple access to the tree of knowledge.

If this view is correct, it gives Paul’s words a new clarity. It would mean that God’s command to Adam was made in the full knowledge – in the hearing, if you like –  of his own “divine council”, that Adam’s succumbing to the serpent’s temptation would have been immediately known to the appointed spiritual rulers within creation, and that this act of disobedience actually took place in the very place from which God’s rule of justice over the world emanated. For God to fail to carry out the penalty of death for this act of rebellion within his own “administration” would be seen by all to convict God of injustice.

To speculate on this understanding a little more, it even suggests a motivation for Satan’s own rebellion, a rebellion clear from the whole testimony of Scripture after Genesis. Yahweh’s plan in Genesis 2 was that mankind, from the angelic perspective a mere animal from the dust of the ground, should come to share in his own life and, indeed, to share his rule. To a proud spiritual being like Satan, what greater affront than for the naked ape to be invited into God’s sacred space and receive preferment in God’s council?

A parallel example of jealousy in the Bible might be that of the proud courtier Haman, in the book of Esther, who despised the Jew Mordecai and sought to destroy him by establishing charges before the king.

To me, all this gives a poetic justice to the atoning role of Jesus, for he himself is the ontologically divine superior of all the powers, who himself issued the command to Adam not to eat the tree of knowledge. But he is also, through the Incarnation, a perishable “animal” form the seed of Adam who, though innocent, fulfils the penalty of death in his own body and thereby receives an undeniable place at the Father’s right hand.

What divine being is going to dare, now, to say that man in unworthy to sit in God’s council? Whether or not St Paul had that particular part of Scripture, and Heiser’s supernaturalist understanding, in view is impossible to say with certainty. But it certainly gives an illuminating biblical background for what Paul says of the work of the Lord.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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14 Responses to The handwriting of offences

  1. Hanan says:

    Thank you for bringing up Heiser, Jon. In fact just last night I had a group of friends over and I was sharing the work of Heiser and how to understand certain segments of the Bible.

    Now, I don’t mean to commandeer your post (or do I?), but I always wondered why Heiser doesn’t take the time to deal with issues of history and evolution. I mean, he builds this great theology, and he will always bring it back to Eden. He’s not a fool. I love his work. But he has to take seriously historical reality vs. biblical reality. If 6000 years ago there was never an actual Eden, what happens to his grander theology? You get where I am going with this?

    From his perspective, Jesus has come to rectify what happened in Eden, part of that dealing with the problem of death and how it was brought to the world. But in historical/evolutionary terms, there is not problem of death. Death is part of the creative process. I think even ID would acknowledge that. So according to science and history there is nothing to “fix”. There is nothing to go back “to.” Heiser does not deal with this.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Hanan – thought I might hear from you when I mentioned Heiser!

      I would answer this quite simply – nobody can deal with every question, and there are plenty of people (even me!) dealing with the issue of the historicity of Eden.

      In this area, at least, his approach is to point the spotlight on what the Bible actually says as opposed to what we assume it says – and that seems to be his particular gift. I’m not sure where his rather esoteric interests like UFOlogy fit in with that, but I’d suspect that he considers he lacks the science background to tackle the (pre-)historical perspective.

      The same is actually true of other biblical studies guys – for example, I’m currently reading Fretheim, whose work on creation doctrine is pretty good (though in my view marred by a tendency to open process theology), but who really doesn’t interact with scientific issues to any degree. Horses for courses, i guess.

  2. Jay313 says:

    Fretheim’s essay on God and Violence in the OT is also worth a look:

    https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/24-1_Violence/24-1_Fretheim.pdf

  3. Hanan says:

    I don’t think that is good enough Jon. You as well as Biologos at least try to talk about the issue. The basic question is how does X theology work with Y reality. You’re telling me Heiser can’t even deal with that question in all his books? He wrote an academic version of his book as well as a layman’s version. He couldn’t spend some time on this question?

    To be fair to Heiser, if you look at his archives, he used to deal with some of these questions, particularly about historic Adam. But now he just ignores it. He writes as if these are not important questions that people are asking.

    Let me give you another example: He will often talk about the sin of hte watchers in Gen. 6. and how Jesus’s work is to undo that as well (as far as I understand). Well, once again, ask any anthropologist and they will tell you human evil and the behavior that Book of Enoch credits to the Watchers existed in human culture throughout the whole earth way before these stories we written or purported to take place. So did lustful angels land on Hermon or not? He keeps harping that to understand these stories one has to understand ANE stories and how they form the background setting for these Jewish tales. Well, so did it happen or not? If it happened, it’s irrelevant what ANE writers wrote about them.

    Welcome to my frustration with Heiser. He is an amazing scholar, but this huge lacunae is often ignored by him even when others bring it up his attention.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Well, I’m less familiar with Heiser than you are, I guess – and I certainly don’t know enough to defend him.

      I think he does well to point us to the realm of spiritual beings, and interpreting the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 in those terms has a long pedigree, though so do other interpretations which I prefer.

      But I always wonder why people treat late 2nd temple sources like Enoch and Jubilees as if they represent more than simply the way that some Jews interpreted the Torah many centuries after it was written. To me it’s like treating New Testament pseudo-epigrapha as additional historical sources to the gospels.

      For example, to me it seems clear that 1 Enoch has a cosmology that is a late, and Greek-influenced, interpretation of what the Genesis writer meant. It is cerytainly informative, but not authoritative.

      • Hanan says:

        Heiser deals with that exact question. You can check out his podcast here:

        http://www.nakedbiblepodcast.com/naked-bible-93-the-book-of-enoch-in-the-early-church/

        Also, Heiser will say that Enoch is the proper understanding of Genesis 6 given its origin in the Apkallu myths of Babylon. But you see, again, he doesn’t deal with the reality of the theological background. He just tells you what the Bible means.

        Arrrrgghhhh.

        • Hanan says:

          You can check out the transcribed version of the podcast if you prefer to read it.

          • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

            I can only add that any Genesis 6 type mischief-making by supernatural beings would probably have no bearing on the science of origins, being (like Adam himself) a unique event within history.

            You may have seen Joshua Swamidass’s discussion of how, under Genealogical Adam, it’s quite plausible that, if he were a universal ancestor, all of Adam’s unique genes could have been diluted out over the millennia. Like most history, he is inaccessible to science.

            Heaven knows by what process angels would have fathered human children, but it would be vanishingly unlikely to have left traces of “alien genes” amenable to science. Those who hold such an interpretation, like those who believe in the special creation of Adam, must take it on faith, whilst science can, properly, say nothing for or against.

            I don’t personally hold such an interpretation, but Joshua has been a breath of fresh air in the science-faith dialogue by stubbornly insisting that science accepts its limitations – there are many factual questions it just can’t answer, and shouldn’t pretend to.

  4. Mark Mark says:

    Bravo for bringing this subject up. The bible teaches that there are spiritual powers and principalities that are opposed to God. One way they express the opposition is to seduce and corrupt man. This is the Biblical view of things. The naturalistic way to view things is that man is just the result of a billion years of “winning” in the absolute Darwinist drive to reproduce.

    Look around at the way our culture treats sex- and honestly its gone on forever it is just more out-front now. What we see is not what we would expect to see if the naturalistic view is correct. Sex is not increasingly and more efficiently centered on reproduction. Instead, what we see is what we would expect to see if the Biblical view of things is correct- we have enemies in the spirit realm and they have an interest in perverting and corrupting every aspect of our being, including sex.

    Having said that, I can’t agree with Heisner on Genesis chapter six, even if he is right about other things. Rather than type it all out, I’ll just give a link to a short talk on it. https://youtu.be/wc7BLlnSEbo

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Mark

      Interesting link. I’m not yet completely persuaded by your exact designation of “sons of God” v “daughters of man”, given that Gen 1 (mankind in general) is called “adam, and a few other things to do with uncertain dating of texts, etc.

      Nevertheless, the non-designation of the Gen 6 “sons of God” as angels accords with my conclusion. Particularly strong, in my view, is the declaration by Jesus that angels do not marry, which surely has to be owing to his inside knowledge of their their nature rather than merely their location, since in the age to come the non-marrying people of Christ will still be on earth, but transformed in nature.

      Your other interesting point is the Septuagint’s persistence with “sons of God” in Gen 6 as opposed to angels: we can see the influence of the Septuagint in the way that Hebrews, for example, translates “elohim” in Psalm 8 as “angels”, suggesting that the translators generally used αγγελοι as the best Greek term for all the OT heavenly beings – and yet not in that passage, despite 1 Enoch etc.

      You may be interested that the 5th century Alexandrian text (later than the text commonly used) does change it to angels, suggesting that at least there were variant understandings, but possibly that the original translators rejected the idea of angels marrying.

      Incidentally, if you’re still after OT scholars who do treat the text of the Pentateuch as intriniscally, and deliberately, Christocentric, then check out John Sailhamer and, on Adam, Seth Postell. If you use the search function you’ll find them referenced in posts.

  5. Mark Mark says:

    Thank you I will search. I generally discount the Alexandrian texts when variant.

  6. Mark Mark says:

    Regarding your other point on all of mankind being called “Adam”, I wrote a whole chapter on how confusing the Hebrew is. Even translators can’t agree on when to use it for humanity or a member thereof or the proper name of the man formed in Genesis chapter two. It would be like someone who was named “Human”. How do you describe his female posterity? The daughters of Human would be one way to do it, and saying so does not imply that the rest of our race is not also human.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      …how confusing the Hebrew is

      Yes, the bane of many of these discussions is the ambiguity of the language used. As in English, no doubt the author and original readers made assumptions that were correct because they were aware of the context, the genre and so on.

      Now we are far removed from the cultural context – and as in the very concept of viewing these texts christologically, our decisions are matters of judgement, not certainty. The overall case has to be argued, and refined.

      The word “adam” is a case in point, but so are key words and phrases like “elohim” (God, gods, divine beings, maybe judges), “sons of God” (men, angels, the Davidic king, Jesus) etc. In the last case, doing a concordance survey yesterday, the OT usage that’s unequivocally human appears to be restricted to Israel, and to Israel redeemed from apostasy at that. On that basis, it would be easy (and wouldn’t change the overall conclusion, fortunately) to make the sons of God Adam’s line in ch 6, and the daughters of men a reference back to ch1, the reverse of your understanding.

      Personally, I’m considering the idea that there is a significant christological content to “sons of God” (human sense) that unifies many of these passages – consider that the NT usage of “sons/children of God” is, almost exclusively, used of those in Christ, and that Luke’s genealogy takes Jesus’s lineage back to adam as “son of God”. What if Adam’s sonship there has reference not to his creation by God, but to his special calling into relationship with God, which is mirrored by the calling of Israel’s – also referred to as God’s son, and by the final redemption in Christ?

      There might even be a direct connection to Job’s designation of the divine council as “sons of God”, in that Adam’s calling – and certainly that of the saints – is to reign with Christ together with the holy angels (Heb 2:9-11, 12:22-24, Rev 22:5).

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