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.