The Unseen Realm (Book Review)

Title: The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible

Author: Dr. Michael S. Heiser

Copyright Date: 2015 by Lexum Press (text)

Recording Date: 2015 by Lexum Press (production)

Narrated by: Gordon Greenhill

Pages: 413

Audio length: 15 hours, 43 minutes

Companion Website: moreunseenrealm.com

Summary:

In The Unseen Realm, Dr. Michael S. Heiser provides an evangelical scholarly examination of the Bible’s supernatural elements. I point out that the book is BOTH evangelical and scholarly so that a reader understands that both aspects are present in the work. If your inclination is to dismiss the scholarship on account of the evangelism, I urge you not to make that choice. Heiser’s work is thorough and persuasive.

Heiser covers a lot of ground. In fact, sometimes the book – to me at least – feels a bit rushed. I believe the way to approach the work is to view it as a broad framework. When reading, I had the impression that follow-up books would fill-in the details on the provided framework. I have included a bibliography below which provides names of several follow-up books, too.

  • ———(2015). I Dare You Not to Bore Me with The Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. ISBN 978-1577995395.
  • ——— (2015). The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. ISBN 978-1-577-99556-2.
  • ——— (2015). Supernatural: What the Bible Teaches About the Unseen World – and Why It Matters. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. ISBN 978-1577995586.
  • ——— (2017). Reversing Hermon: Enoch, the Watchers, and the Forgotten Mission of Jesus Christ. Crane, MO: Defender Publishing. ISBN 978-0-998-14263-0.
  • ——— (2017). The Bible Unfiltered: Approaching Scripture on Its Own Terms. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. ISBN 978-1-683-59040-8.
  • ——— (2018). Angels: What the Bible Really Says About God’s Heavenly Host. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. ISBN 978-1-683-59104-7.
  • ——— (2019). A Companion to the Book of Enoch: A Reader’s commentary, Vol. I: The Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36). Crane, MO: Defender Publishing. ISBN 978-1-948-01430-4.
  • ——— (2019). The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. ISBN 978-1-683-59322-5.
  • ——— (2020). Demons: What the Bible really says about the powers of darkness. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. ISBN 978-1 683-59290-7.
  • ——— (2021). A Companion to the Book of Enoch: a reader’s commentary, Vol. II: The Parables of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71). Crane, MO: Defender Publishing. ISBN 978-1-948-01441-0.

As you can see, Heiser is prolific. Several of the titles above address topics touched on by this book. I will likely read and review the follow-up novels at a later date. For the sake of this book, though, I will try to briefly summarize the topics covered with a broad brush.

  1. The first topic of the book is *how* we read the Bible. Heiser argues that the Bible should properly be read as a literary mosaic. Each piece, he says, is interconnected with and reliant upon the other pieces, culminating into a beautiful whole that can only truly be understood as a whole.

    One of the ways that Heiser makes this point is by demonstrating intentional textual callbacks from one book’s author to another. Heiser might write something like the following in the book – “The writer here used this word because he knew his reader would draw a connection to _________.” It’s strange that we do not always approach the Bible as though it was written with textual callbacks to previously authored texts… because once you start to look for those callbacks, they become blindingly obvious. If we then accept that the callbacks are intentional, then that should play a role in how we interpret the author’s intention. Heiser points out one obvious reason that we fail to notice these callbacks is that most of us do not fluently read the underlying ancient language.

    Heiser also states that a lot of modern post-Enlightenment Christians go out of their way to avoid the Bible’s supernatural aspects. When possible to explain a text without supernatural elements, the inclination to do so occurs – even when the end result is an interpretation that does not make a lot of sense in context.

    The overarching point of emphasis in this section is that the Bible should be read and interpreted through the lens of the author at the time the text was authored.
  2. Heiser makes “The Divine Council” a big point of emphasis for the book. What is the Divine Council? Well… that is God, seated on His Throne, surrounded by celestial beings, making decisions about the governance of the universe. God is in charge but he allows his Heavenly family subordinates to assist Him in His rule. I think in some sense Christians might have this imagery in mind when they think of God the Father but I suspect fleshing that picture out – and its implications – is not commonly done among Heiser’s intended evangelical audience.

    Heiser identifies this Council as God’s heavenly family. This group of beings are probably most commonly thought of by a modern reader as “angels” however Heiser points out that this probably does not present a full picture. The word “angel” refers to messengers. The text of Genesis – among other places – refers to these beings as Elohim (gods) or ben Elohim (sons of God/gods.)

    On the topic of the word Elohim, Heiser makes a very compelling argument that when used within the text, Elohim does not always refer to God or the Trinity. He makes this argument by pointing out that Psalm 82 clearly refers to Elohim who have rebelled. He also points out that the word Elohim is used in 1 Samuel 28 when describing Samuel’s ghost returning from beyond the grave to speak with Saul and the witch of Endor. Heiser’s view is that Elohim refers to any disembodied being. He is clear though in stating that this belief is not an endorsement of polytheism by the ancient Israelites. On the contrary, the notion is simply that while God is an Elohim, none of the other Elohim are God/Yahweh.
  3. Instead of one major sin calamity in the Bible (most modern Christians are familiar with The Fall in the Garden of Eden) Heiser states that a Second Temple Period Jew would have believed in three major sin calamities. The first of those three is The Fall, yes, but Heiser also adds the creation of the Nephilim (described in Genesis 6), and the disinheritance of the nations at the Tower of Babel as a second and third incident. Heiser spends some time delving into all three but since the latter two are most likely to be unfamiliar, I’ll address what he means with those two.

    Heiser believes that Genesis 6 describes Elohim/angels sinning with and among mankind to create Nephilim (giant) offspring. He describes the post-Enlightenment efforts to dismiss this as a supernatural event and rejects them for the pre-Enlightenment supernatural view. The Nephilim giants are the context of a lot of the Old Testament’s subsequent history. Nephilim either survived the Flood or were created again. Heiser is non-comital about which. However, their return – he states – is what drives the extermination events done by the Israelites during the conquest of Canaan. Heiser argues that whenever we see the Israelites trying to eradicate Canaanites entirely, the attacks are directed at giant clans and the people directly associated with them. Since this eradication is not completed in its entirety during the conquest, we see David take up this task later. The book goes into a lot of detail in this section and it’s fascinating.

    Heiser addresses something else that is relevant about the Nephilim – namely that it was believed that the disembodied spirits of Nephilim are the demons that Jesus and his Disciples were casting out in the New Testament.

    Heiser’s third great sin calamity occurs, he says, at Babel. The text here, Heiser argues, states that God disinherits humanity at Babel, giving it over to lesser Elohim for rule, except for Israel which God reserves for Himself as “His portion.” Deuteronomy 32:7-8 are the primary textual basis for this belief though it is also supplemented by other surrounding text and context clues as well. The lesser Elohim are corrupt in their rulership. The context then for the rest of the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, is that God has a plan to reclaim the nations.
  4. The Tower of Babel incident leads into the notion of “cosmic geography.” Different Elohim/gods rule over different literal pieces of territory. Heiser illustrates several places in the text where this reality becomes quite obvious once you think about it clearly:

    * Daniel 10 makes a reference clearly non-human entities titled “The Prince of Persia” and “the Prince of Greece.”

    * 2 Kings 5 tells the curious story of a Syrian soldier, Naaman, who goes to Israel for healing from leprosy. After he is healed, he requests to bring dirt home with him. The context for this odd story is that Naaman believes he cannot worship the God of Israel (Yahweh) without bringing Yahweh’s literal territory (i.e. the dirt) with him when he goes home. This story demonstrates the belief in the idea of specific gods ruling over set territory.

    * Heiser provides other examples within the text of the same concept.
  5. With a lot of these underlying concepts in mind, Heiser then demonstrates how New Testament writers clearly embraced them. In fact, much of the New Testament is written with these ideas in mind because The New Testament seems to intentionally address them. One particularly jarring (for me at least) bit of information was Heiser’s discussion surrounding Pentecost. With the foregoing in mind, Pentacost looks a lot like the first step in reversing the Babel calamity. In an environment where Jews have gathered from various nations all over the known world, we see:

    a) speech go from disparate and confused to understood by all
    b) scattered Jews from “the nations” adopted by Yahweh through Jesus
    c) the list of people described both in Acts at Pentecost, and in Genesis in the Table of Nations section (scattered at Babel) roughly match up. Heiser argues – compellingly I think – that the apostle Paul believed his mission was to reach Spain and preach the Gospel there because the Genesis Table of Nations extend as far west as Spain (described therein as Tarshish.)

    Putting it simply, the notion of “the Kingdom of Heaven” as mentioned in the Testament feels more discernable and concrete after hearing Heiser’s interpretation of the Old Testament context.

    Heiser also contextualizes a lot of the geography of Jesus’s ministry with a supernatural worldview. You have to go slowly through this material but it is fascinating.
  6. The book also includes quite a bit of eschatology (end times teaching.) Not surprisingly at this point in the read, he demonstrates clear links between the Bible’s Old Testament and the teachings of the New Testament writers.

    One side tangent of emphasis in this section concerns the interpretation of the world Armageddon. Heiser is among other things a scholar of ancient languages. He states that the association between the word Armageddon and the geographic location of Megiddo is based on a wrong interpretation of the text. He argues – convincingly I think – that the word Armageddon is a reference to The Mount of Assembly (i.e. Jerusalem.)

    Another point of emphasis in this section concerns the future of Believers. Heiser asserts that Believers – through their adoption and redemption via Jesus – are going to eventually assume the duties of the Divine Council. He makes a lot of references to Paul’s writing in this section.


The book is a framework of these concepts. Heiser could probably write entire books on some of the individual chapters covered. At points then, it feels like his book is a summary. My summary of his book is therefore only a summary of a summary. You can spend a lot of time with this material and not learn it all. Even though the book is written to synthesize a lot of scholarship such that the layperson can access it, Heiser recognizes that some of his audience might go looking for a lot more information on these topics. As a result, the book has a companion website: moreunseenrealm.com

About the Author:

Michael S. Heiser is an American biblical Old Testament scholar and Christian author. His area of expertise is the nature of the spiritual realm in the Bible, namely the Divine Council and hierarchy of the spiritual order. He is Executive Director of the School of Ministry at Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida. He was a Distance learning professor at Liberty University and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Until 2019, he was scholar-in-residence at Faithlife Corporation.

He runs his own podcast, The Naked Bible, and runs a ministry called Miqlat, dedicated to the production and dissemination of his content. Heiser appeared in the 2018 documentary film Fragments of Truth and in the 2019 documentary film The Unseen Realm. In 2019 Heiser released the book The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, referencing the Netflix series Stranger Things as analogies to Christian theology.

My Reaction:

Given the subject matter, any regular reader of this blog should not be too surprised at my interest in this book.

The Unseen Realm is so comprehensive – and yet also not – that it is difficult to frame my own reaction to reading it. Providing a critique also requires some knowledge of the underlying material (language, surrounding languages, and regional cultural history) that the vast majority of people, myself included, do not have. Most of the reviews and reactions to this are likely to come from other Bible scholars and from that perspective. I will do my best to react as a non-scholar… because I am a non-scholar.

One thing that comes through in this book is Heiser’s passion for giving his extensive knowledge to the layperson in a way that he or she can understand it. He is very methodical in laying out his arguments for the Bible’s supernatural worldview and he is also methodical in building on what he has laid out. I never felt as though he did this work in a way that was hard to follow. A lot of scholars in the world of theology go out of their way – it seems to me at least – to use words that a layperson will not understand. Heiser’s book is not unapproachable in that way. The Unseen Realm is not written in such a way that one needs a genius level IQ or a PhD to understand the work. That is in fact the point of this book. The every day person today, thanks to Heiser, is able to see things in both the tangible and supernatural worlds in the way that an ancient person might have also seen them. Heiser argues that this is the correct way to study the Bible. Therefore, a work like the one he is providing here is of vital importance.

I also appreciate that Heiser strikes a great balance in this book between his faith and his scholarship. His personal beliefs as a Christian are obvious in the book but that does not prevent him from going into almost too much detail in defense of why he believes a word or piece of text should be translated or interpreted in a certain way. I appreciate this approach. It feels honest and authentic. I know who he is without that being obfuscated AND I also know *why* he believes what he believes on the basis of a thoroughly and well-made case. You can accomplish both things at the same time and he does that here.

My biggest disappointment in the book is not a particularly fair one. In the section concerning giants, Heiser argues that the “giants” were not likely to be outrageously tall and red-haired. He points out that the archaeological record in the region does not support the interpretation of tree-sized people. He also points out that the Septuagint ascribes the modest height of about 6’6″ to Goliath. While this is reasonable, I am not a scholar, so I am still firmly in the camp that wants to believe in red haired nine feet tall giants.

Recommendation:

You should read this book. But I want to set the expectations.

I cannot give a full endorsement of Heiser’s textual arguments when he makes them based on underlying issues of Hebrew, Greek, or Ugaritic grammar. I simply do not have the knowledge to provide an endorsement on that basis. However, I am confident in a lot of this scholarship and his textual interpretations, anyway, because this book does not often ask a reader to rely only on one piece of grammatical evidence to make a point. Heiser marshals mountains of corroborating data, context clues, and common sense, in addition to (when necessary) explaining the rules of grammar for an ancient language.

I particularly enjoyed the way in which this book presents the early Church fathers. First century Christianity, in the context of the supernatural worldview described in this book, feels like an organic outgrowth of Judaism – a natural progression – rather than a dramatic and heretical break. That makes sense. Obviously a religion consisting of Jewish converts should share a lot of core ideas and theological concepts with Judaism. Why else would Jews have converted and faced persecution for doing so? Heiser does a great job in explaining the connections.

If you want to have a better understanding of the Bible, in the context in which it was written, I completely endorse reading this book. I suspect that for a lot of people, reading this book will challenge and change the way they interpret and study the Bible… for the better.

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