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Stress-testing the
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Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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Some thoughts on angelology

In no particular order.

I think Christians assume that angelology isn’t “for us” because we are told so little about angels in the Bible. But what if the reason the Bible says so little about angels—and the spirit world in general—is actually because it takes for granted a great deal of cultural knowledge which no longer exists?

If that’s so, then studying the topic closely is very beneficial to understanding the Bible better as a whole—because we’re gaining a better understanding of its contemporary milieu. It’s also important because we are surrounded by an invisible spirit world, and as Christians we should have at least a basic grasp of what that world is like and how it affects us.

Most Christians, unfortunately, have inherited their theology of the spirit world from Dante-inspired cultural cliches rather than careful study of the Bible and its contemporary culture. For instance:

Some thoughts on all this, in no particular order, and without any comprehensive explanations, because that would require a book:

The Bible was written in a culture that took for granted the existence of a hierarchy of gods

Canaanite religion especially was clear on the existence of a divine council, overseen by El and his vice-regent, Ba’al. El was lord of the cosmos; Ba’al was lord of the gods (you might even say the king of kings). Beneath them were the sons of God (bn il if I am remembering my Ugaritic consonants correctly), who were gods in the more or less conventional polytheistic sense of the word. Beneath them in turn were lesser gods who had artisan functions in creation.

The Bible, of course, does not endorse Canaanite religion, but it would be a mistake to think it completely repudiates it as well. There are clear and direct parallels between certain religious concepts and language in Ugaritic (Canaanite), and certain religious concepts and language in the Hebrew Bible. The Old Testament doesn’t copy from Canaanite religion, nor did it evolve out of Canaanite religion; but it certainly does borrow themes and language from it—often to make a point about how that very religion represents a debased, false understanding of the “spirit world”—and how Hebrew religion represents a pure, correct understanding.

The divine council and the sons of God

For example, Psalm 82 speaks of how God has taken his place in the adat’el—a term which only appears once in the Bible. Scholars have puzzled over its meaning, which is kind of odd really because it is almost certainly a direct cognate of the Ugaratic dt’ilm, meaning “divine council”. This was the meeting (place) of the gods when they held court to administer the affairs of earth. There are also Hebrew cognates of bn il (sons of God) and bn ilm (sons of the gods): beney ha elohim (sons of God), beney elim (basically the same), beney elyon (sons of the most high, which was Ba’al’s title).

Basically the Bible presupposes that this council of gods exists.

Elohim

This is the Hebrew term often translated “God” or “gods”. Christians object that taking elohim other than Yahweh to actually exist is nothing but polytheism. This is at best simplistic and naive. The categories of monotheism and polytheism are late, Enlightenment inventions; they have no actual basis in the Bible whatsoever. Rather, the Bible treats the beney elohim as elohim, but Yahweh is in a special category of his own. He is the God. He is not just the most powerful of the gods, but is quite separate. They are created beings and he is not.

The elohim are actually in charge of the nations. This is what happens in Deuteronomy 32:8, but you need to read the right translation to get it (the ESV and NET are right here), because many take the Masoretic text as authoritative here rather than referring back to the older Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint rendering. Yahweh divides the nations up at Babel according to the numbers of the sons of God—but he keeps Israel for himself.

Without some of these basic facts laid down, it’s essentially impossible to make sense of passages like, for instance, Psalm 82 and John 10:35.

If you’re not familiar with these ideas, this is all going to seem exceedingly strange; even dangerous-sounding. But once you start to become acclimated to the biblical presuppositions in play, you discover this stuff is all through the text. Not just in the Old Testament; the New Testament actually plays off this a great deal and provides some of the more explicit examples (referring to Satan as a god, for instance).

The imago dei

One final thought: the image of God is not an ontological category. Not primarily anyway. It is not something we are; it is something we do. It is not a power or faculty that allows us to make free, morally culpable choices. We are imagers of God inasmuch as we represent his dominion and authority over the creation he has put us in charge of. Obviously that requires such faculties, but the imago dei is not merely the faculties themselves.

So to think that angels, or more pertinently the beney elim, do not have the imago dei, is very strange. Who do we think God was talking to in Genesis 1:26, remembering that there is no royal plural in Hebrew, and the original audience would not have understood the plural in terms of the Trinity? Well, he’s talking to the sons he already created; compare Job 38:7—“stars”, and various riffs thereon, is standard nomenclature for gods in ANE language.

18 comments

  1. Kirk Skeptic

    Could it be that some of the problem we have with the idea of adat’el is because we lack the vocabulary and end up sounding henotheistic?

    As for the imago dei, I think Lemke answered your functional definition well.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Re #1, yes definitely. We need to reform our vocabulary.

    Re #2, I assume you’re referring to the concept of the imago dei being consummated and exemplified in Jesus? But it’s unclear, to say the least, that this is incompatible with seeing the imago dei as a primarily functional element.

  3. Kirk Skeptic

    The consummation in Christ is but one point; I was referring to the essentialist concept of man intrinsically being the image of God. The exercise of dominion would be but an outworking of the imago.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Do you have a link to an article or paper I can examine?

  5. Kirk Skeptic

    http://www.nobts.edu/faculty/itor/lemkesw/personal/PersonhoodETSpaper.pdf

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Thanks. Let me say from the outset that I really like the characteristics of the imago dei which Lemke identifies. And let me say also that I don’t have any objection to essentialist accounts in principle. My position is simply that essentialism is a theological inference, and not how the Bible itself couches the imago dei.

    With that said, Lemke’s arguments against other views are rather terrible. For instance, he challenges the functionalist and relationalist views basically by saying that because a certain ontology is necessary to functional/relational construals of the imago dei, therefore such ontology is the imago dei. But that’s just a non-sequitur; like saying that because wings are required for flight, therefore wings are flight.

    He also says that, in Genesis 1, rulership flows out of, rather than being identified with, the divine image. But he offers no exegetical work to support this claim, and it’s one which seems question-begging without such work. After all, vv26-28 are one long block that link the image with the function:

      Image (26a) → dominion (26b) → image (27) → dominion (28)

    Moreover, in case the structure didn’t make it obvious enough, the grammar also links the image with dominion. See for example the NET translation notes:

    Following the cohortative (“let us make”), the prefixed verb form with vav conjunctive indicates purpose/result (see Gen 19:20; 34:23; 2 Sam 3:21). God’s purpose in giving humankind his image is that they might rule the created order on behalf of the heavenly king and his royal court. So the divine image, however it is defined, gives humankind the capacity and/or authority to rule over creation.

    Notice that the NET is implicitly siding more with the essentialist position, yet makes no bones about correctly taking v26 as saying that man is made in the image of elohim so that he may rule. It is perfectly plausible to think that Genesis 1 treats rulership as a result of the image; but it is also perfectly plausible to think it treats rulership as the image. The trouble for Lemke is that there are no explicit ontological categories or discussion in Genesis 1. There’s no teaching about substance dualism, for example.

    Now, you could potentially make an argument from cultural context that Genesis is teaching ontology. You could say, ANE culture in general understood representation in ontological terms, pace our own intuitions about symbology. Ie, when you created a representation of Ba’al, that representation was understood to actually be Ba’al in some sense. That would be an interesting argument. But it would need to be untangled from the broader monistic ontology of continuity which such representational ideas were based on—and which the Bible unequivocally repudiates. So there’s a lot of work to be done there…

    Btw, I don’t take a strictly functionalist account. All I’ve said is that I don’t think the Bible itself describes the imago dei in terms of essence (at least not in Genesis). I’m just responding to Lemke on his own terms and showing that his response is pretty poor, being predicated on at least two logical fallacies: non-sequitur and assuming the consequent.

    All that said, whatever we take the the image of God to be, the fact remains that God does not say, to himself, “I will make man in my image”; but rather, apparently to the elohim, “let us make man in our image”. So any theory of the imago dei needs to be flexible enough to handle the fact that from the very outset, it is described in terms of divine beings in general, rather than of Yahweh specifically. Or, put another way, we need to accept that the characteristics of the imago dei which Lemke identifies are also characteristics of the beney elohim.

  7. Kirk Skeptic

    Please bear with my lacking your background and specialized vocabulary, but I don’t view Scriputre as dealing with any philosophical isms or istics, but rather as the core material from whence we derive these. Just as we culturally lack an understanding of other heavenly beings, so we lack a theology of the image as ancient cultures do and did. The fact that man was created in God’s own image ( 1:27) rather than with it bolsters the essentialist case.

    As an aside, where does the text say that God took counsel with the other beings versus the verse being a discussion between Members of the Godhead? If no, and since the heavenly beings bear God’s stamp, I’m not sure what the point of contention is; certainly you’re not suggesting that man was created by committee, although that would explain a number of behaviors:-)

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I don’t think “in” vs “with” makes any difference; you could make the case either way. Obviously Scripture doesn’t use terms like “foundationalism” or “essentialism”.

    The question is, which of those terms best describes the way it does talk about the imago dei.

    Anyway.

    Re discussion within the godhead, the problem with this view is that it is highly anachronistic. This becomes obvious when we ask, “What would the original audience have understood this to mean?”

    Clearly, they would not have understood it to be inter-trinitarian dialog. Then you look at passages like Job 38:7, and the contextual pointers in Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14 which strongly imply that Eden was the meeting place of the divine council. It seems the weight of evidence and probability is firmly in that camp.

  9. Kirk Skeptic

    In vs with makes all the difference, as the former means I am and will always be the image while the latter makes it external to and hence possibly removable from me. Just because one is either so disabled as to lose or never have been able to exercise dominion in the first place, or still within the womb and hence unable to exercise dominion, doesn’t mean that the imago is in any way diminished….or does it?

    Per this divine council, there is no evidence in the text to see it as anything other than a top-down information cession rather than some pagan committee or assembly line. The former view harmonizes vv 26 and 27 while the latter puts them in opposition. In the end, the b’tzalmenu of v 26 brcomes two b’tzalmo’s with a bara, confirming the essentialist understanding.

    Speculation on what the original audience would understand is just that – speculation. Are you aware of any ancient Jewish sources supporting your position? If so, please post a link. Of course, kabbalistic thought is excluded. Again, as no expert, I’m missing the point of these controversies. I look forward to your clarification.

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    In vs with makes all the difference, as the former means I am and will always be the image while the latter makes it external to and hence possibly removable from me.

    I don’t follow. If God creates me with a spirit, or with a head, does that imply that my spirit or head is just an incidental part of me? An accidental property of being human? Obviously not. So as I say, which preposition the Bible happens to use is irrelevant to the case you can make.

    Per this divine council, there is no evidence in the text to see it as anything other than a top-down information cession rather than some pagan committee or assembly line.

    Sure. God himself does the creating; he merely voices the plan among the council. That said, I don’t think the council is a pagan committee. They are the original beings God created as an outworking of his nature. His original family, as it were. The fact that some of them rebelled and became gods to the pagans doesn’t mean that what is in view here is pagan.

    Are you aware of any ancient Jewish sources supporting your position? If so, please post a link. Of course, kabbalistic thought is excluded.

    Why the arbitrary exclusion? Next you’ll be saying that we aren’t allowed to refer to Egyptian or Canaanite mythology either, to learn what religious ideas were commonplace in the ANE. What if the Bible references Kabbalah concepts? I’m not saying it does—but suppose it alludes to Kabbalah beliefs and uses them as a foil for teaching something about God. How would we ever pick up on that if we excluded Kabbalah from the “allowed” list of reading?

    Anyway, for a rundown of some basic evidence that ancient Jews did indeed see the divine council in Genesis, see for instance http://www.logosapologia.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/nachashnotes.pdf and http://www.hebrew-streams.org/works/hebrew/divinecouncil-ch1.pdf. Or if you prefer video, this one looks promising: http://youtu.be/T2WvZ0AcXi4.

  11. Kirk Skeptic

    Sorry for the delay, but I was going to your links and doing some cross-checking. Fascinating reads, not unlike some of what I recall from my bygone fundie era.

    What I’m stuck at, though, is how such knowledge gets lost or edited out. Just look at Presbyterians, a people even more factious than Jews: start with the Kirk, then some groups get their knickers in knots over the “true interpretation of Westminster,” and next come the Associate Presbyteries, Continuing Churches, the Free Synod of Those who put their Trousers on Before Their Socks, the General Assembly of Those Who Do the Hokey Pokey Before Turning Themselves About, etc. Going from two powers in heaven to an Islamic monadism doesn’t happen without a fight and continuing groups with their confessions and grudges. So, where did this all go? It seems a bit too pat. Your thought?

  12. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I’m not sure what you’re asking. Are you wondering how this knowledge of the two powers theology got lost? If so, I’m not really the one to ask, since I’m not a church historian. But I imagine it’s not as hard as you might think when you are using letters and horses to communicate with other theologians, rather than computers and fiber.

  13. Kirk Skeptic

    Without modern communications, the Synagogue retained considerable unity in doctrine. Rabbis throughout the diaspora would have similar educations, as the yeshiva curricula wre fairly uniform. If a common belief were to be suddenly jettisoned, some resistance and possible schism would result. I would think that there would be some historical trail of this change, although I’m making no argument from silence.

    Back to a previous point, again I see a difference between being created with the imago and in it, and see no comparison between the imago and an anatomical component like an head. The Fall certainly affected the image differently than the head (although it clearly affected both): some theologians posit a loss of the imago, while none I’m aware of credited the fall with decapitation. The state can deprive me of my head, but can’t revoke the imago despite denying my personhood (eg abortion, Nuernberg Laws).

  14. Kirk Skeptic

    FYI&E: http://forward.com/articles/213732/how-hasidism-bridges-boundary-between-christianity/?p=all#ixzz3QlxQD43R

  15. skj

    I’m new to this type of indepth study of scripture and it’s translations so my question may seem inelegant or naive, none the less if the term god refers to a number of beings can we refer to Yahweh as god in prayer or should we refer to him as Yahweh. Also if Christians are unaware of the specifics of demonology and anegelology and have incorrect beliefs will they still go to heaven.

  16. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey SKJ, the Bible itself refers to Yahweh as God in prayer many times (eg, Ps 16; 22—there are so many places I couldn’t even begin to list them). We shouldn’t feel uncomfortable following that example. God is quite aware of who we are praying to.

  17. Robin PJ

    Hey Dominic! You mentioned that God was talking to the “divine council” when He said “Let Us create man in Our image”. I do believe in a divine council of gods but I don’t think I can agree with you in saying that God was talking to the other gods. The reason for that being in the verses that follow. It is clearly written that “so God created man in His image” just after the so-called dialogue with the “Us”. Personally, I think it was among the Trinity. You say the original audience wouldn’t have understood it that way but I ask, does it matter? What if it was left as a mystery to them? A lot of things in the OT do not come to light until they are read through the lenses of the NT. Besides, I believe that the OT saints had hints and clues of the fact that God is a triune being. Do the kabbalistic writings themselves not contain hints of the triune nature of YHWH? I’d like to know your thoughts. Love your website btw.

  18. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Robin, I don’t think God creating man in his image contradicts my interpretation, since the whole point is that the council is also made in his image. The reason the text moves from plural discussion to singular creation is to emphasize that we were not created by anyone except Yahweh, and that ultimately it is his image in/as which both humans and gods are created.

    I think the other plural comment that occurs from God in Genesis 3:22-23 is decisive here:

    Then Yahweh God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand rand take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” Therefore Yahweh God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.

    You notice this passage follows the same structure as Genesis 1:26-27: God discusses, plural; then, on the basis of the discussion (“therefore”/”so”), God acts, singular. He is surely speaking to the same persons in both passages—but to take the second passage as an intra-trinitarian discussion is very awkward indeed.

    Now, I have nothing against God making certain parts of his word a mystery, revealed later. Indeed, that’s the whole point of the gospel, which was concealed within the Old Testament (eg Ephesians 3:1-13). And I agree that God provided far more than mere hints of Trinitarianism as well (as I document, the Old Testament has an overt Christology). I just don’t think that’s what’s going on here. (I would be pretty skeptical of kabbalistic writings, depending what you mean…the Zorah is almost certainly an early medieval document, for instance.)

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