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Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

What is the kingdom of God? Part 2: the divine council

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16 minutes to read Israel, like all ancient Near Eastern peoples, conceived of the world as being governed by a cosmic bureaucracy—a bureaucracy the Bible calls the divine council. Prophets were brought into this council when they were commissioned.

Continued from part 1, on representation and rulership

How did Adam’s kingdom get given to Satan? To understand this, we need to start by asking how they both fit into the biblical cosmology in the first place.

The Bible does not explicitly lay out every detail for us; hence we can easily miss this “kingdom theology”—even though the whole arc of redemptive history takes it for granted. It is within the story of the ups and downs of God’s dynasty that each part of the Bible is written.

Because this story is implicit, rather than explicit, you may not have heard it laid out like this before. Maybe you’re thinking that what I’m saying sounds strange, even troubling. If so, I would encourage you to search the scriptures to see if these things are so. There are enough clues across the Bible that we can trace the broad strokes fairly easily when we know what to look for. Let me show you the more important and transparent of them here, and you can consider these in your own time and search out others as well.

Rulership in the spiritual places

To understand how Satan and these other spiritual beings came to be in charge, we first need to understand the overarching cosmology of the Bible. We’ve seen that the kingdom on earth was originally given to Adam. But while he was the first human ruler, he was created to fit into a larger council that included spiritual beings. This is where things get quite strange to our secularized, Western sensibilities, because we discover that the spirit world of the Bible is not as sanitized as we like to imagine.

To see this, we need to know certain religious terms that had particular significance for the original audience of the Bible; a significance that is not obvious to us, because we are so far removed from their thought-world, their zeitgeist. These terms are what you might call religious memes, rather like lamb of God is a kind of meme for us. By meme I don’t mean a picture with a silly caption, but a unit of cultural information, or an idea that everyone within a certain group will be familiar with. There are certain “codewords” that represent religious concepts—as lamb of God does to Christians—that we don’t expect an explanation for; they are just part of our natural religious language; part of the culture of Christianity.

In the same way, ancient Jews had a natural religious language. If we don’t understand these memes or codewords, we’ll miss a lot of the messaging in the Bible—just as someone today would if he didn’t know about the Passover when he heard that Jesus was the lamb of God. These memes were not exclusive to Israel—indeed, the Bible adopts them out of the religious language of the time, just as it adopts any human language of its time. So they were shared with the surrounding nations, and especially with Ugarit (part of Canaan) to the north, because Ugaritic and Hebrew were cognates: they had a common ancestor, and thus many commonalities (somewhat like German and Dutch, or Spanish and Italian).

The Bible does not use these memes in a pagan way, like Israel’s neighbors did. But it does take the codewords and adapt them to the biblical worldview. If we want to decipher the overarching biblical cosmology, we therefore need to know these codewords.

Ancient Near Eastern religious memes

The overarching meme which these codewords describe is typically called the divine council. The divine council was a kind of cosmic bureaucracy: a group of deities, ruled by a high god, who together were in charge of administering the cosmos and deciding what happened on earth. With some variations, this divine assembly appeared in all Mediterranean and ANE religions; it was a standard feature of their cosmologies. The gods of the divine council were typically referred to as:

  • Gods. Obviously.
  • Sons of God. This is a very common term, and illustrates the dynastic nature of the divine assembly: it was a family of gods under a supreme regent (whether by adoption or otherwise).
  • God’s council/divine council/assembly of the gods. Whereas “sons of God” speaks of the family nature of the assembly, the word “council” gets to the heart of its bureaucratic, cosmological function in governing the world.
  • Holy assembly/council of holy ones. Gods are set apart from the world of man and are generally unapproachable by us, which is what holiness means.
  • Stars of heaven/morning stars. The idea that stars were divine, or represented divine beings, was another very common motif in the ancient world because they were luminous, and they seemed to move by themselves; and morning stars, of course, were the most luminous—thus the most important.

Now, gods don’t meet just anywhere. There has to be a special place for them to hold council. And there was a clear commonality with regards to the kind of place they would gather to decide the fates of people and nations:

  • In a lush garden. This spoke of opulence and beauty, especially in the arid Near East.
  • On a holy mountain. This should come as no surprise given what we’ve already seen about the association between deities and mountains or high places, where heaven meets earth.
  • At the source of rivers. A plentifully-watered place again spoke to the abundance and luxury that only deities, and their kingly representatives on earth, could afford; and in the Bible this also images the life-giving Spirit of God.
  • In the heights of the north. This is a particular Ugaritic term for the meeting place of Baʿal, which crops up in the Bible for polemical reasons.
  • In a location adorned with precious stones and paved with sapphire. Naturally, gods will have only the best accommodation.
  • Where the supreme god’s throne was. Just as human kings would hold council in their throne-rooms, so divine kings would do the same.

The point I’m getting at, of course, is that all of these terms are common both in ancient Near Eastern pagan religions, and in the Bible. That might sound disturbing, but it shouldn’t be. After all, what are the chances that pagan cultures all came up with the same religious ideas out of whole cloth? Isn’t it more probable that they are perversions of actual spiritual realities? And if they are, then certainly the Bible can use the same language to describe those spiritual realities, and correct the parts that pagans distorted.

Let’s now work through some of the places where these terms or concepts appear in the Bible so we can see what the actual spiritual realities are. This will prepare us to understand how they relate to Adam’s kingdom.

God’s first dynasty: the divine council in the Bible

We’ve already seen God call these beings gods in Psalm 82:1, 6. These verses also point us to other key terms. In verse 6, we see indirectly that the persons in question are sons of God: “I said you are gods, sons of the Most High.” And in verse 1 we see God standing in the divine council. The Hebrew here, adat el, is a direct cognate of Ugaratic ʿdtʾilm—the council of El in Canaanite mythology. Obviously there is a polemical slant, since God is judging the gods—but it only functions if the basic premise is the same: that the cosmos is administered by a divine bureaucracy.

This talk of gods makes a lot of Christians very uneasy, because they think that if there are any other gods, or if we think of these beings as “divine,” then that means polytheism. They therefore oppose divine council theology—sometimes vehemently. This impulse may be well-intentioned, but it amounts to trying to protect the Bible from itself by forcing it into 17th century Enlightenment religious categories. It is a kind of false piety. We need to conform our thinking to Scripture, not vice versa; so we must accept that God himself is quite comfortable using the Hebrew word elohim—“god” or “gods”—to refer to beings other than himself. Elohim didn’t carry the theological baggage in Hebrew that “god” does in English; it was perfectly legitimate to call different kinds of beings elohim without suggesting that they were worthy of worship. Indeed, the witch of Endor, upon summoning Samuel, says, “I see an elohim coming up from the ground” (1 Samuel 28:13); and the New Testament is also comfortable referring to Satan as a god (2 Corinthians 4:4). The word is really about where a being belongs—the spirit world—rather than what a being is. Scripture strongly repudiates the idea that the gods of the divine council are anything like Yahweh; indeed, this is the point of expressions like Deuteronomy 4:35, which claims there is no god besides Yahweh. Compare Zephaniah 2:15, where the same claim is made of cities besides Nineveh; the expression is obviously idiomatic: there is no god besides Yahweh in the sense that no god compares to him.

That the context of Psalm 82 is rulership should be obvious given the content: the gods are taken to task for judging unjustly and showing partiality; rulers were to judge justly and impartially (Deuteronomy 1:16–17). They have failed to give justice to the weak and the fatherless; rulers were to protect orphans and widows from oppression (Jeremiah 22:2–3). They have not rescued the weak from the hand of the wicked; rulers were to deliver the one who had been seized from the hand of the oppressor (ibid).

The same cosmic bureaucracy is plainly in view in Psalm 89:5–7, which speaks of the assembly/council of the holy ones. The Hebrew terms are different here (qhal/sod qedoshim), but the concept is obviously the same—especially since we see in Psalm 89:6 that they are comprised of the sons of God (Hebrew bene elim, cognate with Ugaritic bn ʾilm). This is a stock motif for divine beings that parallels “sons of the most high” (bene elyon) in Psalm 82:6 (cf. Psalm 29:1). That Psalm 89:5–7 is a parallel to the council of Psalm 82 cannot be seriously doubted on pain of special pleading—and quite obviously it is not a human council, since human councils do not meet in the sky (89:6); nor is there a single human council in charge of the whole earth (Psalm 82:5).

In Job 1:6–12, we see the sons of God presenting themselves to Yahweh, and there is a kind of courtroom motif to the scene with a prosecutor or accuser—in Hebrew, satan. The question of Job’s loyalty is raised, an argument is given, and resolutions are made—exactly what we should expect in a meeting of the divine council, since its function was to raise issues, debate them, and come to resolutions about them. This happens again in Job 2:1–6.

We also find the divine council in Micah’s vision of 1 Kings 22:19–22 (par. 2 Chronicles 18:18–22):

I saw Yahweh sitting on his throne with all the hosts of heaven standing beside him from his right hand and from his left. And Yahweh said, “Who will entice Ahab so that he will go up and fall at Ramot-Gilead?” Then this one was saying one thing and the other was saying another. Then a spirit came out and stood before Yahweh and said, “I will entice him,” and Yahweh said to him, “How?” He said, “I will go out and I will be a false spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” And he said, “You shall entice and succeed, go out and do so.”1 Kings 22:19–22; cf. Daniel 4:17

The setting is a throneroom or a palace; Yahweh is on his throne and there is a heavenly host around him. Again an issue is raised—how to bring about Ahab’s demise—and this time the whole council is involved in the debate. Finally, one solution is accepted by God. The issue is raised, debated, and resolved.

The characters present are here described as the heavenly host—God’s army. It isn’t completely clear whether each and every one is involved in the council; we learn in another divine council scene, Daniel 7, that the heavenly host is beyond reckoning (Daniel 7:10; cf. Psalm 68:17; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 5:11)—but since spiritual beings need not be constrained by the physical logistics of debate, there’s no clear reason to doubt the involvement of each member. The Bible doesn’t explicitly state whether every member of the heavenly host is also a member of the divine family; and, if so, whether they are all members of the council; and, if so, what the hierarchy looks like. We do know that there are archangels—”angels in charge”—but we don’t know if they are in charge by merit of greater ontological power, by closer familial connection, by mere merit of assignment, or some combination of thereof. The descriptions of Satan that we’ll look at in the next part of this series do suggest that some angels are ontologically superior to others, but I am very reluctant to push the imagery too far. All we can say for sure is that the beings designated the “sons of God” are also called archangels, and they have greater authority than the heavenly host in general. This is broadly in line with Ugaritic religion, in which there were two tiers of gods: the sons of El, who ruled certain districts and provinces, and a larger group of lesser gods who acted as messengers and warriors. But how close the correlation is remains unclear.

Prophets as members of the divine council

The passages above are the most obvious divine council “sightings,” but they are far from the only ones. We also see a very similar motif in the commissioning of prophets, and this moves us toward our goal of understanding how Adam and Satan fit into the biblical cosmology:

In the year of the death of Uziyahu the king, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and raised throne, and the hem of his robe was filling the temple. Seraphs were standing above him, each with six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his genitals, and with two he flew. And the one called to the other and said, “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts! The whole earth is full of his glory.” And the pivots of the thresholds shook from the sound of those who called, and the temple was filled with smoke.

And I said, “Aiee to me; I am destroyed—for I am a man of unclean lips, and I am living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, Yahweh of armies!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, and in his hand was a hot coal he had taken from the altar with tongs. And he touched my mouth, and he said, “Look! This has touched your lips and has removed your guilt, and your sin is annulled.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “I am here! Send me!” And he said, “Go and say this to my people…”Isaiah 6:1–8

Notice again the divine council elements: there is God’s throne-room with seraphs present (later we’ll see that Satan is a seraph); an issue is raised, either with the seraphs or a further unnamed audience, as indicated by the plural language: “who will go for us?” Isaiah volunteers, and the issue is resolved by commissioning him.

Here’s another example of prophetic commissioning where it is not so obvious:

And the word of Yahweh came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came out from the womb I consecrated you; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord Yahweh! Look, I do not know how to speak, for I am a youth.” But Yahweh said to me, “You must not say, ‘I am a youth,’ for to whomever I send you, you will go, and whatever I command you, you will speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,” declares Yahweh. Then Yahweh stretched out his hand and he touched my mouth, and he said to me, “Look, I have put my words in your mouth.”Jeremiah 1:4–9

Now, this doesn’t look like divine council imagery, but there are clues here that we can piece together by looking elsewhere in Jeremiah. The first thing to notice is that the Word of Yahweh is a physical presence whom Jeremiah addresses as Yahweh. The Word comes to him, not as a voice in his ear like we tend to assume, but as a person who touches Jeremiah, and to whom Jeremiah speaks, addressing him as Yahweh himself. The same kind of thing happens with Abram in Genesis 15:1–5: the Word comes to him in a vision (v. 1) and takes him outside (v. 5). It happens again in 1 Samuel 3: the Word of Yahweh is said to come in visions (v. 1), and stands near Samuel’s bed (v. 10); and in verse 21 we read that, “Yahweh appeared again at Shiloh, for Yahweh revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the Word of Yahweh.”

The point is that the Word, and Yahweh, are the same person; and this person appears in embodied form. We should expect this given John 1:1—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word.” John gets his theology from the Hebrew scriptures.

In case you’re wondering what all this has to do with the divine council, let’s now look at chapter 23 of Jeremiah:

Thus says Yahweh of hosts, “You must not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They are deluding you with visions of their mind, they do not speak from the mouth of Yahweh. They are continually saying to those who disregard the word of Yahweh, ‘Peace it will be to you,’ and to each one who walks in the stubbornness of his heart they say, ‘Calamity will not come upon you.’ For who has stood in the council of Yahweh, that he has seen and heard his Word? Who has listened attentively to his Word and heard it?Jeremiah 23:16–18

We find here—quite explicitly if you don’t just skip over the language—that prophets are commissioned by God when they stand in his council and see his Word. The Word of Yahweh stands with them in the council of Yahweh.

Put another way, when the Word comes to prophets, they are brought into the royal courtroom, amidst the divine council. This isn’t always stated explicitly, but turns out to have happened “behind the scenes,” as comparing Jeremiah 1 and 23 illustrates. Given the Hebrew penchant for omitting details that were taken for granted, it’s a safe bet that any time God reveals himself to man, his divine council is with him. That’s just the way the whole process works.

Lest this seem like too sweeping a bet to simply make on the basis of one example, here is further evidence: did you know that the divine council was involved in the giving of the law to Moses? If my bet is correct, we should expect it, since Moses was a prophet—the prophet; but it certainly isn’t stated in Exodus, is it?

Indeed not; in Exodus we have only a hint that the divine council is present:

And Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy from the elders of Israel went up [Mount Sinai]. And they saw the God of Israel, and what was under his feet was like sapphire tile work and like the very heavens for clearness. And toward the leaders of the Israelites he did not stretch out his hand, and they beheld God, and they ate, and they drank.Exodus 24:9–11

Notice the interesting detail about what is under God’s feet in this vexingly brief glimpse of a physical encounter with Yahweh: something like sapphire tile work. This is another hallmark of the meeting place of the divine council; Baʿal’s palace was paved with sapphire; so this is a hint that the divine council is present—though it isn’t explicitly stated. However, knowing that Hebrew high-context discourse leaves out details that readers would take for granted, we are warranted in predicting that the divine council was present. This is exactly what we find in Deuteronomy 33:2, which explicitly recollects the giving of the law at Sinai:

Yahweh came from Sinai, and he dawned upon them from Seir; he shone forth from Mount Paran, and he came with a myriad holy ones—at his right hand a fiery law for them.Deuteronomy 33:2

Who are the holy ones? Well, Psalm 89:5 describes them as a council. This is why Paul says in Galatians 3:19 that the law was “put in place through angels,” and Stephen says in Acts 7:53 that the Jews “received the law as delivered by angels,” and Hebrews 2:2 says it was a “message declared by angels.” It was just taken for granted by the Jews—as so obvious as to not require stating.

In the same way, it was taken as obvious that a prophet was someone who had been brought into God’s presence, had seen the Word of Yahweh, and had by implication participated in the divine council. This is, according to Jeremiah 23:22, the defining feature of prophetic calling. How do you know if someone is a true prophet, continuing the office of Moses? By whether he has been in the presence of the Word of Yahweh. And where the Word was, typically so was his divine council.

The situation changes slightly with the New Testament prophets—the apostles—because they lived in the presence of the incarnate Word, who by nature did not have his angelic council present. Yet they nonetheless were commissioned by him, and this is why even in the case of Saul, he is inducted into the apostolic ranks through a vision of Jesus (Acts 9:3–6.)

Ezekiel has an even more impressive encounter with Yahweh in the divine court, which in that instance is a kind of “mobile throneroom.” Again there are seraphs around the throne—this time called cherubs; throne-guardians—(Ezekiel 1:4–15), and again there is the element of sapphire (Ezekiel 1:26). That seraphs and cherubs are basically the same creatures should be clear from Revelation 4:6–9, where the living creatures before the throne are obviously a composite of the seraphs in Isaiah 6:1–4 and the cherubs in Ezekiel 1 and 10. This will become clearer in the next installment, when we see that the Bible describes Satan as both a seraph and a cherub.

There are more subtle examples which further link prophetic calling with being in the presence of God. For instance, according to Hebrew tradition, Enoch was a major prophet; Jude 1:14 refers to him prophesying. Why did the Jews think this, given that none of his prophecies are recorded in Scripture? Genesis 5 gives us a clue:

When Enoch had lived sixty-five years, he fathered Methusalah. And Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methusalah three hundred years, and fathered other sons and daughters. And all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. And Enoch walked with God, and he was no more, for God took him.Genesis 5:21–24

Now, we have an idiom—a meme even—in the modern Western church. We talk about our “Christian walk;” thus, when we read the expression “Enoch walked with God,” we import this meme into it and interpret it as, “Enoch lived in a godly way.” But that isn’t what it means absent this Western expression—as becomes obvious if we switch the characters in the phrase:

Peter walked with Jesus.

What do you imagine now? You see, Enoch was a prophet because he walked in the physical presence of God, and was, it seems, taken up physically into heaven by God (cf. Hebrews 11:5).

This finally leads us to Adam, because we know that he, too, lived in the physical presence of God. Genesis 3:8 says that he “heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” In fact, the Bible explicitly calls Adam out as the first human member of the divine council—moreover, it does so in a way that clarifies what happened in Eden, and how everything went, as it were, to hell…

Continued in part 3: what happened in Eden

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