Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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

What is the kingdom of God? Part 4: a tale of two seeds

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13 minutes to read The fallout of the curse was a bitter war between the seed of the serpent, and the seed of the woman, within the one kingdom God had established. This culminated at Babel, where Yahweh disinherited mankind and divided them among the sons of God—taking Israel as his kingdom and giving the rest to Satan.

Continued from part 3, on what happened in Eden

God has created something new: a world made of matter. He has created new family members out of matter to represent him in this new world. And he has put them in a place where they can meet his existing family members, who are not made out of matter—the sons of God. Together, they will constitute a ruling family-council, with Adam in charge of the world.

The serpent, hoping to have rulership of the world passed to him, tempts Adam to get himself executed by defying God. But this plan to wrest dominion of the world backfires badly. In Genesis 3:14–15, not only is Adam not executed as promised, and the serpent not put in charge, but God rather ironically reverses Satan’s pretensions: promising to make him of less worth than not just Adam, but even the animals. Even worse—he promises Eve a descendent to mortally wound Satan!

The ongoing corruption

We discover that God uses death as a term to describe not summary execution, but separation—Adam dies by being separated from God (cf. John 1:4), and thus his body will eventually expire, as a flower will eventually wither when cut from the root. But although Adam is kicked out of Eden, and doesn’t have access to God’s council any longer, he retains dominion over the world. That is part of the creation mandate. He goes out, and he is fruitful and multiplies, and he rules over the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.

But the serpent and his cronies are not so easily deterred. Indeed, they are pot-committed.

And so in Genesis 6 we see something really weird happen—something that surely is directly related to the curse on the serpent, which says:

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your seed and her seed;
he shall strike your head,
    and you shall strike his heel.Genesis 3:15

We tend to interpret “seed” here as referring to spiritual offspring. This is certainly a legitimate gloss—Jesus himself interprets it this way when he calls the Pharisees sons of the devil in John 8:44 (cf. Matthew 23:33 etc). Either God is your Father, or the devil is:

Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.1 John 3:7–10

If you are born of the flesh, you are born of Adam, and God puts you under the adoption of the devil, the serpent. If you are reborn of spirit (John 3:5), you are born of Jesus, and God adopts you as his own children.

But how did this happen? It starts in Genesis 6, with a seed that is not merely spiritual:

And it happened that, when humankind began to multiply on the face of the land, daughters were born to them. Then the sons of God saw the daughters of humankind, that they were beautiful. And they took for themselves wives from all that they chose. And Yahweh said, “My Spirit shall not abide with humankind forever in that he is also flesh. And his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were upon the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God went into the daughters of humankind, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty warriors that were from ancient times, men of renown.

And Yahweh saw that the evil of humankind was great upon the earth, and every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was nothing but evil continually. And Yahweh regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was grieved in his heart. And Yahweh said, “I will destroy humankind whom I created from upon the face of the earth, from humankind, to animals, to creeping things, and to the birds of heaven, for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in his eyes.Genesis 6:1-8

Now what is going on here? Well, we aren’t given all the details, but we do see that some of the sons of God take human wives. They sire a physical seed to compete with the line of Eve—giant half-breeds who are later named as Israel’s special enemies (Numbers 13:33). Evil and violence subsequently get so bad that God determines to destroy the entire world, leaving only one loyal survivor and his family.

In 1 Enoch, which I believe preserves a legitimately ancient though embellished tradition, the sons of God—there called the watchers, as in Daniel—are responsible for greatly increasing the depravity of man by teaching them things like sorcery and astrology. This is a prime motivation for the Flood, which otherwise is somewhat puzzling in terms of its timing, given that mankind was corrupt from Eden. It also explains several threads in the New Testament that play off Enochian material, where Jesus is implicitly depicted as reversing the sins of the watchers. Michael S. Heiser, Reversing Hermon: Enoch, the Watchers, and the Forgotten Mission of Jesus Christ (Defender Publishing, 2017).

It’s easy to rabbit-trail on titillating narratives like this—but the only thing we need to know for understanding the kingdom of God is that Genesis 6 is the start of a long and sordid relationship between mankind and the sons of God. This relationship does not end at the flood, but in fact continues directly after it, with another event that Christians find rather puzzling: Babel. As the population of the earth increases again, the people gather together and they say to each other, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower whose top reaches to the heavens. And let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

We tend to read this as if the people at Babel were trying to literally climb into heaven by building a super-tall tower. But this is not what was going on. As we’ve seen already, the ancient worldview connected high places with divine presence. Mountains were where heaven and earth met. Thus, artificial mountains were a standard feature of religious practice. This was the purpose of Mesopotamian ziggurats: to establish a place where the gods could be sought; where they would presence themselves.

We have good reasons to think that the tower of Babel was in fact a ziggurat—possibly the model for the famous ziggurat in Babylon which came to be known as Etemenanki. John H. Walton, Is there Archaeological Evidence for the Tower of Babel?.

The point that Genesis is making is that the people are not honoring God. They are not enacting the creation mandate under his governance. They are refusing to even spread out and multiply and fill the earth. They are choosing, instead, to stay in one place, where they will reestablish contact with the sons of God. Interestingly, Babylonian mythology puts a positive spin on this event, representing the sons of God, the Apkallu, as the ones who founded Babylon and imparted knowledge of culture and technology. Amar Annus, On the Origin of Watchers: A Comparative Study of the Antediluvian Wisdom in Mesopotamian and Jewish Traditions, Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha volume 19, issue 4 (2010), 277–320. Second Temple Jewish writings put rather a different gloss on it: the Apkallu were the ones who taught mankind things like idolatry and witchcraft. It is because of them that, at Babel, humanity actively rejects God’s rule, and seeks instead other divine beings.

Put simply, mankind refuses to rule on behalf of God—to act as his viceroys, his representatives on earth.

Whereas Adam ruined his representation of God by inverting the authority structure that God had established, he nonetheless retained that representation. He kept the right to rule on God’s behalf, even though he and his kingdom were desecrated by the fall; unable to properly image God or remain in his presence. Babel presupposes that this original kingdom structure is still in place: it presents us with a united community migrating east until they settle in Shinar (Genesis 11:1–2), who are “one people” (v. 6). God is still the direct ruler over this united people, who have a single territory—the earth. But this people, at Babel, actively refuse God’s rule. They will not represent him; they want instead to represent other gods.

Now, what is God to do here? He has promised that he will not wipe the slate clean and start again (Genesis 9:11). The only real option left is to finally give mankind over to what they want (cf. Romans 1:21–25).

The disinheritance of mankind

Up until this point, the world was one kingdom: the kingdom of God. Yahweh was its king; mankind was his viceroy and his people; the earth was their territory. But at Babel, God separates this kingdom into two: his kingdom, and the kingdom of Satan. Both kingdoms exist alongside each other; Adam’s kingdom is subdivided, as it were, into two—Israel, and the world:

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.Deuteronomy 32:8–9, ESV

The passage is an antithetic parallelism, contrasting the statements of verses 8 and 9, as indicated by the “but.” The structure demands that what is true in the relationship of verse 9 is also at least broadly true of the relationship in verse 8, only in reversed order, due to the chiasmus. The reading of v. 8a is also ambiguous; syntactically, it could be “gave the nations as an inheritance,” which certainly makes more sense of the parallelism; I think both are true and the ambiguity is intentional.

This establishes the following contrast:

  • 8a: Yahweh gave an inheritance to/of the nations
  • 9b: Yahweh took an inheritance of Israel
  • 8b: Yahweh fixed the nations’ borders according to the number of the sons of God
  • 9a: Yahweh’s own people [Israel] is his single portion

The parallelism requires that what is true between Israel and Yahweh also be true between the peoples and the sons of God; thus, Moses here glosses Babel as a disinheritance of the nations: God allots territories to the divided peoples in accordance with his allotment of the peoples themselves to the sons of God. The picture is that of Luke 15:12, in which the contemptuous son demands his inheritance early—saying to his father, in effect, “I wish you were dead.” Indeed, the parable of the prodigal, though individualized, is set within a discourse on the kingdom, and is certainly Jesus’ gloss on Babel—and on how his gospel is going to reverse it. Mankind should have inherited the whole world as a unified kingdom under God: the earth was Adam’s inheritance. But they have insisted on another path—and they, too, are prodigal. So God divides the world among them (cf. for instance Numbers 2:1–23)…and then he washes his hands of them. They have disowned him; he therefore disowns them, and thus their right to represent him. He will no longer rule over them, but they will no longer rule for him. Rather, he gives them what they demanded: the tyranny of other gods. He apportions Adam’s kingdom to the archangels; he removes mankind’s presumptive adoption as his children, and makes them adoptive children of another disowned son: the serpent.

Thus, the archangels become their new gods, and Satan becomes the ruler and god of this world over them. This is the clear picture that emerges once we combine the clues in the Old Testament with the New Testament’s witness to Satan being in charge; there isn’t any doubt that he is the serpent of Genesis, since Revelation 20:2 explicitly says so.

Some translations of Deuteronomy 32:8–9 follow the Masoretic Text (c. 1000 AD), which reads “sons of Israel” rather than “sons of God.” That this is a later interpretive alteration is obvious when we compare the LXX and DSS on this point. The LXX itself gives a dynamic translation that goes the other way (ἀγγέλων θεοῦ—angels of God), and some versions say υἱῶν θεοῦ—sons of God; a straight, formal translation of בני אלהים or בני אלbeney elohim or beney el, which are both attested at Qumran. Aside from the exegetical issues I adduce below, the MT’s gloss is clearly wrong since Israel did not exist at the time described: Israel’s origin is at some point after Babel; it is not included on the table of nations in Genesis 10. Moreover, בני אלהים and similar are terms of art that never refer to human beings; always to gods.

Deuteronomy 32:8–9 has a conceptual parallel in Deuteronomy 4:19–20. Whereas the former describes the nations being given over to elohim who were not Yahweh, the latter describes the other side of the punitive coin:

And beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven [צבא השמיםtsaba ha’shamayim, the standard nomenclature for the armies of heaven], you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, which Yahweh your God has allotted (חלק) to all the peoples under the whole heaven. But Yahweh took (לקח) you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day.Deuteronomy 4:19–20; cf. Deuteronomy 29:26

Notice again the parallelism, emphasized by the wordplay between chalaq and laqach: God has taken Israel as his own inheritance, but allotted the nations to the heavenly host (by parallel, also as an inheritance).

But God does not disown all mankind. He keeps Israel—starting with just Abraham—as his portion, as his kingdom, to rule over. The rest gets broken up by tongue, according to the number of the sons of God. Presumably this is idiomatic, not meant to be taken as there being only 70 archangels; we see elsewhere that nations have multiple gods, which fits the dynastic structure of the system (e.g., Exodus 12:12).

This event, this divvying of Adam’s kingdom, is why Genesis 11 leads straight into the call of Abraham. It is the story of God creating his own kingdom in competition with Satan’s. By the same token, Deuteronomy 32:8–9 is an explanation of Israel’s existence—and what it is up against. Deuteronomy, and the rest of Scripture, presupposes this view of the world.

This also explains other parts of the Bible which are typically glossed over—or argued over. Once we have this overarching structure in place, many otherwise confounding details of Scripture become clear. A couple of examples:

  1. In Exodus 12:12, Yahweh cryptically remarks that he is going to execute judgments on the gods of Egypt as he passes through the land in the final plague. One does not punish non-existent beings. These were, in fact, the sons of God who had given Pharaoh’s magicians the power to turn staffs into snakes (Exodus 7:10–12) and water into blood (v. 22). The notion that ancient people were slobbering cavemen who got so frightened by thunder that they had to invent gods to appease is not a product of careful historical study, but blind chronological snobbery. They were not worshiping non-existent gods with non-existent power—they were worshiping real gods with real power.

    If the context of Old Testament idolatry involved true interaction with spiritual beings, what should we make of passages like Isaiah 44:14–20 and Jeremiah 10:8–9 which describe idols as vanities and mere blocks of wood? I think the answer is straightforward: idols really were nothing. While idolaters may have believed that the god inhabited—or, better nuanced, perhaps became conterminous with—the idol, that belief traded on a monistic understanding of creation, which is false. Moreover, there’s no particular reason to think that most gods are real. In animistic religions, for instance, there is a god for everything; the Bible is clear that there are gods who rule over nations, but not gods for storms and gods for flowers and gods for streams and whatnot.

  2. The battle between David and Goliath takes on far greater significance, both in terms of simple history, and in terms of prophetic imaging. Goliath, the giant enemy of God’s people, descended from the line of the serpent, was mortally wounded by David, the man after God’s own heart, anointed to be king, from whose line came Jesus. Mull it over.

This, conveniently enough, also returns us to the point at hand—what God is doing about Satan’s rulership of the world. Psalm 82:8 says:

Rise up, O God—judge the earth,
    for you shall inherit all the nations.

Even in the conquest of Canaan, Israel failed to do a perfect job. And things pretty much got worse from there on out. As a kingdom representing God’s rule on earth, it ranged between less than perfect on its best days, and downright detestable for most of its sad history. Ultimately, Israel refused God’s rule in exactly the way the residents of Babel did: through repeated and insistent idolatry. Therefore, God scattered them into the nations he had already disowned. By the time of the New Testament, God’s so-called kingdom had largely been dispersed among the nations; the small remnant that remained was under the rulership of the foreign nation of Rome—which meant it was under the direct power of Satan (cf. Revelation 2:13; 3:9). This is why demon-possession is such a major feature of the synoptic gospels, whereas it never shows up in the Old Testament: what we have in the 400 years between Micah and Matthew is the occupation of Israel by hostile spiritual forces, and the complete collapse of God’s kingdom.

Yet this was, in fact, all part of the plan. God intended to retake all the nations. In weakness, his strength would be perfected; the dismantling of his kingdom by Satan and the sons of God was, ironically, the very mechanism of their undoing. As he had disowned the nations, so he intended to own them again. Not just Israel: as Psalm 82 says, he plans to reclaim every nation from the rulership of the corrupt gods, and judge those gods for their rule.

Knowing this, we are now ready to move into the New Testament—and ultimately, to the modern day. This is where everything we’ve talked about starts to come together. Cosmology. The divine council. Geography and sacred space. And physical imaging of spiritual archetypes.

Continued in part 5, on when God began retaking Adam’s kingdom from Satan

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