Review – Demons

What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness

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Overview

Synopsis "In Demons, Michael Heiser debunks popular presuppositions about the very real powers of darkness. Rather than traditions, stories, speculations, or myths, Demons is grounded in what ancient people of both the Old and New Testament eras believed about evil spiritual forces and in what the Bible actually says. You’ll come away with a sound, biblical understanding of demons, supernatural rebellion, evil spirits, and spiritual warfare." - Lexham Press

Author Dr. Michael S. Heiser
Publisher Lexham Press
Genre Theology

Length 320 Pages

Release Date April 29th, 2020

I’ve been craving to do a deep dive back into theology for a while now after doing months upon months of classics reviews. Thankfully, I had a review copy of Michael Heiser’s newest book from last year in my review pile that I had received as a review copy late last year.

I only just now had time to dig through the book, and I was surprised at just how scholarly and complex its theology was. I can already say that I have a new fascination with Dr. Heiser’s work and I will need to seek out his other books of biblical scholarship. 

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: Scholarly discussion of the themes and mythological origins of the Old Testament
Violence: Exploration of biblical events and references some violent happenings
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: References to biblical sexuality
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Other Negative Themes: None
Positive Content: Comprehensive and scholarly discussions that could change the way you look at OT theology 

Middle-aged white man with glasses, Michael Heiser

Review

Disclaimer: Lexham Press sent Geeks Under Grace a review copy of the book in question.

How much do you ACTUALLY know about Satan and his demons? Most anyone who’s read the Bible or engaged with Christian culture can probably tell you the basics. A fallen angel named Lucifer was cast from Heaven for rebellion against God, and he took his revenge by tempting mankind to fall into a state of sin. As a result, humanity was left in a state of spiritual death that they must overcome through faith.

What if this wasn’t the whole story, though? What if it was only the most surface of the story? What if I told you the ancient Jews of the Old Testament subscribed to complex and alien-looking mythology that most Christians would find confusing and bizarre? What if they believed that the fallen angel was actually named Azazel or Mastema and not Lucifer nor Satan? What if I told you that the Nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6 was a clear allusion to a Mesopotamian legend called the apkullu, divine beings who taught wisdom to mankind and mirror the angels in the Book of Enoch, or that the character of Lilith is based on a Mesopotamian desert demon, or that the Leviathan was a mythological Canaanite chaos deity? What if I told you that the Jews’ afterlife was called “Sheol” and it was surprisingly similar to ancient pagan realms like the Underworld? 

As many Christians would know, modern theology is mostly inspired by the works of Paul the Apostle. His epistles became the backbone of the Christian religion and the commentary through which the entire Bible is retroactively viewed. That doesn’t mean that the ancient Jews necessarily believed what Paul believed at all times. For the majority of the pre-Christian world, Jews lacked the context of Christ’s ministry to contextualize the full meaning of the Gospels. The nature of the supernatural was largely vague in the Old Testament. As a result, ideas from surrounding pagan cultures seeped into the Bible in subtle ways and influenced how the Jews contextualized their spiritual beliefs.

You’d probably say that such a narrative is partially incorrect. It’s not wrong because it’s not something we read in the Bible. The problem is that the biblical stories are so deeply caked in references and cultural context that modern Catholics and Protestants only sparsely know how to engage with them. As a result, dozens of Bible verses get interpreted through a modern lens and lack the implicit meaning that would’ve been obvious to the cultures they came from.

"The truth about demons is far stranger and even more fascinating than what's commonly believed."

This is the opinion of Dr. Michael S. Heiser, the executive director of theology at Celebration Church and author of numerous books of Old Testament theology and comparative religion books. He’s worked as a professor at Liberty University and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and as a scholar in residence for the development of Logos Bible Software. His career has focused on digging up the ancient historical contexts for contemporary religious traditions and showing how they developed into modern Christianity. He’s an accomplished theologian who has written commentaries on apocryphal books like The Book of Enoch and a new series exploring the context for supernatural and mystical beliefs within Old Testament cultures.

As Dr. Heiser writes:

“To be blunt, Christians embrace a number of unbiblical ideas about the powers of darkness. The reasons are twofold and are related. First, most of what we claim to know about the powers of darkness does not derive from a close study of the original Hebrew and Greek texts. Second, much of what we think we know is filtered through and guided by church tradition – not the original, ancient contexts of the old and new testaments” (XV).

I imagine for some Christians, the notion of reevaluating the text of the Old Testament through non-traditional eyes could be a fraught task. Modern Christians are pretty set in their ways about the implicit meaning of the Genesis creation story and the spiritual implications it sets out. Just considering the idea of recontextualizing Genesis can be paradigm-shifting, heretical or potentially even faith-damaging because of the way it forces you to reevaluate the foundations of your faith.

For me though, that’s what makes Heiser’s work so fascinating. I only just discovered it this year, but he’s been writing a series of Old Testament scholarship books since 2015 that includes Unseen Realms, Supernatural, Angels, and his newest book Demons. All of the books look at the Old Testament through his approach to theology but focus on different elements of spiritualism. Demons specifically focuses on the spiritual and historical contexts surrounding the concepts of Satan, the fall of man, Hell, the origin of demons, and how the New Testament affects our understanding of the demonic.

It’s an intensely deep work of scholarship for merely being 260 pages long. Over the course of the book, he pours over the oldest available sources of Hebrew texts and breaks down the original language nuances of words like “Elohim” to discuss what it meant in its original context.

The book cross-references the original Hebrew texts with everything from the Hebrew and Greek translations of the Bible, to apocryphal texts like Enoch and Jubilees, the Dead Seas Scrolls, largely forgotten Mesopotamian and Canaanite mythology, and even the Epic of Gilgamesh to paint a picture of just how Jewish culture originally portrayed its own theology.

As we see, there’s been an enormous shift and evolution in some areas and relative stasis in others. Part of this has to do with the way that cultures intermingle with one another. The Jews were actively familiar with the religions and mythologies of their neighboring civilizations such as the Babylonians, Akkadians, and Syrians. As a result, ideas from those religions slowly bled their way into the Bible.

To circle back to the second paragraph, we see an example of this with the Leviathan and the Behemoth in Job. Many modern biblical scholars interpret these nouns as archaic terms for whales and dinosaurs. Such a reading, though, is ignorant of the cultural contexts of the original stories. As Heiser writes:

“These chaos beasts hailed from the sea and land. These monsters represented the forces of chaos held in check by the power of the creator deity. These monsters were not considered real animals one could encounter with unfathomably large dimensions and powers. The metaphor communicated the fearful and often fatal struggle with earthly and heavenly rebellion and chaos. The entire world might errupt in chaos defying the restraint of a good God” (32-33).

This is actually a more meaningful way to look at the book. The text is conveying that the biblical God is more powerful than the dark rebellious spirits that manifested themselves within the pagan world. In that context, the meaning changes. God is telling Job that his role in the universe is to keep the metaphorical concept of chaos at bay, as represented by pagan notions of personified chaos. It reinforces the mysteries of the answers God gives to Job in the final books of the story by evoking the notion that God is in control of the cosmos at the end of the day.

Dr. Heiser’s approach helps tremendously when approaching the most cryptic and underdeveloped aspects of the Old Testament. They suddenly make a world of sense once you place them in context with the cultures surrounding the Jews. Cryptic creatures like the Nephilim and Lilith make more sense when you realize what kinds of dark forces haunted the edges of other religions. The Jews didn’t need commentary within the text to understand what these things were referencing.

The irony of such an approach is twofold. On one hand, Dr. Heiser is portraying the Bible in distinctly unorthodox terms that are likely to alienate some readers.  On the other, such an approach ultimately validates much of what we come to understand about New Testament theology.

“Scholars commonly suggest that the figure of Satan or the devil as the archnemesis of God is foreign to the old testament. However, the conclusion that the Satan figure of the second temple period and new testament is incompatible with the old testament is too hasty and exaggerated. Our study has shown that while the old testament itself does not evince the profile of the satan figure that is prominent in the later texts, the material for that later figure can be found in the old testament and applied those points to the original rebel” (239).

That’s important because Dr. Heiser’s work is drawing on much of the most contemporary working coming out of non-Christian biblical analysis. If you look into the work of contemporary biblical scholarship by academics like John Day, Mark Smith, Richard Friedman, and Kristin Swenson, much of it says the Bible was a hodgepodge of misplaced cultural beliefs born of a small community on the outskirts of Babylonian society.

Scholars contend everything from the idea that the Jews were originally polytheistic to that Yahweh was merely a lessor God of a larger pantheon. Part of this stems from the distinctly odd noun that the Old Testament uses to describe Yahweh: “Elohim”. The word is plural. It’s usually used in Hebrew as an interchangeable word for any divine being, but recent scholars have gone out of their way to suggest that the Jews’ religion overlapped more intensely with its contemporaries than originally thought. 

Dr. Heiser’s work, insofar as this is the only book of his which I have read so far, is brilliant because it actually acknowledges the realities of cultural bleed through an integration. Just because the Jews were influenced by foreign religions, it doesn’t mean that the book is a copy or a ripoff. 

“On one hand, it would be foolish to presume that Persian Zoroastrianism contributed nothing to the second temple Jewish thought. On the other hand, it is an overstatement to presume that the core of the idea of Satan/the devil we see in the second temple Judaism required Zoroastrian beliefs. Is it really coherent to presume that Israel alone had no conception of an arch-supernatural enemy to Yahweh before the exile?” (240)

His work actually lends more depth to the New Testament once we start to understand how Jewish/Canaanite mythology inspired much of Christ’s ministry. As an example, consider Christ’s journey into the desert for 40 days. In Old Testament mythology/geography, the desert outside Judea was considered as a place very much unto Sheol. It was a deadland of demons where people go at their own danger.

“That Satan tempts Jesus in the desert wilderness is not arbitrary. The Greek term wilderness is used in the Septuagint translation of the destination for the goat for Azazel and the desolate place described by Isaiah that was home to preternatural creatures associated with evil spirits. The answer is to be found in how the New Testament writers wanted to portray Jesus in light of Old Testament history and theology. Consider the imagery of the temptation. Jesus was in the wilderness forty days – a deliberate mirroring of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the desert… Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ early life and ministry cast him as the new son of God, the central figure of a new exodus” (184-185).

While the Old Testament can be vague about the nature of the demonic, the context clues we do have line up with what we know to be true based on the ministry of Paul. In that sense, this book serves as a vital bridge between two fracturing understandings of the Bible. It marries the modern readings of the Bible with the modern academic understanding of classical Judaism to create a vision of how a society that looked so different from ours could have created the stage upon which Christ walked. While much of that archaic theology isn’t useful today, it does help us understand how different cultures, like our own, contextualize and reinterpret the same idea sets over millennia.

Positives

+ Excellent Research Drawing upon the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible
+ Fascinating Comparative Religion Work that Explores and Contrasts different religions with Christianity
+ Brisk Read with Comprehensible Ideas

Negatives

- Potentially Alienating Material that might be challenging for some readers

The Bottom Line

Demons is an excellent work of Biblical scholarship that anyone interested in the theology of the Old Testament needs to read!

 

Writing 9

Editing 9

9

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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