Meeting Michael Heiser
It all started a few months ago. A pastor friend of mine told me about someone in his congregation who believes the earth is flat. Then he sent me a link to a video by Rob Skiva defending his view by quoting Dr. Michael Heiser. I looked Michael Heiser up and realized that he worked for Logos Bible Software. So I started reading some of his stuff. And I was intrigued.
Now, to be clear, Heiser doesn’t believe the earth is flat but he does believe that the ancient Israelites believed the earth was flat. But that wasn’t the intriguing part. The intriguing part was what he said about angels, demons, and the supernatural world in general. He explained passages of scripture that I’d heard explained away all my life. And he did it in a way that was biblical and consistent. He also opened my eyes to the fact that there are verses and even whole chapters of Scripture that have been misunderstood – and dare I say it, mistranslated – for generations (I’m looking at you, Psalm 82).
And though I had disagreements with Heiser’s interpretations here and there, I’ve come to believe that he’s largely on the right track. Too many Christians have downplayed and explained away the really difficult passages in Scripture to make them more palatable. We’ve removed all of the supernatural elements that aren’t absolutely necessary.
And that is unacceptable if we’re going to be faithful to God’s revelation.
The Unseen Realm and a Needed Paradigm Shift
In The Unseen Realm, Heiser upends nearly all of the traditional ideas about the supernatural world. In Heiser’s understanding of scripture, God has a council of lesser divine beings that rule alongside of him. At first glance you may think, ‘That’s crazy! And certainly not in the Bible!’ but I’d encourage you to read The Unseen Realm for yourself. Heiser isn’t pulling stuff out of thin air or arbitrarily making arguments. Everything he claims is backed up by scripture. And once you see it, it’s hard to unsee it.
It requires a paradigm shift; but once your paradigm is shifted, everything falls into place. Even passages that always seemed like they’d never fit anywhere (I’m looking at you, 1 Cor 11:11-15).
And though I still want to do a proper review of The Unseen Realm, I got Heiser’s new book Reversing Hermon yesterday and figured I’d go ahead and write about it since it’s fresh on my mind.
The Book of Enoch: A Key to Understanding the NT?
Reversing Hermon: Enoch, the Watchers & the Forgotten Mission of Jesus Christ is a book that deals extensively (and not surprisingly) with 1 Enoch. In case you’re unaware, 1 Enoch is a book written a couple of centuries before Jesus was born that was quite popular among many Jews of Jesus’ day and is quoted in Jude 14-15. It’s part of a collections of writings known today as Pseudepigrapha. Several early church fathers considered it canonical and the Ethiopian Orthodox church included it in their Bibles.
In short, it’s a collection of stories, sayings, parables, and apocalypses that were supposedly recorded by Enoch, Noah’s great-grandfather. Though no serious scholar believes Enoch actually wrote these things – Heiser included – there’s no doubt that it gives valuable background to the way Jews of Jesus’ day understood things. The quotation in Jude – as well as allusions elsewhere in the New Testament – testify to this fact. None of this means that 1 Enoch is scripture or that it should be included in our Bibles. But it does mean that 1 Enoch might shed some light on the worldview of the New Testament authors.
Heiser’s main argument in the book can be boiled down to this: the Pseudepigrapha in general, and 1 Enoch in particular, serve as a valuable backdrop to the New Testament world and writings. He isn’t saying that scripture isn’t sufficient for salvation. Neither is he arguing – like some kind of modern gnostic – that if we’re going to be really spiritual, then we’ll have to consult certain ‘hidden’ writings. He’s simply pointing out the fact that if we’re going to understand the New Testament properly, we need to understand the culture in which it was written. This should be pretty basic stuff.
But What is 1 Enoch?
So, how does using 1 Enoch as a backdrop for the New Testament affect our understanding?
To answer that question, I probably ought to summarize the most important parts (for our purposes) of the book.
1 Enoch retells the story of Genesis 6:1-4. This is a passage of scripture that has puzzled interpreters for generations and which has been understood in a variety of rather creative ways. Here it is in its entirety:
Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
Heiser briefly examines the ways this passage has been understood throughout Christian history and then begins laying a foundation for his own view by referencing 2 Peter 2:1-10 and Jude 5-7. And this leads to his discussion of 1 Enoch.
1 Enoch’s account of Genesis 6:1-4 isn’t vague at all. It’s incredibly descriptive. And it’s also hard for most modern people to swallow.
Enoch’s Account of Genesis 6:1-4
According to Enoch, this story is about supernatural beings – Watchers – who leave their proper abode and bring secret knowledge to humankind. They also have sexual relations with human women. The offspring of these unions are giants known as Nephilim (among other names). God punishes the Watchers by sealing them away in Tartarus (see 2 Peter 2:4). When the Nephilim – giants – died, their spirits were released and became what we would call demons. This is the basic story of Genesis 6:1-4 as 1 Enoch understands it. And for most people today, it understandably raises a lot of questions. And I’m among those people. There are a lot of things about this description that seem strange to me. And yet, most of my objections are logical, cultural, or emotional…not scriptural.
I’m not going to lie. This whole thing makes me uncomfortable. But the explanation of the text makes far more sense than any other explanation I’ve heard. In other words, if this wasn’t the Bible – if someone handed me a storybook and it had Genesis 6:1-4 in it, I’d probably understand it the same way 1 Enoch does. What makes me feel uncomfortable with this explanation is not that it doesn’t match the text. It’s that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the possibility that it could be true. And yet, I believe Jesus was born of a virgin. I believe he performed miracles. I believe he was raised from the dead.
Yes. I feel myself succumbing to the same temptation almost all Christians do. Let’s sweep all of the unnecessary supernatural elements of scripture under the rug and only display the ones that are acceptable to most people – and absolutely necessary to the faith.
Reversing Hermon: Part One
Heiser spends the first part of Reversing Hermon describing the connections between Genesis 6, 1 Enoch, and the Mesopotamian versions of the same story. He lays an important foundation in these chapters for understanding the rest of the book – especially for those who are unacquainted with the story told in 1 Enoch. Everything he mentions here will come up in later chapters – sometimes in unexpected ways.
I ought to note two important things at this point. First, Heiser isn’t pulling stuff out of thin air. Everything he writes is based on scripture and backed up by solid scholarship. The notes at the end of the book are evidence of that, taking up nearly 60 pages. Second, Heiser isn’t the first person who has said this stuff. Many of the earliest church fathers claimed the exact same things Heiser claims. And he’s not afraid to note that fact. Irenaeus is mentioned frequently, with good reason. He’s well-respected, he wrote early, and he taught along similar lines to Heiser regarding 1 Enoch’s understanding of Genesis 6.
Reversing Hermon: Part Two
In Part two, Heiser discusses how 1 Enoch’s version of events underlies some of the sayings and events of Jesus’ life.
Let me just say that chapter 4 is phenomenal. In it, he argues that Revelation 12 is a piece of astral prophecy (in this chapter, he draws heavily from Malina’s commentary on Revelation. I read it last year and, like Heiser, found it to be a stretch at times but it did include some fascinating insights). If read this way, Revelation 12 gives us the birthday of Jesus. This may sound outlandish or crazy but again, I’d encourage you to read what he writes before you pass judgment. It left me with my mouth hanging open.
Chapter 5 is less monumental. It relies heavily on the scholarly work of Amy Richter to argue that the women included in Jesus’ genealogy are there because they are all connected to the sins of the Watchers (see Matthew 1:1-17). I found this chapter less convincing than most of the rest of the book but it’s worth reading and considering. And it’s also worth noting that I haven’t heard any better explanations for why those particular women are mentioned and none others.
Chapter 6 focuses on Jesus’ ministry and, in particular, the events of Jesus’ life that take place near Mount Hermon/Bashan/Caesarea Philippi. This chapter is the reason the book received the subtitle it did. It’s really the only chapter in the book that discusses – at any length – the “forgotten mission of Jesus Christ.” And what is that forgotten mission, you ask? “When Jesus chose to go to Mount Hermon to be transfigured, He was claiming it for the Kingdom of God.” According to Heiser’s reading, Jesus was reversing the damage done by the Watchers when they came to the same mountain and made a pact to sin against God together.
Reversing Hermon: Part Three
In the third part, Heiser hones in on three problematic passages/ideas in the New Testament epistles and explains how having the Enochic background helps understand what’s going on there. First, he deals with the issue of human sinfulness. He argues that for first century Jews, the ubiquity of human sinfulness is not only owing to Adam’s sin but also to the Watchers’ sin in Genesis 6:1-4. Then, he discusses Paul’s exhortation regarding women and head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. This chapter is important because it makes sense of an otherwise incredibly confusing passage. Finally, he discusses Peter’s summary of baptism in 1 Peter 3:18-22. In my opinion, this section of the book is the strongest and best argued. It makes sense of verses that I’ve seen fumbled and mishandled all of my life. To put it bluntly, it just makes more sense of what the text says.
Reversing Hermon: Part Four
The final part of Reversing Hermon focuses on the book of Revelation. In particular, he addresses the issue of the Antichrist, the identification of Gog, and the origins of the lake of fire. My views on Revelation are different from Heiser’s so I found myself disagreeing the most in these chapters – though even here, there’s much to glean. I especially appreciated the discussion on Gog.
Reversing Hermon: The Appendices
After the meat of the book is over, you get five appendices for dessert. Though these range in value. First up is a good – albeit short – summary of the early church’s views on 1 Enoch. Second, there’s a quick summary of the dating/manuscript evidence for the book. Third is a list of scholarly works on 1 Enoch. Fifth is a quick essay that I didn’t particularly care for entitled The Ancient Antichrist Profile: Jew or Gentile? And fourth (yes, I know I didn’t order those correctly), he includes a list of allusions to the Pseudepigrapha. This was – in my opinion – something of a mixed bag.
A Mixed Bag of Allusions
Heiser opens this appendix by noting that “what constitutes an allusion varies in the opinions of scholars.” It’s obvious from this statement that Heiser recognizes the tenuous nature of some of the connections made in this list. For example, Luke 21:18 is said to be a possible allusion to 1 Enoch 51:2. But look at them:
1 Enoch 51:2 – “And he shall choose the righteous and the holy ones from among the risen dead, for the day when they shall be selected and saved has arrived.”
Luke 21:28 – “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Personally, I don’t see even a slight allusion here. Naturally, when you have two people talking about similar things, there may be a little overlap but it seems to me that many of the allusions included in this list are a stretch. Likewise, some may not be an example of New Testament authors alluding to the Pseudepigrapha but rather of both the NT authors and the Pseudepigrapha alluding to the Old Testament (1 Enoch 5:7 and Matthew 5:5 could both be alluding to Psalm 37:11). With that said, the New Testament definitely includes some genuine allusions to the Pseudepigrapha that are worth noting. These allusions take up a huge amount of space too. The list is a full 54 pages (out of a 326 page book).
What else can I say? Heiser will challenge everything you think you know about the way the world works. His is a call to stretch our thinking. It’s paradigm shifting at its finest. This was true of The Unseen Realm and it’s true of Reversing Hermon.
And though I can’t say that I’m fully on-board with everything Heiser argues, I do believe that he takes the text of scripture – especially the ‘problematic’ verses – more seriously than just about anyone I’ve read. Even if he doesn’t change your mind, he will challenge you to think through your own interpretations and beliefs. And that’s always a good thing.
May we seek to be ever more faithful to the text of scripture – and thus, to its Author.
If you’d like to pick up a copy of ‘Reversing Hermon’, you can order it on Amazon.