Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Church as Lone Prophet (A Meditation for Ordinary Time)

The Church as Lone Prophet
A Meditation for Ordinary Time (Proper 7, Year C, II)
I Kings 19:1-15
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

In 1st Kings chapter 18, we learn that the wicked king of Israel, Abab, has hunted down all the prophets of YHWH in an attempt to remove their influence throughout the land. And just before our reading today, he summoned all of Israel and all of their prophets to defeat the Lord's last prophet, along with his "God" on Mount Carmel. At this point in the story, it's all the prophets of Baal versus one prophet, Elijah, the lone prophet of YHWH. Elijah, again, is outnumbered. The odds seem to be completely against him. But as we soon learn, just one lone prophet with the Lord on his side, is greater than the world that opposes him. 

You all know the story. In the end, the prophets of Baal cannot summon their gods to rain down fire from heaven. The Baal worshipers make fools out of themselves all day long, and at the end of the day Elijah prays to the Lord one time, and the Lord answers him. The Lord answers by raining fire down from heaven, and Elijah's God—the living and true God—wins. And when all the people saw the Lord answer Elijah's prayer, they fell on their faces confessing that YHWH is God (1 Kings 18:38-39).

Because of Elijah's loyal and loving faithfulness to the Lord, by the end of chapter 18, it looks as though the dawn of Israel's redemption seems very near. We finally see a glimmer of hope in the story, where the Lord seems to be turning the idolatrous house of Ahab, and the corrupt hearts of Israel, back to Himself. But as soon as we turn the page and enter chapter 19—which is our reading for today—we hit a major road block. Apparently Elijah's loyalty to YHWH didn't stop all of the leaders of Israel. Jezebel, the queen, was particularly upset with his victory. And instead of turning to the Lord, the leaders of Israel follow Jezebel's reaction against Elijah's faithfulness by threatening and conspiring to kill this last, lone prophet of YHWH. For those familiar with the history of the powerful nations surrounding Israel, reactions of these sorts are expected from enemies. (Similar reactions occurred with later prophets as well, like John the Baptist and even Jesus himself.) In Elijah's day, Israel had become another powerful empire of its own, just as corrupt as the surround ungodly empires.

Even Paul, when writing to the Galatians, was prepared for the hostile reactions of Judaizers who were breathing threats against him and against his gospel. The Judaizers painted Paul's gospel as a threat to the Faith, yet Paul faithfully and lovingly urged the Galatian Christians to follow his example, obeying the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and not another gospel.

Like Elijah and Paul, the Church is called to be a prophetic witness sent out ("apostled") to the nations. As such, the calling of the Church is to love and serve the Lord through all threats against Him and against His anointed ones. In doing so, the Lord's victory over the idols of every generation becomes obvious to all. But that isn't to say that such faithful witnessing is always easy or even comfortable. It can be incredibly intimidating and demanding at times as well.

Like Elijah fleeing into the wilderness and lying down in despair under a tree to die (1 Kings 19:5), at times we—the Church—will exhaust ourselves through various trials, and will even want to lie down and accept defeat at times, too. But the witness of Holy Scripture reminds us that the Lord is faithful to those who remain jealous for Him. He is faithful to those who trust and obey Him through the high mountain-top victories and low valleys of wilderness wandering—quite literally through life and death. As we see vividly in the Elijah narrative, just when the feelings of defeat and death set in, the Lord resurrects hope within, visiting them with food and drink to endure their long journey (1Kings 19:5-8).

The gospel of our Scripture readings today could not be more clear: In the midst of despair, when most people follow the "Baals" of the land or simply reject the lordship of Jesus outright (as many of Israel did in Paul's day), the Lord does not forget His people. Instead, the Lord nourishes and raises up a remnant in the midst of a dry and thirsty land, to remind us that even when despair or depression or exhaustion has distorted our vision of God's love for this world, God has the situation under control. He has not stopped loving this world of His, even through its trials and judgments; nor has He forgotten His people through such judgments. Just as the lone prophets and apostles were God's means for preserving the Faith of Israel through judgment, so the ministry of the Church in Christ Jesus—the prophet and apostle of our confession (Heb 1:1-4; 3:1)—is God's means of saving the world.

As we learned in our gospel reading today, it is in Christ that each earthly house—whether it's the house of the Gerasenes, or Israel, or Baal—can flee from judgment, and can have its Legion of demons cast out. As the Church of Jesus Christ, we are sent out into the world to bear witness to that One who delivers his enemies from bondage to sin and calls them to proclaim how much God has done for them (Luke 8:39). Our calling might be difficult. It might be exhausting too. But when we get weary and weak because of our faithfulness, at least we know where rest and refreshment are found for our journey. It is here, in Christ's Church, that the weary are given rest, and the weak receive food and drink for every journey ahead.

It is in Christ Jesus that we, the Church, are all sons of God. For Paul says, as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. In Christ we are now a new creation, so we ought to live like the new creation we are, living with gratitude, living with praise and adoration of Jesus Christ, living unashamedly as a prophetic witness of His lordship over all. It is in this Church united to Jesus Christ—this new Jerusalem which has already come down from heaven—that death is swallowed up in victory, and all things are being made new.

Believe that, and don't be ashamed to proclaim how much God has done and will continue doing for the world. And if you're ever feeling ready to throw in the towel, don't lean upon your own understanding. Rather, in all your ways acknowledge Jesus and He will direct your paths. He won't forsake you or anyone else who puts their trust in Him. So put your trust in Him. Lean on him. He wants you to, especially when you feel like a lone prophet in this world. He walks alongside you, directing the way you should go, so that you can put your trust in Him. Even if it's through death's darkest valley, don't fear any evil, for the Lord is with you. Let his rod and staff comfort you, for he walks with you, ready and willing to show the world that He is your Shepherd, and in Him you lack nothing. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

* * * * * * * *

O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Chief End of Christian Self-Improvement

 "...[I]n both the liberal and conservative camps, the old hermeneutics are giving way to a loyalty to the Bible determined by its perceived ability to help people fulfill their own personal and social potential. The Bible is fodder for positive thinking, or rules for peace and prosperity, or a daily horoscope of customized divine promises. Or, it is not, in which case the Bible is ignored. Many liberals and conservatives alike, unpersuaded by the claims of pastors, professors, booksellers, and televangelists, turn into biblical non-readers, as they fail to find it helpful in advancing their personal agendas. 
 The weaknesses of both historical criticism and fundamentalistic legalism pale in comparison to the problems of the bibliology of self improvement. A Trinitarian and Christocentric doctrine of Scripture is an even more urgent remedy for Christians who have learned to make themselves the thing to be enjoyed, and God the sacramental thing to be used in the service of their own adoration."

1.  Telford Work, Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), p. 317. Work's closing comments are especially noteworthy, subtly parodying the first question of the famous Westminster Shorter Catechism, which asks, "What is the Chief end of man? Answer: Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever."

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Wealthy Disciple

"Truly I say to you all, it will be difficult for a rich man (plousios) to enter the kingdom of heaven." 
- Jesus (Matt 19:23)

"When it was evening, there came a rich man (plousios) from Arimathea, Joseph by name, who also had become a disciple of Jesus. This man approached Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be handed over. Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in clean linen, and laid it in his own new tomb, that he had hewn in the rock." (Matt 27:57-60)

Matthew's gospel exemplifies Joseph in the use of his great wealth. Joseph's great wealth enables him to request and receive the crucified body of Jesus, and bury him in a tomb he invested in for his own family. The use of his riches illustrates his great faith, hope, and love.

The deceitfulness of riches didn't choke the Word Joseph trusted and followed (Matt 13:22-23). In joy, he went and gave all that he had, even the rock of his own field which he labored to make available (13:44). Out of his own good treasure he brought good for others (12:35), for where his treasure was buried, there was his heart also (6:21).

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The stones will cry out (A meditation on Luke 19:29-40)

Palm Sunday
Liturgy of the Palms
Year C
Gospel Reading: Luke 19:29-40 

I love the film, Memento. What I love most about Memento are the little nuggets of plot-development hidden in plain sight, and how those becomes crucial for appreciating the entire story. 
    At the beginning we learn about the main character, Leonard Shelby, who suffers from extreme short term memory loss because of a severe brain injury incurred at his home, seconds before witnessing the murder of his wife. Just as Leonard witnesses his wife suffocating to death, an armed robber violently strikes Leonard on the head, and from that point forward in life, Leonard's long-term memories are haunted by that final, enduring image of his wife's suffocation. He then sets out on a life-long quest to find those who killed his wife, and to satisfy justice.
    Fast-forwarding to the end of the story, a detective named Teddy is murdered by Leonard Shelby. Leonard thinks Teddy was part of the conspiracy to murder his wife, but of course, because Leonard suffers from severe short-term memory loss many people throughout his life after that event—including Teddy—become suspects of that conspiracy accidentally, even though they aren't necessarily guilty. All Leonard wants in life is to find those who conspired in the murder of his wife, and he will do whatever it takes to bring vengeance upon them. But we come to find out in the end of the story that so much more had been going on all along, and best of all it was hidden in plain sight, right in front of our very eyes. 
    Spoiler Alert: Just before the death of Teddy, the detective, we learn some mind-blowing details about Leonard's life. First we learn that Leonard Shelby's wife didn't actually die the night her husband had his brain injury. She survived that night, but Leonard doesn't remember that because he suffers from extreme short-term memory loss after his brain injury. All he remembers is her suffocating. Every day, he still thinks she's dead. And eventually, over time, she does die; and she's even truly dead by the time the events within the film take place. However, as the plot progresses, we learn that Teddy, the detective, already brought Leonard to the real attacker, and Leonard already avenged his wife, but Leonard doesn't remember that either. Finally, as if those tidbits of information weren't shocking enough, we also learn the most shocking fact of all: Leonard actually murdered his own wife, by assisting her in committing suicide. It turns out that after his injury, his wife became so depressed with having to live with his short-term memory loss, that one day she tested him. She was diabetic, and in need of regular insulin shots, so she tested him over and over again by requesting him to give her shots, minutes apart from each other. She eventually died of overdose. That was her way of coping with what she perceived to be the loss of the real man she loved and married. But he doesn't remember ever assisting her suicide. Leonard even gets a tattoo on his hand to assist his memory about that, but the tattoo doesn't help. All throughout the film we are shown that tattoo, and the message is in plain sight, but Leonard interprets it differently. Even when you hear or see that phrase tattooed on his hand repeated over and over again ("Remember Sammy Jenkins"), if the viewer does not stop and think about it's significance, or its significance is misunderstood, it is possible to watch the entire film and walk away from it with a very different message than what the director intended. 
    This is true with the theological nuggets we find scattered throughout Luke's gospel. If we overlook or misunderstand some of them hidden in plain sight, we might walk away from the gospel story with a very different message than what Luke intended. And in today's reading, we have one of those theological nuggets. It is found in Luke 19:39b–40, which the ESV translates this way:
"Teacher, rebuke your disciples." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out."

Usually, when I'm preparing a meditation for any given day, I try to harmonize as many of the lectionary readings as possible and unite them into a common theme. But with this week's lectionary readings, something very different happened as I was studying. I became stuck on this one very brief statement.
    Do you want to know why I've been stuck on that passage all week long? It's because the Greek text underlying that English Standard Version does not say that. And I've been hung up all week on what it actually says, and why Jesus said that. What the Greek text actually says is this:
"Teacher, rebuke your disciples!" And answering, He [Jesus] said: "I say to you-all, that when these [disciples] become silent, the stones will cry out!"1

As I perused through my biblical commentaries, I noticed that this passage is usually explained in one of two ways. It's either explained as a comparison between animate human beings (i.e. disciples) and inanimate objects (i.e. stones), illustrating somehow, some way, that Jesus deserves to be praised by His creation, e.g. "If people stop praising Jesus, surely these stones on the ground will instead!", or it's expressing a contrast of faith between the Pharisees and stones, illustrating that even stones understand their Creator better than Pharisees.2
    With either option, I'm left unconvinced. And I think it's important to convince others to remain unconvinced as well. But in order to reach any conviction about the meaning of this theological nugget (whether one agrees with me or not), it always helps to start by asking obvious questions. For instance, why does Jesus mention stones? Is it merely because they can be classified as inanimate objects? In that case, wouldn't the reference to stones be somewhat arbitrary, as though Jesus could have mentioned any other static material on this planet—such as trees, saddlebags, or belly-button lint—to illustrate the same point? He just mentioned "stones" for no essential reason, I guess. Perhaps it was the first thing that popped into His mind, someone might say. That sounds like a dubious proposal at best. 
    What if the whole point of mentioning stones is simply to point out how lifeless the faith of the Pharisees is? Although I don't doubt that the faith of many Pharisees was dead, I don't think that clarifies what Jesus actually said. Again, all one has to do to notice my contention is to simply look back at the text. Re-read it a few times. Such explanations about dead pharisaical faith hardly accounts for what Jesus actually said in context. (Besides, if you've read the previous 18 chapters of Luke's gospel, you should have already realized that their faith was dead.) So let's go back to asking obvious questions again. 
    Why must stones cry out if Jesus' disciples are silenced? That is what the text actually says.3 Is it because stones perceive God better than Pharisees? That doesn't answer the question. That begs the question. If the point, supposedly, is that Jesus is also worthy of praise by stones, then why aren't the stones also crying out at the same time as the disciples? Why wait until the voices of Jesus disciples are silenced?

I think that in order to make sense of Luke 19:39b-40, we need to review the story of Luke's gospel briefly to find other tidbits hidden in plain sight for us.
    In the close context of 19:39b-40, Jesus is on his way into Jerusalem for the first time in Luke's gospel. Toward the beginning of the Lukan travel narrative, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem (9:51), and he wouldn't cease ministering to people until he was silenced in Jerusalem. Throughout Luke's travel narrative, that message of reaching Jerusalem and being killed by Israel's rulers is repeated three times for emphasis (9:22, 44; 18:31-33). Alongside that tidbit, Luke's travel narrative is also filled with allusions to soon-coming judgment upon Jerusalem for rejecting their King. Even before  Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, the shepherds of Israel have no excuse for rejecting him as their King, and they also have no excuse for refusing to repent of that rejection.
    In the middle of Luke's travel narrative, we find one of those nuggets hidden in plain sight. But there, Jesus does more than make allusions to Jerusalem's judgment; he emphatically declares that its temple is forsaken, abandoned by God, because they were not willing to accept His terms of peace:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'" (Luke 13:34-35)

Now fast forward to the end of Luke's travel narrative, where Jesus is about to leave Jericho and enter into Jerusalem for the first time. There we find Jesus telling one last parable to his disciples en route to his triumphal entry (19:11-27). In that parable Luke goes out of his way to emphasize the allegorical relationship between Jesus' servants in Jerusalem and Himself entering that city as their King. By the end of the parable the "wicked servants" and "enemies" have proven themselves hostile and indignant toward their King. Not only had they perpetuated gross injustice while the King was away (similar to the claim above about "killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to it"), they also would not repent or accept His terms of peace and reconciliation. They refused to let Jesus rule mercifully over their merciless kingdom. For that reason, the King decrees that they be slain upon his arrival. With the merciful, he would show himself merciful. With the blameless, he would show himself blameless. And with the crooked, he would make himself seem torturous (Psa. 18:25-26; 2 Sam. 22:26-28). Jesus saves those who are humble, but his eyes are on the haughty to bring them down. 
    After that final parable, Jesus follows his prophetic cry with more sovereign lamentations explicitly directed at first century Jews in Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–44):
And when he [Jesus] drew near and saw the city [Jerusalem], he wept over it, saying, "Would that you, even you [Jerusalem], had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation."
Much like the prophet Habakkuk's reasons for thundering woes against Jerusalem, it is this incessant rejection of Israel's King by their rulers which leads to the toppled stones of the Temple's ruin crying out against those perpetrating violence and injustice within:
You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples! You have forsaken your life! The stone shall cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond: "Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!" (Habakkuk 2:10-12)
I believe these nuggets of prophetic woes scattered throughout Luke's gospel are designed to clarify what Jesus said to Pharisees during his triumphal entry. The "Wisdom of God" repeatedly told Jerusalem that His prophets and apostles would be sent to them, but they would not listen. Instead, the harlot-city would silence the Lord and His servants (Luke 11:49–52). With that trajectory toward rejection and judgement, when we reach the point of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we see the Pharisees still attempting to silence Jesus' disciples (19:39b), Jesus' response makes perfect sense if its understood as a prophetic, Habakkuk-like cry toward Jerusalem and its corrupt rulers. As Jesus' disciples cry out, "blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!", the Pharisees tell Jesus to rebuke the disciples. So when Jesus responds to the Pharisees, its trajectory is directed toward the harlot-city, toward Jerusalem's rejection and consequent judgment:
"I say to you-all, that when these [disciples] become silent, the stones will cry out!"

Little did the Pharisees know that the prophets, apostles, and disciples of Jesus were living stones of God's new temple-building project (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-6), so when those stones cry out for vindication, judgement is right around the corner because their voices are heard by Jesus himself in his heavenly temple. This was the Lord's mysterious and marvelous plan all along. It is through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of God's incarnate Son that the blood of all the prophets and apostles, shed from the foundation of the world, would cry out and finally receive vindication for all their suffering. They witnessed to the truth of God and His reign over all, and their shed blood would be charged against Jesus' generation (11:49-52). That generation would be definitively judged.
    All of this brings us back around to the passage in Luke in which Jesus prophesies about disciples being silenced for their testimony of Jesus' lordship, and stones crying out as a result. I think its clear that Jesus' woe alludes to the Habakkuk woe spoken to the leadership of Jerusalem. In that prophecy, the stones of the temple walls cry out because of tremendous injustice perpetrated within its walls and upon God's people. Historically, it was during the Jewish wars (66—70 AD) that Jerusalem and its idolatrous temple were finally destroyed by the Lord's visitation. Because Jerusalem did not know the time of her visitation, and the testimonies of those who bore witness to Jesus were silenced, the stones would cry out from the wall: "Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!" But "blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"
At this time, someone might be asking, What is the bottom line of all this?

That's a good question. How does this affect our understanding of the gospel story, so that we don't miss out on what the director envisioned for us? 

A few responses immediately come to mind:
    First, because there is a pervasive tendency among Christians to "proof-text" scripture into emotional and spiritual nonsense, it's always important to remember that the gospels are about real life, flesh and blood, pus and guts, historically documented events. Even the prophecies of Jesus were not some kind of gnostic, esoteric, mystical future cataclysm. Certainly they were about future events. However, Jesus was addressing historical events which would come upon his own generation (Luke 7:31; 11:29,30,31,32,50,51; 16:8; 17:25; 21:32). This is often missed, and the gospels misinterpreted, because the fulfillment of those divinely imposed judgments within his generation are not taken into account by the average, run-of-the-mill Christian. It is absolutely vital to the understand and acknowledge that the destruction of Herod's idolatrous temple is the most significant historical event in Israel's history. And that was clearly on display in Jesus' mind throughout Luke's gospel. That event is the definitive end of the old covenant, and the decisive action which vindicates all the disciples of Jesus Christ in the first century. The entire course of history dramatically changed after that cataclysmic event.4 And it's not a mere coincidence that Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension strike the match and light the wick leading to that cosmic judgment. So it's important to familiarize yourself with those events, and to read scripture through the lens of those concrete historical promises.
    Second, remember that because every statement within the gospels is part of a much larger story, we need to search, discover, and meditate upon the nugget-like tidbits scattered throughout the story. Those tidbits are not tertiary details. Just like in Memento, if they are overlooked or underestimated, the director's vision behind the story can be misunderstood. If Jesus' explicit promises regarding Jerusalem's destruction in that generation are overlooked or underestimated, then the first century Jewish-Christian context of New Testament theology can be misunderstood.
    Finally, but just as important as the previous points, this brief tidbit of Luke's gospel teaches us something significant about the character of God. Throughout evangelical circles, Jesus is often mistakenly portrayed as the "light" version of the old testament God. Just like Budweiser has their light beer, Jesus is the old testament Father's light-bodied persona. He's low on calories, while still offering the full-bodied flavor of the original Divine recipe, which we all love. As such, the Church mistakenly thinks of Jesus' character differently than the Father's, and that is a mistake. Both Jesus and YHWH are love (Deut. 7:9; Psa 36:7-10; Joel 2:13; I John 4:8,16). Both Jesus and YHWH are a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). Jesus' gospel was about consuming fire and love. It is our God, Jesus, who considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict his children, and to grant his children relief through affliction by inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know Him and on those who do not obey the good news of our Lord Jesus (2 Thess. 1:6-8). 
   In fact, it is precisely because Jesus is love, that we must heed Jesus' warnings and not reshape the love of God into our own American idol. When we see Jesus loving all those around him, we also need to see that love as an expression of warning his own generation of consuming fireof tangible, down-to-earth judgment upon flesh and blood because of their exceedingly great wickedness. It's also important to see Jesus as the son of man coming to judge them (Matt. 10:23; 12:40-42; 13:37-43; 16:27-28; 24:30-34). As the son of man, part of the way he loves the world is by waging war upon its evil every day; and that is a good thing. It is good that Jesus must continue waging that war until he has put all his enemies underneath his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). Only then will true peace cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Jesus was indeed the most loving human in history, and yet his love did not violate the free will of those whom he loved, and so he warned them about how destructive their idolatry had become, and he waged war against those who refused to accept his rule. In an thoroughly corrupt and evil generation, there can be no peace without war. Thankfully, though, most people throughout the world are not destroyed. Instead, many are confronted by the heinousness of their own sins and destructive tendencies, and are brought to their knees before King Jesus. God graciously makes Himself available to them, and when they sincerely repent and surrender to him, they are shown mercy, and they receive new life in Him. 
    Another way to look at Jesus' prophetic warnings is like this: Jesus loved the world so much that he gave his life for it, but there comes a point in time when an entire generation needs to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings and he knows our needs better than we do. He knows how to establish and cultivate peace on earth better than we do. If parts of his creation become rotten to the core, he knows best, and he knows how to uproot and plant something new and healthy in its place if need be. In a world where the ground is cursed and humanity is exiled from the presence of God, the whole process of uprooting, tilling the soil, and planting new is an expression of love. The fact that the Gardener even draws near to his fields all over the world and tends to their needs worldwide is a good and beautiful thing. 
    Within the exhortation of our Lord about disciples being silenced and stones crying out, is his decree to tear down the diseased house of the old covenant in order to build an exceedingly glorious temple in us. And his temple-building project isn't over yet. His global gardening project is not over yet. There still is a lot of work yet to be done. Don't be bashful about that, and don't be afraid to walk in the way of Christ's suffering for that. Rather, walk humbly in the way of his suffering that you may also share in his resurrection. Believe that, witness to that, and proclaim that. That is true, just as God's love for the world is true, and his warfare against evil every day is true. 
   If you start thinking about how gloomy and corrupt our current generation is in comparison with the glorious future promised for God's kingdom, don't be worried about it. Continue witnessing to the good news of King Jesus and his terms of peace for the world. He is always far more willing to give mercy and extend favor than we are to receive it. He is called the King of Peace for good reasons. 
   And if you ever become anxious about these temporary, mortal bodies of ours returning to the soil, leaving the fruitful praise of our lips silenced, don't worry about that either. Other stones of God's temple will continue that proclamation. Blessed indeed is our King, Jesus. He is the reason why there is any peace on earth and in heaven. Glory to Him in the highest!

* * * * * * *

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

1. This is my translation of the Greek text: Διδάσκαλε, ἐπιτίμησον τοῖς μαθηταῖς σου. καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν· Λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅτι ἐὰν οὗτοι σιωπήσουσιν, οἱ λίθοι κράξουσιν
2. Darrell Bock, a reputable Lukan scholar, offers a variant of this, claiming that inanimate objects—like stones—"have a better perception of God than the people He came to save." Even though that is a clever and truthful way of spinning what Jesus actually said, I still think that greatly misses Jesus' point. See Darrell L. Bock, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books; 1996), p. 1,547
3.  A few other technical details are worth noting. As I have argued here and elsewhere on my blog, I think mainstream english translations of the New Testament are based on an interpretation disconnected with the destruction of Jerusalem as foreshadowed in the consistent typological messaging of Israel's prophets. To me that disconnect seems clear for grammatical reasons as well. For example, in the ESV we find the insertion of "very" into the text (which isn't even implied in the Greek). In English, the insertion of "very" could be construed as connoting an idea of contrast between animate and inanimate objects, which is unnecessary if Jesus is actually prophesying future historical events related to Jerusalem and its temple. Another disconnect is seen in the confusing translation of "were silent" and "would cry out" like it's a conditional subjunctive, which it's not in Greek. Both verbs are future-active-indicative. The ἐάν with a subjunctive verb would express a probable or hypothetical future condition (which is why the conditional conjunction is translated "if" in the ESV), but the indicative verbs remove that probability and instead express certainty (which is why ἐὰν here is better translated as "when").
4.  See Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2008, eighth ed.), pp. 23-46

Monday, February 29, 2016

God Tests Everyone (A Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year C)

Third Sunday in Lent
Year C
Epistle Reading: I Cor. 10:1-13

In a school setting there are different kinds of tests which teachers give their students. Some are written tests were you can answer one of multiple choices, while others are completed in the form of an essay or summary. Tests can also be in the form of activities, like in gym class where you're tested to perform the drills over and over again. In all of these examples, the purpose and goal is not (or shouldn't be, anyway) merely to evaluate who is getting the highest test scores, or even building up the most stamina. Rather, those tests are (or should be) for the maturity and development of the student body.

In the passage today from Paul's letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded that God tests us. Paul says that "We must not put Christ to the test (ἐκπειράζωμεν), as some of them did test (ἐπείρασαν)", and also, "These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us." In other words, the previous examples of God testing Israel are on our exams too, so we would be wise to keep them in mind when we are being tested. 

Paul continues: "So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing (πειρασθῆναι) has overtaken you that is not common to everyone."

God tests everyone. Testing is common to everyone, according to Paul. But this isn't a unique idea of Paul's. It is an overwhelming theme of the Bible. In the wilderness God tested his people:
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test (πειράσω) them, whether they will walk in my law or not. (Exodus 20:20 LXX) 
Moses said to the people, "Do not fear, for God has come to test (πειράσαι) you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin." (Exodus 16:4 LXX) 
And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested (ἐπείρασεν) them (Exodus 15:24-25 LXX) 
Take care lest you forget the LORD your God ...when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them,and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, ...who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness... and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test (ἐκπειράσῃ) you, to do you good in the end. (Deuteronomy 8:11-18 LXX)

God even tests his people individually: In Eden God tested Adam. He tested Cain and Abel and others too. One of the most memorable tests of Scripture which God ever gave was to Abraham:
After these things God tested (ἐπείραζεν) Abraham and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." The Lord said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." (Genesis 22:1-2 LXX)

How would you like that to be your test?

Even toward the end of Israel’s history as a nation, in second Chronicles 32:30-31 (LXX), we see another test, and that test also alludes back to the principles we just learned in Deuteronomy 8:11-18 (above) about tests through times of prosperity:
And Hezekiah prospered in all his works. And so in the matter of the princes of Babylon, who had been sent to him to inquire about the sign that had been done in the land, God left him to himself, in order to test (πειράσαι) him and to know all that was in his heart.

There are numerous other passages I could reference, but I think these few illustrate my point. God tests us, and yet, interestingly, in the background of all those passages, God isn't the only one testing us. God's adversary, the devil, and our earthly adversaries take advantage of God's tests, to test us also. Writing to the Bishop of the church in Smyrna, Jesus offers these promises:
I know your tribulation and your poverty and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested (πειρασθῆτε), and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:9-10)

Whenever we examine Scripture’s examples of testing, whether those examples are about God testing us or being tested by evil, we are always tested in one common aspect of our lives: our loyalty to God.

I find it interesting that in our lectionary reading from Corinthians, not only are we taught to expect tests, but in all of the examples Paul gives us about how not to respond to those tests, he mentions the people putting God to the test. In other words, when Paul teaches us about the tests of life, he wants to know what our response will be: Will our response be loyal love toward God, or will we side with evil against God? Will we put Him to the test?

One of the most striking examples of testing in the New Testament is with Jesus right after his baptism, where he goes into the wilderness and is confronted by Satan. There, at the very heart of Satan’s test, Jesus is challenged to question his loyalty to God. As we know, Jesus passed the devil's test. However, at the very beginning of that story we are told that it is the Spirit who lead Jesus into the wilderness for testing (Matt. 4:1). Not only did the adversary test Jesus, but God tested His own Son too, according to that story. God tests us and our adversaries test us. It is very possible for God’s adversaries and ours to take advantage of those circumstances—those tests from God--to test our loyalty to God.

And as we were reminded by Paul, there is no testing of man which is uncommonTesting is common to us all. If you think your situation of testing is unique, think again. Even Jesus “had been tested (πεπειρασμένον) in every respect as we are”, yet he endured it all without sin (Hebrews 4:15). It is for that very reason we ought to follow the example of Jesus and pray as He instructed us: "Heavenly Father, lead us not into testing (πειρασμόν) but deliver us from the evil one (τοῦ πονηροῦ)." (Matt. 6:13)

After studying the Lord’s Prayer in detail years ago, and offering some thoughts about it, I concluded that the best translation for Matt. 6:13 was “testing,” not “temptation.” The reasons being, first, that by implication, the phrase “Lead us not into temptation” carries the baggage of God tempting us—even tempting us with evil--which He never does, for He can never be tempted to do evil Himself (James 1:13). Secondarily, and as I have already noted, God does lead us into testing, and because the same word for “temptation” (πειρασμός) used in Matt. 6:13 more often means “testing” throughout Scripture, and also is not a contradiction with James 1:13, that seems to be the only reasonable translation. And with that translation of "testing" comes an important lesson about Christian maturity and development, as any loving teacher should want a student to receive. If translated as “testing,” it turns out that Matt. 6:13 is not about deliverance from God ever testing us to mature and develop in life. It's not a request for God to cancel our tests altogether. Rather, the petition, "Lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one" is a description of abandonment—to not be abandoned to go our own way or to fall by evil. Even the surrounding context of the Lord’s Prayer sheds light on that meaning. 

Immediately before the Lord’s Prayer on the Mount, where do we find Jesus being tested in his loyalty to God? In the wilderness (Matt. 4:1). The geographical description could not be more obvious for those familiar with the exodus typology utilized throughout Scripture. It is in the wilderness with God that the evil one tested Israel. He tested Jesus also; and it is there where the evil one tests us too. The Lord's prayer is for the new Israel, the Church, who desperately needs deliverance from the evil one if left to our own ways in the wilderness of life.

Therefore, when we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, that portion about God not leading us into testing is not a request to never be tested, but an acknowledgment of our vulnerability before Him in the wilderness of life. We are the ones who, when tested, are free to side with evil and even respond by testing Him back, by grumbling, complaining, and by not seeking deliverance from Him. So Paul says, don't do that! Instead, pray to your Heavenly Father who alone can give us courage through trials and also will deliver us when we turn to Him. The Lord's Prayer is for God's mercy to spare us from testing that we cannot handle. "For to Him belongs the kingdom and the power and the glory, now and forever."

To Him belongs the power and glory…so seek Him while He is near.

Paul tells us that God is faithful through every test we endure, and He will not let you be tested beyond your ability. With the testing he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. That’s God’s promise to you. God never puts you in a situation where you must sin. He always gives you the freedom to side with Him. So remain loyal to Him through all the tests of life.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

* * * * * * *

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

What is the Divine Council in Biblical Literature?

The following is an excerpt on The Divine Council by Michael S. Heiser, from the Lexham Bible Dictionary.

Divine Council A term used by Hebrew Bible scholars for the heavenly host, the assembly of divine beings who administer the affairs of the cosmos under Yahweh, the God of Israel. All ancient Mediterranean cultures had some conception of a divine council, including Israel]. However, Israelite religion’s divine council was distinct. The structure of the Israelite divine council has implications for understanding God and the unseen world in biblical theology.

Textual Evidence and its Ancient Canaanite Context
The Council of the Gods/God
Most Bible translations show that Israel believed in an assembly of heavenly host under the authority of Yahweh. Modern translations do not show clearly that this assembly is similar to pantheons of ancient Near Eastern cultures. A close reading of the Hebrew text and comparisons with other ancient non-biblical texts from Canaan demonstrate this similarity (Mullen, Handy, “Host”; Cross “Epic”; Smith “Early”; Smith, “Origin”; Korpel, Rift in the Clouds).
The clearest example is the cuneiform literature from Ras Shamra (Ugarit), discovered in the late 1920s. As a Semitic language, Ugaritic is closely related to biblical Hebrew—it shares vocabulary, as well as morphological and syntactical features. Many of the Ugaritic tablets describe a council of gods in words and phrases that are conceptually and linguistically parallel to the Hebrew Bible. The Ugaritic divine council was led by El, the same word used in the Hebrew Bible for gods and as the proper name for the God of Israel (e.g., Isa 40:18; 43:12). References to the “council of El” include: pḫr ʾilm (assembly “of El” or “of the gods”; KTU 1.47:29, 1.118:28, 1.148:9); pḫr bn ʾilm (assembly “of the sons of El” or “of the gods”; KTU 1.4.III:14); mpḫrt bn ʾilm (“assembly of the sons of El”; KTU 1.65:3; compare 1.40:25, 42); and ʿdt ʾilm (assembly “of El” or “of the gods”; KTU 1.15.II:7, 11).
The Hebrew Bible has phrases that explicitly parallel these Ugaritic expressions (Parker, “Sons of [the] God[s]”; Cooke, “The Sons of [the] God[s]”). Psalm 82:1 is perhaps the best example. It calls the council (עֲדַת־אֵל, adath-el) and describes gods under the authority of Israel’s God: “God (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) stands in the council of El/the divine council (עֲדַת־אֵל, adath-el); among the gods (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) he passes judgment.” The second occurrence of אֱלֹהִים (elohim) must be semantically plural due to the preposition “in the midst of.” This does not refer to the Trinity—Psalm 82 goes on to describe how Israel’s God accuses the other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of corruption and sentences them to die “like humankind.” This plurality does not refer to human beings. Psalm 89:5–7 places the God of Israel “in the assembly of the holy ones” (בִּקְהַל קְדֹשִׁים, biqhal qedoshim) and then asks “For who in the clouds (בַּשַּׁחַק, bashshachaq) can be compared to Yahweh? Who is like Yahweh among the sons of God (בְּנֵי אֵלִים, beney elim), a god greatly feared in the council of the holy ones (בְּסוֹד־קְדֹשִׁים, besod-qedoshim)?” Psalm 29:1 commands the same sons of God (בְּנֵי אֵלִים, beney elim) to praise Yahweh and give him due obeisance. Divine “sons of God” (בְּנֵי אֵלִים, beney elim, בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים, beney ha'elohim; or בְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים, beney elohim) appear in other biblical texts (Gen 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; and Deut 32:8–9, 43 (Septuagint; Qumran); Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:8”).

The Divine Abode and Meeting Place of the Divine Council
At Ugarit, the council of El and its gods met on a mountain or lush garden (Clifford, The Cosmic Mountain). These descriptions are actually the same place. The abode of El was at the “source of the two rivers” (mbk nhrm) in the “midst of the fountains of the double-deep” (qrb ʾapq thmtm). El and his “assembled congregation” (pḫr mʿd) met to issue divine decrees from the “tents of El” (ḏd ʾil) and his “tent shrine” (qrš; KTU 1.1.III:23; 1.2.III:5; 1.3.V:20–21; 1.4.IV:22–23; 1.6.I:34–35; 1.17.VI:48). This description of gods living and meeting in “tents” (ʾahlm) or “tabernacles” (mšknt) is common at Ugarit (KTU–19). The Ugaritic god Baal, the deity who oversaw the council for El, held meetings on Mount Ṣpn. Baal’s palace had “paved bricks” (lbnt) that made Baal’s house “a house of the clearness of lapis lazuli” (bht ṭhrm ʾiqnʾum).
The Hebrew Bible uses similar place descriptions. The most obvious are the tabernacle (מִשְׁכַּן, mishkan) and Tent of Meeting (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, ohel mo'ed), both common in the Old Testament narrative. Yahweh also dwelled on mountains (Sinai or Zion; e.g., Exod 34:26; 1 Kgs 8:10). In Psalm 48:3 the Jerusalem temple is said to be located in the “heights of the north” (יַרְכְּתֵי צָפוֹן, yarkethey tsaphon). Mount Zion is the “mount of assembly” (הַר־מוֹעֵד, har-mo'ed), again located in yarketê ṣpn (יַרְכְּתֵי צָפוֹן, yarkethey tsaphon; Isa 14:13). Additionally, Zion is described as a watery habitation (Isa 33:20–22; Ezek 47:1–12; Zech 14:8; Joel 3:18). Ezekiel 28:13–16 equates the “holy mountain of God” (הַר קֹדֶשׁ אֱלֹהִים, har qodesh elohim) with Eden, the “garden of God” (גַּן־אֱלֹהִים, gan-elohim). Eden appears in Ezek 28:2 as the “seat of the gods” (מוֹשַׁב אֱלֹהִים, moshav elohim). The description of Eden in Gen 2:6–15 refers to the “ground flow” that “watered the entire face of the earth.” At Sinai, Moses and others saw the seated God of Israel, under whose feet was a “pavement of sapphire stone” (לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, livnath hassappir; Exod 24:9–10).

The Structure of the Divine Council
The divine council at Ugarit may have had four tiers, but the evidence is not conclusive (Smith, Origins, 41–53). A three-tiered understanding may be better.
The top tier consisted of El and his wife Athirat (Asherah). The second tier was the domain of their royal family (“sons of El”; “princes”). One member of this second tier, Baal, served as the co-regent of El. Despite being under El’s authority, he was called “most high” (Wyatt, “Titles”). A third tier was for “craftsman deities,” while the fourth and lowest tier was reserved for the messengers (mlʾkm), essentially servants or staff (Cho, Lesser Deities).
There is solid evidence in the Hebrew Bible for a three-tiered council. In the divine council of Israelite religion, Yahweh was the supreme authority over a divine bureaucracy that included a second tier of lesser אֱלֹהִים (elohim), also called the “sons of God” (בְּנֵי אֵלִים, beney elim, בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים, beney ha'elohim, or בְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים, beney elohim) or “sons of the Most High” (בְּנֵי עֶלְיוֹן, beney elyon). It may be significant that these “sons of God” are never clearly referred to as angels (מַלְאָכִים, mal'akhim) in the Hebrew Bible, as that word denoted the lowest tier of the Canaanite council, and thus a third tier in the Israelite version. Still, mlʾkm at Ugarit were considered gods, despite their subordinate role. It is possible that מַלְאָכִים (mal'akhim) are referred to as אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in the Hebrew Bible.
In Israel’s divine council, the highest tier is different from the Canaanites’ conception. Instead of El and Baal, his vice-regent, Yahweh occupied both slots in a sort of binitarian godhead (Heiser, “Divine Council”). Yahweh is described in the Hebrew Bible by means of titles and abilities that both El and Baal have in Canaanite literature—these two were conceptually fused in Yahweh. This literary and theological device shows Yahweh superior to the two main divine authority figures in wider Canaanite religion.
The way Yahweh filled the positions both of supreme ruler and vice-regent is also shown by His occasional visible appearances (Hamori “When”; Hamori, “Embodiment”; Sommer, The Bodies of God). For example, the Angel of Yahweh is sometimes indistinguishable from Yahweh (e.g., Exod 3:1–14). The Angel is said to have Yahweh’s “Name” in him (Exod 23:20–23). Scholars have long noted the presence of a “name theology” in the Hebrew Bible (Mettinger “Dethronement”; Huffmon, “Name”) where the name is another way of referring to Yahweh Himself. Thus, Yahweh was in the Angel, and yet Yahweh and the Angel could be simultaneously present (Judg 6). Both the God of Israel and the Angel are said to have brought Israel out of Egypt (Judg 2:1–3; 1 Sam 8:8; Micah 6:4)—an observation that makes Deut 4:37 an important consideration for binitarianism, since that verse tells us the “Presence” of Yahweh was responsible for the deliverance from Egypt. The divine presence must be understood as Yahweh Himself, His “essence” as it were. The angel—as co-regent—fills Baal’s role as El’s warrior. It is the angel who led Israel to the promised land as the captain of the Lord’s host, “sword drawn in his hand” (חַרְבּוֹ שְׁלוּפָה בְּיָדוֹ, charbo sheluphah beyado)—a precise description found in only two other places in the Hebrew Bible, both of which describe the angel of Yahweh (Num 22:23; 1 Chr 21:16). The result is that—while orthodox Yahwism could not accommodate cosmic rule being shared by two separate and distinct deities (El and Baal)—it could tolerate Yahweh in two personages. That the angel had the presence/name/essence of Yahweh in him, but was a distinct personage, meant he “was but wasn’t” Yahweh.
The Israelite binitarian godhead is also indicated by the “rider on the clouds” motif in the Hebrew Bible. This epithet was a well-known title for Baal (Herrmann, “Rider upon the Clouds”). For orthodox Yahwists, Baal’s attributes were taken over by Yahweh, their rightful bearer. The Hebrew Bible consistently refers to Yahweh as the one who rides the clouds (Psa 68:4, Psa 68:5 in Hebrew; 68:33, Psa 68:34 in Hebrew; 104:3; Deut 33:26; Isa 19:1) with one exception: the “son of man” in Dan 7:13. This character in Dan 7 is distinct from the enthroned deity, the ancient of days, who was expected to bear this Yahweh-title of the Hebrew Bible. This passage, along with the “man of war” (the angel) formed the basis for Judaism’s doctrine of two powers in heaven, a point of orthodoxy until the second century ad (Segal, Two Powers in Heaven).
The Hebrew Bible also informs us that at least some Israelites considered Yahweh to have had a divine wife, Asherah (2 Kgs 21:1–7; 2 Chr 15:16). The archaeological picture echoes this belief, most notably in the finds at Kuntillet ʿAjrud and Khirbet el-Qom, where inscriptions include prayers to Yahweh and “his Asherah” (Dever). It should be noted, though, that “his Asherah” may refer to a shrine and not the goddess (Hess, “Yahweh and his Asherah?”). It cannot be demonstrated that the theology of the prophets and biblical writers contained this idea, or that it was permissible. Other figures and motifs include “wisdom and the word” (Ringgren, Word and Wisdom).

Decision Making in the Divine Council
In the Ugaritic council, members would sometimes challenge each other during their deliberations (Handy, “Authorization”). However, there are also passages in the Ugaritic material that nearly equate El with the entire council (see Mullen)—the decrees of the council are the decrees of El. The Israelite conception of the divine council also included deliberation and opposition, yet the will of God was ultimately done.

Council Member Participation. First Kings 22:19–23 is an important text regarding the participation of council members:
“And Micah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, “Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, “I will entice him.” And the Lord said to him, “By what means?” And he said, “I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” And he said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.” Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these, your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.’ “
Yahweh decided that Ahab should die, but allows discussion about how he should die. After some discussion, one spirit steps forward with a proposal. Yahweh accepts it and says that it will succeed. Nothing in the passage suggests that Yahweh learns anything here, or that He didn’t know what the suggestion would be. Nor does it support the idea that Yahweh predestinated the suggestion. The narrative only demonstrates that Yahweh allowed council members to choose how to carry out the decree.
The aftermath of the Babel incident shows that Yahweh expected that council beings use their own free decision making capacity. In Deuteronomy 4:19–20 and 32:8–9, Yahweh divided and assigned the nations to lesser gods (Heiser, “Sons of God”). Yahweh delegated authority—He rejected the nations as His own people and took Israel as His portion. While Yahweh is ultimately sovereign, He does not unilaterally govern the other nations. He leaves that to subordinates, who should rule according to His will. When they don’t, they are judged. This is precisely the point of Psa 82, where Yahweh judges the gods of his council who are responsible for corrupt rule over the nations of the earth.

Yahweh’s Will and Council Activity. Two examples of council deliberation in the book of Daniel make the council almost a part of Yahweh.
Daniel 4 contains Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream. The announcement of Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment is described in Dan 4:17: “The sentence is by the decree of the Watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.” Seven verses later (Dan 4:24) the sentence is described thus: “This is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king.” This line is followed by the ambiguous plural of 4:26: שַׁלִּטִ֖ן שְׁמַָיּֽא (shallitin shemay'). This Aramaic phrase can be translated either “heaven rules” (corporate personification), or “the heavenly ones rule” (council authority). The second seems likely—the decree is from the Watchers—but it is the (singular) Most High who rules.
Daniel 7 opens with the vision of the four beasts, symbols which parallel the four kingdoms in Dan 2. Daniel 7:9–12 describes a divine council meeting. “Thrones” (plural) are set up. The Ancient of Days is seated—the Son of Man does not sit. In Daniel 7:10 the “court” or council is then seated. The books of judgment are opened, and the fourth beast is killed. The jointly ruling Ancient of Days and the Council (and the Son of Man by implication) are identified with one another:
1. The judgment occurs after the council was in session. “The court shall sit in judgment and his dominion shall be taken away” (Dan 7:26).
2. In Daniel 2 the fourth kingdom is destroyed by the kingdom of God.
3. The kingdom of God in Daniel 7 is given by God to the Son of Man, who shares it with the “holy ones” of the Most High (Dan 7:25). These are probably not humans—humans are brought into joint kingship later: it “shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (Dan 7:27). “Heavenly ones” is a term that refers to the divine council elsewhere (e.g., Psa 89:5–6; Job 15:15).

The Saṭan. The saṭan (הַשָּׂטָן, hassatan) in Job 1–2 is not a proper name—it lacks the Hebrew definite article prefixed to the noun (Peggy Day, An Adversary in Heaven). This “Adversary” (the meaning of the Hebrew term) is therefore not the Devil, as known in the New Testament. Lowell Handy points out that the Adversary’s behavior in Job 1–2 is consistent with that of various deities in council scenes in Ugaritic material, where a lesser deity reports to a higher deity (Handy, “Authorization”). The Adversary is the deity responsible for checking on the misbehavior of humans. He is actually not talking back to God, but pointing out that humans behave well if they are not under duress. Yahweh decides to test the Adversary’s estimation, knowing full well that Job will endure.

Monotheism in the Hebrew Bible and the Divine Council
Biblical Polytheism?
The presence of a divine council in the Hebrew Bible does not means that Israel’s religion was at one time polytheistic (there are many gods) or henotheistic (there are many gods, but one is preferred) and later evolved to monotheism. Both views presume that the gods were equal. Archaeological remains and passages in the Hebrew Bible show polytheism in Israel, but this was not orthodox Israelite belief. The biblical writers refer to Yahweh as “the God” (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim; 1 Kings 18:39)—He could not be compared with any others. While Yahweh was an אֱלֹהִים (elohim), He was unique among the אֱלֹהִים (elohim). The orthodox Israelite knew that only one deity was the pre-existent Creator of all things (Isa 45:18). His status as Creator prevented other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) from being equal. Yahweh was viewed as the Creator of the “host of heaven,” the other divine beings (Pss 33:6; 148:1–5; compare Neh 9:6; Job 38:7–8; 1 Kgs 22; Isa 14:13; Deut 4:19–20; 32:8–9, 43; with Deut 17:3; 29:25; 32:17).

Understanding the Term אֱלֹהִים (elohim)
The Confusion of English Translations. Modern English translations often obscure the Hebrew text’s plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim), probably from a fear that it would undermine a belief in monotheism. For example, the NASB renders the second אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in Psa 82:1 as “rulers.” Other translations are more faithful, opting for “gods” or “divine beings,” but study Bibles usually note alternative readings like “rulers” or “judges.” While rendering the second אֱלֹהִים (elohim) “gods” in Psa 82:1, the NIV nevertheless in Psa 29:1 has “mighty ones” for bĕnê ʾēlı̂m (literally “sons of the gods”). NASB (“sons of the mighty”) and NKJV (“mighty ones”) follow suit. The translations for Deut 32:17 are also obscure. There are two issues: whether to render אֱלֹ֔הַ (eloah) as singular or plural and how to translate the verbless clause in which it appears לֹ֣א אֱלֹ֔הַ (lo' eloah). For example:
ESV—“They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known …”
RSV—“They sacrificed to demons which were no gods, to gods they had never known …”
CEV—“You offered sacrifices to demons, those useless gods that never helped you, new gods that your ancestors never worshiped.”
Translations which translate אֱלֹ֔הַ (eloah) as plural produce a reading that denies that שֵׁדִים (shedim, “demons”) are gods. Such translations, however, are forced to juxtapose this denial with the next clause, אֱלֹהִ֖ים לֹ֣א יְדָע֑וּם (elohim lo' yeda'um, “gods which they did not know”) which appears to clearly contradict that denial. How can the demons be gods and not gods in the same verse? Translations which take אֱלֹ֔הַ (eloah) as singular do not suffer this tension. There are in fact no occasions in the Hebrew Bible where אֱלוֹהַּ (eloha) is contextually plural or is used as a collective noun (Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:17”). Denying the existence of gods in Deut 32:17 means denying the existence of these demonic entities.

The Variety of אֱלֹהִים (elohim). There are a number of entities referred to as אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in the Hebrew Bible. This variety gives a clue as to how the term should be understood. It can be used to mean:
Yahweh, the God of Israel (over 2000 times)
The אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of Yahweh’s heavenly council (Psa 82)
The gods of foreign nations (e.g., 1 Kgs 11:33)
Demons (Deut 32:17)
Spirits of the human dead (1 Sam 28:13)
Angels (possible due to Gen 35:7, depending on the context of the plural predicator with אֱלֹהִים, elohim; subject)
The אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of Yahweh’s council in Psa 82 are divine beings, not human rulers. This is obvious from the parallel passage in Psa 89:5–8. In Psalm 82:6, the plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are called “sons of the Most High.” These אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are not human since Psa 89:6 (Psa 89:7 in Hebrew) locates their assembly or council in the clouds or heavens (בַשַּׁחַק, vashshachaq) not on earth.
With respect to 1 Samuel 28:13 (part of the “medium of Endor” narrative), the text tells us that, after being solicited by Saul to conjure the dead prophet Samuel, the medium exclaims, אֱלֹהִים רָאִיתִי עֹלִים מִן־הָאָרֶץ (elohim ra'ithiy olim min-ha'arets). The text could be translated two ways: “I saw gods coming up from the earth” or, “I saw a god coming up from the earth.” Both are possible since the plural participle form could reflect the plural morphology of אֱלֹהִים (elohim). Saul’s subsequent question helps us decide with a singular reading since he asks the medium in 28:14, “What is his (third masculine singular suffix) appearance?” The deceased Samuel who appears to Saul is an אֱלֹהִים (elohim). While this might seem strange to us, the notion that the departed dead were “gods” (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) is similar to ancient Canaanite thinking.
In Genesis 35:7, אֱלֹהִים (elohim) is the subject of a plural verb; and angels (מַלְאָכִים, mal'akhim) may be part of the context. Genesis 35:1–7 reads in part:
“God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God (לָאֵל, la'el) who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.’ So Jacob said to his household … ‘let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God (לָאֵל, la'el) who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.’ And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him (or, “the gods revealed themselves to him”; נִגְלוּ אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים, niglu elaiw ha'elohim) when he fled from his brother.”
This passage is not referring to Gen 28—that was not the episode in which Jacob was explicitly described as fleeing from his brother. It seems to refer to Gen 32, in which Jacob has two encounters with the divine while fleeing from Esau. The lesser known of these two encounters occurs in Gen 32:1, where we read, “Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God (מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, mal'akhey elohim) met him” (ESV). Upon seeing these beings, Jacob’s response was the exclamation, “This is the camp of elohim” (Gen 32:1). In Genesis 32:22–32, Jacob wrestles with “a man” (Gen 32:24) whom Jacob refers to as elohim (32:32). The divine nature of the man is reiterated in Hos 12:3–4 (12:4–5 in Hebrew). This angel is also apparently deified in Gen 48:15–16 (ESV):
“And he blessed Joseph, and said, ‘God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim), before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim) who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, The angel (הַמַּלְאָךְ, hammal'akh) who has redeemed me from all evil, bless (יְבָרֵךְ, yevarekh; note the singular verb) the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.’ “
The plural verb form of Gen 35:7 may be due to the fact that both Yahweh and the Angel who is the visible Yahweh appeared to Jacob as he fled. However, the other angels of God may also be included in the plural verb form. Angels as אֱלֹהִים (elohim) would agree with Canaanite culture and religion, and makes good sense in light of what the term אֱלֹהִים (elohim) really means.

Defining the Term אֱלֹהִים (elohim). The fact that five different entities are called אֱלֹהִים (elohim) shows that the word does not refer to only one set of attributes. This is the mistake of modern interpreters and translators, who are accustomed to using the term “god” only when referencing the God of Israel and His attributes. The biblical writers would not equate Yahweh in a qualitative sense with demons, angels, the human disembodied dead, the gods of the nations, or the gods of Yahweh’s own council.
All the things called אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in the Hebrew Bible have one thing in common: they all inhabit the non-human realm. That is, they are by nature not part of the world of humankind, a world of ordinary embodiment. אֱלֹהִים (elohim) as a term describes residence—it identifies the proper domain of the entity described by it. Yahweh, the lesser gods, angels, demons, and the disembodied dead are all rightful inhabitants of the spiritual world. They may cross over to the human world, as Scripture informs us, and certain humans may be transported to their realm (e.g., prophets; Enoch), but their proper domain and humanity’s proper domain are two separate places. Within the spiritual world—as in the human world—there are differences of rank and power. Yahweh is an אֱלֹהִים (elohim), but no other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) is Yahweh. This was what an orthodox Israelite believed. Yahweh was not one among equals; He was unique. The modern term “monotheism,” coined in the 17th century (MacDonald, “Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism,” 1–21), only uses the term god to describe a being with attributes like Yahweh’s. This does not reflect the Hebrew Bible’s use of אֱלֹהִים (elohim). However, the thought behind the term—that Yahweh is utterly and eternally unique—is consistent with the sense of the modern word “monotheism.”

“No Other Gods beside Me”?
Common phrases in the Hebrew Bible which seem to deny the existence of other gods (e.g., Deut 4:35, 39; 32:12, 39) actually appear in passages that affirm the existence of other gods (Deut 4:19–20; 32:8–9, 17). These phrases show that Yahweh is incomparable among the other אֱלֹהִים (elohim), not that the biblical writers contradict each other or that they are in the process of discovering monotheism.
Isaiah’s “denial statements” express incomparability, not non-existence of other gods (Isa 43:10–12). Similar language is used in Isa 47:8, 10. Babylon claims, “I am, and there is none else beside me.” The claim is not that Babylon is the only city in the world, but that it has no rival.
A close reading of Deuteronomy and Isaiah shows the denial language’s context (Heiser, “Monotheism”). The denials are not based on any claim that other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) do not exist, but on Yahweh’s unique qualities. In Isaiah 43:10–12, the reference points are Yahweh’s pre-existence, ability to save, and national deliverance. In Isaiah 45, the focus is on Yahweh’s justice, salvation, the deliverance of His children, and the impotence of the other gods. Yahweh is being compared to lesser gods—it would be empty praise to compare Him to beings that did not exist.

Human Beings as אֱלֹהִים (elohim)?
The structure and terminology of Psa 82 shows that the psalm describes a council of divine beings (Mullen, Divine Council; Prinsloo, “Psalm 82”; Tsevat, “God and the Gods”; Kee, “The Heavenly Council”). The plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of Psa 82:1 are called “sons of the Most High” in 82:6. The orthodox Israelite knew that the Most High is Yahweh (Psa 83:18). The plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of the council are therefore “sons” of the God of Israel. Elsewhere the “sons of God” are obviously divine beings (e.g., Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7–8). However, there is one passage, Hos 1:10, that uses a similar phrase of humans (“sons of the living God”), and Israelites on occasion were referred to as Yahweh’s “sons” (Exod 4:22–23).

Psalm 82 and Psalm 89 in Tandem. Psalm 82’s council of plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim) would be ambiguous if it were the only example. Without context, it might seem to describe Yahweh presiding over a council or group of human judges. However, there is another passage that both uses the same language of divine plurality in a council and rules out that language with human beings.
Psalm 89:5–7 places Yahweh’s council of אֱלֹהִים (elohim) “in the clouds.” This shows that these “sons of God” are not humans—no text in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible suggests that there are a group of human judges in the heavens ruling with Yahweh over the nations.

Deuteronomy 32 as the Backdrop to Psalm 82. Psalm 82 judges the council אֱלֹהִים (elohim) for their corrupt administration—this also shows that they are not human. The last verse of the psalm shows what the council אֱלֹהִים (elohim) were supposed to be administrating. The psalmist implores the God of Israel to rise up and “inherit” all the nations. The lemma behind “inherit” (נחל, nchl) is precisely the same lemma used to describe Yahweh’s punitive judgment of the nations at the tower of Babel. He allotted the nations to the sons of God, and allotted those same divine beings to the nations that he was disinheriting. The key passages are Deut 32:8–9 and its parallel, Deut 4:19–20:
Deuteronomy 32:8: “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance (נחל, nchl), when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God (בני האלהים, bny h'lhym) But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage (נַחֲלָתוֹ, nachalatho).”
Deuteronomy 4:19: “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, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, whom the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance (נַחֲלָה, nachalah), as you are this day.”
Both of these passages assume the reality of other אֱלֹהִים (elohim). Passages in Deut 4:19–20 through 32:8–9 identify the “host of heaven” as “other gods” (אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים, elohim acherim) worshiped by Israelites in defiance of Deut 4:19–20. For example, Deut 29:23–25 (Deut 29:24–26 in English) contains phrases found in Deut 32:8–9, where the nations were allotted by Yahweh to the sons of God:
“All the nations will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’ Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods (אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים, elohim acherim) and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them.’ “
Deuteronomy 32:17 identifies these אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim) (the hosts of heaven and sons of God) as demons—real beings (Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:17”). These אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim) are not simply idols, pieces of wood and stone.
Ancient Near Eastern idolaters knew that idols were not the actual deities they represent. While both the entity and the cult object might be called אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim), this does not mean that ancient people considered a human-made statue to be identical to the god it looked like. As Robins, a scholar of ancient cult objects notes: “When a non-physical being manifested in a statue, this anchored the being in a controlled location where living human beings could interact with it through ritual performance … In order for human beings to interact with deities and to persuade them to create, renew, and maintain the universe, these beings had to be brought down to earth.… This interaction had to be strictly controlled in order to avoid both the potential dangers of unrestricted divine power and the pollution of the divine man realm was brought about through their manifestation in a physical body, manifestation in one body did not in any sense restrict a deity, for the non-corporeal essence of a by the impurity of the human world. While the ability of deities to act in the visible, human realm was brought about through their manifestation in a physical body, manifestation in one body did not in any sense restrict a deity, for the non-corporeal essence of a deity was unlimited by time and space, and could manifest in all its ‘bodies,’ in all locations, all at one time” (Robins, “Cult Statues in Ancient Egypt,” 1–2).

Human Elder-Judges of Israel and Plural אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim). There are passages that seem to use אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim) to mean the human elders of Israel acting as judges, but this is not the correct reading.
Exodus 22:6–8 (translation from the JPS Tanakh):
“When a man gives money or goods to another for safekeeping, and they are stolen from the man’s house—if the thief is caught, he shall pay double; if the thief is not caught, the owner of the house shall come near to God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim) that he has not laid hands on the other’s property. In all charges of misappropriation—pertaining to an ox, an ass, a sheep, a garment, or any other loss, whereof one party alleges, ‘This is it’—the case of both parties shall come before God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim): he whom God (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) declares guilty (יַרְשִׁיעֻן, yarshi'un) shall pay double to the other.”
If the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) and הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in Exod 22:6–8 were human beings (the elder-judges of Israel), Psa 82 may be describing Israelite judges. The plural predicate in Exod 22:8 (יַרְשִׁיעֻן, yarshi'un) would seem to support this—if the passage speaks of Israel’s judges rendering decisions for the people. However, there are several problems with this use of the passage.
First, these judges (if הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim; and אֱלֹהִים, elohim; are plural and referring to people) give decisions for the nation of Israel—not the nations of the world as is the case in Psa 82 and Deut 32. Also, אֱלֹהִים (elohim) and הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in Exod 22:8 might be singular, and might not refer to human beings.
Exodus 18:13–24—where Moses appoints judges—might suggest that אֱלֹהִים (elohim) and הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in Exod 22:8 are humans. However, the story of the judges uses אֱלֹהִים (elohim) and הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) to refer to God:
“The next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening? Moses replied to his father-in-law, ‘It is because the people come to me to inquire of God (אֱלֹהִים, elohim). When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.’ But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) be with you! You represent the people before God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim): you bring the disputes before God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim) and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.’ Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.”
There is nothing in Exodus 18 to suggest that אֱלֹהִים (elohim) or הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) are plural—these refer to the singular God of Israel. The same is true of Exodus 22. A singular translation referring to God Himself is the correct reading. Without evidence for a plural translation, the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) cannot be assumed to be the elders of Israel. Also, the men appointed by Moses in Exod 18 are never actually called אֱלֹהִים (elohim) or הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in the text. This account of the appointment of judges, then, does not support the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in Psa 82 being humans.
There is one other passage that speaks of אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in a context similar to that of Exod 22:8. Exodus 21:2–6 reads:
“When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim), and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.”
It is possible that the master is commanded to bring the slave before the elder-judges of Israel (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim) before pierce his ear. However, this unlikely.
First, הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) can be singular, referring to the God of Israel—as in Exod 18 and Exod 22. The promise about the status of the slave is being made in truth before God. However, there is evidence that the redactor-scribes responsible for the final form of the text did not interpret הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) as singular—and also did not interpret a plurality as referring to human beings. The parallel passage in Deut 15 shows that redactors saw הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) as semantically plural: the parallel in Deut 15:17 removes the word הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) from the instruction. If this were thought to mean the God of Israel, the redactors would not have removed it from the text. Again, if הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) had been understood as plural humans, Israel’s judges, they would not have removed it. If הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) were intended as a semantically plural word that referred to gods, then the reason for deleting was theological (Gordon, “אלהים, 'lhym; in Its Reputed Meaning of Rulers”). Gordon argued that הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in Exod 21:6 referred to “household gods” like the teraphim of other passages. Bringing a slave into one’s home in patriarchal culture required the consent and approval of one’s ancestors—departed human dead, אֱלֹהִים (elohim)—as in 1 Sam 28:13. This phrase was later removed after Israel’s struggle with idolatry. Only a plural referring to multiple divine beings can coherently explain the deletion. As a result, this passage also does not support the plural human אֱלֹהִים (elohim) view.

Prophets and the Divine Council
Prophetic Commissioning: The Classical Prophets
There is also a connection between the divine council and the office of prophet (1 Kings 22).
A prophet or prophetess was a spokesperson for Yahweh. They were commissioned in an encounter with the divine: the prophet appeared in the divine throne room, where the council met and decrees were issued (Kingsbury, “Prophets and the Council of Yahweh”; Nissinen, “Prophets and the Divine Council”). Isaiah was taken to the throne-room of Yahweh (Isa 6:1–8), and the throne of the Lord came to Ezekiel (Ezek 1:1–14, 26–28). Jeremiah was called by the word of the Lord (Jer 1:4). This word was Yahweh (Jer 1:6–7), but was embodied in human form (Jer 1:9). Yahweh refers to this call when He said of the false prophets, “If they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds” (Jer 23:16, 22).
Prophetic Commissioning: The Broader Context
Someone who serves as the righteous spokesperson for God is also a prophet. God often meets with humans for spiritual business in the Bible:
God walked with Adam in the garden, the divine abode. He was God’s first human representative. Job 15:7–8 apparently alludes to this scene, as Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends, asks Job, “Are you the first man who was born? Or were you brought forth before the hills? Have you listened in the council (הַבְסוֹד, havsod) of God? Have you restricted wisdom to yourself?”
Enoch “prophesied” (Jude 14; 15) and “walked with God” (Gen 5:24).
Noah also “walked with God” (Gen 6:9). He was a “herald of righteousness” (2 Pet 2:5), and warned his fellow men of the coming judgment of the flood (1 Pet. 3:20).
The glory of Lord “appeared” to Abraham before he journeyed to Haran (Acts 7:2–4; Gen 15:1).
Yahweh appeared to Isaac (Gen 26:1–5) and Jacob (Gen 28:10–22; 31:11–13; 32:22–32; see Hos 12:3–4). The patriarchs were Yahweh’s spokesmen, through whom the world would be blessed (Gen 12:1–3).
He commissioned Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:1–15) and many subsequent occasions (e.g., 19:16–20:21; 24:9–18; 33:7–11).
Yahweh also directly commissioned the elders of Israel under Moses (Num 11:24–25).
He also commissioned Joshua (Deut 31:14–23; Josh 5:13–15).
Gideon met both Yahweh and the angel who was Yahweh—simultaneously (Judges 6).
Deborah received messages from Yahweh under “the Palm of Deborah” (Judg 4:4–5).
The word of the Lord “appeared” to Samuel to inform him of Eli’s fate (1 Sam 3:20–21).
The Divine Council as Prophetic Warriors and Witnesses
The prophets sometimes refer to the divine council when they declare eschatological holy war (Miller, “Call to War”). The divine council (along with human warriors) forms a cosmic army on the day of the Lord (Isa 13:1–8; Joel 3:11–12; Zech 14:1–5). This language draws upon other material in the Hebrew Bible that describes the divine council as an army (Deut 33:1–5; Psa 68:16–17; 2 Kgs 6:15–17). This is also the context for the common title for Israel’s God, “Lord of hosts”—“host” is a word used frequently in the Hebrew Bible for a military force (e.g., 2 Sam 3:23; Psa 108:12).
The divine council is the army of God, but also witnesses God’s decrees and acts. This idea is common outside the Hebrew Bible in other descriptions of divine councils (Bokovy, “Invoking the Council as Witnesses”). God often commands an unidentified group in a context that rules out a human audience (Cross, “The Council of Yahweh”). “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isa 40:1–2). The two imperatives “comfort” are grammatically plural in Hebrew, as are the ensuing commands “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her” (Isa 40:3). These commands are not directed at Jerusalem or Israel, for they are the objects of the commands—they may be directed at the divine council (Cross, “The Council of Yahweh”). Amos 3 describes the Lord’s intention to punish Israel. In Amos 3:7, we read that “the Lord God does nothing without revealing his council (סוֹד, sod) to the prophets.” Plural imperatives follow: “Proclaim to the strongholds … and say” and “Hear and testify against the house of Jacob, declares the Lord God, the God of hosts” (Amos 3:10; 3:13). Again, Israel and Judah are not the recipient of the commands—the divine council may be called upon to witness the judgment of the Lord (Bokovy, “Invoking the Council as Witnesses”).

The Divine Council and New Testament Views of Christ
The binitarian structure of the Israelite divine council has implications for the high view of Christ in the New Testament (Segal, “Trinitarian”; Stuckenbruck, “Angel”; Boyarin, “Memra”)
The Second Power in Heaven/Second Yahweh
A number of Jewish writers ca. 516 bc—ad 70 offered opinions as to the identity of the “second Yahweh,” the second power in heaven (Mach, “Concepts of Jewish Monotheism”; Hurtado, “How on Earth”; McGrath, The Only True God; Fossum, “Name”). These Jewish writers suggested significant men from the Old Testament—such as Adam, Enoch, Abraham, and Moses—and specific angels—Gabriel, Michael, and the “Prince of the Host” from Daniel 10. Some did not attempt to further identify the angel of Yahweh (Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology; Hannah, Michael and Christ; Stuckenbruck, “Angel”).
For Christians, the second Yahweh was Jesus. It is for this reason that the New Testament describes Jesus with all the descriptions of Yahweh’s co-regent: the name (which Jesus manifests by his presence: John 17:6, 11–12, 26), the word (John 1:1), the cloud-rider (Matt 26:64), wisdom (1 Cor 1:24), and the angel of Yahweh (Jude 5; Num 14:29; Fossum, “Name”; Fossum, “Image”; Segal, “Two Powers”; Boyarin, “Memra”).
Jesus as the Unique Son of God (μονογενής, monogenēs)
Jesus is the “only begotten” Son of God—but “only begotten” is a confusing translation. The Greek word is μονογενής (monogenēs). Not only does the translation “only begotten” seem to contradict the obvious statements in the Old Testament about other sons of God, it sounds as though there was a time when the Son did not exist—that He had a beginning. The Council of Nicaea in 425 taught that the Son had always existed, but the idea of the uncreated, eternal Son had been understood since the beginning of the Church—it was believed to be the teaching of the New Testament.
The Greek word μονογενής (monogenēs) doesn’t actually mean “only begotten.” It presents a problem neither with respect to Jesus having a beginning, nor with respect to divine “sons of God” who are called gods (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) in the Old Testament. The confusion extends from a misunderstanding of the root of the Greek word. For many years, μονογενής (monogenēs) was thought to have derived from two Greek terms, μόνος (monos, “only”) and γεννάω (gennaō, “to beget, bear”). Scholars of Greek eventually discovered, though, that the second part of the word μονογενής (monogenēs) does not come from the Greek verb γεννάω (gennaō), but rather the noun γένος (genos, “class, kind”). The term literally means “one of a kind” or “unique” with no connotation to time, origin or solitary existence. The validity of this understanding is shown by the New Testament itself. In Hebrews 11:17, Isaac is called Abraham’s μονογενής (monogenēs)—but Isaac was not the only son Abraham fathered, since he fathered Ishmael prior to Isaac. The term must mean that Isaac was Abraham’s unique son—the son of the covenant promises and the line through which the messiah would come. Just as Yahweh is an אֱלֹהִים (elohim), and no other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are Yahweh, so Jesus is the unique son, and no other sons of God are like Him.
Jesus’ Quotation of Psalm 82 in John 10
John 10:34 may seem to imply that the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in Psa 82:6 are human beings. However, this interpretation nullifies any sense that Jesus’ argument in John 10 is a defense of His own deity. In John 10:30, Jesus tells his audience that He and the Father were one. The Jews were deeply offended by this comment, as indicated by their response in 10:31–33. They picked up stones to kill Him, for they thought He was making Himself equal with God. Jesus’ response is usually interpreted as a concession. That is, He was only saying of Himself what the Jews could say of themselves, and used Psa 82:6 to show that humans can be called אֱלֹהִים (elohim). This view both ignores the Old Testament context of the divine council and undermines John’s presentation of the deity of Jesus in his gospel:
Jesus’ asserted that He and the Father were one (Jn 10:30).
The Jews thought this was blasphemy—Jesus was claiming to be God (Jn 10:33).
In defense of His claim that He was one with God, Jesus quoted Psa 82:6.
Following the quotation, He states that the Father is in Him, and He was in the Father.
The usual interpretation of this passage—that the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) were human—is based on two assumptions:
1. Judaeo-Christian monotheism could not have other אֱלֹהִים (elohim).
2. “To whom the word of God came” refers to the Jews who received the law at Sinai (i.e. the Pharisees’ forefathers).
However, both of these assumptions are wrong. It is already clear that there were other uses of אֱלֹהִים (elohim). Also, “the word of God” was not the Law, and those who received it were not human. Psalm 82:6–7 says, “I said, ‘You are gods (אֱלֹהִים, elohim), even sons of the Most High (בְּנֵי עֶלְיוֹן, beney elyon), all of you; nevertheless, like humans you will die, and fall like any prince.’ “
The speaker (“I”) in the passage is the God of Israel, the God who is standing in the council in 82:1 among the lesser אֱלֹהִים (elohim). God announces that the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of the council are His sons, but because of their corruption (Psa 82:2–5), they will lose their immortality. The “word of God” in the original context is the specific utterance of Yahweh to His council members. They, in turn, are the recipients of that word (utterance). The recipients are not the Israelites at Sinai or any other group of Jews.
Jesus refers to the original utterance spoken by God when He quoted the psalm, not the Jewish nation receiving revelation, at Sinai or at any other time. Jesus is defending his statement to be one with the Father by reminding his hearers that their Old Testament teaches that there were divine sons of God who were אֱלֹהִים (elohim).

Differences in the views
Common Interpretation

This Proposal

Jesus’ strategy assumes אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are human

Jesus’ strategy assumes אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are divine

The “word of God that came” = revelation from God at Sinai, or some other event

The “word of God that came” = the utterance itself in Psa 82:6—the pronouncement from God

“to whom the word of God came” = the Israelites at Sinai, or the Jews generally

“to whom the word of God came” = the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of the divine council in 82:1

The Jews are the “sons of the Most High” and אֱלֹהִים (elohim)—so Jesus can call himself an אֱלֹהִים (elohim) as well, since he is a Jew. (This view emphasizes Jesus’ mortality)

The Jews are not אֱלֹהִים (elohim), and Jesus reminds them that their Scriptures say there are other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) who are divine sons.

In John 10:36–38, Jesus asserts that his high status as the Son is based on Him doing the works of His Father: the Father is “in him.” This phrase parallels Exod 23:20–21, where the Name—Yahweh’s Presence—was in the angel of Yahweh. In John 10:36–38, Jesus claims that the Presence is in Him. He is claiming to be the second power, or second Yahweh, which would in turn mean He was Lord of the divine council with the invisible Yahweh (the Father). Thus, Jesus’ claim of oneness with the Father is developed by the quotation and by what follows. The result is a powerful claim to deity, consistent with the rest of the gospel of John.

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Michael S. Heiser1

1.  OBO Orbis biblicus et orientalis
WUNT Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testamen
Heiser, M. S. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Divine Council. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.