Angels: A Review of Heiser’s Latest Book
The New Age movement of the 90s saw a resurgence in the interest of angels. The popular TV show Touched by an Angel, was evidence of this upsurge of interest. I even knew a lady who held “angel seminars,” which was especially interesting in light of her lack of belief in the Bible and holding no theology degree or any special qualifications! A combination of mythology, misinformation, and misunderstanding of the Bible has led to many faulty notions about angels. In his latest book, Angels: What the Bible Really Says About God’s Heavenly Host,” Michael Heiser (resident scholar at FaithLife/Logos), sets the record straight. As Heiser states in his Introduction, “What you’ll read here isn’t guided by Christian tradition, stories, speculations, or well-meaning myths about angels. Instaed our study is rooted in the biblical terminology for the members of God’s heavenly host, informed by the wider context of the ancient Near Eastern world and close attention to the biblical text” (p. xiii).
This book is a follow-up to Heiser’s ground-breaking book The Unseen Realm (or it’s less technical, more popular version entitled Supernatural). One can certainly benefit from Angels without having read one of the previous volumes, but this book will make you want to pick up one of the aforementioned volumes if you are not acquainted with them.
Content of Angels
Heiser’s introduction begins by asking the question “Why Bother?” Although some may find the subject of angels intriguing, isn’t it really a periphery topic in Scripture? Heiser provides four answers: 1) The simplest explanation is, “…if God moved the biblical writers to take care when talking about the unseen realm, then it matters” (p. xiv); 2) Like us, heavenly beings are created in God’s image and through a study of them we become more aware of what it means to be God’s imagers; 3) Since God’s plan is ultimately to unite all things in heaven and earth, a study of angels helps us to better understand and appreciate that plan; and 4) it helps us to anticipate the great plan that is in store for us as we reign eternally with Christ.
Chapter 1: “Old Testament Terminology for the Heavenly Host”–Heiser points out that not all heavenly beings are angels. This chapter also has a very helpful breakdown of OT terminology of divine beings into three categories: 1) Terms that describe nature; 2) terms that describe status; 3) terms that describe function. This three-fold breakdown is very illuminating and worth the price of the book alone.
Chapter 2: “The Heavenly Host in Service to God”–While the previous chapter discussed some of the functions of divine beings, this chapter delves into three other areas that include: 1) Participation in God’s heavenly council; 2) Obedience to God’s decisions; and 3) Praise of the Most High.
Chapter 3: “Important Angels”–includes discussions of the Angel of Yahweh (Heiser musters evidence to argue that this being should be identified with the Second Person of the Trinity), the commander of Yahweh’s army (see Josh. 5:13-15), the destroying angel of the passover, and the two angels named in Scripture, Gabriel and Michael, along with the heavenly being known as the Prince of the Host.
Chapter 4–“The Language of the Heavenly Host in Second Temple Judaism”–This chapter, and the next, as the title suggests moves beyond Old Testament descriptions of the divine world and looks at the Jewish writings of the intertestamental period to understand what Jews thought and taught about the heavenly realm. For those who want a breakdown of the usage of the terms used to describe heavenly beings, Heiser has presented some very helpful charts with references to Second Temple texts and the LXX (Septuagint). While Second Temple Judaism did at times conflate some of the OT language by using the term “angels,” to refer to various divine beings, Heiser provides an important study of the LXX to demonstrate that angels didn’t become the only term used. The reason this is important is because scholarly dogma asserts that the Jews of the Second Temple period moved from the earlier polytheism of the ancient Israelites to a strict monotheism. Thus a term such as “gods” found in the OT came to be translated as “angels” in the LXX (e.g., Ps. 8:5). Heiser disputes this by demonstrating that the change in terminology of the LXX is not as widespread as previously asserted. The point in all of this is to show that the diverse language of the OT regarding the heavenly realm never was evidence of a more primitive polytheism. The Jews of the Second Temple period continued to use this same language, demonstrating that they understood the language to communicate truths about the divine realm and not language that compromises a monotheistic outlook. Admittedly for some lay people, this discussion may be more than what they bargained for. However, in scholarly circles, this is a very important issue and Heiser’s research is invaluable in demonstrating that the OT does not teach a form of polytheism.
Chapter 5: “Second Temple Jewish Angelology”–This may be another chapter that the lay person either briefly skims or skips altogether. Yet, like the previous chapter, it is an important one and one that would have left this book incomplete had it not been included. In this chapter Heiser surveys what Second Temple Literature has in common with the OT and how it diverges from the OT. The reason the contents of this chapter are important is that it helps in painting the backdrop to what Jews in the New Testament thought and believed about angels and the divine world.
Chapter 6: “The Heavenly Host in the New Testament”–No doubt this chapter is what many Christians will want to rush to read. But, I would caution that, just as there was a biblical history before the NT documents were written with particular language about heavenly beings, so Heiser’s treatment follows that same route and it is important to get the background knowledge before plunging into this chapter on the NT. One of the important observations made by Heiser in this chapter is his statement that, “For New Testament authors, angelos [angel] is a catchall term for the supernatural agents who faithfully attend God. The varied vocabulary of the Old Testament and Second [Temple] Jewish literature is therefore largely conflated into angelos” (p. 120). This observation explains why many Christians are unfamiliar with Old Testament terminology (and therefore suspicious of books and teachers who seek to explain that terminology) and why we use the word angels to describe all creatures in the divine realm.
Chapter 7: “Special Topics in New Testament Angelology”–This chapter and the last one (Chapter 8) are catchall chapters and include interesting topics and questions that didn’t fit into the discussion of the previous chapters. The questions discussed in this chapter include, “Who are the ‘angels of the seven churches’ in Revelation 1-3?”, “Can ‘fallen angels’ be redeemed?”, “Are fallen angels included in reconciling ‘all things’?”, and several more.
Chapter 8: “Myths and Questions about Angels,”–This chapter includes questions about angels submitted to Heiser that he solicited from readers of his former books in preparation for this book. Again, I will not present an exhaustive list, but here are a few: “Angels have wings…and they’re women too?”, “Angels exist outside time and space”, and “Angels can read minds and manipulate the material world.”
Evaluation of Angels
Heiser continues to perform a great service to the Church and to all who are interested in what the Bible teaches about the heavenly realm and the beings that dwell there. This book may not be for the novice. Heiser refers to the Hebrew and Greek words and the footnotes at times take the discussion deeper, as well as refer to other scholarly literature on the subject. Along these lines, it is more akin to Heiser’s previous book The Unseen Realm, as opposed to Supernatural which was written in a more popular and less technical format. Perhaps in the future, Heiser will do a similar thing with his Angels book? This warning is not to discourage anyone from reading this book, however. It’s not a bad thing to challenge oneself to reading something that goes a little deeper than what is comfortable. Such reading stretches a person. I often find that Christians challenge themselves to read or study other very technical subjects but when it comes to the Bible they are content to read only what comes easy. For anyone who takes the time, this book is well worth the effort. Having said that, the people who will probably benefit the most from it are pastors, teachers, and students. Hopefully this book will gain a wide reading, dispelling popular myths about angels as well as providing a solid biblical foundation for understanding them.
Angels is available at Lexham Press, Amazon USA / UK and other internet outlets.
Many thanks to Lexham Press for this free review copy. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.