When you’re a religion major, it’s not uncommon to meet some disgruntled freshman, fresh out of his second-semester Old Testament class, railing against whatever it was that his parents raised him to believe, citing disparate factoids that his professor briefly covered, ripped from their context and wielded as shoddy weaponry in their crusade to have cool, edgy new opinions. One such factoid is the Ancient Near Eastern belief in what has come to be called the ‘heavenly court’ or the ‘heavenly council’.
There’s an entire chapter devoted to the subject in Peter Enns’ enjoyable if gratingly polemical The Bible Tells Me So, in which he goes to great lengths to make the ‘court’ seem as outlandish as possible, and suggests that its existence in the ancient Jewish imagination means that that most of we think that we know about the Old Testament is basically wrong. He published the aforementioned book pretty fresh off of being terminated from Westminster Theological Seminary because the angry, rich parents of some uppity seminarians complained that his Old Testament classes weren’t enough like Sunday School, so his hyperbolic approach may have reactionary.
In any case, the ‘heavenly court’ is alluded to primarily in ‘poetic’ sections of scripture, which muddies the water. It is not immediately obvious, for example, whether the imagery used in Psalm 82 should be taken as an affirmation that the ‘heavenly council’ is a concrete body that actually exists rather than a simply a literary device. Likewise, in 1 Kings 22:19-23, Micaiah alludes viscerally to the heavenly council as he describes a vision given to him by the Lord: The wicked king Ahab has requested his counsel on whether he should go to war with Ramoth-gilead – but not before having his messenger pressure Micaiah for a favorable prophecy. He replies:
“Hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and the whole heavenly host was standing by Him at His right hand and at His left hand. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab to march up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ So one was saying this and another was saying that.
“Then a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord, and said, ‘I will entice him.’
“The Lord asked him, ‘How?’
“He said, ‘I will go and become a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’
“Then He said, ‘You will certainly entice him and prevail. Go and do that.’
“You see, the Lord has put a lying spirit into the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has pronounced disaster against you.”
It is unclear, too, from this passage whether the council is a real entity or simply a common Near Eastern trope that YHWH, through the mouth of the prophet, is satirizing. The verbal prophecy is notably acerbic in tone, and was delivered as a response to Ahab’s complaints regarding his history of unfavorable prophesies. Adding to the formal ambiguity of the passage is the fact that it is puzzling to contemporary readers. Taken at face value, it not only suggests that there is a council of divines with whom the one God YHWH consults, but that He sometimes permits (even solicits!) them to sabotage individual humans (see also: 1 Sam 19:9-14). There is an inordinate demand, even within more conservative religious communities, for demythologized readings of passages of this sort.
What is not ambiguous is the of the book of Job, wherein the council (“the sons of God”) present themselves to YHWH and become spectators of the peculiar exchange between YHWH and Satan. He asks YHWH for permission to torment Job in an effort to incite him to curse YHWH, and permission is granted. He is not, however, given permission to harm Job himself. Later, a similar scene plays out, this time with Satan requesting permission to harm Job himself, again in an effort to incite him to renounce his faith. Again, permission is granted.
It is oft-suggested that the book of Job is ahistorical – that it is chiefly a poem, or a satirical play – and this may be the majority view among modern scholars, but this is an unsatisfactory theory. Although it is true that there is no substantive internal indication that Job is meant to be understood as a tale from history, there is intra-biblical evidence that the man, Job, was a historical figure. Ezekiel 14:15-20, for example, names Noah, Daniel, and Job together in a group.
Now, the reference to Job alone in this prophesy would not by necessity mean that he was a historical figure – the prophets were good rhetoricians (and so is the Holy Spirit) who put the imagery of the Near East to great use in their sermons and prophecies. But it is noteworthy that Ezekiel mentions three men: Noah, Daniel, and Job. Between these three, Daniel is certainly as historical figure, and one can probably expect consistency from Ezekiel here. Which means that, beyond reasonable doubt, it can be assumed that Ezekiel – and thus, probably, all of the ancient Hebrews – believed Job to be a historical figure. And in that case, it is unlikely that an ahistorical tale about a historical figure would be included in the canon (or inspired by the Spirit).
Thus, it can be inferred that the ‘heavenly court’, a common trope in ancient Near Eastern mythology, is, in fact, a historical body – not simply a bit of familiar mythological imagery that the Old Testament writers put to use for rhetorical purposes. As such, the other mentions of the heavenly council throughout the scriptures, although they occur in a variety of genres and therefore must be examined critically, should be understood to refer accurately to a real entity.
Pagan sources are somewhat varied on precisely how the court worked, but a few things were generally agreed upon: The universe was created by the council of gods, either by cooperation or by competition with one another. The world was divvied up and each god took a territory. Together, they bestow kingship on humans (or take it away), and oversee questions of justice and the miscarriage thereof. They hear oaths, treaties, blessings, and curses. They make divine decrees, declare war, and commission the building of holy temples. In some iterations, the gods in the assembly would make obeisance to a higher god.
In the Hebrew scriptures, the assembly was not a gathering of equals, as YHWH appears to have been the final, and perhaps singular, authority over the other supernatural beings with whom He would gather. The other members of the court, the ‘lesser gods’ (Ps. 96:4-5; 97:7-9), would carry out the will of YHWH, sometimes, apparently, by influencing humans (1 Kings 22:20-22) Strangely enough, Satan was apparently granted some degree of access to the court (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7; Zech. 3:1-2), which has led scholars to suggest that the Jews originally envisaged him as a member of the court whose duty was to keep watch over humanity’s conduct on earth. However, a lack of slam-dunk intra- or extra-biblical evidence supporting this view makes difficult to demonstrate, so there is little reason to depart from the traditional understanding, best articulated by John, that Satan was an antagonistic figure from ‘the beginning’ (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8; Rev. 20:2).
What is not clear is the extent to which their subservience to YHWH was willing or coerced. The Qumran sect identified the beings who abided on YHWH’s council as ‘the holy ones’ – a term that shows up often, especially throughout the Psalms and elsewhere. If this is the case, then the heavenly court is presented, it would seem, in a positive light. The ‘holy ones’ are portrayed worshipping YHWH joyfully and carrying out His will with apparently unadulterated enthusiasm. A cursory reading of the Old Testament suggests that this is unlikely. Of the passages often believed to associate the ‘holy ones’ with the heavenly court (Dt. 33:2-3; Ps. 68:17; 89:5-8; Zec. 14:5), only Ps. 89:5-8 is demonstrably a reference to the court:
Lord, the heavens praise Your wonders—
Your faithfulness also—
in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can compare with the Lord?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord?
God is greatly feared in the council of the holy ones,
more awe-inspiring than all who surround Him.
Lord God of Hosts,
who is strong like You, Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds You.
The rest, with the possible exception of Zechariah 14:5, read rather like references to the people of Israel. Thus, although the ‘holy ones’ of the council ‘greatly feared’ the Lord, it cannot be assumed that they treasured His authority or carried out His will with a glad heart, as did the ‘holy ones’ of Israel (in theory, of course). Given the incongruity between the inherent ‘territorialism’ of the pagan conceptions of the heavenly court and the unambiguous ‘unilateralism’ of the Biblical accounts of the court, an interested observer may venture to guess that the arrangement was never to the liking of the ‘lesser gods’ over whom YHWH presided. So much so, it would seem, that the Babylonian Enuma Elish declares that ‘Marduk is supreme in the court of the gods,’ not YHWH, and that ‘No one among the gods is his equal,’ – if he couldn’t be ‘supreme’ at the office, at least he’d brag as though he were at home.
All of which is to say, the existence of the ‘heavenly court’ doesn’t seem to be particularly at odds with a fairly traditional understanding of the God of the Old Testament. It does not, as some have suggested, destabilize the notion that Israel was consistently monotheistic in orientation. At most, it implies a kind of soft Henotheism, but hardly the sort that ought to stir up controversy. A council of ‘lesser gods’ who serve the unilateral will of YHWH, whose disobediences and rebellions are only possible by His sovereign permission, is no particular challenge to the vision of continuity between the Old-and-New Testament conceptions of the Godhead that have been passed down. The ‘heavenly court’ poses no challenge to ‘the faith once delivered’.
For reference, see:
Min Suc Kee: “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31, no. 3 (2007)
Clinton E. Arnold. Powers of darkness: principalities & powers in Pauls letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
Gatumu, Kabiro Wa. The Pauline concept of supernatural powers: a reading from the African worldview. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Milton Keynes , MK: Paternoster, 2008.