Introducing the Little Known–but, oh, so important!–Divine Council

The greatest barrier to Christianity for Jews is the claim that Jesus is God. Worshiping more than one god got them into a lot of trouble in the Old Testament, so, understandably, they aren’t interested in entertaining the blasphemy that Jesus’ divinity appears to present to monotheism.

But what if “monotheism” according to the Old Testament—that is, the Jews’ Bible—actually has room for a co-equal with God? Daniel’s vision in chapter 7 says it does. Here’s how…

In the middle of the terrifying vision of ghastly beasts, the scene shifts to a heavenly throne room, where Daniel sees several thrones and the convening of a court. What Daniel is seeing is the divine council, a heavenly entourage that administers cosmic affairs under the rule of Yahweh (e.g., Deut 32:8–9; Pss 82:1; 89:5–7).

If you’ve never heard of this council, I’m not surprised. It doesn’t get much press in church. But every ancient Mesopotamian religion, including Israel, believed in a tiered council of divine beings with various responsibilities. Israel’s council was similar to that of an ancient civilization to its north, Ugarit, with one very important difference that Daniel’s vision will reveal. At the head of the Ugaritic council sat El, an aged god with a gray beard. Below him was the tier of the royal family, which included Baal—the storm god and El’s son. Known in Ugaritic literature as the Rider of the Clouds, Baal was El’s vice-regent. Then the council included third and fourth tiers of craftsmen gods and servants.[1]

Israel’s divine council had an upper tier of beings (those seated in the council in Dan 7) and a servant class of heavenly beings (angels), though it didn’t have a tier of craftsmen gods. Yahweh sat at the head of the council, overseeing the “sons of God” in the upper tier. But what about that vice-regent position? Did Israel’s council have someone there? If so, who? Hold that thought for a minute (or three) while we return to Daniel’s vision.

In the throne room scene, Daniel saw a resplendent white-haired being with brilliant clothing: the Ancient of Days. (This is the only place in the Bible where this title for Yahweh occurs, although the OT does talk a lot about God’s eternality. In Daniel’s vision, Yahweh’s eternality and dominion contrast with the beasts and their kingdoms, which are all about to disappear.) Daniel watched the Ancient of Days in a fiery scene, a sure sign of a theophany–that is, an appearance of God. (Think of the burning bush, the fire at Mt. Sinai, and the pillar of fire in the wilderness and you’ll see that fire accompanies God’s presence.)

When the council sat, a collection of books was opened. We’ll come back to the book business another day, but shortly after this part of the vision, Daniel saw “one like a son of man” arriving with the clouds to be presented to the Ancient of Days. The enthroned one awarded him an eternal kingdom and the worship of “all nations and peoples of every language.” The phrase “son of man” simply means “human” in the OT, so just as Daniel had compared the beasts to recognizable things, so he compared this figure to something recognizable: a human being.

But here’s where things get interesting. Clouds in the OT can also suggest an appearance of Yahweh. (Think of the clouds at Sinai, in the wilderness, and over the Tabernacle.) More precisely in this context, the picture of someone “on” or “with” clouds reflects Old Testament poetry where Yahweh rides a cloud chariot through the heavens (Pss 68:4; 104:3). Yahweh also rides a cloud in judgment (Isa 19:1; Nah 1:3).

So, wait a minute. The Ancient of Days is Yahweh, but one who rides the clouds is also Yahweh? How does that even work? In Daniel’s vision, these are two distinct characters—the one on the throne and the one arriving on the clouds. Are both Yahweh??

What Daniel saw was a stunning portrayal of the divine council in Israel’s theology. And he also saw its most significant difference from other divine councils. Stay with me here: Israel’s council was headed by Yahweh. In Daniel’s vision, Yahweh was seated on a fiery throne when a cloud-riding figure appeared before him. By all other Old Testament accounts, a cloud-rider was Yahweh. What Daniel saw was a second power in heaven, a vice-regent, who received everlasting dominion and power.

By itself, a divine council with a vice-regent receiving the right to rule forever was not unique in the ancient Near East. It happens in Ugaritic mythology. What was unique in Israel’s council was that the vice-regent position “was not filled by another god, but by Yahweh himself in another form. This ‘hypostasis’ of Yahweh was the same essence as Yahweh but a distinct, second person.”[2]

Do you get it? This tells us that monotheism according to the Old Testament has room in it for a “second person.” We won’t understand exactly who this “second person” is until we get to the NT. But don’t miss the profound implications of what Daniel sees: Israel’s divine council had exactly the right structure to understand Jesus in the New Testament.

I told you this vision got better.

 

[1] For more on the divine council in the ancient Near East and Israel, see Michael S. Heiser, “Divine Council,” (DOTWPW; ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008): 112–16. See also http://www.thedivinecouncil.com.

[2] Heiser, “Divine Council,” 114. Heiser notes that this hypostasis is most plainly seen in the Name theology of the Old Testament and in the “angel of Yahweh.”

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About wendywidder

For LOVE of the WORD
This entry was posted in Apocalyptic literature, Daniel 7, The Book of Daniel. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Introducing the Little Known–but, oh, so important!–Divine Council

  1. Lindsay says:

    Hi Wendy, I discovered Heiser’s work on this recently and I couldn’t believe I had missed it my whole Christian life… then suddenly a thousand things clicked, and it seems that every day things are falling into place! Then I’m embarrassed to find it frequently referred to in scholarship (though not as much as you would think), and somehow I had missed it there too!

    Thanks for sharing. I’m eager to read your commentaries when they are released.

    • wendywidder says:

      Hi Lindsay – I totally understand! I don’t think I’d ever heard the words “divine council” until I got to seminary, and I thought, “Wait, what?” And probably the only reason I’m familiar with Heiser’s material is because we crossed paths at UW-Madison and now we’re colleagues – but I’m a fan. You’re right – it helps put a lot of things in place! Heiser has a new book coming out this spring that you’ll want to read – “The Unseen Realm.” 🙂

  2. Pingback: Ancient Artifacts, Apocalypses, and the Ancient of Days | for LOVE of the WORD

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