Are the heavenly beings in conflict with one another?

This is the third and final post in a series in response to a multi-part question.

Part 3 of the question: It seems as if at one time the “sons of God” were united, but then there was some sort of strong disagreement between them. I wonder if this was because of something that happened. For instance, Genesis 6 mentions the sons of God sleeping with the daughters of men (which seems very odd).  Another event, mentioned in the book of Daniel, also shows a conflict. After Daniel prays, a radiant figure comes to him and says that his prayers were heard but the answer was delayed for twenty-one days because the prince of the kingdom of Persia was resisting. Is this also referring to the sons of God? What does all of this have to do with the talking snake in the garden of Eden? Is that somehow linked, is that part of the story, or is it just something unrelated?

The first and second posts in this series explain the ancient Near Eastern background to the idea of a “divine council” made up of “sons of God.” With that background, we now can appreciate that the image in the book of Revelation (which draws heavily on the heritage of Judaism for its symbolism) of a dragon whose tail “swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth” is indeed depicting conflict between heavenly beings. And since Revelation identifies this dragon as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan,” we see that there is indeed a connection between this and the talking snake in the garden of Eden.

We saw last time that Yahweh is acknowledged in the Bible as incomparable. No one, therefore, can successfully challenge his rulership over the divine council. But it appears that somehow, at some time, one of the heavenly beings tried to challenge it anyway. While this figure succeeded in enlisting many of the other “sons of God,” he was defeated and they all “lost their place in heaven,” as Revelation goes on to say.

The Bible doesn’t give us very many specifics about this, although we do get recurring hints about it in other places such as the one you mentioned about a radiant figure being able to come to Daniel only after being delayed by an opposing spirit being. One thing we are told is that the forces now in opposition to God are trying to recruit human beings to resist God with them. These forces have been trying to tempt and corrupt humanity ever since the beginning, in fact, and the devil even tried to tempt Jesus to disobey God and worship him instead. So we do need to recognize that we are living in the midst of a battlefield on which powerful spiritual forces are contenting. The Bible assures us that God will unquestionably  be victorious in the end. But in the meantime we must be careful all the time and remain scrupulously loyal to God.

We might wonder how a heavenly being could dare to challenge God, or even have the capacity to do that. It appears that the “sons of God” are endowed with freedom to make moral choices, just as people are. This freedom allows them to serve God not out of compulsion but out of love, as God would have it. But it necessarily also allows them to make unfortunate bad choices, and that is what we may conclude has happened.

As for the episode in which the “sons of God” marry the “daughters of men,” I invite you to read this post, in which I discuss that episode in detail.

Finally, let me return to Psalm 82, the passage you began by asking about, and suggest that there might be some connection between it and the place in Deuteronomy where Moses talks about how God “divided mankind” and “fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” The elohim or “sons of the Most High” in Psalm 82 are being judged for some kind of failure in their duty. They have “judged unjustly and shown partiality to the wicked,” rather than maintaining justice and rescuing the weak and needy. If these figures are indeed supernatural beings in the spiritual realm, rather than human judges on earth, then one possible occasion for this failure could be in connection with their role overseeing particular groups of people on earth. If, instead of maintaining justice as they were entrusted to do, they tried to aggrandize their own power and get people to worship them, and in the process they led entire societies and cultures to be distorted by the quest for power so that the weak and vulnerable were oppressed, then the punishment of losing their immortality seems to be one that fits the crime. They were “sons of God,” created spirit beings, but they were made “like mere mortals” when they tried to be worshiped as if they were self-existent gods themselves.

I admit that this is very speculative. In each of these posts I have cautioned about going beyond the little that the Bible actually tells us about these things. Perhaps we really have no idea what specific occasion Psalm 82 is addressing; perhaps we simply need to take its general teaching to heart and resolve to “give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute; rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” That would be something excellent for all of us to pursue. But in the process, we do need to remember, as I’ve just said, that we are on a spiritual battlefield, and so we need to call upon all the resources of faith and spiritual power as we work towards this worthy goal.

Peiter Bruegel the Elder, “The Fall of the Rebel Angels”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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