Were the disciples speaking in tongues on Pentecost?

Q. Was it the gift of tongues being exemplified in the book of Acts at Pentecost or would this fall under the category of a great miracle? I ask this because many cessationists believe that the babbling experienced today in many churches is not of God, yet literally everyone that is close to me prays in tongues. Some will point back to what happened in Pentecost and say that the “babbling” today can’t be of God because the gift of tongues is not that, yet Paul says to the Corinthians, “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit.” So was the gift of tongues at Pentecost or was this symbolic of the Great Commission and the gospel being preached to all nations?

I’d like to point out first that it’s never correct to describe the exercise of the gift of tongues as “babbling.” That implies that what is being said is nonsensical. “Babbling” is a term that’s used by people who want to oppose and perhaps ridicule the use of the gift today. But the Bible describes at least three uses of this gift, and in every case the understanding is that the person is speaking something meaningful in an actual language. The word “tongue” is being used in the sense of “language,” as when we say of a person, “His mother tongue is English.” The Greek uses the usual word for “language,” which can also mean “tongue,” whenever it describes this gift.

Greek has a separate, distinct word for “babbler,” meaning someone who says things that don’t make sense. This other term is found, for example, in the book of Acts, when the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens accuse Paul of making no sense because he’s talking about the resurrection of the body: What is this babbler trying to say? But that term is never used in the Bible for someone who’s “speaking in tongues,” which really means speaking in a language that has not been acquired in the usual way through immersion or study.

One use that Paul describes for this gift is to bring an authoritative message from God to a group of believers who have gathered together for worship. But the premise is that this message is meaningful, in an actual language, because Paul says that such a message should only be shared if someone is present who can “interpret” it. The word used means to “translate” from one language to another, as in Acts 9:36, where Luke reports, “Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas.” So clearly an actual language is in view.

Another use that Paul describes for the gift of tongues is in prayer to God. I believe that’s what he’s referring in the passage you quote in your question. No one else understands the person not because what they’re saying isn’t meaningful, but because they don’t understand the language that’s being spoken. And so, Paul warns, such prayers should not be said out loud in worship if they are not interpreted. “Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else,” Paul asks, “say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying?” Clearly the speaking here is directed towards God, not towards the assembled believers. So this is a second use of the gift. And note that Paul doesn’t say, “since what you’re saying doesn’t make any sense,” i.e. you’re “babbling.” Instead, he says, “they do not know what you are saying,” that is, they don’t understand the actual language in which you’re speaking.

We might wonder what the value of this would be even for the person praying, since they don’t know what they’re saying either. But I think this is also what Paul is talking about when he writes in Romans, “We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.” (There Paul says that this is through “groanings too deep for words,” but in both cases the idea is that the Spirit is taking someone’s prayers beyond the limits of the human language that they know.) So the value for the person praying is to have the reassurance that the Spirit’s prayers are being added to their own as they intercede for something. They don’t understand what’s being said, but they know that it has to be meaningful.

The third use for the gift of tongues is to proclaim the good news about Jesus across a language barrier that would otherwise stand in the way. This is what I see happening on the day of Pentecost. It’s true that the events of that day also constitute a great sign that the good news is for all people and that the curse of Babel has been broken that made different languages a barrier to human community. As the book of Acts progresses, we see the promise of this day realized as people from wider and wider parts of the Roman Empire become followers of Jesus. But the promise began to come true on the day of Pentecost itself, as three thousand people became believers after hearing the good news in their own languages.

There are stories and traditions in church history about further uses of this expression of the gift of tongues. For example, some of the earliest missionaries to various parts of the world are said to have been granted the ability to preach the gospel in the local languages without formally acquiring them. I’ve personally heard several anecdotes about people in our own day having similar experiences. A further theory I’ve heard is that this expression of the gift of tongues might also manifest itself in divinely aided language acquisition: God would help us learn a new language much faster and better than we could in our unaided human ability, so that we could use that language to share the good news. I don’t see why we couldn’t consider that an expression of the gift of tongues as well.

So to summarize, if someone argues that the gift of tongues was not being used on Pentecost because the speech then was meaningful, while speaking in tongues consists of meaningless babbling, the proper response is to say that the gift of tongues actually always involves speaking meaningful things in an actual language, whether to address a group in worship, to speak to God in prayer, or to share the good news across a language barrier. So if speaking in tongues in worship or prayer is meaningful speech, then the events of the day of Pentecost, which were also meaningful speech, could have been, and were, another expression of the gift of tongues.

An icon of the Holy Spirit descending on the first believers at Pentecost.

Does our sin cause pain to the indwelling Spirit of God?

Q. We read in Romans that the Holy Spirit “groans” and elsewhere that He “grieves” for us. When we sin, does the indwelling Spirit of God actually suffer pain for us? Is this something that will end when He’s taken out of the world in the future?

Paul writes in Ephesians, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” I think we can indeed conclude from this that the actions of committed followers of Jesus can cause genuine pain to the Holy Spirit, who lives inside of them. In this context we are told that it is specifically actions that break the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” as Paul puts it at the beginning of this section, that are particularly grievous—actions that destroy relationships instead of healing and strengthening them. But I think we can also conclude from the broader context that dishonest and immoral actions are also very disappointing and hurtful to the indwelling Spirit.

Paul’s comments in Romans about the Spirit “groaning” are actually a reference to the Spirit’s ministry of intercessory prayer for the whole creation. Paul describes how “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth,” waiting to be set free from the effects of the Fall. He then notes that “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” And finally he adds that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Since these groans are compared with the pains of childbirth, they certainly express an intense and desperate longing. The Spirit knows what redemption will look like and keenly feels the difference between that and the present state of creation. But this is not pain caused by the current sins of believers, though it is due to the effects of original sin.

In general we may say that because the Holy Spirit is not a mere force, but rather a genuine person, the Spirit can and does experience emotions, including hurt and disappointment at human disobedience. We see a further example of this in Isaiah. The prophet first relates what God did for Israel: “In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Unfortunately Isaiah must then say about the people of Israel, “Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit.”

So not wanting to cause pain to the Spirit, who is supposed to be our Paraclete—translated variously as Comforter, Helper, Counselor, Advocate, and Friend—should be a strong incentive for us not to commit sins.

As for whether the Spirit will no longer have to suffer this kind of pain “when He’s taken out of the world in the future,” I think I know where you get the idea that He will be removed from the world, but I don’t believe that’s something we can be certain will actually happen.

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, speaking of the “man of lawlessness” (often believed to be the Antichrist), Paul says, “For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way.” Some interpreters take this to be a reference to the Holy Spirit and an indication that at some point in the future, as the end times approach, He will be “taken out of the way.”

That is a possible interpretation, but personally I find it hard to believe that God would ever remove the Holy Spirit from the earth. The Bible describes how the Spirit has an essential role in maintaining creation (Psalm 104, for example, speaks of the Spirit regularly refreshing creation and “renewing the ground“), and beyond that, the Spirit’s influence is crucial in bringing people to salvation. I don’t believe that God would withdraw that influence as long as people were living on earth and in need of a Savior.

So we have a double incentive for a life of obedience and holiness: Our sins do cause pain to the Spirit, and that pain may last as long as there are people on earth who ought to obey but don’t.

Why was a woman “unclean” for twice as long after having a baby girl?

Q. Why did God consider a woman unclean longer when she had given birth to a girl than a boy? Does it have to do with the Fall?

No, the law in Leviticus that says that a mother is ceremonially unclean for seven days after giving birth if her baby is a boy, but for fourteen days if her baby is a girl, has nothing to do with the Fall.

It’s actually a misunderstanding of biblical teaching to believe that the woman was primarily responsible for the Fall and so women in general are in some way more guilty in God’s eyes than men. I will first address this concern, and then I will share what I think is the real reason for this law.

Paul does write in his first letter to Timothy that “Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” However, when Paul says this, he is actually correcting a false teaching that was circulating in Ephesus and nearby areas. This teaching held that a deceptive god had created the physical world, including Adam, and that this god had pretended to him to be the supreme God. But Eve, or Zoe, or the pre-existing female principle, had opened Adam’s eyes to see that physical matter was a prison for the spirit (as was widely held in Greco-Roman philosophy) and that the god who had made it couldn’t really be the supreme God. Paul responds that Adam was not deceived, the Creator was the true God; the woman was deceived by the serpent to believe that God was somehow holding back on them or misleading them. I discuss all of this in much greater length in a series of four posts on this blog that begin here. Those posts link to an even more detailed discussion (17 posts), which begins here, on another of my blogs.

We need to appreciate that Paul speaks extensively in Romans and 1 Corinthians about how it was the transgression of Adam that brought sin and death into the world. He contrasts the deadly consequences of Adam’s disobedience with the saving effects of Christ’s obedient death. He says, for example, that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive,” and that while “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people,” “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” If Eve was actually responsible for the Fall, and Adam basically was not, then Paul’s arguments here have no force.

The Genesis account itself tells us that Adam was present with Eve while she was speaking with the serpent, and that they ate of the fruit together at the same time. So we should understand the Fall as something for which Adam and Eve were jointly responsible. Anything in the Bible that seems to suggest that God regards women differently from men therefore must have some other explanation.

We can typically find this explanation in the ancient historical context. For example, a little bit later in Leviticus than the law you’re asking about, the issue is addressed of how much should be paid to redeem a person who is vowed to the Lord. I won’t get into the whole background to that practice; let me simply observe that Leviticus specifies that the equivalent value for a man is fifty shekels of silver, while for a woman it’s thirty shekels. Does this mean that women are less valuable in God’s eyes than men?

No, it doesn’t. When we consider the entire passage, we find that these are the values for adults in the prime of life. By contrast, men over sixty are to be redeemed for fifteen shekels and women over sixty for ten, while children and teenagers are to be redeemed for twenty shekels if male and for ten shekels if female. We see that what is actually in view is the value of the person’s labor. And in this pre-industrial society, that was measured in terms of physical strength. That is why older men and teenage boys are redeemed for less than full-grown men; they’re not considered less valuable intrinsically. (Babies and children under five, incidentally, are redeemed for five shekels if male and for three shekels if female, reflecting their future labor potential.) So once we understand the historical context, we recognize that no value judgment against women is being expressed.

To understand the background to the specific law you’re asking about, we need to first to appreciate what “unclean” means. It doesn’t mean “dirty” or anything negative along those lines. Rather, it’s a reflection of one of the two central thematic concepts in Leviticus. The default state of any created thing is that it is common and clean. “Common” means that something has not been set apart for a special purpose, that is, it has not been declared “holy.” If a thing is “clean,” however, it can be set apart and made holy; if it is “unclean,” it cannot, until it is made clean again. We might think of cleanness as “eligibility” for the special purposes of holiness.

As we look at the various laws regarding cleanness in Leviticus, we see that it has especially to do with the boundaries of the human body. If those boundaries are compromised in some way, then a person needs to restore them in order to become clean again. Skin diseases, for example, create a break in the outer boundary of the body. Some foods can cause uncleanness by passing into the body through its boundaries. And certainly having a baby represents a breach in the boundaries of the body, because someone who was on the inside moves to the outside.

In cases of uncleanness, Leviticus provides for a person to return to a state of cleanness after the situation that has compromised the boundaries is resolved, and this is typically accomplished through ceremonial washing, offerings, and a time of waiting, after which the person returns to the community. Since, for some reason, the waiting period after childbirth is twice as long for a baby girl as for a baby boy, the question becomes, “In what way would her birth represent twice the breach in the boundaries of the body?”

The Bible doesn’t give us the answer to that question specifically, but I would like to offer a couple of suggestions that would reflect the biblical culture. First, in ancient Hebrew society, a woman who got married moved out of her “father’s house” and went to live with her husband’s family. The double waiting period may have been intended to allow the mother to come to terms with the fact that her daughter might well “leave” her twice, first by being born, and then by getting married. (I often think of the waiting period as an opportunity for a person who was formerly “unclean” to settle into a new identity. We can recognize this as one of the purposes of the maternity leaves that modern societies offer; they’re not just for making practical arrangements to adjust to life with a baby.)

Another possibility would be that the baby girl was recognized as a potential mother herself, and so when she was born, in a sense her own child was also born with her. That would also represent twice the breach.

However, this is admittedly speculative, since, as I said, the Bible does not tell us the answer explicitly. So let me just conclude by observing one more significant aspect of the law here: The same offering is specified for either a boy or a girl. If having a baby girl really made the mother more guilty before God, then a greater offering would be required in that case.

What became of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus?

Q. What became of Mary Magdalene and Mary the Virgin Mother of God? I hear some people say that Jesus married Magdalene. And did Jesus take them into heaven?

Let me start with Mary Magdalene. We learn some important things about her in the gospels. Luke tells us that during the Galilean part of Jesus’ ministry, he “traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”

This shows us that, for one thing, Mary must have been wealthy; she may have been a member of the upper class, like the highly-placed Joanna. Her name suggests that she was from Magdala, which in biblical times was a prosperous and influential city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Clearly Jesus delivered her from severe spiritual oppression. The fact that she traveled with him afterwards means that she would have gotten to know him well and heard much of his teaching. The gospels also record that she traveled to Jerusalem with Jesus and the disciples, that she witnessed his crucifixion, and that she was the first person to see him after he rose from the dead and  proclaim his resurrection.

We get no further information about Mary Magdalene from the Bible after the end of the gospels, but early traditions suggest that she was able to use her social position to share the gospel in the highest circles of Roman society, including with the emperor himself. Some traditions also suggest that she went to live in Ephesus for the last part of her life, in one version of the story as a companion to the Virgin Mary. But we can’t be certain about these details.

There is no evidence from the Bible or from history that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ever married. Rather, it’s quite possible that Mary had a wealthy husband back in Magdala who supported her ministry to Jesus, the way Chuza seems to have been supportive of Joanna.

By the way, there is also no evidence that Mary Magdalene was ever a prostitute, even though that is another a popular belief about her. The belief seems to come from a confusion between her and Mary of Bethany, and between that other Mary and the unnamed “sinful woman” whom Luke describes as anointing Jesus. But the biblical text does not even identify this “sinful woman” specifically as a prostitute. The first recorded reference to this notion about Mary Magdalene is in a sermon given by Pope Gregory I towards the end of the sixth century. So we should acknowledge that this is a late and unreliable tradition.

Rather, Mary is honored in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions as “the apostle to the apostles” because she brought the news of Jesus’ resurrection to them. The Eastern churches also refer to her by a title that means “equal to the apostles.” So she should be seen as someone who had a transforming and liberating encounter with Jesus and who consecrated her wealth and position afterwards to advance his cause.

As for Mary the mother of Jesus, we do hear a little bit more about her in the Bible after the gospels. We learn in the gospels themselves that she was from Nazareth in Galilee and that God sent the angel Gabriel to tell her that even though she was a virgin, she was going to become the mother of the Messiah. Some Christians believe that she and Joseph then had other children after Jesus, while other Christians believe that Mary always remained a virgin. I discuss those different perspectives in this post.

Luke tells us that Mary reflected carefully on what the angel told her and on the early events of Jesus’ life, but that during his Galilean ministry, she and his other relatives actually tried to restrain his work because at that time they didn’t understand it. However, Mary must have come to understand better soon afterwards, because she traveled to Jerusalem with Jesus, and she stood at the cross to offer support and sympathy as he was giving his life for the world.

After the end of the gospels, we learn from the book of Acts that Mary was among the followers of Jesus who remained in Jerusalem after his death, resurrection, and ascension and who were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. There are many traditions about her life after that, but most of them come from centuries later and we can’t depend on them. Perhaps one of the most probable ones is the early tradition that she and Mary Magdalene later went to live in Ephesus. This makes sense because at the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother to the care of the apostle John, and we know that John later went to live in Ephesus.

But at least some biblical interpreters would say that we see Mary one more time in the Bible. In the book of Revelation there’s a vision of “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” The woman goes into labor and gives birth to a son. The images in Revelation typically have multiple resonances, and in this case the woman seems to represent both Israel, the source of the Messiah (the image is reminiscent of Joseph’s dream in Genesis about Jacob and the twelve tribes), and the church, since the woman’s “other children” are “those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.” But just as biblical typology often begins with Israel, compresses into Jesus, and then expands into the church (for example, the idea that Israel is God’s “firstborn,” then that in Jesus God brought his “firstborn” into the world, and finally that Jesus’ followers are the “church of the firstborn”), so this mother image may begin with Israel, compress into Mary as the mother of Jesus, and then expand into the church.

In that case—to address the final part of your question—when we also hear in Revelation that the woman and her child were “snatched up to God and to his throne,” we may see in this a reference to Mary being taken up into heaven. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that Mary was actually taken up into heaven bodily, without experiencing physical death. But I think that all Christians would agree that, one way or another, after her life on earth she joined Jesus there, and that Mary Magdalene did as well. And they would have both heard as they arrived, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.”

This stained-glass window depicting Mary’s joyful entrance into heaven is reminiscent of the vision in Revelation about the woman and the sun, moon, and stars.

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”

Who are the “sons of God” who take part in the divine council?

This is the second in a series of posts in response to a multi-part question.

Part 2 of the question: Who are the “sons of God” who take part in God’s divine council? We hear in the book of Job that they meet and Yahweh delegates tasks to them. Later in the book it mentions that they were there at creation of the universe. In Psalm 82 the council members are called “sons of the Most High.” Moses says in Deuteronomy, “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance . . . he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord‘s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.”  This sounds as if Yahweh took particular care of Israel but assigned the other nations to different “sons of God” at this time. This would make sense to me if they were part of the divine council. But who were they, exactly?

I think the best way to begin addressing this part of your question is to return the article by Dr. Michael Heiser that I discussed in my first post,  “So What Exactly is an Elohim?” There it is explained that the authors of the Hebrew Bible shared the ancient Near Eastern viewpoint that the heavenly beings met in a council to decide the affairs of the universe. However, the biblical authors transformed this viewpoint in significant ways.

Most importantly, while they called all of the participants in the council elohim because of their “plane of existence”—that is, these elohim were all inhabitants of the spiritual realm—they saw an essential difference in “attributes of being” between Yahweh and the others. The others were not self-existent; they were creatures. Yahweh, by contrast, had always existed, and as a matter of fact he had created all the others. This gave Yahweh infinitely greater power and glory, and so he was the uncontested ruler over the divine council. This was a second important difference between the biblical view and that of the surrounding cultures, which envisioned a perpetual struggle for supremacy within the council between various gods of roughly equal power.

Many passages in the Hebrew Bible are actually apologetics for this transformed understanding that Yahweh is unique among the elohim (heavenly beings), and therefore their unquestioned ruler, because of his self-existence and infinitely great power. For example, Psalm 89 says,

The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord,
also your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can compare with the Lord?
Who is like the Lord among the sons of God?
God is revered in the council of the holy ones.
He is to be feared more than all who surround him.

These elohim were often represented by the stars in the sky, and so we hear Yahweh ask similarly in Isaiah,

“To whom will you compare me?
    Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
    Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
    and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
    not one of them is missing.

Yahweh offers a similar challenge to Job towards the end of the book that bears his name, in one of the passages that you mentioned. He asks,

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Or who shut in the sea with doors
    when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
    and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
    and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
    and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?

Here we see Yahweh depicted as the sole Creator, establishing the realm of human habitation (the one relevant to Job) by setting the boundaries of sea and land. The “sons of God,” created some time prior and described as the “morning stars” in a poetic parallel, are looking on and rejoicing. They are subordinate and supportive.

And this gets at the essential meaning of the phrase you are asking about. These heavenly beings or elohim are not actually “gods,” but “sons of God,” that is, they are his creatures. The phrase (sometimes found in equivalent forms such as “sons of the Most High” in Psalm 82) is being used in a different sense from the way that Jesus is described as the “Son of God” who shares God’s very essence—his “attributes of being,” if you will. It’s also different from the way that believers in Jesus become “sons of God” by adoption. It means that these are created but supernatural beings who are supposed to assist God in the administration of the universe.

You noted, for example, that the book of Job portrays them reporting  regularly to God about their assigned tasks. As you also noted, Deuteronomy suggests that various “sons of God” were made responsible for the different nations at one point. But I don’t think this means that God wanted those nations to worship these beings. I noted last time that this whole matter of the divine council is an area about which the Bible gives us very little information, and so we need to be careful not to speculate. However, it seems possible that the “sons of God” who were made responsible for nations accepted and perhaps even demanded their worship, and that this had destructive consequences for which they were judged. This may be the judgment described in Psalm 82.

I’ll address that issue in my last post in this series. But in the meantime, I think we can conclude to this point that in some way that the Bible doesn’t tell us very much about, there are created supernatural beings who assist God. The ones we hear the most about are angels (whom the Bible may  describe as elohim at at least one point). However, I wouldn’t want to develop an elaborate theology about this or try to figure out exactly what’s going on in the spiritual realm. I would recommend instead that we find encouragement in the idea that there may be many more forces at work to further God’s interests than we often realize, and so contribute to that work ourselves with renewed confidence and energy.

William Blake, “When the Morning Stars Sang Together” (detail).

What is the “divine council” or “assembly of the gods” described in the Bible?

This post is the first in a series in response to a multi-part question.

Part 1 of the question: What is the “divine council” or “assembly of the gods” that is described in the Bible? Psalm 82 says that “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” (And what is this judgment that is referred to?) Some kind of council also seems to be described in 1 Kings, where Micaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him.” There God poses a problem to those around him and various ones make suggestions until a solution is identified. What is really happening in the spiritual realm that seems to be affecting our world?

There is at least one more apparent reference in the Bible to a divine council. Psalm 89 asks, “Who is like the Lord among the heavenly beings? In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared.”

These references indeed lead us to ask, “What’s going on here?” We ask this not only in the sense that you have—inquiring into the workings of the spiritual realm—but also because we are perplexed. Isn’t there supposed to be only one God? What is the Bible doing talking about other gods who aren’t just imaginary figures associated with idols but actual beings in heaven? Does the Bible really teach polytheism, rather than monotheism?

The place to start in addressing these issues is Psalm 82. Researching the answer to your question has led me to discover the brilliant and provocative work that Dr. Michael S. Heiser has done in recent years to explain that psalm and to address the entire issue of a “divine council.” I personally find his interpretations satisfying and persuasive. More about them shortly.

Out of a concern to preserve monotheism, many biblical interpreters and translators have taken the term “gods” in Psalm 82 to be ironic or mocking (they put the term in quotation marks or say “so-called gods”), or they have understood these “gods” to be human “judges” or “magistrates.”  Correspondingly, they have taken the “divine council” or “assembly of the gods” to be the “great assembly” or the “great meeting of His people,” that is, the whole congregation of the people of Israel.

Interpreters say that these understandings find support in an appeal that Jesus makes to the opening of Psalm 89 when he is accused of blasphemy. This is recorded in the Gospel of John. At the Feast of Dedication, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” For that, his opponents want to stone him because, they say, “you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus responds, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?”

Interpreters feel that they have a clue here to the identity of the “gods” in Psalm 89: They are those “to whom the word of God came.” Some conclude that this means they are the whole nation of Israel, which received the law at Mount Sinai; others say they are the judges appointed under the law, who received wisdom and guidance from God to decide cases. Either way, there would be no polytheism in Psalm 89; those who are being addressed, for whatever reason, as “gods” are actually mortal.

However, in his article “Jesus’ Quotation of Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34,” Dr. Heiser points out a fatal flaw with these interpretations: They undermine Jesus’ claim of divinity. If Jesus is telling his opponents, “It’s all right for me to claim to be God, because in the Scriptures all those who received the law are called gods,” or, “those who received guidance to judge cases are called gods,” then Jesus is appealing to his membership in the nation of Israel or to his ethical teaching as the basis on which he, a mere man, can call himself God. That’s actually not what’s going on here in the Gospel of John when Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” and his opponents know it: After this response, they try again to seize him, but he manages to escape.

And so, Heiser argues, we should understand those “to whom the word of God came” to be the participants in the “divine council” described in Psalm 82, and that “word of God” itself to be what they are told in that psalm: “You are ‘gods’; you are all sons of the Most High. But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.” In other words, Heiser insists, there actually are supernatural beings who participate in a council with God. (However, they are clearly subordinate to God, since he “presides” over the council—the meaning of “takes his place” or “takes his stand.”)

The particular beings described in Psalm 82 are being punished with the loss of immortality for some reason. (More about that in my third post in response to your question.) But they must be supernatural beings in order for Jesus to make his argument: If Scripture, which must be upheld, calls these supernatural beings “gods,” then certainly the one “whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world,” not being a “mere man,” can use language (“I and the Father are one”) that suggests he is God.

Jesus, in other words, is making an argument from the lesser to the greater. And I think there may be a further dimension to this argument than I have yet found in Heiser’s writings (although it may be in some of them that I haven’t seen yet). I believe Jesus is saying, “If Scripture called these beings ‘gods’ even as God was decommissioning them, then certainly the whom God consecrated and sent into the world can be called God.” So it is not just Jesus’ greater status as the Son of God, but also his obedient mission in contrast with these beings’ disobedient failure, that entitles him to the name if they are allowed to have it.

I’ll say more about status and mission, and about the divine council itself, in my second and third posts in this series. But let me conclude this post by addressing a concern that is likely still outstanding: Isn’t this polytheism? Actually, no.

As Heiser explains in another article, “So What Exactly is an Elohim?” the term translated “gods” in Psalm 82 is used in the Hebrew Scriptures for a variety of supernatural beings, including the “demons” that Moses says the Israelites sacrificed to in the wilderness, possibly the “angels” that Jacob saw when he was fleeing from Esau, and the “spirit” of Samuel that appears to Saul. According to Heiser, elohim refers a being’s “plane of existence,” not to its “attributes.” When we hear the word “god,” we tend to think at least of a self-existent being, and probably one with unlimited powers. But when the Hebrews said or heard elohim, they were thinking only of a being that existed in the immaterial, spiritual realm. Whether it was created or self-existent, and what powers it might have had, were matters to be specified separately.

We’ll see in our next post that the beings in view in Psalm 82 actually are created and have limited powers. But we can conclude, at least for now, that God does seem to involve some other supernatural beings in the administration of the universe. We get only the vaguest hints of this in the Bible, and we certainly shouldn’t develop any elaborate theories about it. My personal feeling is that if we were supposed to know more about this, the Bible would have told us more. Instead, it seems as if we are being told, as Jesus said to one of his disciples who wanted to know more about the future than he needed to know, “What is that to you?” Jesus added, “Follow me,” and I think that’s the best resolution for anyone who is his committed follower. Let’s not speculate about things that are beyond us, which we don’t need to know about; instead, let’s understand what present obedience to Jesus would look like, and see if we can’t live that out.

Many Christian traditions see the patriarchs and saints as something of a “council” that surrounds God’s throne with intercession and praise. But the ideas we are discussing here go beyond that. Stay tuned!