The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Response to Michael Heiser's "Two Powers" View

The following is a response to the “two powers in heaven” position of Michael Heiser, who believes that the OT presents us with (at the very least) a “binitarian” view of God (i.e., that there are two “persons” or “modes of being” of Yahweh, a visible and an invisible). A presentation of Heiser’s position can be found here: … layer.html

Heiser’s first text in support of his position is Genesis 19:24. There, we read (ESV): “Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven.”

Does this text reveal two persons who are both Yahweh? While a superficial reading of Scripture may certainly suggest this, given other examples of name repetition found in Scripture it is more likely that the repetition of the name Yahweh in v. 24 is simply a more emphatic way of saying, “Then Yahweh rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulphur and fire from himself out of heaven.” The verse emphasizes that it is “from Yahweh,” in order to leave no doubt as to who is in command of events. But why would Moses feel a need to emphasize this? Well, we know that it was the two angels (i.e., two of the members of God’s “divine council”) who were the agents through whom Yahweh destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, for the narrative is clear that the two angels were the ones who were sent to carry out this judgment (v. 13). This implies that Yahweh did not directly execute the judgment. Since it was the two angels who were sent by Yahweh to execute the judgment, v. 24 would simply serve to emphasize who was ultimately behind it (i.e., Yahweh, rather than the two angels). The two angels were simply doing the job Yahweh had authorized/empowered them to do, and Yahweh (whom the narrative implies had returned to heaven after his conversation with Abraham - v. 33) took ultimate responsibility as the one who destroyed these cities (cf. v. 14).

This is not an isolated example of this kind of figure of speech being employed in the OT. A similar example of a “redundant” use of a divine name or title (rather than the use of an appropriate pronoun) for emphasis can be found in Dan 9:17, which reads, “Now therefore, our God, hear the prayer of your servant, and his supplications, and for the Lord’s sake cause your face to shine on your sanctuary, which is desolate.” Here the expression, “for the Lord’s sake” is simply an emphatic way of saying, “for your own sake” (which, notably, is how the ESV translates it). For more examples of this emphatic way of speaking in which names/titles are repeated or persons speak of themselves in the third person, see Gen 4:23-24; 16:16; 18:17-19; Ex 3:12; 16:6-7; 24:1; 34:35; Num 19:1-2; 1 Sam 3:21; 12:7; 1 Kings 1:33; 2:19; 10:13; 12:21; 2 Chron 7:2; Esther 8:8; Isaiah 13:17, 19; Ezekiel 11:24; Dan 3:2-3; Hosea 1:7.

In short, to argue that Genesis 19:24 reveals the existence of two divine persons who are both Yahweh would be like arguing that Ezekiel 11:24 (“And the Spirit lifted me up and brought me in the vision by the Spirit of God into Chaldea, to the exiles”) reveals the existence of two “persons” who are both the Spirit of God. But it’s evident that the repetition of “Spirit” in this verse is to be understood emphatically, and not as denoting a second Spirit by which the first Spirit lifted Ezekiel up and brought him into Chaldea in his vision.

Heiser next quotes from Isaiah 13:

“…when God overthrew them” can simply be understood as an emphatic way of God’s saying, “when I overthrew them.” Heiser could’ve quoted verse 13 as well, where a similar figure of speech as that explained earlier is employed by the prophet:

Here, for emphatic purposes, God speaks of himself in the third person (notice Yahweh doesn’t say “we will make the heavens tremble” but “I will make the heavens tremble”). The reason Heiser didn’t quote this verse as well may be because it is so obvious that only one divine person is in view. That is, the same divine person who was going to “make the heavens tremble” is the person who was going to manifest his wrath in a day of judgment upon Babylon (i.e., the unipersonal being who refers to himself as “I” at the beginning of the verse).

Heiser next brings our attention to Exodus 15:3, which reads, “The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name.”

Only one divine person is in view here. It is a unipersonal being who is said to be “a man of war” and whose name is “Yahweh.” There is no “visible Yahweh” (a “man of war”) and an “invisible Yahweh” (whom Heiser refers to as “the name”) in view here. There is no angel “who sort of is but isn’t Yahweh” (as Heiser states several times in his presentation). The same divine person in view here is both named “Yahweh” and is (figuratively speaking) a “man of war.”

Heiser puts an emphasis on the idea that Yahweh is both visible (in a human form, or as a “man of war”) and in some sense “invisible,” and believes that there must be two distinct persons who are both Yahweh. But the sense in which Yahweh may be considered invisible or unseen to mortals is, I believe, simply this: no mortal can behold Yahweh as he appears in the full manifestation of his glory (i.e., as he appears in heaven before the angels and his Son, Jesus). As the Father appears in heaven, no mortal could see him and live (apparently, the glory radiating from him would be so intense and overwhelming for mortals that it would not only render him invisible to their eyes but prove lethal). Hence, Moses, after requesting to be shown Yahweh’s glory, is only allowed to see a small glimpse of Yahweh while standing in the cleft of a rock (Ex 33:18-23); anything more would’ve apparently killed him. But does this mean this same divine person (who I believe to be Jesus’ God, the Father) has never appeared to mortals in a less glorious form or state (i.e., a state in which the fullness of his glory is “toned down” to a degree that would not be lethal for mortals to behold)? Well, based on verses such Gen. 3:8; 12:7; 15:1; 17:1; 18:1; 28:13; Ex. 24:9-11, some believe that God has done just this.

I’ve always thought it rather curious that many Christians (from Justin Martyr to Michael Heiser, it would seem) understand the visible (and non-lethal) appearances of Yahweh as being the pre-incarnate Son (as if the Son would be less glorious in appearance in his pre-incarnate state than the Father is). While it’s clear that Scripture affirms the superiority of Jesus’ God (the Father) and is something even Trinitarians accept (which I guess means their Christology is not quite as “high” as it could be), do Trinitarians (or Binitarians) really believe that the pre-incarnate “God the Son” would’ve been less glorious to behold than the Father? When God told Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live” (Ex 33:20), why would this apply to the Father and not to the pre-incarnate Son? Why should the Father be understood as so lethally glorious while the pre-incarnate Son was apparently so underwhelming in his appearance that one could’ve stared at his face until they died of old age?

Heiser moves on to the book of Joshua in his presentation, quoting Joshua 5.

In this passage, the “commander of the army of Yahweh” need not be understood as Yahweh himself. Rather, he is more likely a created supernatural being, such as Michael the archangel (who is later presented as the commander of God’s angelic army - Rev 12:7; cf. Jude 9; Daniel 10:21; 12:1). If that’s the case, then this angel is appearing and speaking on God’s behalf, as his representative. Joshua understood this and thus rendered homage to this being as if God himself were present was present before him (for Joshua must’ve understood that homage rendered to God’s agent or representative is ultimately homage rendered to God himself). The OT records a number of instances where a representative agent of God (e.g., a created supernatural being who functions as a messenger or “angel”) is referred to as “God” or “Yahweh” himself, and speaks and acts on full behalf of God. According to the Jewish understanding of agency, the agent was regarded as the person himself. In The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion under “agent” (Heb. Shaliah) we read: “The main point of the Jewish law of agency is expressed in the dictum, ‘a person’s agent is regarded as the person himself’ (Ned. 72b; Kidd. 41b). Therefore any act committed by a duly appointed agent is regarded as having been committed by the principal, who therefore bears full responsibility for it with consequent complete absence of liability on the part of the agent.”

The first example of angelic representative agency is found in Gen 16:7-14. The NIV Study Bible (which can hardly be accused of having a Unitarian bias) notes:

Similarly, the NET Bible notes:

For a few more examples of representative agency not referenced above, see also Genesis 32:24-30; Ex 13:21; cf. 14:19; 23:20-23. When Yahweh invested an angelic being with the power and authority to act and speak on his behalf (i.e., when Yahweh’s “name” was in him - Ex 23:20-23) then as long as the angel had that authority, he spoke the very words of Yahweh himself. Thus, when a representative agent spoke on behalf of Yahweh, it was as if Yahweh himself were personally present and speaking. The agent speaking is speaking the very words of Yahweh, so however Yahweh would speak and refer to himself is how his representative agent would speak. A representative agent functioned as one’s mouthpiece. Again, according to the Jewish understanding of agency, the agent was regarded as the person himself.

Moreover, in Hebrew thought the “first cause” is not always distinguished from “intermediate” or “secondary” causes. That is to say, the “principal” is not always clearly distinguished from the “agent” (i.e., the one commissioned to carry out an act on behalf of another). Sometimes the agent, standing for the principal, is treated as if he or she were the principal him or herself, though this is not literally so. The principal and agent remain two distinct persons, but they act in complete harmony. The agent acts and speaks for the principal. For instance, in Genesis 19:16 we’re told that “the men (i.e., the two angels) seized [Lot] and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, Yahweh being merciful to him, and they [the two angels] brought him out and set him outside the city.” Here we’re specifically told that the two angels that came to Sodom at the beginning of chapter 19 were the ones interacting with Lot and his family and who physically lead them to safety. But the merciful act performed by the angels (i.e., the agent) is here said to have been the mercy of Yahweh (i.e., the principle), even though the two angels were the ones who actually performed the act of mercy by (almost forcefully) moving Lot and his family to a safer location so that they could carry out their orders from Yahweh (orders which are made known in v. 13). Being God’s agents, the mercy they show is the mercy shown by Yahweh himself, for he sent them for that purpose.

I think an ignorance of (or a failure to appreciate) the Jewish law of agency has led Trinitarians (such as Heiser) to assume that any person who is referred to as Yahweh and speaks as Yahweh must be Yahweh in an ontological sense. But that’s simply not the case. Admittedly, the concept of representative agency is not something with which we’re that familiar today; the closest thing we have to it our society is “durable power of attorney.” But even so, I think even the staunchest Trinitarian (or Binitarian) would have to admit that this is a scriptural concept, even if they don’t agree on the extent to which it appears in Scripture. Consider, for example, when Moses is made “elohim” to Aaron and Pharaoh (Ex. 4:16; 7:1). In Exodus 7:17-21 Yahweh says to Moses (telling him what to say to Pharaoh), “By this you will know that I am Yahweh: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood…” Yahweh then says to Moses: “Say to Aaron, 'Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt…” So while YHWH said that he himself would strike the waters with the staff in his own hand, it was actually Aaron’s hand that held the rod, and Aaron who struck the Nile. But Aaron was Moses’ “prophet,” and thus Moses’ representative. So here we find that Yahweh (as principal) was represented by Moses (Yahweh’s agent), who in turn was represented by Aaron.

That representative agency was not something exclusive to the OT can be seen in the account of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant, as found in both the Gospel of Matthew and Luke. While Matthew speaks of a conversation between the centurion himself and Jesus (Mt. 8:5-13), Luke tells us that the centurion did not in fact come personally. He sent some “Jewish elders” and, subsequently, some “friends” to Jesus with his requests (Luke 7:1-10). The centurion here is the principal; the Jewish elders and the centurion’s friends are his appointed, commissioned agents. Because in Hebrew thought the principal and the agent are not always clearly distinguished, Matthew mentions only the principal (the centurion) without distinguishing the agent (the Jewish elders and friends). Luke mentions both principal and agents. So in Matthew’s account, the elders (agents) stand for and are treated as the centurion (principal), even though this is not literally true. Another example of representative agency in the Gospels can be seen by comparing Mark 10:35-40 with Matthew 20:20-23. See also John 4:1-3.

This is the sense in which Yahweh was present with and leading the Israelites as they wondered through the desert - through the agency of an angelic being to whom Yahweh had given a great degree of authority (“my name is in him”). By obeying the voice of this angel, they were obeying Yahweh, since this angel was given the authority to represent and speak on behalf of YHWH. And then later in Isaiah 63, we read of Israel asking for Yahweh to be present with them in the same or similar miraculous sense in which he was present with them during their desert wanderings - i.e., through the angelic being referred to in Ex 23. This angel of Yahweh is referred to as the “angel of his presence” because Yahweh had invested this angel with divine authority to act and speak on his behalf, and was present in a special sense through the agency of this angel. The “love and pity” in which the children of Israel were “redeemed” during this time was the love and pity of Yahweh manifested through the agency of the angel who functioned as Yahweh’s representative at that time (recall the mercy of Yahweh shown to Lot and his family through the agency of the two angels sent by Yahweh), and by which Yahweh could be said to be present with his people while still remaining in his “dwelling place” in heaven (1Kings 8:39; 2Chron 6:39).

So when Heiser tries to argue for two persons who are both in some sense “Yahweh” (one visible and another invisible, or one which is “an angel who sort of is and isn’t Yahweh” while another is Yahweh’s “name”) I believe he’s simply trying to read into Scripture what were once (in OT days) polytheistic views of deity, but which are now most commonly referred to as “Binitarianism” or “Trinitarianism” (which I believe are simply less obvious forms of ditheism or tritheism, respectively).

Heiser next quotes Deuteronomy 4:

The angel of Yahweh in which Yahweh had invested the authority and power to speak and act on his behalf and as his representative was not Yahweh himself (who, if the visions of Yahweh in Scripture convey anything meaningful, was most likely sitting on a single throne in heaven surrounded by angelic beings), but rather a created being who functioned as Yahweh’s mouthpiece, and through whom Yahweh manifested his divine power. The expressions in v. 37 above ( “with his own presence” and “by his great power”) are, I believe, parallel, and convey the same basic meaning. God was thought to be “present” wherever his “spirit” or power was extended (Psalm 139:7-12), which meant that he was considered especially present whenever his supernatural power was being visibly and uniquely manifested among humans (e.g., through the agency of an angelic being invested with his authority).

The “angel of Yahweh” in view is apparently the same angel of whom Yahweh said, “my name is in him” (Ex 23:20-23) - i.e., the angel in whom Yahweh had invested his authority to speak and act on his behalf at that time. This is simply another example like the one on which the NIV and the NET Bible comment in their respective notes (see above).

Everything I’ve said above concerning the Hebrew law of agency applies here as well. As for v. 23, the word of Yahweh was either communicated to Gideon “telepathically” or it was something he heard audibly (perhaps from heaven) after the angel of Yahweh (the angel which had been invested with authority to speak and act on Yahweh’s behalf) had disappeared from sight.

The following passages were not in Heiser’s presentation, but I know he talks about the significance and meaning of “the word of Yahweh” elsewhere in support of his “two powers in heaven” position, so I thought I’d offer some comments on a few relevant passages in which we read of Yahweh’s “word.”

According to Jamieson, Fausset and Brown in their commentary, the “word of the LORD” referred to in Genesis 15:1 is “a phrase used, when connected with a vision, to denote a prophetic message.” There is no reason to understand the person speaking the “word of Yahweh” to Abraham in this vision as being one of two (or three) “persons of Yahweh,” or as anyone other than the being who appeared in a more glorious form to Moses in Exodus 33:18-23. IOW, the person through whom the “word of Yahweh” came was Yahweh himself, a unipersonal being.

Consider also the words that Yahweh gave to Moses to say to Pharaoh, in Exodus 9:

We’re then told:

Here “the word of Yahweh” is simply the spoken message that Yahweh gave Moses to give to Pharaoh. It’s not a visible (or invisible) “person of Yahweh” who exists as a person distinct from another “person of Yahweh.” Rather than being a second “power in heaven,” it’s simply what Yahweh had spoken to Moses to say to Pharaoh, and has no existence apart from Yahweh himself.

Similarly, in Numbers 3:14-16 we read:

Here the “word of Yahweh” is simply the message that Yahweh spoke to Moses, not a person or separate personal power distinct from another person who is also Yahweh.

Consider also Numbers 15:31:

Here despising the word of Yahweh is equivalent to breaking the commandment that was given to the people of Israel.

Again, we read in Numbers 24:12-14:

Here it is evident that the “word of Yahweh” was simply understood to mean that which Yahweh had spoken.

Here again we find that the “word of the LORD” is simply that which God spoke to the people. More similar verses could be quoted, but these texts should suffice for the purpose of my argument. There is simply no “person of Yahweh” distinct from another “person of Yahweh” in view here or anywhere else when the “word of the LORD” is referred to. This “word” is simply the divine utterance, and is not another divine person or “mode of existence” distinct from the divine person speaking. But astoundingly, this is precisely how Trinitarians understand the “word” of John’s poetic prologue when they come to this portion of Scripture. Rather than identifying God’s “word” as the divine utterance which is the expression of God’s mind/thoughts and the means by which he accomplishes his purpose (and which, like God’s wisdom, may be personified), they turn it into a distinct divine person or “mode of existence” whom they believe the man Jesus Christ pre-existed as before his conception in Mary’s womb, and who, along with the Father (who is not only referred to as the “one God” and the “only true God” but is also the God of this second uncreated divine person) is also named “Yahweh.”

Thanks for the (very, very thorough) thread on this. I do have my own response but unfortunately have not been able to find any time to write it out. I don’t think that today is any different, although I’m now on a holiday break from school and will be off a whole week from work, so I’ll try to get back to this asap. :smiley: