Real Bible Studies: The Book of Daniel

Daniel begins with Jerusalem being sacked by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and the prominent families taken off into exile. The narrative states that Daniel entered service to the Babylonian king at the beginning of the exile, which happened between 597-586 BCE, and that he remained in royal service until Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, which was around 539 BCE, a period of forty-seven to fifty-eight years. Assuming Daniel was at least a teen when he was recruited for the Babylonian court, which the narrative implies, this would have put him in his sixties or seventies by the time he could return to Jerusalem, a considerably advanced age for the time, though certainly within the realm of probability. While the narrative is set during the exile, it was most likely written during the Second Temple period, after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem, probably around the time of the Maccabean rebellion against the Seleucids which occurred around 167 BCE, since many of the prophecies throughout Daniel reference this period.

Though Daniel is considered by many to be a prophet, the book was not placed among the other prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible, such as Jeremiah and Isaiah; rather it was counted among the additional commentary called The Writings, which includes Esther, Job, and Ruth. This suggests the editors of the Hebrew Scriptures had doubts about its authenticity. The style of writing, even in translation, is much different and less formal than the writing in Genesis or later books like Chronicles and has more in common with apocalyptic writing such as The Revelation or Apocalypse of John.

Daniel is divided into two sections, the first six books telling the story of its title character and his fellow expatriates from Judah, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah — better known by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — and the second section dealing with six prophetic dreams Daniel has about the “time of the end” or “the latter end of the indignation” as it’s variously described. Daniel was renamed Belteshazzar by the Babylonians, and the editor often explains that the names Daniel and Belteshazzar refer to the same person. Daniel and his compatriots are described as children of Judah, though it’s not clarified if the tribe or kingdom is meant. Prior to the exile, the inhabitants of Judah were mostly identified by their tribal designations, Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, etc. but afterward, the nation became known as Judah or Judea, and residents were referred to as Jews.

When they first enter royal service, Daniel and his companions refuse to eat the food provided by the king’s eunuchs. Most likely this was because it contained pork, shellfish, or other items considered unclean, or the preparation standards did not satisfy Jewish requirements. The chief of the eunuchs, who, in the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible is identified as Ashpenaz, but who’s unidentified in the Revised Standard Version (RSV), worries that the king will notice the poor condition of the four youths and will punish him for not providing them with the food he was instructed to provide. Daniel, who appears to be the leader of this group, proposes a test and asks that he and his compatriots be allowed to eat vegetables for ten days, while everyone else eats the king’s food. At the end of the period, they look much more fit, and are allowed to keep eating as they wish. When the four young men are finally presented to the king, he not only finds them to be in better shape than all the other magicians and soothsayers in his kingdom, he finds them to be ten times better, so he employs them.

Daniel gains his reputation by interpreting a dream Nebuchadnezzar has had. To make the challenge more difficult, the king adds the stipulation that not only should the seer be able to interpret the dream, but must also be able to relate the content of the dream without being told the details. Daniel, by receiving insight from his God, is the only person able to meet this requirement. The first dream is of a large statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, midsection and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of a mixture of iron and clay. Daniel interprets it to mean four kingdoms including that of the Babylonians, each one inferior to the one before, until the last which will be divided and broken by a rock not made by men. Its destruction will lead to establishment of a kingdom set up by God that will never be destroyed. The idea of this Kingdom of God will become a rallying cry for future prophets; both John the Baptist and Jesus will instruct followers to prepare for it.

The next chapter relates the story of the fiery furnace where Daniel’s companions, here identified as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refuse to worship the graven image Nebuchadnezzar has set up of himself. At the end of the previous episode, Daniel asks the king to appoint his friends as administrators over Babylon. Apparently, some of the native soothsayers took offense and ratted out Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they refused to defy their God by worshipping the king’s image. Curiously, Daniel isn’t mentioned in this episode, though he presumably would have refused as well. Once the king hears this, he immediately insists the three friends be thrown into the fiery furnace, despite how revered they are in his court. The flames are said to be so great that the guards who throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the furnace perish themselves. Miraculously, nothing happens to the friends. In fact, people observing them notice a fourth person in the flames with them. When they’re finally pulled out, not a thread of their clothing has been so much as singed. Nebuchadnezzar proclaims that their God is, indeed, the most powerful, but mysteriously refrains from converting nor does he accept this deity as his own. Despite the many times Nebuchadnezzar proclaims “the most high” God to be supreme, he never insists that Babylon convert to Judaism or monotheism, nor is there a historical record of this happening. One would think, with the many examples he’s been given, he might eventually come around to Daniel’s way of thinking, but apparently this never happened.

With the fourth book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the mightiest nation in the region at that time, becomes a guest contributor, in what is, perhaps, the greatest stretch of credibility in a book which frequently embellishes the facts behind it. While the pronouncements become more forceful, however, the voice doesn’t change, meaning the same author responsible for the other sections also authored this one. In his dream, Nebuchadnezzar sees a mighty tree that encompasses the Earth and feeds everyone and provides shelter for all. A messenger from heaven shows up and has the tree cut down, preserving the roots, which are surrounded by bronze and iron. Daniel interprets the tree to be the king himself and the pronouncement by the heavenly entity means Nebuchadnezzar will lose his senses and wander in the wilderness among the animals. At this point, the narrative changes abruptly from first person to third person as the narrator tells that all came to pass exactly as Daniel predicted. Finally, the king returns to say that all Daniel had predicted had come true, and giving praise to Daniel’s God, though again neither converting to that religion nor insisting anyone else should.

In book five, Nebuchadnezzar has died and been replaced by his son, Belshazzar. One day, during a party, he orders that the sacred vessels taken from the Jewish Temple by his father be brought to a party he’s holding, so he and his guests can drink from them. Doing so causes the fingers from a hand to appear, which writes words on a wall in a language no one can understand. Belshazzar seems to forget all the great things Daniel did for his father, because when the writing appears, he calls all the soothsayers together, minus Daniel, to tell him what it means and of course they can’t. One would think growing up in the palace, Belshazzar would be familiar with Daniel, but it’s not until his queen comes in and refreshes his memory that Belshazzar thinks to call on him, and once Daniel shows up, the king has to question him to be sure he’s the right guy. Daniel gives Belshazzar a lengthy history lesson about his father, which Daniel admits, Belshazzar already knows. In exchange for decoding the mysterious writing, Belshazzar promises Daniel a gold chain and a purple robe, but Daniel tells him he’s not interested in the gifts. Daniel interprets the writing to mean Belshazzar’s reign is over because he’s been arrogant and for drinking wine from the sacred vessels stolen from the Jewish Temple. His kingdom will be divided between the Medes and Persians. Thankful for this ominous prediction, Belshazzar then gives Daniel the chain and robe Daniel has already refused. As is the case with most prophecy, it does Belshazzar no good, as he’s slain that same night by Darius the Mede, who takes over the kingdom.

The final episode takes place under Darius. The chief soothsayers have finally grown tired of Daniel always getting all the attention, so they devise a trap. They trick Darius into proclaiming no one can worship any god other than his graven image, and once he’s done so, and it can’t be rescinded, they inform him that Daniel is in violation of the law. After a good deal of hemming and hawing by Darius, he finally orders that Daniel be placed into the lion’s den. Darius isn’t happy with this decision, so the very next day it’s Darius himself who rushes to the lion’s den to check on Daniel, who emerges unscathed. Once again, the king proclaims Daniel’s God to be most powerful, but again, refrains from accepting this God as his own. Chapter six concludes with the information that Daniel served up to the time Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, but it’s not clear from the narrative if Daniel returns to Jerusalem. The text states only that he prospers under Darius and Cyrus. Many of the expatriate Jews, particularly those who were raised elsewhere, chose not to return to Jerusalem permanently, establishing large communities throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, such as in Egypt.

With chapter seven, the narrative mostly changes from third person to first person, but again the voice doesn’t change, indicating that the person who wrote the first six chapters also wrote the last six, but attempts are made at points to make it seem like Daniel himself is now telling the story. One could argue Daniel has been the author all along and just referred to himself in third person throughout the first part, but there’s no particular reason for him to conceal that fact, or for the editor to conceal he was using documents authored by Daniel. In this section, Daniel relates several dreams that occurred after Nebuchadnezzar died, and Daniel is in service to Belshazzar and Darius. Unlike the previous prophecies, Daniel keeps these to himself, writing them down but not sharing them with anyone. The editor does not address how he’s come by the writing, suggesting he was most likely the author. This latter portion of Daniel concerns itself with the end times or end of days. Here, Daniel is no longer interpreting dreams, but having them himself and getting interpretations from individuals in the dreams, who he identifies as heavenly messengers, notably, Gabriel.

Starting with Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and continuing into the final six chapters, Daniel references four kingdoms which will arise, each inferior to the previous. The statue, seen by Nebuchadnezzar has a head of gold, but feet of clay and iron. The historical period these books seem to be referencing follows Alexander’s conquest of most of the known world, and his early death, but much of the story related in Daniel is regarded by scholars as historical fiction. Darius the Mede, who Daniel identifies as ruling Babylon after killing Belshazzar does not correspond to an actual historical ruler, and Belshazzar does not appear to have met with the fate ascribed in Daniel and instead ruled until the Persians conquered the region. There was a Darius I who ruled Persia following Cyrus, who appears to have played a part in the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple, but he reigned after the Jews had returned to Jerusalem. Babylon was conquered by Persia, which was eventually conquered by Alexander, who brought Greek culture to the region, and his kingdom was divided up among his generals after his death. Contrary to Daniel’s statement to Nebuchadnezzar that each succeeding kingdom will be inferior to the one before, historically, the Babylonians were replaced by the mightier Persians, who were supplanted by the even more powerful Greeks, whose influence survives into the current day.

Daniel has a post-exilic view of God. In his book, The Invention of God, Thomas Römer theorizes that it was during the exile in Babylon that the tribal thunder god YHWH evolved into the all-powerful King of Heaven whose name need not be uttered since he was the most high. Daniel also introduces us to a specific entity identified as Gabriel, the messenger of God, who we’ll later encounter in the Gospel of Luke when he informs Mary that she’s been chosen to give birth to the Messiah. None of the first five books of the Bible nor Judges mention a pantheon of angels who serve YHWH, a detail which may have been borrowed from Zoroastrianism, the chief religion in Persia, though they do talk of the “sons of God” and sometimes mention mysterious strangers who drop in to relay messages from God. The Jews carted off to Babylon were the elite families and probably enjoyed a privileged status, interacting with high members of the royal court, in much the way it’s depicted in Daniel. Doing so would have exposed them to a wide variety of beliefs, providing much opportunity for cross-pollination. This not only altered the conception of God, but also the meaning of their history, as is demonstrated in the differences between the stories in Kings, which ends in the early days of the exile, and those of Chronicles, which concludes with Cyrus’s order permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem and its aftermath. Römer believes that during the Babylonian exile, rather than accepting their conquerer’s gods as was the custom, Jews came to the conclusion that it was a repeated pattern of disobedience to their God that led to the loss of their promised homeland in Judea and forged a stronger commitment to their history and commandments.

If Daniel had been actual prophecy, the visions would have been of little benefit to the audience at which it appears to be aimed, as the writer is describing events expected to occur long after the audience has died, and in fact, Daniel states he’s been asked to seal the later prophesies and show them to no one. This is, perhaps, to shield the author, since he could claim he was only revealing writing he found instead of crafting an original text. Its purpose seems to be to lend credibility to a given political situation. In much the same way, an anonymous writer from the tribe of Ephraim, in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, took fables about Abraham and crafted them into the “prophecy” that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan, long after they already had. For people enduring exile in Babylon, knowing that everything will turn out for the better centuries in the future would have been of little comfort, but to a later audience living through the times being referenced, the words would resonate and lend authority to a given monarch or system of governance. The description of events not only references people and situations unknown to those being held by the Babylonians, but does so with enough precision to suggest the author had first-hand knowledge of the immediate events, though details in the more distant past were fudged. There would be no need for a person held in captivity in Babylon to write about troubles with the Greeks four or five hundred years in the future, while it would make perfect sense for someone during that future time to craft stories meant to “predict” the times he’s living in to show the inevitability of events.

Apocalyptic literature was dangerous to write because of it’s subversive nature. It talks about people and situations everyone’s aware of and while it couches the stories in historical settings and allegorical language, most people in the intended audience knew precisely who was being referenced. The Apocalypse of John, for instance, seems to reference Nero’s persecution of Christians during his reign, and the “numbers” in his name do add up to six sixteen or six sixty-six, depending on the translation. The problem is, once these “prophecies” are removed from their context, the work no longer makes any sense. Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, contain lots of references to courtly figures and intrigues that were well-known to his audience but which are lost on modern listeners. Shakespeare was writing only four hundred years ago and in the English of his day, and since then, the people and situations he was referencing have passed away and the meanings of words he used have changed significantly. The Book of Daniel was written thousands of years ago, most likely in Greek, and was translated into other languages before it came to us in English, a language that didn’t exist at the time Daniel was written, and the people who have translated it over time either didn’t know the original context or reinterpreted it to match a different set of beliefs. Much of culture is unwritten and in some cases, unspoken. Words and phrases which seem to mean one thing on paper can take on a much different meaning when inflected by someone speaking. The phrase “He was a mighty king” seems to suggest a ruler was powerful, but if spoken with a sarcastic edge, the listeners will take away a completely different understanding. We only have the static words to guide us, along with a poor conception of the day to day lives led by people who lived during this period in history.

Nonetheless, the prophecies reflected in Daniel had a profound effect on later history. Uncertainty about the era prophesied served as a dodge for those needing to explain why the Messiah, who was supposed to liberate Jerusalem and institute the Kingdom of Heaven, apparently failed in his mission, since Jerusalem wasn’t liberated, and instead was sacked by the Romans, its Temple destroyed, and its population dispersed yet again. By then, however, the Jewish notion of a king in the line of David who would restore Jerusalem had been adopted by the Pagans and blended into their figure of the Christ, a dying and resurrected savior king. We’re still debating the meaning of this today.

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