Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Daniel’s Incredible Odyssey

Posted by foryourfaith on January 12, 2010

 

The Book of Daniel’s 12 chapters tell of the career and teachings of a Jew by that name who was exiled from Judah to Babylon at the beginning of the sixth century BC, and served as advisor the kings of Babylon and their Persian successors.  The Name Daniel appears as the name of a wise and righteous man in numerous ancient texts.  We know from the prophet Ezekiel that Noah, Daniel, and Job “would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness – even if everyone around them deserved destruction.  Elsewhere, Ezekiel refers to a prototypical man of wisdom, Daniel.  In the Book of Daniel, then, Jewish writers were elaborating on an older Near Eastern motif.  In recent times, scholars have come to the conclusion that the Book of Daniel as we have it today was composed quite late, and may have been the last book admitted into the Old Testament canon.

The book lacks a coherent literary structure.  Chapters 1-6 are third-person accounts of how the hero and his friends fared at the courts of Babylonian and Persian kings.  Chapters 7-12, however, consist of Daniel’s own descriptions of his strange visions and explanations of their inner meanings.  Complicating matters further, the book is written in two different languages, Hebrew and Aramaic – the vernacular Jews spoke after the Babylonian exile – and the transition between the two does not coincide with the division between the narrative and the visionary portions of the work.  In all likelihood, Daniel is a composite work, parts of which were written at different times by different people.

One key theme that runs through the first half of the Book of Daniel is the exiled Jews’ heroic resistance to the temptation of abandoning their faith in a land of idolators.  If the Jew remains loyal to the Jewish religion and commandments, the book teaches, God will deliver him from danger.

As the book opens, Daniel and his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are given Babylonian names – Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – and enter a three-year training course to prepare them to serve as court pages.  “The king assigned them a daily portion of the rich food which the king ate, and of the wine which he drank.”  But they would not eat food that was not permitted by Jewish dietary laws, even though the chief officer warned them that their refusal could anger the king.  Despite subsisting on vegetables and water, “they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s rich food.”  And th king esteemed them more than “all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.

A more serious test of faith follows.  King Nebuchadnezzar ordered his subjects to worship a golden statue or else be thrown into a fiery furnace.  Although Daniel was elsewhere at the time, his three Jewish compatriots refused to worship the idol and were condemned.  Yet they were calm.  They told the king that their God had the power to save them from the furnace, and even if he chose not to, “we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up” (Daniel 3:18)

Infuriated, Nebuchadnezzar ordered the furnace heated up seven times its usual heat, and the three Jews were bound and thrown in.  So high were the flames that the soldiers carrying out the order were themselves burned to death.  But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walked around un-singed inside the furnace together with a fourth figure – the protecting angel.

The king was so impressed that he called the Jews out of the fire and declared, “Blessed by the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him and set at nought the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God” (Daniel 3:28).  He then promoted them to higher government positions.

The book’s best-known lesson about trust in God and its rewards is the story of Daniel in the lion’s den.  Despite King Darius’ decree that no one may pray to any god other than the monarch for a period of 30 days, Daniel, in accordance with Jewish tradition, prayed thrice daily to his God.  Government officials, jealous because the king planned to make Daniel grand vizier, reported him to the king, who in turn had him cast into the lion’s den.

Found unharmed the next morning, Daniel explained that “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not hurt me.”  Daniel was raised from the den; but his denouncers, their children, and their wives were thrown in, and “before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.”  These events convinced King Darius that Daniel’s God “is the living God, enduring for ever . . . and his dominion shall be to the end” (Daniel 6:26).

Daniel’s fame as a wise man rests not only on his faithfulness to the one and only God, but also on his ability to interpret other people’s enigmatic dreams and portents – omens that were taken quite seriously in the ancient world.  Thus, we read that King Nebuchadnezzar was agitated by a dream.  He insisted that his wise men tell him what he dreamed, and the meaning of the dream.  Clearly, this command was nearly impossible to fulfill.  However, Daniel, with the help of God, was able to reveal the hidden meaning of the dream.

The dream was of a statue with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay.  In the dream, a stone struck the statue and broke it to bits.  The pieces were carried away by the wind “so that not a trace of them could be found.”  But the stone that struck the statue became a mountain and filled the earth.  Daniel explained the meaning: Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonia will be succeeded by three other empires, which will be destroyed by God, who will set up his kingdom and reign gloriously.

In a second dream, Nebuchadnezzar saw a huge tree.  A heavenly “watcher” ordered that the entire tree, with the exception of the stump, should be destroyed, so “that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will.”  Daniel interpreted the tree as Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, which will be taken from him for a time, and the remaining stump as a guarantee that “your kingdom shall be sure for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules.”  As foreseen, the king, afflicted with madness, suffered a temporary fall from power, but regained his position after he petitioned Daniel’s God.

Daniel also demonstrated an ability to decode strange written messages.  In a display of blasphemous arrogance, King Belshazzar of Babylonia “commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them.”  Suddenly “the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand.”

When no one present could decipher the words, Daniel was called.  He read:  “Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin.”  But what could these mysterious words, all of which represent weights, mean?  Daniel explained:  “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end . . . you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting . . . your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Perians.”  The sin of desecrating the Temple utensils had doomed the kingdom.  That very night, Belshazzar was assassinated and his land conquered by its enemies.

The Daniel portrayed in the second half of the book is very different from the diviner of mysteries described in the first six chapters.  Rather, he is a passive recipient of a dream, visions, and signs that he cannot understand without the aid of angels.

Daniel’s dream and visions constitute one of the earliest examples of Jewish apocalyptic literature, a genre that became quite popular in the last two centuries BC and the first two centuries AD.  Apocalypses purport to reveal god’s secrets for the future to a small spiritual elite by means of abstruse symbols and fantastic imagery.

Daniel’s first apocalyptic dream is of four great beasts that come up out of the sea – a winged lion, a bear with three ribs in its mouth, and a four-headed, winged leopard, the fourth beast is “dreadful and exceedingly strong” with iron teeth and ten horns.  An 11th horn sprouts with “eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things.”  This fourth beast is killed, and Daniel sees “one like a son of man” descend from heaven.  “And to him was given the dominion and glory and kingdom . . . his dominion is an everlasting dominion.”

An angel explains to Daniel that the four beasts are four successive kingdoms, the last of which, under its 11th king, will rebel against God.  That kingdom will be overthrown by divine intervention and power granted to “the people of the saints of the Most High” (Daniel 7:27).

In the next apocalypse Daniel experiences a vision of a ram that has its two horns broken and is thrown to the ground and trampled by a he-goat with “a conspicuous horn between his eyes.”  When his great horn is broken, four other horns sprout from the he-goat, and from one of them yet another horn appears which “grew great, even to the host of heaven” and interfered with the sacrificial services in the Temple and desecrated the sanctuary.

This time the symbols are explained in terms of specific nations.  The two-horned ram is the Medo-Persian kingdom, which will be defeated by the Greek he-goat, whose kingdom will in turn be divided into four kingdoms.  Eventually “a king of bold countenance . . . shall arise.  His power shall be great, and he shall cause fearful destruction, and shall succeed in what he does, and destroy mighty men and the people of the saints.”  He will meet defeat, but “by no human hand” (Daniel 8:25).

Daniel’s third apocalypse interprets an older prophecy by Jeremiah that the Judeans, after a 70-year desolation, will be redeemed.  An angel explains to Daniel that this means 70 weeks of years, or 490 years:  during this time Jerusalem will be rebuilt and “an anointed one” cut off; a hostile army will overrun Jerusalem; sacrifices will be stopped; in their place “abominations” will be set up in the Temple “until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.”

The final apocalypse in the book predicts once again Persia’s downfall, the ascendancy of Greece, and its breakup into four kingdoms.  It then describes a pattern of ongoing conflict between North (Syria) and South (Egypt).  Israel, on the border between the two, will suffer devastation.

Yet final deliverance is inevitable.  An angel tells Daniel, “your people shall be delivered . . . many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”  Daniel asks when the end will be.  The angel replies, “for a time, two times, and half a time.”

What does this mean?  Jews and Christians have traditionally understood these apocalypses as forecasts of the Messiah’s coming.  For example, the term “son of man,” found in the New Testament in reference to Jesus, builds directly on Daniel’s assumed prediction of his coming.

Modern scholarship, however, has shown that the Book of Daniel was not written during the period of Babylonian Captivity in the 6th century BC, but rather some 400 years later, in about the middle of the 2nd century BC, when the Seleucid Syrian Empire – the “fourth kingdom” – and its King Antiochus IV made the Jerusalem Temple into a pagan shrine and restricted the practice of Judaism.  This crisis was so intense that a small circle of visionaries thought that the only hope was divine intervention.  The Book of Daniel’s references to events in Persian and Greek history, then, are interpretations of the past intended to provide guidelines for predicting and imminent redemption.  Even after the Maccabean revolt had driven the Seleucids out of the Promised Land, the Book of Daniel continued to exert a powerful influence.

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