In my left hand is a complex system of nerves, blood vessels and muscles. In my right hand is a bible. Let’s do a show abooooooout… THE BIBLE.
Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I am Josh Way. This is the podcast where science meets the bible, where we examine the content of the bible through the lenses of history and literature. Our contention is that real people in real moments of real crisis wrote these ancient books for some urgent, constructive reason, not just to provide a cryptic holy book for religious people thousands of years in the future.
We are presently examining the “exile literature” of the bible, those texts borne out of ancient Israel’s devastating forced relocation to Babylon in the fifth century, BCE. As we’ve already observed, the writing that came out of this period reflects the shock and desperation of the displaced people of Israel and Judah. It also introduces us to an exotic new literary genre, the “apocalyptic vision,” and today we’ll encounter more of those today.
Last time we looked at the book of Esther, the only book of the bible that doesn’t mention God at all. It’s a tale of political intrigue and Jewish survival in the latter days of the exile, when Persia had replaced Babylon as the empire in charge. Esther serves as a fascinating contrast to Daniel, since they are so different and yet so very alike at the same time. Esther is, on the surface, a non-religious story about Israel’s ethnic identity among enemies in a foreign land. Esther uses her sexuality and wit to save her people from annihilation. Daniel, on the other hand, is a deeply “religious” book full of angels and visions and prophecies. But, then again, both are stories of hope for the same people suffering the same ordeal.
And, of course, this is a fine opportunity to drive home one of our recurrent points here on BOOK: that in the ancient semitic world which produced the bible, there is really no gap between what we would call “politics” and what we would call “religion.” They are the same thing. Esther isn’t really godless, as we noted in that podcast, and today we’ll see that just because the message of Daniel is wrapped up in a bizarre religious package doesn’t make it any less practical or political. More about that anon. But let’s begin our look at the text.
Daniel is a very dynamic and multidimensional text. It contains several tales about Daniel and his Jewish companions in the courts of Babylon and later Persia. It also contains apocalyptic dreams and visions which foretell the end of exile and the restoration of Israel and Judah. The tales are among the most familiar and beloved bible stories: Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace, Daniel himself in the lion’s den, and the “handwriting on the wall.” The apocalyptic material is not as well-known today, but it is actually foundational for the rest of the biblical literature. Without Daniel’s prophecies, much of the New Testament – including many words of Jesus – would make no sense to us. Note also that Daniel is one of very few bible texts written in Aramaic, the international language from and following the time of the Persian empire. Here’s now the book begins:
1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. 6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. 7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.
In an introduction which conforms well to our historical understanding of the exile, Daniel and his friends are carried from Judah to Babylon, where they are put to work in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. We know, from Daniel and elsewhere, that Babylon’s strategy of conquest over the Near Eastern world involved forcibly “recruiting” and exploiting the best and brightest of a conquered people. Craftsmen, artists, thinkers and writers were identified and grafted into the king’s administration. Daniel and his buddies are the best and brightest of their generation, and so they are given Babylonian educations and Babylonian names.
The rest of chapter one highlights the complicated relationship between the Jewish exiles and their captors. The young Hebrews excel at their studies and impress their Babylonian “hosts,” yet they resolutely defy their masters when asked to participate in activities which conflict with their Jewish identity. The first of these conflicts involves food. Daniel and his friends refuse to eat the king’s food, opting instead to eat vegetables and water. It’s unclear exactly what about the Babylonian food is objectionable, but it certainly has something to do with Israel’s many laws concerning “clean” and “unclean” foods, or prohibitions against eating any animal that was sacrificed to a foreign god. There is no serious consequence for this act of defiance, but it does establish a tension which will only grow louder as we move forward. For now, Daniel succeeds, is promoted, and “has understanding in visions and dreams.” We are reminded – most certainly on purpose – of Joseph in Egypt thousands of years earlier.
In chapter two, King Nebuchadnezzar has a bad dream. It “troubles his spirit” and he demands that his magicians and wise men interpret it. And, just to make certain the interpretation is on the up and up, the interpreter must also reveal the dream. In fact, failure to correctly reveal the dream will result in immediate dismemberment. When no one can meet the king’s demand, an enraged Nebuchadnezzar orders that every wise man in Babylon – including Daniel and his friends – be destroyed. Back in his quarters, Daniel prays a prayer to “the God of heaven” – a common way in the Hebrew Bible of referring to Israel’s God outside the borders of Israel. And before the king’s officials can carry out the order, the dream is revealed to Daniel who offers his interpretation.
Nebuchadnezzar saw a gigantic statue with a head of gold, a chest of silver, a pelvis of bronze, and legs of iron and clay. A huge, uncut stone smashed the statue, reducing every element to dust, at which point the stone became a huge mountain which “filled the entire earth.” The interpretation, according to Daniel: The head of gold is Babylon, the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar. After it will come another empire, not as strong, and another, even less strong, and finally a fourth, which will be the weakest, a divided kingdom made of iron and clay. In the time of the fourth kingdom, Israel’s God will establish his own “kingdom,” which will surpass all of the kingdoms of the earth and which will “stand forever.” Daniel gets promoted again.
Out of many possible interpretations of the biblical presentation of Daniel’s interpretation of the dream, one has a nice and tidy historical foothold. After Babylon, of course, there will be three more major empires which will rule over the Near Eastern world: Next will be the Medo-Persian Empire (within Daniel’s lifetime), followed by Greece and then Rome. Not only is this interpretation historically tenable, it seems to have the support of the New Testament writers as well – with special attention to the “kingdom of God” motif. But still, we should remain open minded and be slow to hitch our wagon to any easy-peasy historical fulfilment of bible prophecy. For the author’s purposes here in Daniel, the dream interpretation accomplishes two things: it flatters Nebuchadnezzar by assuring him that his kingdom is the greatest while simultaneously offering hope to the conquered peoples. Earthly power passes from throne to throne, but Israel’s God is the source of all power and he will (eventually) take his world back from these emperors. This is the underlying message of everything that is to come in Daniel and in the whole bible for that matter.
In chapter three Nebuchadnezzar erects a golden statue of himself. (A little on-the-nose, but what are you gonna do?) The king decrees that everyone in the land should bow down and worship his image, and when Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to do so they are dragged before Nebuchadnezzar and sentenced to be thrown into a large furnace. They politely but resolutely accept their sentence, saying:
16 “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
The king’s henchmen throw the young Jews into the furnace, but instead of burning up they are seen “walking around in the midst of the furnace,” with a mysterious fourth figure who looks like “a son of the gods.” Nebuchadnezzar is impressed, so he gives the young men promotions and threatens death to anyone who speaks against them or Israel’s God. One gets the sense that Nebuchadnezzar didn’t take a bathroom break without decreeing that someone be potentially torn limb from limb.
Chapter four is notable for a sudden change in the story’s point of view – it is the only chapter in the book written as a personal, first person decree from King Nebuchadnezzar:
6 I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace. 5 I saw a dream that made me afraid. As I lay in bed the fancies and the visions of my head alarmed me. 6 So I made a decree that all the wise men of Babylon should be brought before me, that they might make known to me the interpretation of the dream.
This time, he goes straight to Daniel and spills the beans on his scary dream. He saw a lush and beautiful tree, reaching to the heavens, with branches full of birds and fruit to feed the beasts of the earth. But an angel descended from the sky and ordered the tree be cut down, it’s leaves and fruit scattered, and its stump “bound to the earth with iron and bronze.” The stump was given the “mind of a beast” for “seven seasons.” Knowing the interpretation to be far less flattering than the previous one, Daniel is hesitant, but the king insists. Daniel explains that the tree is Nebuchadnezzar himself, with his power and dominion over so much of the earth. But heaven had decreed that the great emperor be chopped down, humiliated, made low, and reduced to the stature of an animal. A year later, this very fate befalls the king. As he stands on the roof of his palace, regarding the vast reaches of his kingdom, this happens:
33 …He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.
After a time, Nebuchadnezzar regains his “reason” and his “splendor,” but a point has been made: the glory enjoyed by emperors is fleeting and can be taken away at a moment’s notice by one in a higher place of authority. A warning to the oppressor, but perhaps more important a word of hope to the oppressed.
Daniel chapter five features a new king, Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon. He only gets one brief story here in the bible, but it’s a doozie. As the king parties with “thousands” of his lords and concubines, he runs out of glassware and orders that the holy vessels stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem be brought out. As the party rages on, a human hand appears and writes Aramaic words on the wall of the chamber:
25 “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN”
The words roughly translate as “Numbered, Numbered, Weighed and Divided.” No one can interpret what this sentence might mean until – you guessed it – Daniel is called to the scene. He explains:
26 “This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; 27 TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; 28 PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
The message is, “Babylon is finished. The next empire will be here soon to divvy up what’s left of your kingdom.” The text tells us that Belshazzar died that very night, and King Darius the Mede inherited his kingdom.
Daniel retains his high position in the new Medo-Persian empire, until jealous colleagues plot against him. Knowing that Daniel prays daily toward Jerusalem from an open window, they provoke Darius to issue a decree that no one should petition any king or god but him in all the land, and anyone who fails to keep the ordinance should be thrown into a den of lions. The king loves the idea, and Daniel is swiftly dragged before him as a traitor. Darius – who has apparently grown fond of Daniel – reluctantly orders that he be thrown into the lions’ den. Since this is one of the most famous of all bible stories, you probably know that Daniel survives his time in the pit and is promoted once again. He enjoys continued success until the reign of the Persian King Cyrus, who will become a very significant player in Israel’s exile drama.
In chapter seven, Daniel’s extraordinary apocalyptic visions begin and the tone of the book changes somewhat. In fact, many scholars believe that the second six chapters of Daniel represent a separate collection of writings from a different period – not unlike what we observed in the book of Isaiah. While the first half of the book features tales of adventure and survival with Daniel and his friends in the Babylonian and Persian courts, the second half appears to have been written later – perhaps in the second century, during the reign of the Greeks and one ruthless tyrant in particular. More on that in a minute.
Here’s the vision from chapter seven, probably the central text of the book of Daniel:
2 Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. 3 And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. 4 The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it. 5 And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’6 After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it. 7 After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns. 8 I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots. And behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.
This is perhaps the first full-blown apocalyptic vision in the bible, following the hints and glimpses in books like Isaiah and Ezekiel. We’ve spoken about apocalyptic in detail before, but some observations bear repeating. First and foremost, and this should be fairly obvious, but the strange creatures and events in apocalyptic texts should not be – and in all reality cannot be – taken as literal things existing in time and space. These are metaphors and symbols. Think of apocalyptic visions as the political cartoons of the ancient world – particularly the Babylonian and Persian corners of the ancient world. These are impossible hyperboles and caricatures, meant to encapsulate and insinuate realities which could not be described using mundane language.
Another important point of clarification when dealing with apocalyptic literature (and bible prophecy in general) is that it is not always or necessarily about the future – that is, our future. While recent generations of (mainly Christian) interpreters have insisted that anything prophetic or visionary in the bible MUST be about the end of the world, which is always just around the corner, it is much more fruitful and appropriate to consider the impact of these visions within the generations which produced them so long ago. Keep that in mind as we read on.
Daniel sees a vision of four monsters climbing out of the sea. The sea, we remember, is identified in the ancient world with chaos and evil. Whatever these creatures are, there is something primal and wicked about them. They are like the snake in the garden story – some kind of force within creation which defies and threatens its order. One looks very much like a cherub, a creature from Akkadian mythology which looks like a lion with eagle’s wings. A second monster resembles a bear that runs amok eating people. The third is like a four-headed leopard with four wings which is given “dominion” to wreak havoc on the earth. The terrifying fourth monster almost defies description. It isn’t compared to any animal, it’s just a “beast” with “iron teeth” and ten horns on its head. When the horns are plucked out, a smaller one appears with a little face on it which proceeds to “speak arrogantly.”
There is a complex system of tropes and symbolism at work in apocalyptic texts, and to be honest we do not have a handle on all of it. Some things become obvious, though: different animals represent different sorts of powers and qualities, horns represent kingly dominion, and certain numbers bear certain meanings (four indicates totality, seven is a number of completeness or perfection, ten represents consolidated and formidable power, etc.). We need not struggle to decipher every last clue, however, as an “angel” will tell Daniel the meaning of the vision later in the chapter. In one sense, this vision is very similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue dream, only instead of four forthcoming empires the monsters represent four kings. The first three do their damage but are easily dispatched, while the strange fourth king represents a unique and severe threat. Later in the chapter we learn that each horn on this beast’s head actually represents an individual king, and the small eleventh horn with the big mouth is a “greater” king, one who makes war against God’s people and “sees fit to change the times and the law.”
The climax of the vision sees the “Ancient of Days” – no doubt Israel’s God himself – dealing with all four of the monsters. But he doesn’t do it personally. He appoints a servant – “one like a son of man” – a Hebrew way of saying “a mortal human” – whom he sends down to earth on a cloud to vanquish the fourth beast and establish the new “everlasting kingdom,” the one we saw in the Nebuchadnezzar dream.
This vision will become vital to our reading of the New Testament, as it forms a central element of Jesus’ own self-identity. But here in the Hebrew Bible, we note the impact of its message on Israel in the exile and beyond. Historically, there is good reason to identify the “small horn” of the fourth beast with the Greek tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes IV. Of all the pagan kings to torture and oppress Israel and Judah, he was surely the most vindictive and ruthless. While Babylon and Persia each allowed some semblance of Jewish identity to survive conquest, Antiochus actively sought to stamp it out. He profaned the Temple and made it impossible for Jews – back in their homeland by decree of the Persian King Cyrus before him – to practice the covenant law. He even forced Jewish martyrs to eat pork as they died.
And so two prominent schools of interpretation have emerged regarding Daniel 7: an historical view which sees it as a word of hope and perseverance for Jews suffering under Antiochus Epiphanes IV, and a dispensational Christian view which prefers to read any text like this as a prophecy about the end of the world and the so-called “antichrist.” Thankfully the show is already running long and we have neither the time nor the inclination on BOOK to solve such matters. Suffice to say the big takeaways from Daniel 7 are the mysterious “son of man” figure and the ultimate and effortless victory of God over the oppressive regimes of the earth.
Speaking of running low on time, let’s take an abbreviated look at the rest of the book’s contents. Chapter eight is another vision, this time of a ram being trampled by a goat. The angel – now identified as “Gabriel” – tells Daniel that one is the king of Persia, and the other the king of Greece, who will desecrate and profane the Temple before being defeated himself. Consider the implications of this very specific interpretation to our reading of chapter seven, though it’s also worth noting that Daniel ends this chapter utterly confused and unable to comprehend what he has just seen.
Chapter nine finds Daniel in the court of Darius the Mede reading the writings of Jeremiah, where he finds a prophecy that the exile will end after seventy years (Jer 25:11). Daniel prays a long and reverent prayer to Israel’s God, asking if these seventy years shouldn’t have expired by now. The angel Gabriel returns with good news and bad news: the exile will indeed end, but after seventy times seventy years, or 490 years. Interpreters who whip out their calculators at this point should remember the significance of these numbers – especially in terms of years and eras. For Israel, seven is the number associated with God’s rhythm. He rested on the seventh day, and so his people take a Sabbath on the seventh day. In that same vein, every seventh year in Israel was to be a “jubilee” year, in which society was reset, debts forgiven, and slaves freed. Israel will come out of exile, but only after a “jubilee of jubilees.” Meaning: in God’s own time.
In chapters ten, eleven and twelve, Daniel is working for Cyrus, the Persian King who will sign the order to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Daniel sees a series of troubling visions, narrated for him by an angel named Michael, which depict in more details the struggles and conflicts between the kings of the earth from Daniel’s present until “the end.” Again, some choose to interpret that phrase as a reference to the “end of the space-time world,” while others see it as a reference to the “end of the age,” when exile will be ended and God will re-establish his kingdom as promised. The final vision of Daniel sees a resurrection of “many” of the dead – both Israelites and their pagan oppressors, the former to “the life of the coming age,” and the latter to “shame and contempt.” Like everything else in the book, this is about the ultimate vindication of Israel for the ordeal they are presently suffering.
And that is Daniel. Some say he is a character invented as a representative of faithful Jews throughout the various stages of the exile. Others say he was an especially blessed prophet, called to bring urgent words of hope to his suffering people in bondage. Either way, the dreams and visions of Daniel are biblical game changers in many respects, and will undergird our reading of the New Testament gospels and the book of Revelation – another book which offers us a variety of interpretive possibilities.
For now, this has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everyone, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.