Adventure story, super hero with wisdom provided by God: Daniel has it all.
Daniel is a youth who is kidnapped in Jerusalem and taken as a prisoner to Babylon, 650 to 700 miles from home. His story traces his journey from kidnap victim to a man who “prospered during the reign of Darius…” (Daniel 6:28). It is not a smooth road: he struggles to stay true to his faith; he must interpret the king’s dreams, accurately; he must resist the temptation to adopt the culture and practice of his captors and watch his friends thrown in a fiery furnace; and endure a plot and a stint in the lion’s den.
Daniel then has his own amazing dreams and visions and composes an epic prayer. This engaging adventure has much for today’s student: a super-hero story which can also be accessed as a prediction of the arrival of Jesus.
Meet Our Professors
Professor of Hebrew Bible
Professor Joel Baden is a specialist in the Pentateuch, Biblical Hebrew, and disability theory in biblical studies. He is the author of the numerous articles, essays, and books on individual pentateuchal texts, critical methodology, and Biblical Hebrew; future projects include commentaries on Deuteronomy and Exodus. He holds degrees in Judaic Studies (BA, Yale), Semitic Languages (MA, University of Chicago), and Hebrew Bible (PhD, Harvard).
John J. Collins
Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation
John J. Collins, a native of Ireland, was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago from 1991 until his arrival at YDS in 2000. He previously taught at the University of Notre Dame. He has published widely on the subjects of apocalypticism, wisdom, Hellenistic Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He has participated in the editing of the Dead Sea Scrolls and is the general editor of the Yale Anchor Bible series. He holds degrees from University College Dublin (BA, MA, and an honorary D. Litt.) and Harvard University (PhD).
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The Book of Daniel
I. Who Was Daniel
The name Daniel occurs twice in the Book of Ezekiel. Ezek 14:14 says that even Noah, Daniel, and Job could not save a sinful country, but could only save themselves. Ezek 28:3 asks the king of Tyre, “are you wiser than Daniel?” In both cases, Daniel is regarded as a legendary wise and righteous man. The association with Noah and Job suggests that he lived a long time before Ezekiel. The protagonist of the Biblical Book of Daniel, however, is a younger contemporary of Ezekiel. It may be that he derived his name from the legendary hero, but he cannot be the same person. A figure called Dan’el is also known from texts found at Ugarit, in northern Syrian, dating to the second millennium BCE. He is the father of Aqhat, and is portrayed as judging the cause of the widow and the fatherless in the city gate. This story may help explain why the name Daniel is associated with wisdom and righteousness in the Hebrew Bible. The name means “God is my judge,” or “judge of God.”
Daniel acquires a new identity, however, in the Book of Daniel. As found in the Hebrew Bible, the book consists of 12 chapters. The first six are stories about Daniel, who is portrayed as a youth deported from Jerusalem to Babylon, who rises to prominence at the Babylonian court. The second half of the book recounts a series of revelations that this Daniel received and were interpreted for him by an angel. The Greek translation of Daniel includes additional material. Two long prayers, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men are inserted in chapter 3. Two additional stories are added as separate chapters. One tells the story of Bel and the Dragon. This is a parody of Babylonian image worship. It includes the motif of Daniel being thrown into the lions’ den, which is also found in Daniel chapter 6. The other additional chapter is the story of Susanna. In that story, Daniel appears as judge, as we might expect from his name, but his character is quite different from what we find in the Hebrew Bible.
The character of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible is mainly established in chapters 1-6. Chapter 1 is in Hebrew. The other five chapters are in Aramaic. Again, the first vision report in the book, chapter 7, is in Aramaic, but the rest of the book is in Hebrew. It seems likely that stories about Daniel, in Aramaic, circulated, perhaps orally, before they were collected in the book. Daniel 1 was written as an introduction to the collection, and may have been translated from Aramaic. The visions in the second half of the book can be dated with some precision, since they all deal with the persecution of the Jews by the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes in the years 167-164 BCE. Chapter 11 gives a long account of Hellenistic history, presented in the form of prophecy, that is accurate until the death of Antiochus Epiphanes, which is erroneously said to take place in the land of Israel. Already in antiquity, the pagan philosopher Porphyry, who lived in the second half of the third century BCE, inferred that the accurate part of the chapter was written after the fact, and that the author was not aware of the actual circumstances of Epiphanes’ death in late 164. The first vision, chapter 7, was written in Aramaic, in continuity with the tales. After that, however, the author switched to Hebrew, probably because of nationalistic fervor at the time of the Maccabean revolt.
It is unlikely that the figure described in Daniel 1-6 ever existed. Not only are the miraculous episodes in the stories, such as the survival of the heroes in the fiery furnace or in the lions’ den, implausible, but the chapters contain several prominent historical errors. The date of the siege of Jerusalem in the opening verse does not accord either with the account in 2 Kings 24 or with Babylonian sources. The madness of Nebuchadnezzar (chap. 4) is unknown from other sources and would surely not have gone unreported if it were historical. Belshazzar was the crown prince during the reign of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, but he was never king. No such person as Darius the Mede is known to history. Three Persian kings had the name Darius. The first of these organized his empire by satrapies, as Darius the Mede does in Daniel chapter 6. But he was not a Mede. The Book of Daniel follows a widespread idea that there was a sequence of four world kingdoms. In pagan (and some Jewish) sources, these are usually identified as Assyria, Media, Persia, and Greece. Daniel substitutes Babylon for Assyria, and makes Darius into a Mede in order to have the Median empire represented. (The first Persian Darius came later, after the reign of Cyrus, who follows Darius the Mede in Daniel 6).
In light of the pervasive historical problems, it is clear that the stories cannot be considered historical by modern standards. In fact, they belong to a well-known genre of “court tales,” stories set at the court of a king, especially of a Persian king. The Greek historian Herodotus provides several examples, involving such characters as Croesus and Gyges. Other Jewish examples are found in the story of Joseph at the court of the Pharaoh of Egypt, and Esther at the Persian court. These stories may have been prompted by historical incidents in some cases, but they are freely embellished. The Jewish stories all depict their heroes as faced with mortal dangers, but prevailing, by the explicit (as in Daniel) or implicit (as in Esther) help of their God. Historical accuracy is incidental to stories of this type. They are essentially works of fiction, even if they include historical elements.
It is likely that the stories in chapters 1-6 evolved gradually over several centuries. We can trace some of this development in the case of chapter 4. It is now acknowledged that the story had its original inspiration in an episode in the reign of King Nabonidus. He was devoted to the moon-god Sin rather than to Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, and he absented himself from Babylon and lived in Teima in the Arabian wilderness for several years. During this time, the New Year’s festival (the Akitu festival) could not be performed in Babylon, because of the absence of the king. The priests of Marduk were scathing in their contempt for him. This episode gave rise to the motif of the king gone mad. A Jewish text found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Prayer of Nabonidus, correctly identifies the king in question as Nabonidus rather than Nebuchadnezzar, and goes on to tell the story of his recovery. A Jewish diviner explains to him that he has been healed by the God of heaven, and Nabonidus proceeds to acknowledge the true God. The story about Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel chapter 4 represents a more developed form of the story, in which Nabonidus has been replaced by a more famous Babylonian king.
It is reasonable to suppose that some such process of development also underlies the other stories in Daniel 1-6, although specific evidence of earlier stages is lacking. In the case of chapters 4-6, the Old Greek translation is quite different from the Aramaic. The wide discrepancy between different forms of the stories suggests that they may have circulated orally for a time. The formulaic and repetitive language, especially in chapter 3, also suggests a period of oral transmission.
The tales in Daniel 1-6 must have been collected and edited some time before the upheavals in the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, which inspired the visions in the second half of the book. A few features in the stories point to the Hellenistic era. The interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 alludes to interdynastic marriage between the Ptolemies and Seleucids (Dan 2:43). The account of the orchestra in Daniel 3 includes at least one Greek word, symponia. Most scholars think the stories were edited in the late third or early second century BCE, but the evidence is not very clear, and in any case the stories must be viewed as traditional tales that grew over a long period of time.
Other Daniel compositions
A few other compositions in the name of Daniel have been discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Two fragmentary Aramaic texts contain predictions of the course of history, partially after the fact, attributed to Daniel (4Q243-244, and 4Q245). The original editor of these texts, J. T. Milik, assumed that they were dependent on the canonical Book of Daniel, but this is not clear. All we can say is that they are compositions that resemble parts of the Book of Daniel in form. Another Aramaic composition is more controversial. This is 4Q246, otherwise known as “the Aramaic Apocalypse” or “the Son of God text.” This fragmentary text apparently recounts the interpretation of a king’s dream. Some commentators have assumed that the interpreter is Daniel, but Daniel is not mentioned in the extant fragments. The interpretation goes on to talk about a figure who will be called “son of God” and “son of the Most High,” as Jesus is in Luke 1:32, 35. It is possible that this figure is an interpretation of the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7, but this is only a possibility that cannot be verified. No fragments of the Greek additions to Daniel, mentioned above, have been found among the Scrolls, although it is widely agreed that the Greek was based on Semitic, probably Aramaic, originals.
Wise man or prophet?
The character of Daniel that emerges from these stories is part wise man, part prophet. He is not a purveyor of proverbial wisdom, but he is skilled in the interpretation of dreams and mysteries, like the Babylonian wise men. While the Babylonians (Chaldeans) use technical means to interpret omens, however, Daniel relies on the inspiration of his God. Since his interpretations often entail predictions, it is understandable that Daniel is often regarded as a prophet. The book is grouped with the prophets in the Greek, and in the traditional Christian Bible, where Daniel is regarded as the fourth of the major prophets. In the Hebrew Bible, however, Daniel is not included in the Prophets, but rather in the Writings, with the Psalms and Wisdom books. Daniel is, however, called a prophet in the Dead Sea Scrolls (11QMelchizedek; the Florilegium, 4Q174). The Jewish historian Josephus called Daniel the greatest of the prophets, because he not only predicted what would happen, but even said when it would happen. Josephus evidently was not troubled by the fact that some of Daniel’s predictions were not fulfilled. Some scholars have suggested that the Book of Daniel was originally regarded as prophetic, as in the Greek Bible, and later removed from the Prophets by the rabbis.
While Daniel was regarded as a prophet in Second Temple and New Testament times, his work differs from that of the older prophets in significant ways. Daniel does not speak in the name of the Lord, in oracular fashion. The visions in Daniel 7-12 resemble prophetic visions, especially those of Ezekiel and Zechariah. Daniel does not, however, engage in direct exhortation. He simply presents an alternative view of the world, one where angelic forces play a major role. He seeks to shape human behavior by getting people to see the world in a new way. Already in chapter 1, Daniel and his friends are said to be “skilled (maskilim) in all wisdom.” The same Hebrew word is used in chapters 11 and 12 to describe those who let themselves be killed in the time of persecution, rather than break the Law. Daniel has a more strongly sapiential character than earlier prophecy. In fact, it is representative of a new genre that was emerging in Judaism in the second century BCE, the apocalypse. An apocalypse is a revelation to a human recipient, mediated or interpreted by an angel or other heavenly being. Some apocalypses, including Daniel, provide an overview of history in the guise of prophecy. Others describe the ascent of the visionary to the heavens, or descent to the nether regions. The genre is characterized by the affirmation of the judgment of the dead, and that the righteous and wicked experience reward or punishment after death.
One of the features that distinguish apocalypses from older prophecy is the expectation of judgment after death. Dan 12:1-3 contains the only clear example in the Hebrew Bible of individual resurrection, providing different outcomes for the righteous and the wicked. This is one of the ways in which Daniel has enormous importance for later tradition, both Jewish and Christian. Without the belief in resurrection, Christianity as we know it could not have emerged.
Daniel is also important for early Christianity in another respect. Chapter 7 contains a vision of “one like a son of man” coming on the clouds of heaven. Early Christians identified Jesus with this figure, and inferred that he would come again on the clouds of heaven at the end of history. Whether Jesus himself spoke of a “Son of Man,” or identified himself with him, is a perennially disputed question in New Testament scholarship.
John J. Collins, Daniel. A Commentary on the Book of Daniel. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993, pp. 24-52.
Carol A. Newsom, with Brennan Breed. Daniel. A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014, pp1-32.
Daniel Smith-Christopher, “The Book of Daniel,” New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander Keck. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996. Vol. 7, pp. 19-36.
Questions for Reflection:
- Why is it unlikely that Daniel is an historical figure?
- What are different literary genres in the Book of Daniel?
- Is it a problem if the stories in Daniel are not literally true?
- In what ways is Daniel important for later tradition?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Daniel
II. Daniel 1-2
Daniel chapter 1 begins with an historical problem. According to 2 Kings 24 and the Babylonian Chronicle, the first siege of Jerusalem, in 597 BCE, took place after the death of Jehoiakim, although Jehoiakim had been subject to Babylon for three years. His son Jehoiachin succeeded him as king. Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiachin to Babylon, and also too the temple treasures. According to 2 Chronicles 36: 5-8, however, Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiakim prisoner to Babylon and also took the temple vessels. It appears that Chronicles and Daniel confused the two kings of Judah. The Book of Daniel here is only concerned to set the scene, and explain how Daniel and his companions came to be in Babylon. We will meet the temple vessels again in Daniel 5.
Daniel and his friends are singled out for the royal service because they are promising young men, without physical defect. They are to be taught the language and literature of the Chaldeans. This is not implausible. The Babylonians sought to co-opt the best of the peoples they conquered. Later, in the Persian period, Nehemiah would become cup-bearer to the king, a position of considerable responsibility.
The main issue raised in chapter is the degree to which Daniel and his friends would assimilate to customs of their conquerors. They by no means refuse to enter the royal service, but they place a limit on their assimilation by refusing the royal food, and asking for vegetables instead. Most readers assume that they are concerned to observe kashrut, the food laws derived mainly from the book of Leviticus. But we do not find any clear references to the Torah in Daniel 1-6. Some scholars explain the refusal to eat the royal fare as a gesture of political resistance, and a way of maintaining a measure of independence. It is difficult to believe, however, that the refusal is not related to food laws. Even if Daniel is not specifically following the laws of the Torah, some observances, such as the avoidance of pork, were traditional long before the Torah was formalized.
Daniel and his friends flourish on their vegetarian diet. The point, of course, is not to recommend vegetarianism, but to assert that Jews would not suffer if they refused Gentile ways, but would rather be blessed by their God. Already here we find a tension characteristic of life in Diaspora. Maintaining difference, and a distinct identity, poses obvious risks, but those risks can be overcome by divine help.
The importance of divine aid is also central to Daniel 2. The king has a troubling dream, and summons his wise men and diviners. The Babylonians had developed divination into a science, which was widely respected in the ancient world. Daniel is not the only biblical book that takes issue with Babylonian divination. Second Isaiah also mocks the Babylonian diviners for failing to predict the downfall of Babylon and the restoration of Israel (e.g. Isa 45:20-21). In this case, however, the diviners are presented with an impossible task. The king demands that they not only interpret his dream, but tell him the dream itself. When they cannot, he becomes furious and orders their execution. The order applies even to Daniel and his friends, although they had not been consulted at all. This kind of irrational behavior is typically attributed to tyrants. It gives the whole story the character of a caricature.
Daniel, however, pleads with the king and is given more time to come up with an interpretation. He does this by praying to his God, who reveals to him the dream and interpretation. This knowledge is not available to the Babylonian diviners, because they do not know the God of Daniel. Daniel makes this point clear to the king: “No wise men, enchanters, magicians or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (2:27-28).
Daniel then proceeds to narrate the king’s dream, which involves a statue with various metals. The head was made of pure gold, the legs and arms of silver, the thighs of bronze, and the feet were partly iron and partly clay. Daniel interprets it in terms of a sequence of kingdoms. Quite diplomatically, he tells the king: “you are the head of gold.” God has given him power over the whole earth. He will be followed, however, by an inferior kingdom, represented in the statue by silver. Then there will be a third, bronze, kingdom. Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, but mixed with clay. This kingdom will not remain united. Then the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed or pass to another people.
The four kingdoms
Daniel is less explicit than he might have been in his interpretation of the dream. Its implications only become apparent when we read it in light of other texts. The most famous of these texts is in Daniel 7, which again speaks of a sequence of four kingdoms, followed by a kingdom of God. But in fact such a sequence was a popular motif in ancient history, especially in the Roman period. The kingdoms are usually identified as Assyria, Media, Persia and Greece. The first three are found already in the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century BCE. The Assyrians did not actually rule the whole world, but they ruled the whole Near East. The sequence reflects an eastern, probably Persian, viewpoint. This is shown by the fact that Media is included as a world kingdom. (Media’s kingdom never extended to the west, or included Judah). The schema of four kingdoms appears in a Persian text, the Bahman Yasht, which is several centuries later in its extant form, but is thought to be adapted from a much older text, from the Achaemenid period (= the biblical Persian period, 539 – 333 BCE)
Daniel substitutes Babylon for Assyria. (Assyria still appears as the first kingdom in the Fourth Sibylline Oracle, a Jewish text that dates, in its present form, from the first century CE). This is clear from the fact that Nebuchadnezzar is identified as the head of gold. Daniel does not identify the other kingdoms in chapter 2, but in Dan 5:31 we are told that Darius the Mede received the kingdom. As we have already seen, no such person is known to history. He seems to have been invented to fit the schema, since Media was supposed to be the second kingdom. Then at the end of chapter 6, Cyrus of Persia appears. The second half of the book reverts to the period of Babylonian rule. Chapters 7 and 8 are dated to the reign of Belshazzar, chapters 9 and 10 to the reign of Darius the Mede, and chapters 10-12 to the reign of Cyrus of Persia. In Dan 10:20, Daniel is told that after the prince of Persia the prince of Greece will come. It is apparent then that for Daniel the four kingdoms are Babylon, Media, Persia and Greece. The Greek kingdom of Alexander was divided among his generals. From the Jewish perspective, the most important of these were Seleucus, who founded the Seleucid dynasty in Syria, and Ptolemy, who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. The mixture of iron and clay is given another explanation, in reference to marriages between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, which did not succeed in achieving peace and harmony between the kingdoms (Dan 2:43).
After the rise of Rome in the second century BCE, it was incorporated into the sequence as the fourth kingdom. This was usually accomplished by combining Media and Persia as one kingdom. By New Testament times, Rome was well established as the fourth kingdom, and this interpretation survived until the rise in critical scholarship in modern times.
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and its interpretation is informed by another schema that was well known in the ancient world. The Greek poet Hesiod (about 700 BCE) had written of four ages of human history, symbolized by metals of declining value, beginning with gold and ending with iron. The iron age was dire. Hesiod expressed his wish that he either have been born earlier or later. (The possibility that he could be born later raises the question whether the schema was supposed to repeat itself). Hesiod’s iron age was not mixed with clay. (Incidentally the Persian Bahman Yasht described the fourth kingdom as “iron mixed”). The iron age, then, was the nadir of history. Applied to the four kingdoms, this implies a very negative judgment on the Greek age. Nonetheless, the judgment in Daniel 2 is not nearly as negative as what we will find in Daniel 7. Daniel 2 was probably written before the crisis of the Maccabean era, which provides the setting for Daniel 7-12.
The king’s reaction
Nebuchadnezzar receives the interpretation with remarkable sang-froid. The dream predicts the demise of the Babylonian kingdom. Admittedly, Daniel does not quite make this clear to the king, since he does not identify the later kingdoms. Nebuchadnezzar can take satisfaction from the knowledge that future kingdoms will not measure up to his own. He could even suppose that the kingdom set up by the God of Heaven will be a restored Babylonian kingdom, and a return to the Golden Age. For the Jewish reader, the stone cut from the mountain is an allusion to Mt. Zion, and can only represent a Jewish kingdom, but this is not made clear to the king. Besides, this development is still in the distant future. Eschatology here is deferred. Of course, it was not so far in the future in the Hellenistic period, when the chapter was actually written. Nonetheless, it does not promise an immediate overthrow of Gentile power. Throughout Daniel 1-6, the emphasis is on how Jews can live under foreign rule, not on how it can be overthrown. Individual kings and kingdoms are overthrown, but they are followed by other Gentile kingdoms.
The king in any case is impressed not so much by the content of the dream as by the fact that Daniel can narrate and interpret it. Nebuchadnezzar, we are told, prostrated himself before Daniel, and ordered that offerings be made to him. He acknowledges the supremacy of Daniel’s God, as Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries. He promotes Daniel and his friends to high office. Daniel is placed in charge of all the wise men of Babylon. To be sure, this reaction is hyperbolic. The idea that Nebuchadnezzar would prostrate himself before a Jewish exile is wishful thinking, with scant regard for historical plausibility. The king will acknowledge the God of the Judeans again in chapters 3 and 4, but each time he seems to forget about it again. These stories probably circulated independently before they were brought together. The quasi-conversion of the king at the end is a generic element in these tales.
As Daniel 2 is structured, the main point is the superiority of Daniel to the Babylonian diviners, a superiority that is due to the greater power of his God. The content of the dream might seem to be incidental to this point. But the dream is important for the Book of Daniel because it shows the structure of history in this book, and anticipates the great vision in Chapter 7. The motif of the four kingdoms helps bind the book together.
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream has continued to fascinate people through the ages. The Dispensationalist movement of the 19th century, inspired by John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) interpreted Daniel 2 as an outline of history down to its own time, and represented this in colorful form on a large chart. This kind of fundamentalist literalism has also been applied to other parts of Daniel, as we shall see when we consider chapter 9, but it is misguided.
The dream and its interpretation, however, capture an important aspect of the apocalyptic theology of Daniel. It affirms that all human kingdoms will eventually pass away. This knowledge has often given hope to the oppressed, and it has been repeatedly vindicated in the course of history. The final kingdom of God that will never pass to another people, has yet to appear.
Collins, Daniel, pp. 127-175;
Newsom, Daniel, pp. 33-96;
Smith-Christopher, “The Book of Daniel,” pp. 37-58.
Questions for Reflection:
- What is the main point of Daniel chapter 2?
- How is the Babylonian king portrayed in this chapter?
- Why is the king not offended by Daniel’s interpretation?
- Does the vision of history as a succession of kingdoms, each doomed to pass, have any lasting value?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Daniel
III. Daniel 3 and 6
Daniel 3 is exceptional among the tales in Daniel 1-6, insofar as Daniel is not involved in it, but only his three friends. Conversely, the three friends are marginal figures in the other stories. It is likely that these stories circulated separately before they were brought together.
The issue that provides the drama in this story is the demand of Nebuchadnezzar that everyone bow down and worship an image that he had set up. There is no evidence that any ruler in antiquity made such a demand, but the story reflects the anxiety of Jews, especially in a Gentile environment. Jews were exceptional in the ancient world in their refusal to bow down before idols. The refusal to worship the local gods was easily construed as political disloyalty. A couple of centuries later, the Jews of Alexandria would be accused of “atheism” because of their refusal to worship the same gods as everyone else. In Daniel 3, the rivals of the three Jews, who resent the fact that these foreigners have been promoted to high office, are quick to accuse them. “There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon . . . These pay no attention to you, O King. They do not serve your gods or worship the golden statue that you have set up.”
The three Jews are brought before the king. Nebuchadnezzar has no recollection of the preceding chapter. (This story was evidently written independently). Again, he is depicted as an irrational tyrant, who flies into a rage when he is thwarted. He demands that the Jews worship his statue, and asks the leading question: “who is the god that will deliver you out of my hand?” (3:17).
The response of the three young men is remarkable. They affirm that their God is able to deliver them; but they add that even if he does not, they will still not serve Nebuchadnezzar’s gods or worship the image. The remarkable thing here is the acknowledgement that deliverance is not guaranteed. In fact, people who risk their lives for their faith must be prepared to lose them. We know that a number of Jewish people were killed for observing the Law in the Maccabean crisis. We do not know of any such incidents in the Babylonian or Persian eras, but the possibility was always there, when Jews refused to conform to the local practice. In Daniel 12, which was written in the time of the Maccabees, a new solution is found for this problem. The righteous who are killed for their fidelity are promised that they will be raised from the dead, and will shine like the stars in heaven. There is no such promise here. The story ends with miraculous deliverance, but the fidelity of the Jews cannot rely on such an ending. Even if they were to lose their lives, they would still refuse the demand of the king.
In the event, they are rescued miraculously. Nebuchadnezzar sees a fourth man walking around in the furnace, who looks like “a son of the the gods,” which is to say a divine being, or what we would call an angel. The Greek translation explains that “an angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azarias and his companions and shook the flame of the fire out of the furnace and made the inside of the furnace as if a moist breeze were whistling through. And the fire did not touch them at all and caused them no pain or distress.” In Christian tradition, the fourth man is often assumed to be Christ. In the original, Jewish, context, he would be identified as an angel.
The Greek translation of Daniel 3 also includes two lengthy prayers that are not in the Aramaic text. The first is a prayer attributed to one of the youths, Azariah. This is a confession of sin and of the righteousness of God, acknowledging that the afflictions of the Jews are due to the fact that they have not kept the commandments. This kind of prayer is very common in Second Temple Judaism. (Compare Ezra 9; Nehemiah 9; Daniel 9). Azariah asks that the lives of the three young men be accepted as if it were a sacrifice of rams and bulls. The prayer does not seem especially appropriate to its context, because the young men are not in fact being punished for any sin. The second prayer is the Song of the Three Young Men, which calls on all the elements of nature to praise God, for his mercy endures forever.
As in Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar is enormously impressed by the ability of the God of the Jews to perform the impossible. He decrees that anyone who speaks ill of him be cut in pieces and his house be made into rubble. He promotes the youths to yet higher office. Despite this, they play no further role in the Book of Daniel.
The story is hyperbolical, and a caricature in many ways. It mocks the decree of the king by listing all the people summoned to the dedication of the statue and all the different instruments used in the orchestra, and repeating the latter a few times. Needless to say, when we meet Nebuchadnezzar again in chapter 4, he will have completely forgotten about the episode of the fiery furnace. Nonetheless, the story is a vivid one, and dramatizes effectively Jewish resistance to idolatry. In Christian tradition, Daniel 3 was often used in Christian burials as an allegory for resurrection.
As Daniel is absent from Chapter 3, so the friends are absent from Chapter 6. The action of the chapter is prompted by the fact that Daniel is appointed satrap, or governor of a region, thereby prompting the envy of other courtiers. Darius I of Persia famously organized his empire into 36 satrapies. In Daniel 6, the number is inflated, and the organization is attributed to the fictitious Darius the Mede, who represents Media in the sequence of kingdoms.
As in the other stories, Daniel is represented as a faithful and loyal subject of the crown. He is neither corrupt nor negligent. Accordingly, the other satraps decide that the only way they can make a case against Daniel is to entrap him in a matter relating to the law of his God.
The specific trap is that the king is persuaded to issue an order forbidding anyone to pray to any god other than himself. No Gentile king in antiquity ever issued such a megalomaniac order. But again, the fictitious issue speaks to a real anxiety for Jews living in foreign lands. The worship of the local gods was deeply embedded in the social and political fabric of society. The refusal of Jews to participate in pagan worship could easily be taken as evidence of disloyalty. Conversely, their persistence in worshipping their own God could also be taken as evidence of disloyalty, or at least of divided loyalty.
Daniel persists in praying three times a day to his God, with his windows open towards Jerusalem. This practice is never required in the Torah. It is apparent that when the chapter refers to “the law of his God,” the reference is not to the biblical laws as we know them, but rather to ancestral custom.
It is often claimed in modern scholarship that there was no distinction in antiquity between religion and other aspects of society. Religious observances were part and parcel of local cultures. Jews living in exile, however, routinely made such a distinction. Daniel is a loyal subject of Darius, but the worship of his God takes precedence over his political loyalty. Again, Daniel can follow most of the customs of his environment, except in matters relating to the gods. This distinction reappears in the literature of the Hellenistic Diaspora, in Egypt in the first century CE. The Greco-Egyptian grammarian Apion complained that the Jews wanted to be regarded as citizens of the Greek city of Alexandria, but refused to worship the same gods as everyone else. Distinctions between state and religion may have been exceptional in antiquity, but they were very much part of the Jewish experience, especially in the Diaspora.
Daniel 6, and more generally the stories in Daniel 1-6, wants the reader to believe that the Gentile rulers actually appreciate religious commitment, even when it conflicts with their own orders. Darius is exceptionally well disposed. He is eager to save Daniel. When he is entrapped by “the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be revoked” he tells Daniel, “may your God whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” He hurries to the lions’ den in the morning and asks Daniel whether his God has been able to save him, in full confidence that he has. Daniel tells him that God sent his angel to shut the mouths of the lions. Daniels accusers are then thrown to the lions and devoured, while the king, like Nebuchadnezzar, praises the God of Daniel.
The motif of the lions’ den also appears in the apocryphal story of Bel and the Dragon, which is appended to the Book of Daniel in the Greek translation. That story is an idol parody, mocking the Babylonians for worshipping idols. Daniel demonstrates that the priests and their families eat the offerings that the king and the populace believed were eaten by Bel. He thus disproves the claim that Bel is a living god. He then shows that the dragon (snake) lacks intelligence by feeding it a concoction that kills it. When he is thrown into the lions’ den, he is aided by the prophet Habakkuk, who is transported miraculously from Judah to bring food. These stories are independent of the court tales in Daniel 1-6. It is apparent that several stories about Daniel were in circulation before some of them were edited into the Book of Daniel as we know it.
There are also substantial differences between the Old Greek translation and the Aramaic in chapters 4-6, so much so that these chapters of the Greek were replaced with a revised translation, attributed to Theodotion, who wrote in the second century CE. These chapters of Daniel circulated orally before they were written down. The Old Greek was undoubtedly based on an Aramaic text, but one that has not survived. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that other biblical texts (Samuel, Jeremiah) also circulated in more than one form. In those cases, fragments of Hebrew texts corresponding to the Greek translation were found in the Scrolls. Even though no other Hebrew or Aramaic form of Daniel 4-6 has been found, it seems clear enough that the Old Greek was based on such a text. Bel and the Dragon were also based on a Semitic text, whether Hebrew or Aramaic. In that case a medieval Aramaic text has been found, but it seems to have been translated from the Greek.
The stories in Daniel 3 and 6 resemble later Christian stories of martyrdom in significant respects. These stories typically involve an altercation between the martyrs and the tyrant who is putting them to death. The stories in Daniel, however, are not strictly martyrdoms, since the heroes do not actually die. They are rather stories of miraculous deliverance.
The deliverance allows the stories to end on a positive note. Daniel 1-6 affirms that it is possible for Jews to live and prosper in the service of Gentile kings, despite the tensions that arise because of their different religion. In fact, these stories insist that fidelity to their own religion is the key to the success of the Jewish courtiers, because it ensures the aid of their God. The stories are written to encourage Jews to be faithful to their religion even while pursuing careers in the service of pagan kings. These are not revolutionary stories. There is no question of overthrowing the pagan kings. There is, to be sure, a note of mockery in Daniel 3, and even in Daniel 6 “the law of the Medes and the Persians” is a caricature that suggests that these foreigners are not very intelligent. But Darius the Mede is a sympathetic character, and Daniel prospers in the service of several monarchs. We will find a very different attitude to pagan rule in Daniel 7-12.
Collins, Daniel, 176-207; 256-75;
Newsom, Daniel, 97-123; 186-210;
Smith-Christopher, “The Book of Daniel,” 58-67; 85-96.
Questions for Reflection:
- Are the stories in Daniel 3 and 6 properly identified as martyrdom stories?
- What was at issue in the refusal of Jews to participate in the worship of idols? How would this refusal be viewed by Gentiles?
- What do these stories tell us about Jewish religious law at the time when they were written?
- How are the pagan kings portrayed in these stories?
- What is the attitude of the Jews in these stories to Gentile rule?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Daniel
IV. Daniel 4-5
As Daniel 3 and 6 are paired as stories of miraculous deliverance, so Daniel 4 and 5 are paired as stories in which Daniel confronts a king in a manner that is somewhat reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets.
Daniel 4 is presented as a proclamation by King Nebuchadnezzar, reporting his amazing experience. The idea for such a proclamation may be prompted by inscriptions of Nabonidus, found at Harran in northern Syria, in which he recounts how he rose to power by divine assistance, but the content of this proclamation is entirely different.
As in Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar has a troubling dream. In this case, however, he tells the dream to the wise men and diviners, but they are not able to interpret it. Accordingly he calls in Daniel, acknowledging that “the spirit of the holy gods,” or “a holy divine spirit,” is in him.
The dream concerns a huge tree, whose top touches the sky and is visible to the ends of the earth. It provides shelter and food for all creatures. But then a figure who is described as “a watcher, a holy one” appears, and orders that the tree be cut down. (NRSV renders “a holy watcher, but the Aramaic has two nouns). Watchers and holy ones were categories of heavenly beings, what we would call angels. The Watchers appear in the Book of Enoch, which retells the story of the fallen angels from Genesis 6. In that case, the Watchers are fallen angels, but they could also be angels in good standing. We shall meet the holy ones again in the second half of the book, most notably in Daniel 7 where “the holy ones of the Most High” receive the kingdom that is also given to “one like a son of man.” In Daniel 4, the Watcher/Holy One acts as a messenger from heaven. He announces that the tree is to be cut down and its fruit scattered, but its stump and roots are to be left in the ground. The imagery is somewhat confused at this point. The stump is to be bound with iron and bronze. Trees were sometimes bound with iron to keep them from splitting, and sometimes trees are depicted with metal bands in Assyrian reliefs. In this case, however, the imagery seems to be mixed, as the account of the dream anticipates the interpretation, and switches from speaking of a tree to speaking of a human being, the king. Not only is he to be bound with fetters, but he is to be made like a wild animal in the open field. His mind is to be changed to that of an animal. All this is to happen so that people may know that the Most High is sovereign over human kingdoms.
Daniel is suitably apologetic in interpreting the dream for the king. He begins by expressing the wish that the dream be for the king’s enemies. His concern for Nebuchadnezzar troubled later interpreters, because he seemed to be collaborating with a notorious enemy of his people, but it is entirely appropriate in its context. The great tree is the king. We may compare the statement in Jeremiah 28:14 that God had given Nebuchadnezzar dominion over all the earth, and had even given him the wild animals. But now the king is to be driven away from human society, to live with the wild animals for seven years. The fact that the stump is left in the earth shows that the kingdom will in the end be restored. Daniel advises the king to atone for his sins with righteousness (the Hebrew word tsedaqah came to mean almsgiving in later times, and may have that meaning already here) and mercy to the oppressed. This passage too was controversial in later times, as it seemed to Protestants of the Reformation era to advocate “works righteousness.” Needless to say, the Hebrew Bible does not see anything wrong with works righteousness. On the contrary, good works, specifically care for the disadvantaged, are essential to the biblical concept of righteousness.
At verse 28 the narrative changes to the third person, to describe the transformation of Nebuchadnezzar. His hair became long and his nails like birds’ claws. Many people have speculated that he suffered from a form of lycanthropy, a delusion whereby a human being imagines him or herself to be a wild animal. But there is no evidence that Nebuchadnezzar ever suffered from any form of madness. It is now clear that this story originally concerned Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, rather than Nebuchadnezzar. Nabonidus was a devotee of the Moon God, Sin, and went to live in Teima, in the Arabian Desert, for several years. The priests of Marduk in Babylon derided him as mad, and claimed that the fall of Babylon to the Persians was punishment for his neglect of the cult of Marduk. We now have in the Dead Sea Scrolls an early form of the story, called the Prayer of Nabonidus, which identifies the king correctly. In Daniel, the story is transferred to the more famous Nebuchadnezzar, and is further embellished. The depiction of the mighty Nebuchadnezzar as a wild animal must have amused and delighted its Jewish readers. The story has a subversive quality, insofar as it mocks the pretensions of Gentile rule.
It is not, however, a revolutionary story. In the end, Nebuchadnezzar comes to his senses and honors the God of heaven. His recognition of the true God depends on the instruction he has received from Daniel. Similarly, in the Prayer of Nabonidus found at Qumran, the role of the Jewish diviner (who is not named in that text) is to explain to the king which god has caused his misfortune and is able to restore him. In Daniel 4, what happens to Daniel is an exercise to demonstrate that God is able to bring low the proud. Nebuchadnezzar readily acknowledges the point. He comes across in this story as a king who is not irrevocably opposed to the God of Heaven, but needs to learn some difficult lessons.
Belshazzar, who appears as king in Daniel 5, is a much less sympathetic character than Nebuchadnezzar. There was an historical person named Belshazzar. He was son of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon. He ruled Babylon in his father’s absence, but he was never actually king.
Belshazzar is presented as a very arrogant character. In the course of a feast, he orders the vessels of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Jerusalem temple be brought out , and he drinks from them, together with his wives and concubines, and the nobles of the realm. Whether the Babylonians actually preserved the vessels from the Jerusalem temple is open to question. According to 2 Kings 24:13, Nebuchadnezzar had the gold articles taken from the temple cut up after the first capture of Jerusalem in 597 BCE, but many vessels were taken to Babylon after the final destruction in 586. 2 Chronicles 36:10, 18, also claims that the vessels were taken to Babylon. According to Ezra chapter 1, Cyrus of Persia restored to Jerusalem 5,400 articles of gold and silver that had been taken from the temple, but many scholars doubt the historicity of that account.
In this case, the king is confronted by mysterious hand writing on the wall. Once again, the Babylonian diviners are confounded. The queen reminds Belshazzar of Daniel, who has “a spirit of the holy gods.” Daniel is much less deferential to Belshazzar than he was to Nebuchadnezzar. He tells him to keep his gifts, and reminds him of the precedent of Nebuchadnezzar, who was humbled when he exalted himself. He upbraids Belshazzar more directly than he had ever done with his father, especially for desecrating the sacred vessels. He then deciphers the writing as “Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin.” Originally, these words seem to have referred to coins of decreasing value. (Mene = the Greek mna, Tekel = shekel). The saying may have referred to kings of declining worth. It probably characterized the last kings of Babylon, but it is not clear how they should be identified. Nebuchadnezzar was followed by Amel-Marduk (Evil-Merodach, 562-60; Neriglissar (560-556), Labashi-Marduk (very briefly, in 556 BCE, and Nabonidus 556-539). The Parsin may have referred to Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar, who shared power, but it is uncertain which kings would have been identified as the mnas and the tekel. In Daniel 5, however, the words are explained differently: “MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL: you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; PARSIN: your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” The word MENE, which is repeated in the inscription, is only interpreted once. The words, then, are interpreted entirely as an oracle of judgment against Belshazzar. The king is given no time to repent. That very night he is killed and the kingdom passes to Darius the Mede.
The stories in Daniel 4 and 5 are not historical but they are moral tales about world kingship and life in the Diaspora. These are the stories that are most overtly critical of the Gentile kings. The lesson is that these kings prosper if they honor the true God and will be punished ruthlessly if they do not. No doubt, the fall of Babylon was very reassuring to the people of Judah, who had been humiliated and nearly exterminated by the Babylonians. The view that God acts in history to implement a moral code requires a selective reading of history. Gentile power might last a long time, but eventually all kingdoms pass away. This was the lesson of the understanding of history as a sequence of kingdoms. Only the kingdom of God would not pass away.
But while Jews might take comfort from the transience of Gentile power, the stories in Daniel 1-6 are in no hurry to see the end of Gentile rule. Belshazzar is the only one of these kings who is violently overthrown. He is succeeded, not by the final kingdom of God, but by Darius the Mede, who in turn is succeeded by Cyrus the Persian. The sequence of Gentile kingdoms is divinely ordained and must run its course. Jews hope for a benign monarch, who respects their God, not for an end of Gentile rule. To be sure, Gentile rule will not last forever. Eventually, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will not pass away, but this is mentioned only in Daniel 2. Eschatology here is not imminent, but deferred. For the present, Jews have to negotiate life under foreign rule, by being loyal subjects of their overlords, so long as that loyalty does not conflict with the demands of their religion. The tales in Daniel 1-6 are written to reassure Jews living under foreign rule that this balance of commitments can be negotiated successfully, and that loyalty to their God will actually enhance their standing with the pagan rulers.
Collins, Daniel, 208-55;
Newsom, Daniel, 124-85;
Smth-Christopher, “The Book of Daniel,” 68-85.
Questions for Reflection:
- Compare Daniel’s attitude to the pagan kings in the two chapters?
- How do we understand Nebuchadnezzar’s madness?
- Compare and contrast the figures of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar?
- Why is Daniel so unsympathetic and confrontational towards Nebuchadnezzar?
- Are these stories subversive? Or basically supportive of Gentile rule?
- Are there lessons of lasting value in these stories?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Daniel
V. The Apocalyptic Genre
A different tone
The tone of the book of Daniel changes abruptly in Chapter 7. This chapter is still in Aramaic. The Aramaic chapters of the book are arranged chiastically: chapters 2 and 7 each feature the motif of the four kingdoms, chapters 3 and 6 each feature miraculous deliverance, chapters 4 and 5 feature confrontations between Daniel and Babylonian kings. It may be that the Aramaic chapters once circulated as a separate unit. As the book is now structured, however, chapter 7 is also linked to the following chapters, which are in Hebrew. The chapter is set in the time of Belshazzar, whereas Daniel 6 had reached the time of Cyrus the Persian. The sequence of Babylonian, Median and Persian kings is repeated in Daniel 7-12.
Daniel 7 is also linked to what follows, rather than what precedes, by setting and genre. Chapters 7-12 are still set in the court of Gentile kings, but Daniel is no longer interpreting the dreams of these kings. Rather, he has his own visions, which are interpreted for him by an angel. All of these visions concern events that come to a climax in the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century BCE. There can be no doubt that the visions, unlike the tales, were composed during that time, to address the crisis of persecution. Accordingly, they present a very different view of Gentile kingship from what we saw in chapters 1-6. In the tales, the kings might be arrogant and tyrannical, but they could be redeemed. Beginning in chapter 7, they are beasts that rise from the sea, demonic figures, who are only destined for destruction.
A new genre
There is obvious continuity between the symbolic dreams of Nebuchadnezzar and the symbolic visions of Daniel, but there are differences too. Daniel’s visions concern not only human history but also its heavenly backdrop, involving heavenly, angelic, beings. They resemble some of the visions in the later prophets, especially those of Ezekiel and Zechariah. The Book of Daniel is traditionally classified with the Prophets in the Christian Bible, and Daniel was regarded as a prophet in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and by the Jewish historian Josephus. His reputation as a prophet rests mainly on the visions in the second half of the book. But this is prophecy in a new key. Daniel does not pronounce oracles in the name of the Lord. Moreover, his view of human history is different from that of the older prophets. The course of history is measured out in advance. Most importantly, it culminates in the resurrection of the dead, an idea for which Daniel provides the first clear biblical attestation. Despite its undeniable continuity with prophecy, Daniel, or at least the second half of the book, witnesses to the emergence of a new literary genre, the apocalypse.
The genre apocalypse
The genre apocalypse takes its name from the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse of John, in the New Testament. Revelation, too, is often regarded as prophecy, and even contains several oracular sayings, but it too has long been recognized as qualitatively different from the books of the Hebrew prophets. It was only in the 19th century, however, that scholars came to recognize that there was a whole genre of apocalyptic writing in both Judaism and Christianity in antiquity, much of it prior to Revelation. The key to this recognition came in the early 19th century, when the Book of Enoch was brought back from Ethiopia and translated into English and other western languages. The Book of Enoch, or 1 Enoch, turned out to be a collection of (at least) five books, some older than Daniel, but at least one of which (the Similitudes or Parables of Enoch) was clearly dependent on the biblical book.
Like Daniel, the books of Enoch were pseudonymous. They were not actually written by the person to whom they were ascribed. According to Genesis, Enoch lived before the Flood, in the seventh generation from Adam. It is said of Enoch in Genesis that he “walked with God (elohim),” and he was not, for God took him. In Genesis, this means that he was a righteous man, but in 1 Enoch it is taken to mean that he walked with the angels (taking elohim as plural, = gods or angels). So the tradition developed that Enoch had made a “round trip” to heaven, and had returned to tell his children what he had seen there.
In heaven, Enoch was shown the heavenly tablets, on which the course of history was inscribed. But he also saw other heavenly mysteries, such as the movements of the stars and the resting places of the dead. The range of subjects that Enoch reveals is much greater than that revealed by Daniel, and includes cosmology as well as history. Like Daniel, however, 1 Enoch accords a prominent place to the activities of angels, and to the judgment of the dead.
Daniel and Enoch are representative of two main strands of apocalyptic tradition. Enoch has the prototypical heavenly journey, which equips him with knowledge beyond that which is normally available to human beings. The Enoch tradition is continued in later apocalypses from the Common Era, such as 2 Enoch, which is only preserved in Slavonic, and 3 Baruch, which is preserved in Greek and Armenian. Daniel is representative of the historical type of apocalypse, which deals with revelations about the course of history. Some sections of 1 Enoch also deal with history. Two major Jewish apocalypses from the late first century CE, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, stand in the tradition of Daniel, and are mainly concerned with the course, and especially the end, of history.
This kind of literature was not unique to Judaism. It is also found in the Persian tradition. We have already mentioned a Persian text, the Bahman Yasht, in connection with Daniel 2. Most of the relevant Persian texts are late (late antiquity, early Middle Ages) in the form in which they are preserved, but they may well preserve old traditions. Due to the difficulty of dating the Persian materials, their relationship to Daniel remains uncertain.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
Much new light has been shed on Jewish apocalypticism by the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Scrolls preserve a number of apocalypses, but these are usually in fragmentary form. But the Scrolls also show that the ideas associated with apocalypses can also be found in other genres. For example, the Scrolls include a Rule for the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, better known as the War Scroll. This text is quite similar to Daniel insofar as it posits a final battle in which the forces of Light are led by the archangel Michael, while those of Darkness are led by Belial or Satan. The Scroll differs from Daniel, however, in the way that it imagines a balanced dualism, in which good and evil each prevail for set periods of time. The underlying system of dualism is laid out clearly in another text from the Scrolls, the Discourse on the Two Spirits, in the Community Rule, columns 3 and 4. According to this text, God created two spirits for humanity to walk in, and divided humanity between them, but at a fore-ordained time he will destroy Evil forever. This kind of dualism has strong affinities with Zoroastrianism, which also imagined two spirits ruling human kind, and associated them with Light and Darkness. In Daniel, however, the force of wickedness is not part of a divine design, but rather results from rebellion against divine rule. We shall see the underlying myth in Daniel 7. Similarly in 1 Enoch, the spread of evil on earth is not part of a divine design but is rather due to the rebellion of the Fallen Angels, who are mentioned briefly in Genesis 6.
We may distinguish between the literary form of an apocalypse, which we find in Daniel and 1 Enoch, and apocalypticism, or a complex of ideas that is typical of apocalypses but can also be found in other literary forms, as we find in the War Scroll or in the Discourse on the Two Spirits. All of this literature, however, posits a world that is out of joint, and in crisis. In the case of Daniel 7-12, the crisis is connected with the attempt of Antiochus Epiphanes to suppress the Jewish cult. That crisis led to the Maccabean revolt, but it is not apparent that Daniel is sympathetic to the Maccabees. In the case of the earliest parts of 1 Enoch, such as the Book of the Watchers, the crisis seems to be cultural. The Fallen Angelsm or Watchers, are said to spread new customs on earth, ranging from metallurgy to the art of making up the eyes, and to have led to great evil and much fornication. It sees plausible to read this story as an allegory for the spread of Hellenistic civilization in the third century BCE. The apocalyptic response, as expressed in 1 Enoch, is to withdraw from the corrupt world and take flight to heaven. This is also the attitude that we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Daniel and Enoch express the hope that the righteous will become companions to the angels after death. The sectarians who preserved the Scrolls believed that they were already living as companions of the angels in this life.
The importance of apocalypticism
Apocalypticism appears late in the Old Testament. The New Testament includes only one full blown apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. Accordingly, apocalypticism is often considered marginal to the Bible. In fact, however, apocalyptic ideas are pervasive in the New Testament, and it has been claimed with some justification that apocalypticism is the mother of Christian theology. While the attitude of Jesus towards apocalypticism is perennially disputed, there is no doubt that Paul is imbued with apocalyptic ideas. All the Synoptic Gospels include visions of Jesus coming as the Son of Man on the Clouds of heaven, an image derived from Daniel 7. Most crucially, it is the apocalyptic tradition that introduced the belief in resurrection to Judaism. This was the presupposition of belief in the resurrection of Jesus, which was foundational to Christianity. As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. The historical importance of apocalypticism for Western religion, then, is enormous.
In modern times, apocalypticism is often held in disrepute because of its association with Fundamentalism, and more specifically with Dispensationalism, which entails the attempt to calculate the end of the world. We shall find that the calculation of the end plays a part in the Book of Daniel, but it is a relatively minor part. Fundamentalist and Dispensationalist readings of books like Daniel and Revelation suffer from literalism, the attempt to read them as if they were simply factual predictions. In fact, these are highly imaginative books that rely heavily on symbolism, and often express their ideas in several different ways, none of which is meant to be taken literally.
It is also important to remember that books like Daniel and Revelation were written with specific crises in mind. They can transcend these crises, and still speak to us centuries later, but they are not timeless truths. They are written in the idiom of a particular time and place that is remote from our own. We need to attend to that idiom if we are to appreciate these Scriptures properly.
John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination. Third ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016. Standard introduction to the genre.
John J. Collins, Apocalypse, Prophecy, and Pseudepigraphy. Essays on Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015. Essays on particular aspects of apocalyptic literature.
John J. Collins, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature (New York: Oxford, 2014. Essays by various authors on different aspects of apocalyptism, ancient and modern.
Questions for Reflection:
- In what ways do apocalypses differ from prophecy?
- In what ways was apocalypticism important for the rise of Christianity?
- What light do the Dead Sea Scrolls shed on apocalypticism?
- What are the main thematic concerns that we find in apocalypses?
- What are the main types of apocalypse, represented by the Books of Daniel and Enoch?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Daniel
VI. Daniel 7
Daniel 7 is a pivotal chapter in the book, linked to the preceding chapters by the Aramaic language and to what follows by content and genre. It is presented as a dream, but Daniel rather than the king is now the dreamer.
The four winds of heaven are whipping up the great sea. The sea here is not just the Mediterranean, but the primeval sea. Four great beasts come up out of it. The symbolism evokes a mythic tradition that reaches back to the Canaanite myths of the second millennium, before the emergence of Israel, where the Sea, Yamm, is the rival of the god Baal, and the sea monster is called Lotan (= biblical Leviathan). In this myth, Yamm challenges Baal for the kingship, but Baal splits him with a club. (In another cycle of the myth, the adversary is Mot, or Death, who is more formidable. Death swallows Baal for a time, until he is rescued by his sister Anath). This myth was adapted in Israel, and is often reflected in the Hebrew Bible, especially in poetic passages (e.g. Job 26:12-13; Psalm 89:9-11). Sometimes the Bible looks back to the role of the Sea in the drama of creation. Yahweh is said to have “cut Rahab in pieces,” “pierced the dragon” and “dried up the sea” in Isa 51:9-11. (Drying up the sea is also an allusion to the story of the Exodus). In other passages, the victory over the sea and its monsters is still expected in the future. So Isaiah 27:1: “On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.” The vision of beasts rising from the sea suggests that creation is coming undone, that anarchy is loosed upon the world.
In Daniel 7, four beasts rise from the sea, to symbolize the four kingdoms, which we have already met in Daniel 2. They are hybrid creatures, which embody features of different animals or birds. The first is like a lion, but has eagles’ wings. The second looks like a bear, the third like a leopard. Such hybrid creatures are often found in ancient Near Eastern art. The choice of these particular beasts in Daniel 7 may be influenced by Hosea 13:7-8: “so I will become a lion to them, like a leopard I will lurk beside the way, I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs.” The fourth beast has no parallel in Hosea, and is the most terrible. It had great iron teeth and was devouring and breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. The stamping suggests that the animal is an elephant. Elephants were used in warfare in the Hellenistic age, to inspire terror in opponents. The beast had ten horns, suggested, perhaps by the fact that elephants were sometimes depicted with crowns on Hellenistic coins. Then a little horn sprouts up in addition. This horn will be the focus of attention in the interpretation that follows.
Then the scene shifts to heaven. Thrones are set, and an “Ancient of Days” appears, with hair white as wool. A stream of fire flows out before him, and he has an entourage of tens of thousands. The beasts are subjected to judgment. The fourth beast is condemned to death by fire, while the others are deprived of their kingdoms.
Then another heavenly figure appears: one “like a son of man,” which is to say, like a human being, who appears with the clouds of heaven. He is presented before the Ancient One, and he is given dominion, glory and kingship, that will last forever.
This imagery too has ancient mythic overtones. The Ancient of Days is obviously God. The depiction as a white headed figure hearkens back to portrayals of the Canaanite high god, El. El was identified with Yahweh already in Genesis, and the name is the common word for God in the Hebrew Bible. There are some indications in the Hebrew Bible that El or Elyon (the Most High) was once distinguished from Yahweh. In Deut 32:8-9, Elyon allots the nations to the various gods and allots Israel to Yahweh. In most of the Hebrew Bible, however, El, Elyon, and Yahweh are one and the same.
Riding on the clouds is also an attribute of a divine figure. In the Canaanite myths, Baal is the rider of the clouds. In the Hebrew Bible, apart from Daniel 7, the figure riding on the clouds is always Yahweh. Yet in Daniel 7, this figure is clearly distinct from, and subordinate to, the Ancient of Days. The imagery of an older god bestowing kingship on a younger one is not problematic in the context of Canaanite religion, but is exceptional in the religion of Israel. Canaanite traditions were still passed on in the Hellenistic age. It may be significant that the new cult introduced into Jerusalem by the soldiers of Antiochus Epiphanes was that of Baal Shamen, Baal of the heavens. As we shall see, however, the imagery is interpreted differently in Daniel.
Daniel is understandably perplexed by the vision. He approaches an angel (“one of those standing there”) and asks for an explanation. The answer is scarcely less confusing than the vision: “As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever and ever.”
Daniel asks for further clarification, especially about the fourth beast and the little upstart horn. This horn, we are told, made war on the holy ones and was prevailing against them until the Ancient One came and gave the kingdom to the Holy Ones. The fourth beast represents a fourth kingdom, which is different from all the others. Its ten horns are ten kings, and the little horn is different from all that precede him. Not only does he displace some of the previous kings, but he speaks words against the Most High, “wears out” the Holy Ones of the Most High, and attempts to change the sacred seasons and the law. He succeeds for “a time, two times, and half a time,” before his dominion is taken away.
It is clear that the fourth kingdom is that of the Greeks. This is clear already by analogy with chapter 2, but also from the succession of kings throughout the book. The little horn is Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Epiphanes was not the eldest son of Antiochus III. That was Epiphanes’ older brother, Seleucus IV, who was assassinated by Heliodorus (famous for his unsuccessful attempt to seize funds from the Jerusalem temple, in 2 Maccabees, chapter 3). Antiochus ousted Heliodorus. The son of Seleucus, Demetrius, who was the legitimate heir, was a hostage in Rome, so Epiphanes seized power with the help of King Eumenes II of Pergamum. Seleucus, Heliodorus and Demetrius were presumably the three horns that were uprooted by the little horn.
Epiphanes suspended the right of the people of Judea to live in accordance with their ancestral law, and to celebrate their traditional festivals. This is what is meant by the statement that he sought to change the times (=the cultic calendar) and the law. People were forbidden to circumcise their children, and were forced to participate in pagan festivals. According to 2 Maccabees, they were forced to walk in processions honoring Dionysus, and to celebrate the king’s birthday. A pagan-style Syrian altar was superimposed on the altar of the Jerusalem temple. This became known as the abomination that makes desolate, or the abomination of desolation. This corruption of the cult was regarded as equivalent to making war against the host of heaven.
The holy ones of the Most High
For a long time, interpreters assumed that the holy ones (or saints) of the Most High were the Jewish people. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, it has been clear that holy ones normally refer to the heavenly host, or angels. When human beings are called holy ones or saints, even in the New Testament, it is because they are assimilated to the heavenly holy ones. Elsewhere in Daniel, holy ones are clearly angels. The angel who pronounces judgment on Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4 is “a watcher, a holy one.” In Dan 8:13 Daniel hears two holy ones speaking to each other. Some scholars object that Epiphanes could not “wear out” the holy ones if they were angels, but in chapter 8 we will find that he casts some of the stars to the ground and tramples on them. The point is that he succeeds for a time in his assault on the heavenly host. It is true, of course, that the empirical basis for these statements lies in Epiphanes’s suppression of the Jewish law and cult, but the point of Daniel 7 is that his actions transcend ordinary human affairs. In suppressing the cult, he is making an assault on heaven. To explain his actions only in human terms is to miss their significance. There is more at stake in Daniel 7 than human interaction.
The debate about the “one like a son of man” involves similar issues. Some scholars think this figure is a collective symbol for Israel or the Jewish people, but this, again, misses the mythological or spiritual dimension of the vision. The kingdom is “given” by God three times, once to the “one like a son of man,” once to the holy ones, and finally to the people of the holy ones. These three are obviously related, but they are not necessarily identical. The “one like a son of man” represents the holy ones as their leader. Later in the book, this role is attributed to the archangel Michael, and most probably Michael is intended in Daniel 7 too. Other Jewish texts from antiquity, such as the Similitudes of Enoch and 4 Ezra 13, and also the New Testament, interpret the one like a son of man as an individual figure. He is more than an angel. He takes on many of the characteristics traditionally attributed to Yahweh. In the New Testament, he is interpreted as Christ, and in the Similitues of Enoch and 4 Ezra 13 he is a messiah. But he is not a messiah in the traditional sense of a human king who would restore the Davidic dynasty. The Book of Daniel has no place for messianism in this sense. The one like a son of man is a heavenly, angelic figure, who does much of what a messiah was traditionally expected to do, insofar as he receives the kingdom on behalf of the holy ones. He also receives it on behalf of the people of the holy ones, or the Jewish people. The kingdom is realized on three levels: in the heavenly enthronement of the one like a son of man, in the rule of the angelic holy ones, and in the rule of the Jewish people on earth.
Daniel 7 was written to assure the Jews who were being persecuted by Antiochus Epiphanes that they were not alone in their struggle. They had powerful allies in heaven, and eventually God would judge their enemies in their behalf. This message will be reiterated in the remaining chapters of Daniel. When the chapter is interpreted as speaking only of the Jewish people, this message is missed. Equally, if the beasts of the sea are interpreted as being merely earthly kingdoms, their significance is missed. For Daniel, creation was coming undone, and could only be set right by divine intervention.
The duration of the persecution is specified as a times, times and half a time, or three and a half years. We will find variations on that number in the later chapters of Daniel.
The lasting significance of the chapter chiefly lies in the image of the one like a son of man coming on the clouds of heaven. This image affirmed the possibility of deliverance by heavenly means. In time, it would be taken to imply a new kind of messiah, or savior figure, one who was not of human origin. For the followers of Jesus, this text would make it possible to affirm that Jesus was the messiah, even though he had not driven the Romans from Jerusalem and had died an ignominious death. He could still be affirmed as a different kind of messiah, in conformity with Daniel’s prophecy.
Collins, Daniel, 274-324;
Newsom, Daniel, 211-51;
Questions for Reflection:
- What does the imagery of beasts rising from the sea connote?
- How should we understand the fact that the imagery of Daniel 7 suggest two divine figures, the Ancient of Days and the one like a son of man?
- What are holy ones?
- How does this chapter address the situation of the Jewish people under Antiochus Epiphanes?
- What is the lasting significance of the chapter?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Daniel
VII. Daniel 8-9
Daniel 8, like Daniel 7, is set in the reign of Belshazzar. Also like Daniel 7, it is a symbolic vision, explained by an angel. In this case, however, the vision is in Hebrew.
Daniel sees a ram with two horns, one longer than the other, which runs rampant until a goat appears, with a horn between its eyes. The goat attacks the ram, knocks him to the ground and tramples on him. But at the height of its power its great horn is broken and four others arise in its place. Out of one of these comes a little horn, which extends itself towards “the glorious land.” Then it rises up against the host of heaven, and throws some of the stars to the ground and tramples on them. It even challenges the Prince of the host, and takes away the daily sacrifice.
The referential background of this vision is quite transparent. The ram with two horns symbolizes Media and Persia (the longer horn). The goat symbolizes Greece. The ram and the goat were associated with Persia and Greece respectively in the signs of the Zodiac. The four horns that sprout on the goat are the Diadochi, the successors of Alexander, who divided the territories he had conquered. The little horn is Antiochus Epiphanes, as in Daniel 7. The assault on the heavenly host is also developed from Daniel 7. The reference to the suspension of the daily sacrifice slides over into the interpretation of the vision.
In this case, the interpreting angel is identified as Gabriel. He refers to Daniel as “ben adam,” “son of man.” The prophet Ezekiel is also often addressed in this way. The phrase does not imply any identification with the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7. It simply means “human being.” In Daniel 7, the figure on the clouds was like a son of man, or human being. This implies that he was not actually human. There is no such qualification in chapter 8.
Gabriel tells Daniel that the vision is for the time of the end. He identifies the kings of Media, Persia and Greece explicitly, and refers to the four kingdoms that replace Alexander. The little horn, Antiochus Epiphanes is described as devious. He will rise up against the Prince of Princes, but he will be destroyed by no human hand.
Daniel 8 is obviously referring to the same events as Chapter 7, but it depicts them drawing on a different myth. In this case the myth is that of Lucifer, son of Dawn (Hebrew Helal Ben Shachar), familiar from Isaiah 14, who raises himself above all the stars of God, but is struck down to the Pit. This myth in turn is derived from an old Canaanite myth about the star-god Athtar, who tries to fill the throne of Baal but is not adequate to the task. As in chapter 7, the myth is one of rebellion. The sin of Antiochus Epiphanes is that he tries to rise above his human status. This is similar to the sin of hybris in Greek tragedy. The one who rises too high ends by losing everything. It is typical of apocalyptic visions that the same events can be depicted in different ways. What is important is not the literal detail, but the underlying pattern.
In this case, the length of the persecution is given as 2,300 evenings and mornings, or 1,150 days. This is an approximation of three and a half years (a time, times, and half a time), the duration given in Daniel 7. “Evenings and mornings” refers to the twice daily sacrifice, which was interrupted during the suppression of the cult. The numbers have often been used by Dispensationalists or Fundamentalists to calculate the end of the world. In Daniel, the numbers referred only to the length of time that the temple cult would be disrupted, starting from the time when the Syrian king profaned the temple. When the numbers are applied to the duration of the world (usually taking a day as a year) it is never certain what the starting point should be, and so it is always possible to come up with a new calculation.
In Daniel 9 the scene changes to the reign of Darius the Mede. In this case the revelation does not take the form of a vision. Rather Daniel is pondering older scriptures, in this case a passage from Jeremiah. (If Daniel had really been taken captive to Babylon, he would have been a contemporary of Jeremiah, and the latter’s oracles would not yet have had the status of scripture).
The passage from Jeremiah prophesies that Jerusalem would be desolate for seventy years. There are two such passages in Jeremiah, Jer 25:11 and 29:10. According to Jer 25:11: “The whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.” Jer 29:10 reads: “For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” In fact, the first return of Jewish exiles from Babylon took place less than seventy years after the deportation. The building of the second Temple, in the time of Darius took place roughly seventy years after the Fall of Jerusalem. Daniel, however, did not think that Jeremiah’s prophecy was adequately fulfilled by the events of the Persian era. In this he was not alone. The Apocalypse of Weeks in 1 Enoch, an apocalypse that divides history into “weeks” (presumably of years) skips over the restoration of the Persian period, as does the Damascus Document, one of the foundational documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At a time when the temple had been desecrated by Syrian soldiers, it was very obvious that the restoration of the Persian period was not final or lasting. Jeremiah must have been alluding to a greater restoration.
Daniel then turns to the Lord to seek an explanation. A long prayer follows in Dan 9: 4-19. It is not, however, a prayer for enlightenment. Rather, it is a confession of sin on behalf of the people of Judah, informed by Deuteronomic theology. God was justified in punishing the people because they had broken the Law. This kind of prayer occurs several times in Second Temple Jewish texts, notably in Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9. “The Lord is right in all that he has done, for we have disobeyed his voice.” The confession is a prelude to an appeal for mercy. God should let his light shine on his desolated sanctuary for his own sake, for his reputation suffers when the people and city that bear his name are disgraced.
Daniel’s prayer might be appropriate if he were asking for the restoration of Jerusalem, but he is only asking for an explanation of Jeremiah’s prophecy, which he sees as unfulfilled. Moreover, when the angel Gabriel appears to him, he tells him that the answer had gone forth at the beginning of Daniel’s supplications. It is not, then, an answer to Daniel’s prayer. In fact, the theology of the prayer stands in sharp contrast to that of the rest of the visions. The premise of the prayer is that prayer may be efficacious, and cause God to change the course of history. The premise of the visions, however, is that the course of history was set a long time ago. Human beings are free to choose how they react to it, but the course of history cannot be changed by human initiative. Moreover, the prayer is written in fluent, traditional Hebrew, while the Hebrew of the surrounding passages is so clumsy that some scholars have suspected that it was translated from Aramaic.
Why then is the prayer included in Daniel 9? We have noted already that two long prayers were added to Daniel 3 in the Greek translation. The Greek of Esther also includes prayers that were not in the Hebrew. Many scholars think that Daniel 9 is another case where a prayer was added secondarily to enhance the piety of the original.
Alternatively, the person who included the prayer in Daniel 9 may have done so in full awareness of the tension between it and the surrounding passages. It may have been included precisely to show the difference between the traditional Deuteronomic theology and the apocalyptic theology of the visions. In the apocalyptic view, history does not follow a logic of reward and punishment. It serves God’s mysterious purposes, with scant regard for human merit. Whether or not the original author intended to highlight the contrast, it is a prominent feature of the canonical text.
Seventy weeks of years
The key to the angel’s interpretation of the prophecy is that the seventy years are really seventy weeks of years, or 490 years. Seven weeks of years, or 49 years was a jubilee. Leviticus 25:8-10 prescribes:
You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. 9 Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. 10 And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.
Seventy weeks of years would be ten jubilees. We find a similar division of history in the Apocalypse of Weeks in 1 Enoch, which we have already mentioned. There, the whole course of history is divided into ten “weeks.” A crucial turning point comes at the end of the seventh week.
The sabbatical structure of history is more explicit in a text in the Dead Sea Scrolls, known as 11QMelchizedek. There the climax of history comes on the Day of Atonement at the end of the tenth jubilee. Melchizedek was the name of a Canaanite priest-king in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 (where the king of Judah is told “you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek”). In the text in the Scrolls, however, he is a heavenly figure, both warrior and priest, who will atone for the men of his lot but execute the judgment of God on their enemies.
These various attempts to calculate the duration of history as a schema of jubilees were not necessarily dependent on each other. This kind of attempt to find order in history was found in different sources and movements in the Hellenistic period.
The interpretation of history given to Daniel is not as overtly priestly as 11QMelchizedek. There is no mention of the Day of Atonement. Yet the goal of history is to put an end to sin, atone for iniquity, seal both vision and prophet and anoint a most holy place. Essentially it is concerned that the desecration of the temple be rectified, and that in the process visions and prophecies be vindicated. Unlike the Apocalypse of Weeks or 11QMelchizedek, Daniel is concerned, not with all of history, but with the course of history from the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians. After seven weeks, we are told, Jerusalem would be rebuilt in the time of an anointed prince (most probably the High Priest Joshua, who was active about 518 BCE; possibly his contemporary, the governor Zerubbabel, who collaborated with him in building the temple). The next 62 weeks are passed over quickly. At their end, an anointed one will be cut off. It is generally agreed that this is the High Priest Onias III, who was murdered during the Hellenistic “reform” that led to the persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes and to the Maccabean revolt. (Neither of these two “anointed ones” is a messiah in the eschatological sense of the word. They are simply anointed High Priests). Then “the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.” This refers to the suppression of the Jewish cult by Antiochus Epiphanes. This is dated to the middle of the last week of years. For the last half week (= three and a half years, or a time, times and half a time) “he shall make sacrifice and offering cease” and set up “the abomination that makes desolate” (most probably a pagan altar, superimposed on the altar of the Jerusalem temple).
Daniel, then, is not interested equally in all periods of history. Rather, his interest is focused on the last half week of the seventy weeks (of years). The message, essentially, is that the end is near. The time that has elapsed is much greater than that which remains. Those who are suffering in the throes of persecution only need to hang in there a little longer, until “the decreed end” comes, and everything is set right.
Collins, Daniel, 326-60;
Newsom, Daniel, 252-319;
Smith-Christopher, “The Book of Daniel,” 108-130.
Questions for Reflection:
- What is the mythic background of Daniel 8?
- Why is the duration of the persecution expressed in terms of mornings and evenings?
- Is Daniel’s prayer appropriate for its context?
- Why does Daniel find Jeremiah’s prophecy puzzling?
- What is the message implied by the interpretation?
Yale Bible Study
The Book of Daniel
VIII. Daniel 10-12
Daniel 10-12 constitutes the last revelation in the book. The initial vision is not described. Daniel does, however, have a vision of an angel, who gives him the interpretation.
The vision of the angel
After the initial revelation, Daniel fasts for three weeks. Visionaries use various techniques to induce visions. Enoch reads a petition beside running water. Ezra, in 4 Ezra, eats the flowers of the field, and later drinks a fiery liquid. We do not know whether the people who wrote the Jewish apocalypses practiced such techniques, but they evidently were aware of the possibilities.
At the end of the three weeks Daniel has a vision of a “man” who is evidently not an ordinary man. He is dressed in linen, has a belt of fine gold, his body is like topaz, his face and eyes are fiery and his limbs gleam like burnished bronze. (Ezekiel has a similar vision in Ezekiel chapter 8, which probably served as a model for Daniel’s vision). The angel is described as “one who looked like a man” (10:16, 18). The expression in Hebrew is not a translation equivalent of the Aramaic phrase, “one like a son of man,” which we met in chapter 7, but it means the same thing. In apocalyptic literature, figures who look like human beings often turn out to be angels.
Daniel falls in a trance, but the angel reassures him, and tells him that he has come to satisfy his desire for understanding. He also explains to Daniel the backdrop of the historical events, He has been engaged in a struggle with “the prince of the kingdom of Persia.” Michael, one of the chief princes, came to relieve him, so that he could explain to Daniel what is to happen to his people at the end of days. A “prince” is a patron angel. Michael is the patron angel of Israel (10:21; 12:1). Other nations have their angelic princes too. In an earlier period, these heavenly figures were called simply gods. According to Deuteronomy 32, God divided the nations among the sons of El, and Israel was Yahweh’s portion. In 2 Kings 18:33, the Assyrian envoy asks whether the god of any nation ever delivered his people from the hand of the king of Assyria. The angelic princes of Daniel 10 are the successors of the national gods of the ancient Near East. After the prince of Persia, the prince of Greece will come. The implication is that the wars of the Hellenistic age are being fought out between the patron angels of the various countries. In the modern world, we would say that earthly conflicts are being projected onto the heavenly level. In antiquity, people were more likely to think that the heavenly realm is more real, and that earthly events are only a reflection of what happens between the gods.
In Daniel 11, the angel proceeds to tell Daniel what is written in “the book of truth.” The vision is set in the reign of Cyrus of Persia, so the history of the Hellenistic age was still in the future. The implication is that all future history is already determined and recorded. In the Book of Enoch, the future is recorded on the heavenly tablets, which are modeled on the Babylonian idea of the tablets of destiny. This does not mean that human beings have no free will. The course of events is determined, but individuals can still choose how to behave, even if their choices are already known to God.
What follows in chapter 11 is an account of Hellenistic history, written in the form of prophecy. No names are named, but the events and characters are easily identified. The author was not very well informed about the Persian era. There were approximately twelve more kings of Persia after Cyrus. (The exact number depends on whether one counts a few pretenders who claimed the throne but did not establish themselves). No one in Judea in the Hellenistic and Roman periods seems to have had reliable information about the length of the Persian period or the number of kings.
The author did, however, have good information about the Hellenistic period, although we cannot now identify the source. The warrior king in vs. 3 is Alexander the Great, who died at the height of his power. The scattering of his power refers to the division of his kingdom among his generals, known as the Diadochi, or Successors. The account in Daniel 11 focuses on the two generals who had most impact on Palestine: Seleucus of Syria, who founded the Seleucid dynasty, and Ptolemy of Egypt, who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty. Daniel refers to the Seleucids as the “kings of the north” and the Ptolemies as “the kings of the south.”
The narrative concerns Judea more directly from 11:20 onward. The figure who sends an official for the glory of the kingdom is Seleucus IV, who sent Heliodorus to extract revenues from the temple in Jerusalem. The story is told in colorful detail in 2 Maccabees 3. It is now apparent from an inscription published in 2007 that Heliodorus was involved in restructuring the finances of the Seleucid Empire. He apparently did not succeed in his mission to Jerusalem, but he subsequently murdered Seleucus IV. The next king is described as a contemptible person on whom royal majesty was not conferred. This is Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the younger brother of Seleucus, who was not originally in line for the throne. He ousted Heliodorus. The legitimate heir, the son of Seleucus, was still a hostage in Rome, so Antiochus seized power. The “prince of the covenant” who is swept away before him is the High Priest Onias III, who was replaced by his brother Jason, and was subsequently murdered. The passage goes on to describe Antiochus’s first invasion of Egypt, which was successful. Daniel implies that Antiochus always intended evil towards Judea (his heart was set against the holy covenant) but this is unlikely.
Dan 11:29 refers to Antiochus’s second invasion of Egypt. This did not go well. He was confronted by the Romans, who are called Kittim. (Kittim, derived from Citium in Cyprus, meant “westerners.” Alexander is called “king of the Kittim” in 1 Maccabees. Kittim refers to the Romans in the Dead Sea Scrolls). The Romans demanded that Antiochus withdraw from Egypt, and he complied. It was at this point that he intervened militarily in Jerusalem. It is clear from 2 Maccabees 5 that fighting had broken out in Jerusalem between Jason, who had replaced Onias III as High Priest, and Menelaus, who had subsequently replaced Jason. The king thought Judea was in revolt and intervened to put it down. Daniel, however, says nothing of the fighting in Jerusalem, and attributes the king’s action to his frustration after his humiliation in Egypt. The repressive measures have already been mentioned briefly in the earlier chapters of Daniel. The crucial ones are the prohibition of the regular burnt offering and the setting up of “the abomination that makes desolate,” a pagan altar superimposed on the altar of the Jerusalem temple. Daniel does acknowledge that those who “forsake the holy covenant” are complicit in the king’s actions, but it places the main responsibility on the king.
The heroes of the story, however, are “those who know their God,” who stand firm and take action. It is not entirely clear what action they take. The only action mentioned is that they “give understanding to many.” The heroes are referred to as “the wise”or“wise teachers” (maskilim). Some of these people are killed. They are said to receive “little help.” Ever since the commentary of St. Jerome, this has been interpreted as a slighting reference to the Maccabees. Daniel does not appear to have thought that deliverance would come by human means.
The hybris of the king
The chapter goes on to describe the hybris of the king. He will speak horrible things against the God of Israel, but he will also fail to respect the gods of his ancestors. According to Daniel 11, he would pay no respect to any god, because he considered himself greater than all. (His epithet Epiphanes meant “Zeus made manifest.” Some of his critics quipped that he was “Epimanes,” a madman). This picture is undoubtedly exaggerated. The “god of fortresses” is the god worshipped by the Syrian soldiers in the fortress Akra in Jerusalem, probably Zeus Olympios. The traditional god of the Seleucid dynasty was Apollo.
Dan 11:40-45 describes how the king meets his end, in a battle with the “king of the south.” He would die “between the sea and the holy mountain,” in the land of Israel. But Antiochus did not in fact die in this manner. He died of disease in the east, on a campaign against the Parthians, in 164 BCE. The erroneous prophecy of Daniel 11 is a valuable clue to the time of composition. Already in antiquity the Neo-Platonist philosopher Porphyry recognized that the accurate prophecies down to Dan 11:39 were composed after the fact; but that the account of the king’s death was a real, but inaccurate, prediction. The whole passage must have been composed before the news of Antiochus’s death became known in Jerusalem in early 163 BCE.
The death of the king is the prelude to the end of history. At that time the archangel Michael will arise in victory. Israel will be delivered, but not every Israelite. Only those who are “found written in the book.” In this case, the reference is to the book of life. Many of those who sleep in the land of dust (= Sheol, or the Netherworld) will arise, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting contempt. This is the first undisputed reference to the resurrection of the dead in the Hebrew Bible. It does not envision universal resurrection. Only the very good and very bad will be raised. The wise will shine like the stars. From a parallel in 1 Enoch 104 it is clear that this means that they will become companions to the angelic host. Daniel 12 does not say that the resurrected righteous will return to earth, and it is not clear that they will have bodies of flesh and blood. Other early apocalyptic texts, such as 1 Enoch 104 and Jubilees 23, seem to envision what St. Paul would call “a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44). The crucial point is that there is a judgment that separates the righteous from the wicked. Daniel does not describe a judgment scene, as some later apocalypses do, but it clearly distinguishes the fate of the good from that of the wicked. Salvation, then, is no longer a matter of belonging to restored Israel. It is decided on an individual basis. Daniel is still told that “your people will be restored,” but “your people” has been redefined, to exclude those who forsake the covenant.
Daniel is told to keep this revelation secret until the time of the end. Supposedly, Daniel had received this revelation in the Persian period. Yet it was unknown before the Maccabean period. The command to secrecy explains why this was so. It does not mean that the actual author of the book was supposed to keep it secret.
Dan 12: 5-13
Daniel has one more vision. He sees two angels (men clothed in line) conversing about the timing of these events. Two figures are given. “From the time the burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred ninety days. Blessed are those who persevere and attain the thousand three hundred thirty five days. All these figures are approximations of three and a half years, but the figures in Daniel 12 are slightly higher than the one thousand one hundred and fifty days given in chapter 8. Most remarkable is the juxtaposition in Daniel 12 of two different numbers. The simplest explanation of this phenomenon is that the first number of days had passed, and that the author recalculated and came up with a higher number. This phenomenon of recalculation is well known among modern apocalyptic groups, most famously the Millerites, forerunners of the Seventh Day Adventists, in 1843. It is easier to suppose that a calculation was incorrect than that the whole prophecy was unreliable.
If this is correct, the figures in Daniel 12 must have been added more than three years after the suspension of the daily sacrifice. Yet 1 Maccabees 4:52-53 claimed that Judas Maccabee had purified the temple on the third anniversary of its desecration. It is apparent that the Maccabean reconsecration of the temple was not the “end” that Daniel had in mind. Presumably, he hoped for a more definitive restoration, one that would involve the resurrection of the dead.
Collins, Daniel, 361-404;
Newsom, Daniel, 320-74
Smith-Christopher, “The Book of Daniel,” 130-52.
Questions for Reflection:
- How should we understand the “princes” in Daniel 10?
- What is the significance of the fact that the history of the Hellenistic period could be narrated to Daniel in the Persian period?
- How does Daniel characterize Antiochus Epiphanes?
- How do we know when these chapters were composed?
- How is the resurrection understood in Daniel 12?
- How should we understand the different numbers of days before the end in Daniel 12?
- What is meant by “the end” in Daniel?