In this series on the prophets of ancient Israel, the figure of Daniel is something of an anomaly. He does not say “woe is me”, as many of the priests do. He does not stand and declaim words of divine judgement on the people for their sinfulness. He does not deliberately use symbolic actions to dramatise his message, as do many other prophets, although his book is replete with many symbols that invite—indeed, require—interpretation.
Whilst he does speak of the wrath of God (Dan 9:16), this to be executed “later, in the period of wrath” (8:19; 11:36). Like other prophets, he does affirm that “the God of heaven” exhibits mercy (2:18; 9:9) and prays seeking that mercy from God (4:27; 6:11). He also affirms the covenant of Israel with their God (11:28–35), although this is set in the context of specific timeframes: a period of seventy weeks (9:24), including a period for “a strong covenant with many” for one week (9:27), followed immediately by “an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out on the desecration” (9:27).
Daniel himself is never “called to be a prophet”, as we have seen in other prophetic books; he is introduced as one of a number of “young men without physical defect and handsome, endowed with knowledge and insight”, who were chosen “to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (1:3–5). Indeed, the Israelite Daniel is given a Babylonian name, Belteshazzar (1:7; 4:8), and his entire story takes place in the Babylonian court.
(The Chaldeans were part of the Babylonian Empire; centuries earlier they had settled beside the Euphrates in what became the southeastern edge of the Babylonian Empire. Abraham is said to have come from Ur, a city in the region of the Chaldea; see Gen 11:31; 15:7.)
The story of the prophet Daniel is thus set outside Israel, in the time of exile, after the conquest of the southern kingdom by the Babylonians in 587 BCE (Dan 1:1–2; see 2 Kings 25). Daniel had been chosen to serve in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, who reigned from 605 BCE to 562 BCE (Dan 1:3–7); when the Persians took control of the Babylonian empire in 539 BCE, Daniel continued to serve in a position of some power.
Scholars believe, however, that the story is told at a much later time, after the exile—perhaps even during the time of Seleucid superiority in the second century BCE. Two centuries after they had returned to the land of Israel, rebuilt their Temple, restored their cities and towns, and living under Persian rule, the people of Israel were over run by the troops of Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, as he swept across the eastern Mediterranean region as Far East as modern day India. A new foreign power, and a new attitude towards the religion and customs of Israel.
Initially the interaction between Israelites and Macedonians was one of integration. Greek became the language of trade; syncretism marked the religious life of the people, as they adopted Greek customs. But when Antiochus Epiphanes came to power over the region, he introduced an altar in the temple to receive pagan offerings—something which, in Israelite eyes, was known a “desolating sacrilege” (Mark 13:14; 1 Mac 1:54). This appears to be clearly described in the final vision, recounting how forces “shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress, abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate” (Dan 11:31).
A clear reflection of the exile experience is that an extended section of the book (2:4b—7:28) is written in Aramaic, a language which evolved from Hebrew because of the influence of Babylonian culture and language on the exiled Israelites. The rest of the book (like all the rest of Hebrew Scripture) is written in Hebrew. Whereas Aramaic became the common language of Jews even when they were living back in Israel (and this was the case by the time of Jesus), Hebrew was preserved as the holy language of scripture.
Curiously, the book has two distinct parts, which overlap this linguistic division; each part is likely to have originated in a different time after the exile. The first six chapters recount stories about Daniel, who was serving in the court and enjoyed friendly relations with the monarch; the style is one found in other legends about courtiers and dream interpreters. Chapters 7–12 comprise a series of apocalyptic visions which appear to contain some very direct references to events that took place in the second century BCE. These chapters come “from the mouth of Daniel”, as it were, rather than being stories about him (as in chapters 1–6).
This first half of the book of Daniel contains a number of dramatic scenes. In these first six chapters, we find some striking stories about Daniel (given the Babylonian name Belteshazzar) and his companions, each of whom are also given Babylonian names (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). While Daniel and his companions are serving in the Babylonian court (1:3–18), a number of dramatic incidents are narrated.
One striking aspect of Daniel is that he provides interpretation of the king’s two dreams (chapters 2 and 4). To the intense frustration of King Nebuchadnezzar, none of his wise men are able to explain the meaning of the first dream about a huge statue made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay; he is on the brink of having them all executed (2:12–13) when Daniel intervenes.
It is then that we learn that Daniel has been gifted by God to be “a revealer of mysteries” (2:47), and he is able to explain what each element in the dream signifies (2:24–45), and to assure the king that “the dream is certain, and it’s interpretation is trustworthy” (2:45). As a result, Daniel is promoted and his three friends are installed in responsible and powerful positions (2:46–49).
However, under the influence of “certain Chaldeans” (3:8), the three friends of Daniel are denounced and are cast into the fiery furnace by an infuriated king (3:19–21). Miraculously, the three men survive this ordeal; King Nebuchadnezzar “was astonished”, called the three mean out of the furnace, blessed them, and condemned those opposing them to be “torn limb from limb, and their households laid in ruin” (3:24–30).
The king subsequently has a second dream, and the narrative follows the same pattern: the king is afraid, he calls his wise men, they are unable to provide any explanation, and then Daniel is asked to offer an interpretation, because “you are endowed with a spirit of the holy gods” (4:18). Once again, Daniel’s interpretation is offered—but what he foresees for the king fails to please him; and just twelve months later, “the sentence was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar” and he becomes mad: “he ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws” (4:33).
This time of madness fortunately is soon lifted. Nebuchadnezzar prays to God: “I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured the one who lives forever” (4:34–35), praising God “for all his works are truth, and his ways are justice” (4:37). What follows is an account of “a great festival for a thousand of his lords”, organised by Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar—but during the festivities, those present demonstrate their pagan traditions, as they “drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (5:1–4).
During the feast, fingers of a human hand wrote on the wall of the palace (5:5–9). The king’s advisors were (once again) unable to understand what what written; Daniel is brought in and offers an interpretation of “the writing on the wall” (5:10–31), warning the king of the end of his kingdom: “you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting”, so the kingdom will be divided between the Medes and the Persians (5:25–28). So it was that Daniel was clothed in purple and accorded a high ranking in the kingdom (5:29); but Belshazzar was killed that night, leading to the accession of Darius (5:30–31).
Daniel was thus thrust once again into the murky arena of national politics (then, as now, a fraught environment!). Whilst Daniel exercised his role as a satrap under Darius the Mede, a conspiracy was formed against him as opponents looked to bring him down. When he is caught praying to the Lord God, despite the interdict of the king (6:1–15), he is thrown into the lion’s den (6:16).
The next morning, the king hurries to the den, and finds Daniel alive; his prayers have miraculously saved him (6:19–22). Daniel is released from the lion’s den and rescued from danger (6:23–28); Darius issues an edict praising “the living God” whose “kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end; he delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth” (6:26–27).
If the story was written (as is thought by many) during the time of the Seleucids, its depiction of a foreign ruler who is positively disposed towards Israel’s God is striking. Under Antiochus Epiphanes, the colonising forces of the Macedonians “built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant; they joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil” (1 Mac 1:14–15). Antiochus not only erected an image in the temple (the “desolation of sacrilege”), but even had the scrolls of Torah collected and burnt—many centuries before the Nazis did this (you can read the details of his rule in 1 Mac 1:41–64).
The author of Daniel is writing political literature as political critique. We know that Antiochus provoked a political uprising led by the Maccabees, the sons of Matthias (1 Mac 2—6)—figures later upheld as heroes by the Zealots in the time of Jesus. The book of Daniel provides a rationale for the zealous ideology of the Maccabees, seeking to put in place a righteous leadership in Israel.
Carol Newsom observes that “in several narratives in the book of Daniel, the king humbly confesses the sovereignty of the God of the Jews, acknowledging that he rules by the will of God” (“Political Theology in the Book of Daniel: An Internal Debate”, Review andn Expositor, vol. 109, 2012, pp.557–568). Prof. Newsom continues, “other parts of the book depict the gentile king as being part of God’s plan, but a part that will ultimately be destroyed as incompatible with divine sovereignty.” We see this clearly in view in chapters 1—6.
By contrast, Prof. Newsom observes that when we read on into chapters 7—12, we encounter “the most negative view of gentile kingship, finding it to be monstrous and utterly evil. Although one can understand the different perspectives based on particular historical circumstances, a more fruitful hermeneutical approach is to read the different perspectives in Daniel as a never-fully-resolved conversation about the good or evil nature of political power, a conversation that continues to this day.” In this way, the book of Daniel is quite timely and relevant.
In this second half of the book (chapters 7–12) we read a series of visions seen by Daniel. The opening vision of the four beasts (7:1–8) famously contains a description of “one like a human being [son of man] coming with the clouds of heaven [who] came to the Ancient One and was presented before him” (7:13–14). This vision appears to inform the later words of Jesus, when he predicts that people “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26) and tells the Jerusalem Sanhedrin that they will see “‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’” (Mark 14:62).
The involvement of the angel Gabriel (chapters 8 and 9) brings the decree of “seventy weeks … to atone for iniquity” (9:20–27) and opens up a full-scale apocalyptic scenario, with battles, floods, the rise of a warrior king, shifting alliances amongst the various kings, more battles, the besieging of a city, the dominance of a “contemptible person”, the profaning of the temple and violation of the covenant in Israel, the disrespecting of “the God of gods” (10:1–11:39).
It also leads to a grand vision “at the time of the end” (11:40–12:13) when “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2), thereby providing a key Hebrew Scripture text which is used in discussions of the resurrection as reported in the New Testament.
The notion of “The End” has been developing in prophetic literature, emerging from the earlier prophet’s declarations about “The Day of the Lord”. This theme will continue to be developed and expanded in apocalyptic texts both in Second Temple Judaism and in earthly Christian texts in the New Testament and in works of the following century or two. See
At this time, a “man in linen” declares that “when the shattering of the power of the holy people [namely, Israel] comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished” (12:7). The language is reminiscent of the extended apocalyptic response that Jesus gives when his disciples ask him, “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4).
Daniel, the supreme interpreter, has been able to make sense of all that has gone before; at this point, however, he “heard but could not understand” (12:8). The “man in linen” informs him that “the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the ends (12:9); Daniel is dismissed and the story ends. The ending invites readers to “make sense” for themselves of what they have read—and so, apocalyptic speculation continues unabated to this day!
More importantly, perhaps, is the observation that apocalyptic speaks not only into the future, but especially into the present time of the author; and therefore, the political edges of the narrative and especially of the apocalyptic visions portray what is needed to remain faithful to God in the challenges of those times. That dynamic translates into a challenge for us, today.
There’s a good discussion of politics and religion in the book of Daniel in this article: https://spectrummagazine.org/sabbath-school/2020/daniel-and-empire-then-and-now