There are all sorts of preliminaries you have to take care of before you can read a book of the Bible in fairness to its author and its Author.
John Walton (of the Bible department at Wheaton College, not the lumber mill on Walton’s Mountain) likes to say that the Bible wasn’t written to us, but it was written for us. By this he means that the Bible was written in mostly dead languages to definitely dead people in drastically different places and radically different cultures, but, amazingly, it is still somehow relevant for us today.
Figuring out how it’s relevant is the big question. Some people think it’s relevant by magic – that is, you flip a few pages, pick a verse, read it, and voila! “Go thou and do likewise.” More people think it’s relevant in whatever way a person wants it to be relevant – that is, everyone gets to decide for themselves what a given verse or passage means. (This is what happens in small groups when each person says, “What this verse means to me is . . .” – and every meaning is granted equal value.)
Reading the Bible for relevance via magic or personal opinion, however, is generally unwise and almost always unfair both to the human author and the divine Author.
Let me explain. Authors mean something when they write. I know this because I write. It is not okay for you to read something I have written and decide its meaning from a piece picked out of context. (Political rhetoric gets much of its mileage this way.) It is also not okay for you to read something I have written and make it mean whatever you want. Either of these approaches makes you an unfair reader and me a slighted author.
Think about the Bible. It’s not okay for us to read it and then make it mean whatever we want it to mean. The authors and the Author meant something when they wrote in another time and place. To be fair to their intentions, we have to do some hard hermeneutical homework. [Sorry for the big word – but the alliteration was too good to pass up. “Hermeneutical” (her-muh-NEW-ti-cal): How’s your Greek? The Greek word hermeneia (her-muh-NAY-uh) means “interpretation.” Not ringing any bells? How about your Greek mythology? Hermes? The messenger who delivers words from the gods? Okay. Put all that together in your head and we eventually end up with “hermeneutics,” the process of interpreting or explaining the Bible.]
Okay, so back to that hard hermeneutical (interpretation) homework. We have several questions to answer before we really get started in Daniel. We won’t be able to bridge the gap from what Daniel and God wrote to the ancient Israelites, to what they wrote for us if we take the easy route. Happily for you, I’ve already done this homework. You get to cheat.
Next up . . . What kind of book is this, anyway? (the genre question)