I’m teaching Daniel to a group of urban ministry leaders on Monday nights this semester. They love the book because it preaches so well, and I love teaching them because it’s a dream to teach students so enthusiastic about the material. At least, it’s a dream for the first six chapters. When we get to the seventh chapter, it’s more like a nightmare all the way through the end of the book.
I knew this was coming – I’ve taught Daniel before – but I don’t think they did. So by night’s end, they were unsettled, frustrated, and a smidge disgruntled; I had a headache and an hour’s drive home in the dark. Hopefully we’ll be ready for another round by next Monday.
Some of you know what’s in Daniel 7 (and beyond) and you’re protesting: I love those chapters! They’re the best ones in the book! I’m happy to have that discussion (after I take some Ibuprofen) when we get there officially in this blog. And I won’t disagree, I promise, that they do hold some of the finest theology to be found in the Bible.
For the time being, though, I’m just going to be a curmudgeonish Old Testament professor and insist on a few hermeneutical basics (if you’ve forgotten what “hermeneutics” means, see here). The most important rule of hermeneutics, no matter where in the Bible you’re reading, is context, context, context. You have to read a text – every chapter, every verse, every line – in its context.
What’s more, “context” means more than just the words on the page. Context includes historical, grammatical, and cultural background. Your job as a reader and interpreter is to put yourself, as best you can, in the tents or stone houses of the original audience and hear what they would have heard. You have to try to think what they would have thought – not what you think after a completed canon (that is, the whole Bible) and 2000-plus years of interpretative history. It’s hard work, I readily confess. And we won’t always get it right, I can heartily testify. But we have to try. Only after we’ve pressed our noses as far into the original context as we can, can we back away and consider the bigger picture – that is, what the rest of the Bible might have to say about the text.
What about Daniel 7, in particular, has launched this lecture? Just this: Christians love to read the prophecies of Daniel 7–12 through glasses obtained in the book of Revelation (and another set obtained in the Gospels). But the original audience (and author) didn’t have such glasses. You have to get into their heads first if you’re going to be fair to the author and the Author. But let me warn you: you just might be surprised at what you find when you get there.