The Language Puzzle

The second chapter of Daniel marks the beginning of a puzzle that has perplexed students of the Bible for a very long time. It’s not quite as bad as the “puzzles” that plague the dreaming king Nebuchadnezzar in chapters 2 and 4, and it’s definitely not as bad as the puzzles that plague Daniel from chapter 7 clear to the end of the book. But, still, it’s a puzzle.

The puzzle is that, beginning in the second half of chapter 2, verse 4, the language changes from Hebrew to Aramaic. Since this may mean next-to-nothing to you, let me explain. Nearly the entire Old Testament was written in the language of the ancient Israelites, namely, Hebrew. Aside from two isolated verses (Gen. 31:37; Jer. 10:11), the only places we get Aramaic in the Old Testament are in the book of Ezra and here in Daniel.

In Ezra, the use of Aramaic corresponds with a letter-writing exchange between the returned-from-exile Jews who were rebuilding their temple and the Persian officials with the authority to pull the plug on their project or give them the go-ahead to finish. It makes good sense that these letters would be written (and preserved) in the international language of the day (the lingua franca, for those of you who like fancy terms): Aramaic.

In Daniel, however, we’re harder pressed to find a good reason for the language switch, which is sustained through the rest of chapter 2 and the entirety of chapters 3–7. You can imagine that people who make a living studying the Bible have tried to figure out the reason for this anomalous situation. For the more curious among you, here are some of the theories, none of which are watertight ideas:

  • The content of chapters 2–7 pertained directly to citizens of Babylon/Persia, since they involve the life and times of some of their kings (Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius/Cyrus). So, maybe they were made available to the non-Jewish (and thus non-Hebrew speaking) public somehow. (Maybe, although the stories hold little, if any, attraction for the non-Jewish audience. The heroes of the stories are Jews and their God, while the fools are the foreign kings and their impotent gods.)
  • The entire book was originally written in Aramaic and only later portions (chs. 1, 8–12) were translated into Hebrew because they needed it to sound good enough (that is, to be in Hebrew) to be considered a book of the Bible. (And this explains the Aramaic how?) There’s a related theory that the entire book was originally written in Hebrew and then later translated into Aramaic for Jewish readers who no longer read Hebrew. Then, somehow, the Aramaic version of chapters 8–12 mysteriously disappeared, so the publishing house of the day (the scribes) had to piece together what they had – voila, a combination of Aramaic and Hebrew. (You’re really glad right about now that you chose another line of work, aren’t you?)
  • Using Aramaic was a literary device to lend an air of authenticity to the dialogue. (This theory falls apart as soon as the narrator starts talking . . . and he does so in Aramaic instead of Hebrew.)
  • The Aramaic chapters (2–7) focus on events in the Babylonian and Persian royal courts, while the Hebrew chapters 8–12 focus on Jewish life (back in the land of Israel) after the exile. This theory is similar to the literary device idea mentioned above, but I think it can hold more water because it’s not tied to the dialogue.

At the end of the day, we don’t know why the book is in two languages. However, believing that the book had more than just a human author, I do think the two-language issue is significant. In fact, I think the two-language issue may actually be a clue to how we should read the book. But I have messed with your brain long enough for one day. You’ll have to come back another day for what’s up with the Aramaic section. Meanwhile, try to survive the suspense.

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About wendywidder

For LOVE of the WORD
This entry was posted in Aramaic, Daniel 2, The Book of Daniel. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Language Puzzle

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