The Book of Daniel

Never Say Never

It is a lovely twist of irony that I, the one who said I’d never blog, am blogging first about a book I never wanted to study.

I have spent most of my adult life successfully avoiding the Old Testament book of Daniel – a success only matched by my avoidance of the New Testament book of Revelation. Growing up in the era before the Left Behind books, I was a victim of the dispensational Thief in the Night movies of the early 80s. Visions of a really creepy guy with a handlebar mustache and of a white “UNITE” van prowling the streets of Anytown, USA, hunting down people without the mark of the beast branded on their hands (or was it foreheads?) are bad enough, but what I’ve realized really stuck with me from those movies was the purpose of Daniel and Revelation – namely, to help us construct detailed timelines of the End Times, complete with mutant animals, gargantuan scorpions, and a mysterious something called Wormwood. But every other year or so, somebody needed to revise the charts and predictions because, er, the earlier ones proved wrong. I finally stopped paying attention and started avoiding the books because I had no desire to muck through the mess of competing interpretations.

If you love the book of Daniel, dispensationalism, and the Left Behind books, and I have just offended you, I apologize. Let me affirm that I still have a little (progressive) dispensational blood flowing in my veins and that I have grown to love the book of Daniel. (However, I still have not read a Left Behind book.) I’m also currently taking a class that’s helping me love Revelation. But I still don’t love the detailed charts. What’s more, I’ve decided that the purpose of Daniel (and Revelation) is actually something quite other than helping us determine End Times timelines.

In the coming months, I’ll be blogging through the book of Daniel – trying to recover its relevance for today, not just for some time yet to come. Come along for the ride!

Being Fair to the author and the Author

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)

What Is It, Anyway?

Daniel is a one-of-a-kind book in the Bible. In case this is news to you, let me tell you what’s so unusual about it:

(1)   Your translators had to do double duty in Daniel because the original is written in two different languages (Hebrew in chapters 1, 8–12, and sister-language Aramaic in chapters 2–7 );

(2)   The book has two drastically different halves – the first six chapters contain the delightful stories of many a childhood (like Daniel & the Lions’ Den and Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego), and in the last six chapters, all delights vanish and there’s nothing but weird and wild visions that even confuse Daniel;

(3)   Nothing quite like these weird and wild visions can be found elsewhere in the Old Testament – you have to read all the way to Revelation before you find something of the same genre.

The language business is interesting, but it isn’t a problem (unless you’re studying Hebrew just so you can read Daniel in the original), but the other two items should be of some concern to you. If you want to read something according to what the author intended, you have to know what kind of writing it is. For example, if you pick up a copy of The Onion newspaper and read the headline “Congress Takes Group of Schoolchildren Hostage,” you will believe things to be even worse in Washington than you thought . . . unless you read it according to its genre – namely, satire. Properly identifying genre is the first step to understanding.

So, what kind of writing is the book of Daniel? If you look at the first six chapters, you might say it’s a collection of stories. If you look at the last six chapters, you might say it’s a lot of prophecy. Or if you read your Bible study notes, you might say the last half of the book is apocalyptic, though you may have no idea what that means. If you read the book carefully, you might add that it has visions, dreams, prayers, and poems in it.

And you’d be right. (Sometimes we really can all be right.) But you’d also be wrong, because none of these answers quite captures what the book of Daniel is.

Let me help. The book of Daniel is narrative – that is, it’s a story. Notice, I said it’s a story, not a collection of stories. The difference is important. The stories of the first six chapters aren’t just six stories put together in one book. Nor are they disconnected from the visions in the last six chapters. The entire book is one long narrative with different kinds of writing embedded in it: smaller narratives, poetry, prayers, prophecies, visions, and so on. Each embedded component contributes to the single story of the whole book.

That the book is one continuous narrative is evident when you consider the nine dates given throughout it. Beginning in 1:1 (“In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah . . .”) and ending in 11:1 (“In the first year of Darius the Mede . . .”), the dates give us a way to get a handle on the story of the whole book. Contemplating all these dates is more than I can do today, but if you’re interested, I’ve made a chart (don’t panic – there are no gargantuan scorpions or mutant beasts on it) of the dates and their significance for the structure of the book. Have at it!

Next up . . . How to read a biblical story.

How to Read a Biblical Story

The Bible is full of stories – more properly called narratives—and most people don’t give a second thought to how they should be read. They’re stories, for crying out loud. Who doesn’t know how to read a story? Why are you wasting Web space – and my time – on this post?

But it’s not quite that simple. While some rules apply to all stories (namely, they have to have a characters, a setting, and most importantly, a plot), not all stories are created equal. When you hear “once upon a time,” you have a pretty good idea of what’s to follow—a short, sweet story with a happy ending that comes in plenty of time to put the kids to bed. However, if you hear “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” you know you’re in for a long, bitter haul that, depending on your taste for Dickens, will either keep you up all night or put you right to sleep.

What kind of stories are biblical stories? How should we read them? I’ve got three tips for your reading enjoyment:

First, let the story be a story. Don’t ask it to be a sermon, a fable by Aesop (“the moral of the story is…”), or a list of do’s and don’ts. I’m not suggesting that biblical stories don’t have instructional value – they do. But in real life, we don’t read stories to find the bottom line; we read them because we enjoy them. They deliver us from the disinterested skimming of news or the insatiable surfing of sites. They take us to other times and places, and they introduce us to fascinating people. Isn’t it interesting that God chose stories as the primary medium for his written revelation? (People who figure out this sort of thing say at least 40% of the Bible is narrative.) Why do you suppose He did this? I suggest it’s because stories speak a language we know – and love – better than any other. Stories make up our lives – we live multiple stories every day. Reading the stories of the Bible invites us to live in God’s story.

Second, listen to what the narrator says, not what you wish he’d have said. (My use of “he” may sound politically incorrect, but it reflects the reality of biblical authorship.) The narrator (with divine help) crafted his story in a particular way for particular purposes. On one hand, he leaves out a lot, and on the other hand, he includes some head-scratchers. For example, if any one of us had written the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, we most certainly would have included the name of the reigning Pharaoh, while the names of the two Hebrew midwives would have ended up on the cutting room floor. But the biblical writers wrote under a different set of rules, a theological agenda that dictated what they included and what they left out. The way God thinks, the Pharaoh of the exodus didn’t merit being remembered for all of history – but those two Hebrew women? Don’t forget them. Biblical storytellers may be maddeningly selective, but they are purposefully selective.

Third, remember that the Bible is first and foremost God’s revelation of Himself – that is, it’s theology. (Dust off your Greek again: theos means “God” and logos means “word.” Put them together and you get a “god-word,” or “words about God.”) Every Bible story should factor into our understanding of God. From Genesis to Revelation, He’s the main character.

So, go get lost in a really good Book.

Next up, who is this Daniel guy?

Danny Boy of Babylon

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about death and my dissertation. (Sometimes I’ve thought I would experience death by dissertation, but I am beginning to believe I might come out of the process alive after all.) Death has been on my mind because, if I lived closer to the land of my birth (America’s Dairyland), I’d be attending three funerals this week. My dissertation has been on my mind because I had a major dead(-no-pun-intended-)line this week.

Somehow in the middle of this, Daniel came to mind. You might think the association a bit far afield, but maybe it’s not quite as bizarre as it first sounds. The prophet Daniel, for whom the book of Daniel is named, may just have done the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of a dissertation, and he was not unacquainted with death.

The backdrop for the book is the Babylonian exile of the Jews. Between 605 B.C. and 587 B.C., the nation of Judah (the southern kingdom after the 922 B.C. split of Israel) died a slow, painful death at the hands of the reigning champion of the day—Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. In his successful quest to conquer the ancient Near East, Nebuchadnezzar was smart enough not to forfeit the prize to be had in the intelligentsia of a conquered nation: before he leveled the city of Jerusalem in 587, he had already skimmed off whatever human capital he could—the educated class of citizens were hauled off to Babylon, where they were promptly enrolled in the king’s college for three years of what can only be called reprogramming.

Their education included learning the language and literature of Babylon (Dan 1:4)—that is, the Semitic language of Akkadian and a voluminous collection of Babylonian lore. (My PhD work is in “Hebrew & Semitic Studies,” and my program didn’t even include Akkadian because it’s too intensive.) Nebuchadnezzar’s goal was to train loyal civil servants, so he had to immerse the captives up to their noses in Babylonian culture. (A great resource on this enculturation process is David Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart.) Being immersed up to your nose in something as academic as all that for three years sure sounds like a dissertation to me.

As for death, I’m thinking less of the many people Daniel must have known who didn’t survive the destruction of their country than I am of the death of the nation. You will miss the deep significance of the book if you miss what this death meant. Israel’s existence and identity were rooted in several fundamental promises that came from covenants Yahweh had made first with their ancestor Abraham, then with them, and finally with King David. Yahweh promised them a land; he promised to dwell among them; and he promised a perpetual Davidic dynasty. In some of the loveliest of biblical language, Yahweh made an irrevocable covenant with Israel: “I will be your God, you will be my people, and I will dwell among you.”

The Babylonian exile sent the Israelites into a theological crisis of epic proportions: they lost their land; Yahweh’s temple was destroyed; there was no longer a nation over which to have a king. Instead, “I will be your God” stood back and let a foreign king reduce “you will be my people” to a half-displaced people group and turn the temple where “I will dwell among you” into an ash heap. Nearly everything they believed about themselves and their God had come to nothing after all. Now what?

Death and a dissertation. After all his Babylonian larnin’, what will Daniel even be able to say to a people in despair?

The Great Date Debate

I feel a sense of professional responsibility to write this particular post, though I am prepared for all of you except my sister to bail out before the end. Prove me wrong . . .

If you have spent any time studying the book of Daniel with the aid of commentaries, books, or Bible study notes, you are likely aware that not everyone thinks Daniel wrote the book for the exiled Jews in Babylon. Many scholars think an anonymous author wrote the book under Daniel’s name four centuries later to persecuted Jews in Israel. I think I can safely assume that nearly every one of my five faithful readers has dismissed this as a theory cooked up by scholars who don’t believe in prophecy (akin to the theory that Isaiah didn’t write the entire book of Isaiah – but that’s for another day).

It is true that a lot of people who write commentaries don’t believe in prophecy – prophecy meaning that God used humans to predict accurately something otherwise unknowable. But let me caution you not to let anyone – yourself included – reduce the debate about Daniel to the issue of prophecy. There is a fair number of Old Testament scholars who fully believe in prophecy and who firmly hold to the “late date” of Daniel. (The “early date” is Daniel to 6th-century B.C. Jews in Exile; the “late date” is an anonymous author to 2nd-century B.C. Jews in Israel.)

The issue is more complex than that, and while I will not subject even my longsuffering sister to the full discussion, let me explain just one of the other factors.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the genre of Daniel – and I told you that it’s a story. That’s true. Some of my astute readers perhaps thought, “It’s also one of the Major Prophets.” If you didn’t think that, then let me tell you that English Bibles have grouped the books roughly according genre. Look at the table of contents: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number, Deuteronomy – these we call “Law.” Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1/2 Samuel, 1/2 Kings, 1/2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther – these we call “History.” And so on. Isaiah, Jeremiah, sometimes Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel – these we call the Major Prophets. There, Daniel. It’s a Major Prophet.

If any of my students read the post about genre, they perhaps thought, “Daniel is also one of the Writings.” Surmising that most of you didn’t think this, I will tell you that the Hebrew Bible has also grouped the books according to genre. Here’s how its table of contents goes: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – these it calls “Torah.” Joshua, Judges, 1/2 Samuel, 1/2 Kings – these it calls “Former Prophets.” Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea-all-the-way-through-Malachi – these it calls “Latter Prophets.” Wait, where’s Daniel? Daniel is not grouped among the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. It appears in a final group of books, the “Writings,” a collection that contains poetry (like Psalms), wisdom (like Proverbs), history that takes place after the Exile (like Ezra), a few short stories (like Ruth), and Daniel. The question we have to ask is what’s it doing there? The answer is not as simple as saying Daniel is not a prophetic book. The answer really isn’t simple at all – in fact, the answer is really just another theory, since no one bothered to record for us why the “Writings” contain what they do.

So, what’s to be gained – or lost – from this discussion? I didn’t write this to shake your faith in the text or its authority – I happen to believe your faith is well placed. Rather, I encourage you not to dismiss a resource based on what it thinks of Daniel’s authorship. I fully expect to chat on the New Earth with people on both sides of the issue. The significance of the book and its theology don’t depend on this issue.

Next up, Daniel 1, finally!

2 Responses to The Book of Daniel

  1. weirdosteve says:

    The only problem I see is that you insist on reading Daniel with application in mind (something to do, not necessarily something to believe and bear witness of). The book of Daniel is prophetic in nature, so why try to force some kind of irrelevant application to make people feel good, where the application is for “understanding”? Isn’t understanding sufficient?

    • wendywidder says:

      I suppose we may have different views on the Bible and how to read it. I consider it written TO an ancient audience, but because it’s God’s Word, it’s also FOR us. Sometimes we do read “just” for understanding–understanding who God is, who we are, etc. But even that understanding requires a response–an “application,” I suppose. I’d also disagree that just because something is “prophetic” it has no relevance for my faith & practice. The primary purpose of prophetic speech in the Old Testament was to call people to repentance and faithfulness, not to predict future events. That’s not to say it can’t/doesn’t do both, but sometimes we dismiss the one in favor of the other.

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