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!