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CONVERSATIONS WITH SCRIPTURETHE BOOK OF DANIEL
By EDMOND F. DESUEZA JUDITH JONES
Morehouse PublishingCopyright © 2011 Edmond F. Desueza and Judith Jones
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory
For many Christians, the book of Daniel is both very familiar and very strange. It opens with stories that many of us learned in childhood, such as Daniel in the lion's den, the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace, and the handwriting on the wall. In the second half of Daniel, however, we encounter a strange new world inhabited by angelic beings and many-horned beasts, goats and rams and armies at war. In some ways the book of Daniel itself is an odd animal, a hybrid collection of court tales and strange visions, written in two different languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, with some parts that are as engaging as a child's bedtime story and others that are mystifying and difficult even for adults.
The familiar stories at the beginning of Daniel have often been treated as if they were tales with a simple moral: remain faithful, and God will rescue you even from the lion's mouth. If we are honest with ourselves, however, such simplicity does not mesh well with history and with our own experience of reality, for we know that sometimes the children of God have been fed to the lions and God has not intervened. Sometimes the children of God have been thrown into the furnace and have not emerged unscathed; sometimes the feasting continues unabated, and the powerful live on, oblivious to the handwriting on the wall. Can the stories in Daniel speak to such a world, or are they tales meant only for children?
And what about the series of visions at the end of Daniel? As interpreted by popular authors such as Hal Lindsay in The Late Great Planet Earth and, more recently, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins in the best-selling Left Behind series, the visions are a description of the end of the world. And since, according to these authors, the end of the world is imminent, Daniel's visions are simply a code language for events and characters in our own day. Certainly in an age of climate change and missing nuclear materials there is reason to take seriously the possibility that we are facing the destruction of the world as we know it. Yet by understanding Daniel's visions as a message written directly for us, we fail to do justice to their meaning throughout history, for surely they meant something to their original audience, and continue to speak to God's people today. Can we read them in a way that is faithful to their historical context and yet still relevant for us in our own time and place?
More than two thousand years have passed since the book of Daniel was written and reached its final form, and of course much has changed in that time. Yet much remains the same. No king named Nebuchadnezzar or Belshazzar reigns, and the Babylonian and Persian empires are long gone. Yet the wealthy and the powerful still seek to rule the world, and God's people still must decide which sovereign they truly serve. To whom do we owe our deepest allegiance, and how do we balance our obligations to God with our responsibilities as citizens? To whom do the kingdom, the power, and the glory belong? Are the kingdoms of this world and God's realm separate but equal realities, and is it possible to serve both God and the king?
Who Is Daniel?
What first attracted us to the book of Daniel was the mysterious figure of Daniel himself. Who is this Israelite noble swept up in the Babylonian exile, this youth favored by God, this interpreter of dreams and wise adviser to kings? What kind of man can pass God's judgment on rulers, survive being thrown into the lions' den, see visions of strange beasts and the Ancient of Days enthroned in splendor, and still remain humble, faithful, and constant in prayer? Why does the Daniel who can interpret and explain the visions of others in the first half of the book need help interpreting his own in the second half? What is the connection between the larger-than-life character we meet in the book and historical reality?
Several years ago we were invited to lead a series of Bible studies about Daniel for clergy colleagues. The more we read in preparation for the studies, the more Daniel intrigued us as a character and the more we wanted to discover the relationship between that character and the historical author or authors of the book that bears his name. Was Daniel a historical person? A fictional character? A cipher or symbol for some person or group? Caught up in the mystery of this individual and captivated by the message of the book that tells his story, we set out on a quest to find the real Daniel, wherever he might be hidden.
Daniel's identity might seem obvious at first—after all, in the last half of the book Daniel tells his own story in the first person. The first chapter of Daniel describes how he and his three friends came to live in King Nebuchadnezzar's court in Babylon, and the rest of the book is about Daniel's interactions with Nebuchadnezzar and his successors. At first glance, then, it appears that the book of Daniel was written by Daniel himself during the Babylonian exile.
But there are some problems with this apparently obvious answer. In the first place, the book of Daniel describes historical events that had not yet taken place during the Babylonian exile. For example, it gives an overview of the succession of empires that followed the Babylonians (including the empires of Alexander the Great and his successors), and the last half of the book demonstrates a detailed knowledge of the history of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the early days of the Maccabean revolt, all characters and happenings dating to some four centuries after Nebuchadnezzar's reign. Some have argued that Daniel simply had the gift of prophecy and therefore could write history in advance. But if that is true, why is the book least accurate when it tells us about the Babylonian and Persian courts, the very context in which its hero is said to live? For example, it identifies Belshazzar as a king and as Nebuchadnezzar's son (Daniel 5:1–2), but in fact Belshazzar was the son of the Babylonian king, Nabonidus, and he served as regent but never as king. Daniel contains a number of errors of this sort regarding characters and events in the Babylonian and Persian periods. By contrast, the more closely the description of history approaches the Maccabean revolt, the more precise it becomes. Why would Daniel know more about the political situation four centuries after he died than he did about kings and historical occurrences during his own lifetime?
Complicating our quest to understand the mysterious figure of Daniel was the fact that not all Bibles contain the same version of the book. The version of Daniel found in Jewish and Protestant Bibles is translated from an original Hebrew and Aramaic text and is just twelve chapters long, while that of Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, on the other hand, is based on a Greek version of Daniel and includes several additional chapters. The Septuagint—the earliest and most well known Greek version of the Hebrew Bible—was used by the first Christians and formed the basis for the Latin Vulgate, which became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. To summarize the situation, Protestants and Jews read a shorter form of Daniel than Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians do.
So what is in the longer Daniel, and where can this longer form be found? To answer the second question first, the additions to Daniel are printed with the Apocrypha in some study editions of Bibles. "The Prayer of Azariah" and the "Song of the Three Young Men" are inserted between Daniel 3:23 and 3:24, just after Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (more commonly known by their Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are thrown into the fiery furnace. Furthermore, Episcopalians may recognize the "Song of the Three Young Men" as the source of Canticles 12 ("A Song of Creation") and 13 ("A Song of Praise") in the Book of Common Prayer. Besides these prayers, the longer form of Daniel also includes two extra chapters that appear to be Greek versions of earlier Hebrew stories. Chapter 13 is printed in the Apocrypha as "Susanna," and tells the story of a virtuous woman who overcomes a false accusation of adultery with the help of Daniel's wisdom. Chapter 14, also known as "Bel and the Dragon," contains a story about the prophet Habakkuk delivering food to Daniel while he is in the lions' den as well as two humorous tales in which Daniel shows the foolishness of worshipping idols. In the first of these tales, Daniel cleverly exposes the tricks that the Babylonian priests use to create the illusion that their god Bel is alive; in the second he tells the king that without using a sword or club he will kill the great dragon that the Babylonians worship. Then he feeds cakes made out of pitch, fat, and hair to the dragon until it bursts open.
The colorful incidents described in "Susanna" and in "Bel and the Dragon" read more like fiction than like history. So do the entertaining stories in the first six chapters of Daniel, packed as they are with suspense and surprise. Who, then, was the true Daniel? Was he merely a fictional character in stories told to strengthen faith?
The earliest information that we have comes from the prophet Ezekiel, who wrote from exile in Babylon between 593 and 571 BCE. Since the first incidents in the book of Daniel take place during that same historical setting, we might naturally assume that Ezekiel and Daniel lived in the same place at roughly the same time. Ezekiel does not refer to Daniel as if he were a contemporary living with him in Babylon, however. Instead, he mentions Daniel together with Noah and Job as a model of righteousness: "Even if Noah, Daniel, and Job, these three, were in it [a land that sins against God], they would save only their own lives by their righteousness" (Ezekiel 14:14). It seems that by Ezekiel's time the historical Daniel was a figure lost in the mists of ancient history and obscured by legends.
In some ways what we learned about Daniel reminded us of other wise characters from Israel's past, such as Joseph, the interpreter of dreams in Genesis, and Methuselah's father Enoch (Genesis 5:18–24), who walked with God and then was no more, only to appear centuries later in the book of Enoch as a visionary who saw strange animals and caught glimpses of the heavenly court. This evidence suggests that like Enoch, Daniel was a familiar figure long before he appeared as a character in the book. Ezekiel shows us that tales about a wise man named Daniel already existed by the time that the Jews were exiled to Babylon in the sixth century BCE. Jews living after Ezekiel's time continued to recount the deeds of the wise and righteous Daniel, but they associated him with what was for them a more recent context—the royal court in Babylon. Some of those stories are preserved in Susanna and in Bel and the Dragon. Fragments of previously unknown tales about Daniel and the three young men have also been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, so it seems clear that stories about Daniel were passed down by word of mouth over a period of centuries. Some of these narratives made their way into the Bible, and some did not. Thus the first six chapters of Daniel contain legends that predate the book itself.
The answers to our initial questions intensified our curiosity about the book of Daniel. If people already knew about Daniel, if stories about him were already circulating in the culture, why was the book written? Why does it highlight so forcefully Daniel's humility and his faithfulness to God, and not merely his extraordinary ability to interpret dreams and his wisdom? Why is it such an unusual combination of hero stories and bizarre visions?
The first six chapters of Daniel, with their descriptions of Daniel's dream interpretation and his rise to prominence in the king's court, are called "court tales," a genre of ancient literature that featured entertaining stories about the careers of people living in the royal court. Like modern-day historical fiction, this kind of story about the intrigues, rivalries, and ambitions of courtiers often combined facts about historically recognizable characters with novelistic details. It was well-known and popular not only in Israel but also among neighboring nations, especially Egypt, where most of the Joseph stories in Genesis take place. Like the stories of Joseph in Pharaoh's court or of Esther in the court of King Ahasuerus, the court tales in Daniel depict wise Jews finding a way to be faithful to God while surrounded by the temptations, luxuries, and conflicting loyalties of the royal lifestyle. Such tales were one form of wisdom literature, along with other forms such as the proverbs, riddles, and edifying lectures that we find in wisdom books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job.
Wisdom literature addresses the question, "What does it mean to live a wise life?" and the answers can be surprisingly pragmatic. Proverbs, for example, includes advice about how to get ahead in the royal court and how to avoid unnecessary trouble, while the author of Ecclesiastes concludes, "This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot" (Ecclesiastes 5:18).
If Daniel is wisdom literature, its heroes sometimes behave in unwise ways, at least according to conventional definitions of wisdom. Proverbs outlines wise behavior for the courtier: "My child, fear the LORD and the king, and do not disobey either of them" (Proverbs 24:21). Again it advises, "A king's wrath is a messenger of death, and whoever is wise will appease it" (Proverbs 16:14). As Daniel and friends discover, such advice may sound good in theory, but putting it into practice is not always easy. When God's laws and the king's edicts directly contradict each other—as when the king commands all his subjects to bow down to a golden statue—how can they obey both God and the king? In such situations Daniel and his friends do not always act like the prudent courtier who does his best to avoid upsetting the king. At times they flatly disobey the king's orders or pronounce judgment on his actions, acting more like prophets speaking truth to power than like typical wise men. Their behavior invites us to consider the question: what does it mean to be wise when the king's will and God's will stand in conflict with each other?
Being wise is often defined as being educated. The truly wise person, however, perceives life as a gift and has an exceptional capacity to grasp its meaning. Scholars have book learning; the wise know the boundaries between life and death. Scholars know how to do research and dedicate themselves to acquiring valuable knowledge, preserving it, and passing it on. The wise, on the other hand, explore the limits of the human condition and develop a deep understanding of human conduct and human nature. Scholars are shaped by their scholarly disciplines and their own hard work, but the wise attribute vision of life to powers greater than themselves.
The book of Daniel brings scholarship and wisdom together in a single character. Daniel is the legendary wise man from the past, but he is also a scholar and courtier who has much in common with the scribes. The stories in the first six chapters link the legendary Daniel of old with the scribes and sages who since ancient times had studied the scriptures and the stars, interpreting the present, discerning the outline of the future and, sometimes, presenting events that had already taken place as if they were predictions of what was still to come.
Excerpted from CONVERSATIONS WITH SCRIPTURE by EDMOND F. DESUEZA JUDITH JONES Copyright © 2011 by Edmond F. Desueza and Judith Jones. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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