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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 18: The Book of Daniel"


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Daniel is commonly thought of as a prophet. Really, as we saw briefly in chapter 1, the book contains two very different genres, edifying narrative, and apocalyptic.

The pattern of the book is clear: chapters 1-6 are the edifying narrative type, of which we spoke in chapter 1 above. Chapters 7-12 are apocalyptic; chapters 13-14 are narrative additions. We recall from chapter 4: Apocalyptic is a genre or pattern of writing in which the author describes visions and revelations. It is not usually clear if he meant to assert they were real, and not merely a vehicle for his message. They contain bizarre, highly colored images. Often there are figures of animals, to represent pagan empires, a horn to stand for a king or a power, and they often include an angel who interprets images. Apocalyptic is commonly a work to give consolation in time of severe trial. God is presented as Lord of history. There may be prediction of the future. Now if such predictions were made in a rather factual genre, we would need to maintain that they really were made before the events . However because of the highly colored imagery and fanciful nature of apocalyptic, the predictions may be made after the events pictured, without any dishonesty. It is understood such things may happen in this genre.

The dating of the book is debated. Most scholars would give a second century date, in the context of the terrible persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV, Epiphanes, of Syria; some others, especially the evangelistic type, would hold for 6th century. The argument for the later date depends much on the type of Hebrew used. But there are respectable replies to the linguistic arguments.

Most of Daniel is in Hebrew, yet chapters 2-7 are Aramaic. The reason for this is not fully clear. The suggestion has been made that the Hebrew chapters were for the special concerns of the Jewish people, while the Aramaic portions were intended especially for the gentiles - for Aramaic was the international language of diplomacy at the time.

In chapter 1 above we described the edifying narrative genre, and used it to explain the alleged defect in chronology in Daniel 1:1.

Otherwise, chapter 1 tells of the dedication of 4 Jewish youths in the exile to the dietary laws. Eating nothing but vegetables made them more healthy. We must add: If the story is factual, it will not prove that vegetarians always get such an effect: there, God miraculously supplied.

Chapter 2 contains the great vision of the four kingdoms, symbolized by the kinds of metal in a huge statue, which the king saw in a dream. Many have been tempted to see the 4th kingdom as Rome, so it may connect in time with the messianic kingdom, which comes after it. But we must note that the feet standing for that kingdom are part pottery, part iron - which do not mix. This hardly fits the strong power of Rome. Most interpreters take the four to be: Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Hellenistic kingdoms after the death of Alexander. We observe: if one follows that view, then there is a Median kingdom before the Persian, which would imply that Darius the Mede, who in 6:1 took Babylon, is a historical figure. Most writers say Darius is fictitious, that Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon. If so, we would say the edifying narrative genre could account for the matter. However, we must add that the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, in his Antiquities, 10, 245-49 (xi. 4) does report that there was a Darius the Mede, a kinsman, who would have ruled for Cyrus for a time while Cyrus was occupied with other things. Such an action would be quite in character with the known policies of Cyrus.

Other narrative incidents - the three men in the fiery furnace, the vision of the giant tree, and the stories in the appendix (chapters 13-14), could have served the purpose of encouraging the Jews to perseverance in fidelity to their laws at a time of persecution. The episode in chapter 4 of Nebuchadnezzar's temporary insanity (boanthropy) does seem strange. Yet we notice that the Babylonian records carry no entries of activity on his part between 582 and 575.

An objection used to be made about chapter 5: Belshazzar is presented as the last king of Babylon before its fall. But it was said that the cuneiform records showed the last king was Nabonidus. We now know that Nabonidus in the third year of his reign, 553, made his son Belshazzar coregent, and he himself left for Tema in Arabia, where he stayed for about ten years, and never reassumed the throne.

With chapter 7 we enter the strongly apocalyptic portion of the book. The four beasts rise from the sea, showing they are hostile and chaotic forces opposed to God. They seem to represent the same sequence of kingdoms as the vision of the great statue in chapter 2, except that here we get the detail of the small horn that spoke arrogantly, which at least seems to many to be Antiochus IV of Syria.

Chapter 7, verses 13-18 includes the famous vision of one like a son of man, who receives from the Ancient of Days dominion, glory and kingship that will never be taken away forever. Commentators like to make this individual son of man just the "holy ones of the most high." But this is unrealistic, the Jewish people never did get such a kingship, one that will last forever. Nor would Jewish thought suppose a headless kingdom. However if the figure is the Messiah, then we do have a rational explanation. In Hebrew thought we often meet an individual who stands for and as it were embodies a collectivity. Jesus often used the phrase Son of Man to refer to Himself. This was part of His deliberately gradual self-revelation.

Chapter 8 largely repeats the thought of chapter 7, in a more explicit way.

In chapter 9 we meet the famous enigmatic prophecy of 70 weeks of years.

We begin with 9:2 in which Daniel is told that the desolation of Jerusalem is to last 70 years.

First, we notice that the number 70 is normally round, as is 40. How free this can be can be seen from a comparison of the Hebrew text of Jonah 3:4 where Jonah says Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days - along side of the Septuagint translation of the same line, where it is not 40 but 3 days. The 70 years to Jeremiah 25:11 were the length of the exile - very roundly, 70 years. But Daniel by inspiration sees that there is a further fulfillment of the 70.

The Fathers of the Church commonly understood chapter 9 as a prophecy of the Messiah - a view now usually dropped. Modern scholars want to make it fit the events of the time of Antiochus IV who persecuted the Jews, and desecrated the temple.

We can make it fit rather well with the time of Antiochus, thus:

1) Start with 605, the message to Jeremiah (25:11 - for 70 years they will be enslaved to the king of Babylon. In one sense, which Jeremiah saw, this meant the length of captivity - Daniel does not contradict, but extends the prophecy by taking weeks of years instead of single years, about 70 weeks of years.

2) 605 BC minus 62 weeks (434 years) extends to 171 BC, the death of Onias, the High Priest, the anointed one (9:26).

3) Persecution for one week = 7 years, goes from 171-164 (death of Onias to death of Antiochus). Antiochus makes the compact with many, the fallen Jews (v. 27).

4) The half week in v. 27 is 167-65, the time of desecration of the Temple.

But, there must be a reference to Christ also. We note that 9:24 is too grand - there was no everlasting justice, nor expiation of guilt after end of Antiochus. Now, St. Augustine wisely noted in City of God 17. 3, that some prophecies refer partly to OT events, partly to Christ - we know this when they do not fit either one perfectly. So 9:24 refers to Christ. "A most holy" could hardly refer to Onias - it does refer to Christ.

We add two details to the interpretation that takes the prophecy to refer to the period up to Antiochus:

1) The he in v. 27 may mean Antiochus making a deal with fallen Jews - but it might also vaguely refer to Jesus making the eternal covenant. After half a week Jesus abolishes the sacrifices of the old law, and starts the new regime.

2) V. 25 says seven weeks of years remain until Cyrus, God's anointed (as Isaiah 45:12 said, in the sense that God empowered him to crush Babylon and so to liberate the Jewish captives in 539). Jeremiah twice ( 25:11, dated in 605 BC, and 29:10, dated between 597 and 587, probably in 594) foretold the exile would last 70 years. From 594 to 539 is 55 years, not precisely seven weeks or 49 years. However, in this sort of prophecy that is a good enough approximation - we recall the case of Jonah 3:4 mentioned above.

We conclude: the prophecy of the seventy weeks works out rather well - with allowance for some approximation - in reference to the times leading up to Antiochus, yet verse 24 refers entirely to the time of Christ, and there may be vague allusions to that same time in verse 26.

From 10:1 to 11: 35 it is not hard to see a picture of the Hellenistic wars. But from 11:36 to the end of that chapter we meet many things that hardly fit Antiochus IV. The evil ruler in this passage magnifies himself above every god - this does not fit Antiochus, who put not a statue of himself but of Zeus in the Jerusalem temple. Verse 37 says he pays no attention to any god -again, this does not fit Antiochus. St. Jerome in his commentary on this passage thinks the figure is the Antichrist. Already in 8:17 the angel-interpreter told Daniel that the vision referred to the end-time. But we could make Antiochus a weak prefiguration of the horror of the Antichrist. In 11:45 the evil ruler will come to a sudden end, with no one to help him, seemingly at the beautiful holy mountain, which probably means Zion. But Antiochus met his end in Persia.

Some fanciful interpretations would make the "King of the North" in 11:40ff to be Russia.

Chapter 12 opens with a prediction of a great tribulation such as has never been before. This would fit with the time of the great Antichrist. Mt 24:21 speaks similarly of the tribulation at the end. There seems to a conflict between the angels in charge of various places, with Michael victorious.

In 12:2-3 a resurrection is clearly predicted. It is not clear if the "many" means the whole human race (cf. Hebrew rabbim), or only the just. We recall a similar prophecy in Isaiah 26:19. Chapter 12:4 tells Daniel to seal the prophecy, and says many will fall away and evil will increase: Again we are reminded of Mat 24:12, Lk 18. 8, and 2 Tim 3. ff.

Especially puzzling are the words of 12:7. Daniel in verse 6 had asked how long it would be until these things would happen. The angel said it would be a time, and times, and half a time, which seems to stand for three and a half - a frequent symbolic number in the Book of Revelation. And then, still in v. 7, come words whose translation has caused problems: The things will happen, "when the scattering of the power (hand) of the holy people has been completed [i.e., has come to an end]." Anchor Bible Daniel suggests that the line was mistranslated from an Aramaic original, and wants to read: "When the power of the desecrator of the holy people is brought to an end." But there is no need to suppose a mistranslation - Hebrew klh can mean to complete, to finish. Hence it is quite possible to render as we did above. Then the sense will be that the things predicted are to happen when the dispersion of the Jews finally comes to an end, before the end of time. This brings to mind the odd incident in 2 Macc. 2:4-8.

Of course, we are not certain, but this is an interesting speculation. The original RSV substantially agreed with our translation. NRSV "when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end...."

Besides the chapters 13-14 which were added to the book of Daniel, there were two other additions: the prayer of Azariah and the canticle of the three young men in the furnace, inserted in the Greek text after 3:23. They were probably written separately from the book of Daniel towards the end of the 2nd century B.C. and were not accepted into the Hebrew text. But the Council of Trent has declared them inspired, and so part of Scripture.

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