October 17, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: The adventures of Daniel in Babylon

John F. Fink(Forty-first in a series of columns)

The Book of Daniel describes the life of some Jewish exiles in Babylon, which is why I’m discussing it at this point in this series. It’s an ideal rather than a realistic picture, though, and the characters didn’t really exist.

The stories about Daniel and his three companions are historical fiction, written to convey a religious message. The book was written in 165 B.C. during the persecution of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (whom we’ll meet when we discuss the Books of Maccabees) to strengthen and comfort the Jewish people.

Instead of writing about his present time, the author placed Daniel and his three associates in Babylon during the exile (587-538 B.C.) where they served a succession of three kings: Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar and Darius. (Historically, Belshazzar was never king, and he wasn’t the son of Nebuchadnezzar, as the book says, and Darius the Mede is unknown.)

The first six chapters tell stories about Daniel and his companions while the second six present Daniel’s visions. The appendix, which is not included in the Jewish Bible because it exists only in Greek, has more stories. The stories might have originated during the exile and been passed down through the centuries, while the visions were written by the unknown author who published the book.

The author wanted to hold Daniel up as a model for youths. The stories, about heroic young Jews who were willing to die for their faith, taught readers that God would provide for the Jews the way to survive in a treacherous Gentile world—whether in sixth-century B.C. Babylon or second-century B.C. Jerusalem.

In the stories, Daniel is able to interpret dreams for Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar and thus distinguish himself. We also have the stories of Daniel in the lions’ den and his three associates in the fiery furnace.

The second half of the book is apocalyptic, a series of visions promising deliverance and glory to the Jews. Christians are familiar with this type of literature because the Book of Revelation is apocalyptic. In fact, it was originally called The Apocalypse. It uses some of the same imagery as does Chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel.

Apocalyptic literature uses symbols to present God’s design for the world. In the Book of Daniel, the prophet receives divine wisdom, enabling him to understand the future. When interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he was able to predict future kingdoms (which the author knew succeeded the Babylonian Empire).

The author definitely believed in the resurrection of the dead. The book taught its readers not to live for this world, but for “the kingdom of God” (Dn 2:44). It also upheld the ideal of martyrdom. Jesus developed the theme of “the kingdom of God,” first introduced by Daniel, in his parables.

Jesus also referred to himself as “Son of Man.” In Daniel, “Son of Man” was a heavenly figure who came “on the clouds of heaven” and received from God “dominion, glory, and kingship” (Dn 7:13-14). Jesus quoted “the Son of Man coming in the clouds” during his trial before the Sanhedrin (Mk 13:26). †

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