Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Study Guide

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Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Daniel | Summary

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Summary

Chapters 1–6

Chapters 1–6 of Daniel consist of stories about Daniel and his friends living in exile in Babylon.

  • Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are chosen from among the Judean exiles in Babylon to serve in King Nebuchadnezzar's court. They refuse to defile themselves by eating the king's rations of food and wine and are allowed to eat and drink only vegetables and water.
  • Nebuchadnezzar is troubled by a dream in which a statue made of various metals is destroyed by a stone. Daniel proves himself to the king by explaining the meaning of the dream as an image of a succession of kingdoms that would rise and fall in the world.
  • Nebuchadnezzar erects a large golden statue that all are commanded to worship. When Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (who are given the Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) refuse, they are thrown into the fire of a great furnace but miraculously not burned, and the king spares their lives.
  • Nebuchadnezzar sees a vision of a great tree cut down by an angelic figure who descends from heaven. Daniel explains the vision as foretelling that the king will go mad and flee to the wilderness, which subsequently happens.
  • The Babylonian king Belshazzar sees writing miraculously appear on the wall in the midst of a lavish feast. Daniel is brought in to interpret the sign for the king and proclaims that the words mark the end of his kingdom. Belshazzar dies that very night.
  • Daniel becomes a powerful official under the Persian ruler Darius, but a plot is hatched to force Darius to have Daniel executed by throwing him into a den of lions. Miraculously, the lions do not harm Daniel, and his accusers are devoured by the lions instead.

Chapters 7–12

Chapters 7–12 relate a series of apocalyptic visions revealed to Daniel that are meant to predict major historical events from the Babylonian Empire in the 6th century BCE down to the rule of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV over Palestine c. 175–165 BCE.

  • Daniel sees a vision of four fantastical beasts, which represent a succession of kingdoms ruled by the Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and Greeks.
  • In association with the final beast/kingdom, Daniel sees a "little horn" speaking arrogantly, which represents Antiochus IV. Daniel then sees a vision of the heavenly court, where a figure "like a son of man" is charged by God to establish rule over the earth.
  • Daniel sees another vision, this time of a ram that is defeated by a goat with a single horn. When the goat's single horn breaks, it is replaced by four horns. From one of the four horns grows another large horn, which begins persecuting "the host of heaven" and "the sanctuary." This vision alludes to Alexander the Great's conquest, the division of his empire after his death, and Antiochus IV's persecution of the Jews and desecration of the Jerusalem temple.
  • Daniel prays concerning the prediction of the prophet Jeremiah that the period of Judah's exile would be 70 years. The angel Gabriel responds that the period of judgment will in fact be 70 weeks of years, or 490 years, placing the end of their suffering sometime in the early 2nd century BCE.
  • Daniel sees a final vision in which the angel Gabriel explains what historical events will transpire in the succession from the Persian Empire to Greek rule, describing Alexander's conquest, the division of his empire, and various political conflicts between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid rulers in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. After a "contemptible person" (Antiochus IV) profanes the temple and halts the Jewish sacrificial offerings for three and a half years, his rule will be brought to an end with the intervention of the angel Michael.
  • Daniel is told that this period of suffering will be followed by a resurrection, with everlasting life for the righteous and judgment for the wicked. Daniel is told to seal up the words of the vision until the future time to which it refers.

Analysis

The book of Daniel unites two different types of literature from Judaism in the Second Temple period around the figure Daniel and the motif of interpreting dreams and visions. The situation for Jews living under foreign rule in exile is precarious in these stories, but it is not entirely bleak. Wise and virtuous figures such as Daniel and his friends are able to prosper as long as they remain faithful to the worship of Yahweh alone and obedient to the stipulations of the Torah. When crises of persecution do arise, they are miraculously delivered. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah surviving the fiery furnace and Daniel surviving the lions' den are examples of this.

Daniel 7–12 has a much different flavor and reflects a time of more immediate crisis. The visions Daniel sees predict the succession of ruling empires in the Near East down to the Seleucid rule of Palestine in the 2nd century BCE. By Chapter 11 it is obvious that the vision specifically addresses the period of crisis when Antiochus IV disrupted Jewish worship in the Jerusalem. At Daniel 11:40, the vision begins to predict future resolution and divine intervention. From that point forward, the description is vague. But it seems to align with what actually transpired, which allows this portion of Daniel to be dated between 167 and 164 BCE. That makes Daniel the latest dated book in the Hebrew Bible.

The visions of Daniel 7–12 are an excellent example of the genre of apocalyptic literature that flourished in the Second Temple period. This genre is characterized by supernatural visions, angelic guides/interpreters, symbolic imagery (including fantastic beasts), and a pessimistic view of history that requires dramatic divine intervention to set things right. The heightened role of angels in Jewish theology of this period is prominent in Daniel's apocalyptic visions. Daniel 12:2 also makes the clearest statement in the Hebrew Bible of a view of resurrection of the dead for both reward and punishment. A dominant principle in these theological developments seems to be that the present status quo is so far from how life ought to be that dramatic and decisive divine intervention is needed to set things right.

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