Lesson 4 of5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Daniel

Belshazzar-son of Nebuchadnezzar

In 5:2, 11 and 18, Belshazzar is identified as the son of Nebuchadnezzar. Strictly speaking, he was the son of Nabonidus, a usurper of the Babylonian throne who ruled from 556 to 539 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar had died in 562 B.C.E. Several kings briefly occupied the throne between 562 and 556. At the very least, the book of Daniel compresses the sequence of events and the term “son” is not used in a biological sense.

Darius the Mede

Daniel places a ruler named Darius (identified as a Mede in 5:31; 9:1; 11:1) between the last of the Babylonians (identified as Belshazzar) and Cyrus, the Persian. Extrabiblical records identify Cyrus as the direct successor to the Babylonians. After the time of Cyrus, there is a Persian ruler named Darius, namely, Darius I Hystaspes who ruled from 522-486 B.C.E. The latter did organize the empire into satrapies as did the ruler named Darius in Daniel 6. Elsewhere in the Bible, Darius I is referred to as a Persian (Ezra 4:5, 24; 6:14; Nehemiah 12:22) and the reported activities fit with the dates for Darius I Hystaspes.

Date of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest

The date of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem, mentioned in the first two verses of the book, does not align with data from other sources (both biblical and extrabiblical). Daniel 1:1 states that Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem in the third year of Jehoiakim (thus, 606 B.C.E.), but Jeremiah 25:1 indicates that Nebuchadnezzar first came to power in 605 B.C.E., the fourth year of Jehoiakim. Further, 2 Chronicles 36:5-8 places the attack on Jerusalem later in Jehoiakim’s reign, a time frame that is corroborated by the Babylonian Chronicles.

Exile and future suffering

The lack of specificity about the exile suggests that the compelling interest of the book is in the persistence of suffering in the centuries after the return. The stories of Daniel and his friends are paradigmatic stories for a later time. By the end of the book the reader is positioned in Palestine centuries after the return and receives the exilic stories as encouragement to persist in the persecution being experienced well beyond the period of the exile.

Exile and hope for a return to the homeland

Questions arise when the book of Daniel is set alongside exilic writings such as Psalm 137, Lamentations, and Isaiah 40-55. In Daniel, there is no expressed yearning to return to Jerusalem, for the restoration of the Davidic rule, and no backward glance mourning the demise of the homeland. Even Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles urging them to seek the welfare of the city in which they are exiled envisioned a return after seventy years (Jeremiah 29). Daniel 9 takes up the seventy-year reference from Jeremiah, but the interpretation focuses on enduring suffering. There is no description of or yearning for return analogous to Jeremiah 30-31 or similar prophetic visions of return from exile.

Exile: Where are the others? 

The lack of any mention of other exiles is puzzling. Daniel refers to Shadrach (Hananiah), Meshach (Mishael), and Abednego (Azariah), but no other exiles are mentioned. None of these four interact with other exiles. In contrast, Daniel 7-12 repeatedly refers to the people of the Most High (the exact terminology varies), and the scope of concern is for a community, not only a few individuals. What did other exiles do when Nebuchadnezzar erected his statue (Daniel 3) or when Darius decreed that everyone should pray to him (Daniel 6)? The reader’s curiosity is raised when recognizing that Daniel is not mentioned in Daniel 3 and his three friends are not mentioned in Daniel 6. What did each of them do in the stories where they are not mentioned?

Exilic author

Correlating Daniel 1-6 and Daniel 7:12 has long puzzled interpreters. If the exilic Daniel wrote the entire book, chapters 7-12 are largely predictive. Unanswered questions remain, not the least of which is why the book is written in two languages (Hebrew and Aramaic). In addition, what is one to make of the persistence of evil beyond the days predicted as the final days for evil? If “prediction” is the genre employed by an exilic author (Daniel), the history of interpretation has not settled on what constitutes the “predicted” era.

Extended “authorship” 

If Daniel is a legendary figure whose persona is used for compositions written in later periods such as that of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.E.), questions of history and interpretation are not necessarily solved. The lack of exact correspondence in the succession and identification of Belshazzar (Daniel 5) and Darius (Daniel 6) becomes less problematic, but the lack of correspondence to extrabiblical data for the demise of Antiochus (11:40-45) becomes more acute. As with the view that exilic Daniel is the predictive author, the question of what one is to make of the continued presence of evil after Antiochus’s demise remains. At some point in the history of the composition of the book, composers stopped adjusting dates (see, for example, the shift from 1,290 to 1,355 days in 12:11-12).

Hebrew/Aramaic and stories/visions

Daniel 1:1-2:4a and Daniel 8:1-12:13 are preserved in Hebrew and Daniel 2:4b-7:28 in Aramaic. There is no consensus on an explanation for this variation. The variation would be easier to grasp if it corresponded with variations in content. Daniel 1-6 consists of stories, some of which contain visions within the plotlines. Daniel interprets those visions, and they have an impact on the rulers. Daniel 7-12 contains visions which Daniel sees about times far beyond Daniel and the exile. Daniel needs assistance interpreting his visions, and they often have a deep impact on him. These contrasts, however, do not correspond to the distribution of the Hebrew and Aramaic sections.

Hebrew/Aramaic and compositional history

Some interpreters imagine a collection of stories about the exile (Daniel 2-6) with Daniel 7 serving as an updated and reinterpreted version of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision in Daniel 2. The Aramaic section was, in this view, updated further with the visions in Daniel 8:1-12:4 written in Hebrew. (The use of Hebrew might signal some nationalistic fervor.) An introductory story was added (Daniel 1, in Hebrew) and subsequently the last vision was updated (Daniel 12:5-13). This version of a compositional history attempts to correlate the Aramaic and Hebrew variations, but there are still loose ends that lack a convincing explanation. Why, for example, would Daniel 2:1-4a be in Hebrew? Those verses are crucial to the rest of the chapter which is in Aramaic. The variation between Hebrew and Aramaic in Daniel remains an anomaly.

History and Daniel

Daniel 11:2-45 provides a sweeping description of the future. Two centuries of Persian rule are covered into a mere verse and thirteen rulers collapsed into four (11:2). Alexander the Great, along with the breakup of his empire, is dealt with in two verses (11:3-4). Precision increases in 11:5-20, describing the struggle between the Seleucids and Ptolemies, and in 11:21-39, describing Antiochus IV Epiphanes reign from 175-164 B.C.E. Extrabiblical data aligns well with most of the details. The correspondence falls off with the description of the death of Antiochus in 11:40-45. Antiochus died in Persia, not Palestine, and the projected war between the Seleucids and Ptolemies did not occur. It should be noted that Antiochus is never named in Daniel and, thus within the history of interpretation, the “little horn” (8:9) has been identified with rulers beyond the time of Antiochus.

Looking backward: mythology and ancient lore

Regarding Daniel 7, a recent line of interpretation has centered on potential allusions to or appropriations of earlier ancient Near Eastern cultural traditions. The Ancient One (7:9, 13) has been compared to El, “father of years,” and the one like a human being/a son of man “coming with the clouds of heaven” to Baal, the “rider of clouds.” In addition, for some interpreters, the judgment scene in Daniel 7 resonates with scenes of the divine council in other traditions. The allusions, if they are that, do not rise to the level of citations and are subject to continued scholarly reassessment.

One like the Son of man” (Daniel 7:13 KJV)

In the history of interpretation in both Jewish and Christian communities, Daniel 7:13 and the surrounding scene has been appropriated in directions that go well beyond the literal text. Jewish interpretation moves in the direction of angelic figures, from Michael to super-angelic figures somewhere between God and the other angels. In the Synoptic Gospels the Christian tradition pulls the passage in a specifically messianic and christological direction. There, the phrase becomes a title and the “Son of Man” is seen as coming in clouds, sending angels, and gathering the elect (Mark 13:26-27 and elsewhere, with parallels in the other gospels). Philippians 2:7 and Revelation 14:14, however, use the expression in a less titular manner; the “like” of Daniel 7:13 is retained. The specific conclusions that interpreters reach regarding Daniel 7:13 is deeply interconnected with how they understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments in general and the New Testament’s citations of the Old Testament in particular.

Stories-tests of faith

The book of Daniel switches from stories about Daniel and his three friends (Daniel 1-6) to visions received by Daniel (Daniel 7-12). In the former, Daniel interprets visions in chapters 2, 4, and 5. These are disturbing visions for the rulers who receive them and their native interpreters are unable to understand them. Daniel was able to interpret them (with the assistance of an interpreting vision in chapter 2). Other chapters are episodes in which Daniel’s and/or his friends’ fidelity to God is tested by situations created through the pride and vanity of the kings. There is no direct persecution of the faith of Israel.

Translation: Human being? Son of man?

The most direct equivalent for the Aramaic phrase bar ‘enash is “human being.” The KJV translated the phrase as “one like the Son of man,” which tilts the passage clearly in the direction of New Testament christology. Most current translations drop the definite article and do not capitalize the word “son.” The latter practice at least recognizes that there is ambiguity in the expression. It need not be anything more than a way of saying human being. As Daniel saw figures that looked like a lion, like a bear, and like a leopard, so he saw a figure that looked like a human being. This would be consistent with Psalm 8:4 and with the way Ezekiel is addressed (2:1, 3, 6, 8 and throughout the book, though with Ezekiel too the translation varies with the versions; the NRSV simply prefers “mortal”). A similar use occurs in Daniel 8:17.

Visions-times of persecution

In Daniel 7-12, the hardships endured by the faithful move from the tests of faith to times of direct persecution. In addition, the persecution is to occur in the lives of those who live after Daniel. Belshazzar (7:1; 8:1), Darius (9:1), and Cyrus (10:1) are mentioned as the rulers at the time Daniel receives his visions, but these rulers are not part of the plot, in contrast to the stories in Daniel 1-6. The rulers to come are not merely pride-filled; they violently succeed one another, and the people of God are caught up in the turmoil. The rulers shift from pride to direct blasphemy, reaching its epitome in the desecration of the temple and the abolition of daily sacrifice (11:31). Persecution is directly aimed at the people of God in Palestine. Many of the faithful will die. The resurrection, announced more clearly here than anywhere else in the Old Testament (12:1-4), is the justice of God enacted beyond history.

Enter the bible BW logo

Sign Up or Login

More resources for a deeply formed faith from Luther Seminary: