Monday, March 27, 2017

Book of Daniel: Supplemental

Did you feel like twelve chapters was not quite enough Book of Daniel for your taste?  Well, you might be in luck! 

When I was looking for images to go with my last post, I kept running across paintings of incidents I hadn't read about.  After a bit of research, I found out that this is because I happen to have a Protestant Bible.  If I had a Catholic or Orthodox Bible, there would be three additional episodes in Daniel.

One, the "Song of the Three Holy Children," is at the end of Chapter 3, and consists of prayers and songs from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three young men from the fiery furnace.

Another, "Bel and the Dragon," is Chapter 14 of the expanded Daniel.  It's the first detective story on record!  There is an idol, Bel, which is given rich offerings every night in a sealed chamber.  Every morning, the offerings are gone, so Bel must have eaten them, QED.  But Daniel scatters ash on the chamber floor one night, and in the morning there is a trail of footprints to the secret door where the priests haul out the loot.  Good story.

Then there's Chapter 13, which is the story of "Susanna and the Elders."  It might be the first courtroom drama on record!  Susanna, a nice woman bathing in her garden, is being spied on by some dirty old men.  They threaten to accuse her of consorting with a young man unless she, well, lets them screw her.  She won't do it, they follow through on their threat, and she is about to be executed for adultery when Daniel happens along and suggests that it might be a good idea to question the accusers separately about what they saw.  Since their accounts don't line up, it's clear that Susanna was falsely accused, and so the men are put to death instead of her.  It's a good tale, a victory for virtue and due process alike, and so naturally it has been a favorite subject of painters over the centuries.  Here's Artemisia Gentileschi's version.

Here's Carlo Francesco Nuvolone:

Paul Serusier:

Thomas Hart Benton:


Or, if you like, here's Alan Macdonald's 2009 The Elders Surprised by Susannah:

Anyway, Daniel stands out as a Book rich in stories -- richer, perhaps, than any since the accounts of King David, back in the day.  On strictly literary grounds, it's a shame that Susanna and Bel are missing from the Protestant Book of Daniel.  But, I suppose it's not just about the stories.  Right?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Daniel 7-12: Daniel the Prophet

After the famous stories of the first half of the Book of Daniel, the second half settles into more conventional prophecy. Daniel is, after all, a prophet. He has a dream in Chapter 7, a vision in Chapter 8, has a prayer answered by a mysterious man named Gabriel in Chapter 9, and then has a long apocalyptic vision of “End Times” in the final three chapters.

Like a lot of Biblical visions, Chapter 7’s deals with grotesque animals.

7 “After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns. 8 “While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke boastfully.
Later on, Daniel asks “one of those standing there” what the vision was about – it’s unclear whether this takes place within the vision, or afterwards – and he is given a kind of key of what the various things in the vision stood for:
23 “He gave me this explanation: ‘The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it. 24 The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. 25 He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time.
26 “‘But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. 27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’
This kind of vision is, I suppose, a little like the political cartoons that used to anchor editorial pages, where comic drawings were given little label that indicated which parties or issues they were supposed to represent. After a goat attacks a ram in the Chapter 8 vision, Gabriel explains that “the two-horned ram that you saw represents the kings of Media and Persia. The shaggy goat is the king of Greece, and the large horn between his eyes is the first king” (20-21). This pattern of symbolic dream followed by interpretation is, when you think about it, kind of a singular way for prophecy to proceed. If Daniel was to be given a message about an impending conflict between Greek and Persian forces, for instance, why did it need to be dressed up in a dream about animals? Why not something a little more straightforward? Well, it’s a mystery of course.

The culminating vision of the last three chapters is pretty apocalyptic. The dead will rise from the earth, “some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2). The smartest folks will “lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (3) This sounds kind of last-judgementish, so it’s reasonable to ask “When will this happen?”

Well, if you follow the thread from Daniel 10 on, you see that from the time of Cyrus of Persia in which Daniel said he was writing, there was to be four more Persian kings, who would then be supplanted by a particularly powerful king of uncertain nationality. When he dies, his domain would be split between Kings of the North and South, who will engage in various wars and intrigues for a few generations. Then another king will come along, a guy who worships a god of fortresses, and he’ll go to war with the King of the South and the King of the North both. The list of things that are going to happen – for it is a straight narrative prophecy this time, with no animal analogies or intermediaries – is quite specific. For instance
5“The king of the South will become strong, but one of his commanders will become even stronger than he and will rule his own kingdom with great power. 6After some years, they will become allies. The daughter of the king of the South will go to the king of the North to make an alliance, but she will not retain her power, and he and his power will not last. In those days she will be betrayed, together with her royal escort and her father and the one who supported her.
Still, it’s specific enough that you could map it out, and the long and short of it is that there is something like 8 to 12 generations between Daniel and the End Times. Since the vision is dated to the third year of the reign of Cyrus of Persia, which is, hmm, 536 B.C., the dead will rise and the end times will come no later than… say, 100 B.C. So, that’s interesting.

Now, apparently many Biblical scholars think that Daniel was written a long time after the date claimed by its author. Along with other evidence putting the composition in the neighborhood of 170 B.C., the line of events described in Chapter 11 is highly accurate up to around 167 B.C. and thereafter diverges abruptly from the historical record. This has led people to speculate that somebody, whose name wasn’t necessarily “Daniel,” wrote the Book of Daniel in 167 B.C.

To even think that way, of course, you have to start with the concession that there might not have been a guy named Daniel in the Babylonian exile who had prophetic visions of the future. Personally, I don’t find that to be much of a leap. It would not be the first time I’ve been called cynical.

Another Way of Looking at Daniel

This terrific chart of the Book of Daniel, drawn in 1916, lays out the contents and gives you a sense of how Old Testament material is often back-interpreted from a Christian perspective.  In this "vision" of Daniel's prophecies, so to speak, Chapter 10 becomes a "Vision of Christ."  Personally, I don't see anything in Daniel 10 that even remotely invites this interpretation, and it seems quite odd to me.  Mr. Larkin, who drew the diagram, would probably have a rebuttal at the ready.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Daniel 6: In the Lion's Den

This entry was written in August 2014, but I was a bit slow in getting it to press.

Daniel 6 is the chapter with the famous story of David in the lions’ den, which I shall now summarize.

After Darius annexes Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom to the Persian Empire, he sets up 120 district officers (“satraps”) who report to three cabinet-level administrators.  Daniel, whom you might have expected to be swept out with the new broom, is one of the three, and he does a great job.  The satraps are jealous of him, and look for a way to knock him down a peg.

What they do is have Darius enact a 30-day law saying that no one can pray to any god except for himself.  Daniel ignores this law, as the satraps knew he would, and they go to his house and catch him in the act.  They run off to Darius, remind him of the law he made, and tattle on Daniel.   Seeing that this distresses Darius, they pointedly remind him that according to Persian/Mede jurisprudence, an emperor’s decree can’t be changed, not even by the emperor who made it.  [These satraps!  They are pretty stupid.  Court intrigue does not, cannot work if you antagonize the king while you’re doing it.  What good is removing Daniel going to do, if the king hates them afterwards for forcing his hand?  Dummies.]

Peter Paul Ruebens, 1615ish.
Darius has Daniel thrown into the lion’s den, but is very decent about it: “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” (16)  He can’t eat, he can’t sleep, and the next morning he runs to the den before sunrise.  To his relief, Daniel is perfectly uneaten, so he’s hauled out and restored to office.  Darius decrees that “in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel,” (26) which is why the Persians have practiced Judaism from then down to the present day.  Wait, what?

Well anyway, everyone loves a happy ending, especially if there’s comeuppance, and so you have to cheer when the satraps who set Daniel up are thrown into the lion’s den, along with their wives and children, and “before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.” (24)

So, that’s a very familiar sort of story, in which a good person is put into danger by bad people but overcomes adversity, and the bad people are punished for the wrong they do.  You could make a case that it is only by telling ourselves these sorts of stories as often as we can that we preserve such civil order as we’ve got.  Also, captive lions got to eat.  I’m really trying not to be bothered by the comeuppance, here. 

The other aspect of the story that makes me think too much is the, well, the premise.  Here’s Daniel’s explanation of why he passed the night unbitten: “My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions.  They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight.  Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, O king.” (22)  And we are, I believe, supposed to assume that Daniel is right about what happened.  He’s a prophet, after all. 

Because Daniel is innocent in God’s sight, he is saved from physical harm.  Same deal, I think, as with his three buddies in the fiery furnace.  And the obvious question is, how come these four get special treatment?  Are we supposed to believe that innocent people are always protected by God?  That if we keep ourselves innocent, that God will protect us?  Surely not, as the Bible can’t suppose that we were born yesterday.  Are we supposed to assume that Daniel and his friends have a level of righteousness greater than what we can aspire to, that affords them special protection?  Or, is this an instance of God making specific one-time interventions in human affairs to advance the interests of his chosen people, or in order to (as he so often talks about) publicize his own existence? 

So this is an interesting thing about a good story: if it is compelling enough in rewarding the good and punishing the evil, and has some tension, and some animals, we can effortlessly take in the story and the moral too, even when it in discord with our experience.  The moral of the story of the lion’s den is that if we do right and show courage, like Daniel, we will fall under the material protection of God.  And yet we do see people do right and show courage, don’t we?  And we see so few miracles.  The most innocent of the satraps’ wives and children must have felt some disappointment when the lions leapt.  But at least it was quick.