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.

No comments: