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Beyond the
Lion's Den

by Wilfrid Harrington, O.P.

The Book of Daniel is perhaps best known for the tales of chapters 1—6. These stories introduce Daniel, a Jewish youth deported to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar "in the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah" (1:1). He and his three friends were trained to serve at the royal court.

Daniel won a reputation as an interpreter of dreams (chapters 2, 4 and 5) and he emerged unscathed from the lions' den (chapter 6). In the tales Daniel and his companions triumph in the midst of trials in which their lives, or at least their reputations, are at risk, and the pagans glorify God.

The book itself, however, is a product of the Maccabean age. These earlier stories are taken over by the author Daniel. The kings of these tales—Nebuchadnezzar, his "son" Belshazzar and the latter's successor, Darius the Mede—are too amiably religious to be types of Antiochus IV, the "villain" of Daniel. Rather it is the unwavering fidelity of Daniel and his companions to God and the Law, and God's vindication of them, that serve the author's purpose.

In this issue of Scripture From Scratch, we will concentrate on the strictly apocalyptic section of the book, chapters 7—12. While Daniel 7—12 is unquestionably the only full-blown apocalypse in the Hebrew Bible, it is, most likely, not the earliest Jewish apocalypse. It would have been predated by some of the apocryphal Enoch material (I Enoch).

Daniel 7—12 deserves to stand as the masterpiece of Jewish apocalyptic literature. It can even be dated with near precision, to 165 B.C.—shortly before the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Daniel 7—12 consists of three visions (chapters 7, 8, 10—12) and an interpretation of a biblical prophecy (chapter 9). Along the way, revelation is mediated by an angel. In each unit there is a historical pattern, an eschatological crisis and the prospect of judgment and ultimate salvation.

The Visions

In a series of visions, Daniel 7—12 traces the course of history, with stress on the ultimate, inevitable victory of the people of God. Four successive empires are portrayed: the Babylonian, Median, Persian and Greek (a stereotyped list)—each surpassing its predecessor in evil.

In this manner the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (the Seleucid monarch who had launched an assault on the Jewish religion) is presented as a flood of evil. The time was at hand when God would show his power.

Daniel maintains that history is totally under divine control. That is just the point. He tells the story of the past in such a way that the persecuted Jews may understand that their sufferings have a place in God's purpose.

The book looks always to the final victory, to the endtime, to the coming of the kingdom. It sees the messianic age about to dawn, beyond the time of tribulation. God's victory over the forces of evil is assured, and those who serve him faithfully will have a glorious part in his triumph.

Daniel, like apocalypse in general, presupposes the existence of a supernatural world above the visible one. The apocalyptic seer has an inside look at this heavenly reality.

Symbolic Beasts

In the first vision (chapter 7) Daniel saw four beasts rising from the sea. An angel explained to him that these represented four empires: Babylonian, Median, Persian and Greek (Seleucid); the "little horn" (a deliberately contemptuous phrase) coming from the last of them was Antiochus IV. The Ancient of Days (God), in a heavenly judgment scene, condemned the four empires. Then there appeared, on the clouds of heaven, one "like a son of man," that is, a human figure (in contrast to the beasts). The angel explained that this heavenly figure, presented here as an individual, symbolized the earthly people of God, the "saints of the Most High." They will receive an everlasting kingdom which would be inaugurated after "a time, two times and half a time" (i.e., three and a half years)—a reference to the approximate duration of the persecution of Antiochus (167-164 B.C.).

The second vision (chapter 8), explained by Gabriel, is closely related to the previous one. A two-horned ram (the conventional Medo-Persian empire) was opposed and destroyed by a he-goat (the Greek empire) with a conspicuous horn (Alexander the Great). While the he-goat was at the height of its power, the great horn was broken (premature death of Alexander) and four horns grew in its place (the fourfold division of Alexander's empire). Out of one of these horns sprouted "a little horn" (Antiochus IV). In his pride this horn exalted himself. In the first place this was by his assumed title: Antiochus Theos Epiphanes—that is, Antiochus, manifestly God. He also challenged the prince of the heavenly host (God) through defilement of his temple and prohibition of sacrifice. The tyrant would be broken "by no human hand." The daily sacrifices would be offered again after 2,300 evenings and mornings—that is, after the three and one-half years of the persecution.

In the third vision (chapter 9) Daniel puzzled over Jeremiah's prophecy that 70 years must pass before the desolation of Jerusalem would be ended (Jer 25:11; 29:10) and he prayed to God for light on this mystery. While Daniel prayed, confessing his sin and the sin of his people Israel, the angel Gabriel came to interpret the 70 years: Jeremiah had spoken of the captivity and the return from exile, but the full restoration, the advent of Messianic times, would occur after "70 weeks of years."

It is a fine example of apocalyptic ingenuity in interpreting earlier texts. The immense difference between this and the later abuse of such texts is that Daniel's interpretation is in line with the vision of the earlier prophet.

The fourth vision (chapters 10—12) is a revelation of the final period preceding the messianic age. Although it is dated to the third year of Cyrus, the Persian period is sketched in a single verse (11:2). Chapter 11 deals with the successors of Alexander the Great and gives a detailed account of the relations between Seleucids and Ptolemies down to Antiochus IV. Though this historical summary is cast in the form of a vision of events to come, little of it is prediction in the proper sense.

Daniel's last vision (chapter 12) finally leaves the field of politics and moves to a higher plane. The goal of history is God's kingdom, which will come solely by God's own power and in his good time. In verses 2-3, we find the doctrines of the resurrection of the body and of retribution after death explicitly stated for the first time.

Finally, Daniel is ordered to "seal the book": its message is for the endtime. Once again we are told that the persecution will last "a time, two times, and half a time."


A common feature of apocalyptic also found in Daniel is determinism: there are two camps, the righteous and the wicked. And it is presupposed that there is little or no chance that the wicked will change allegiance. One must always keep in mind the cultural setting of apocalypticism. There is the powerless minority, effectively disenfranchised by the dominant group, who are not going to relinquish their power base. What can the oppressed do?

The solution to look to a "soft" solution beyond death is rightly questioned in our day. The Book of Daniel, however, looks only to a divine intervention. And it follows the road of determinism: "Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be purified, cleansed and refined, but the wicked shall continue to act wickedly. None of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand" (12:9-10).

One must note that the apocalyptic view of history is deterministic as far as the direction of history is concerned. The destiny of humankind inevitably moves toward a final realization of the kingdom of God. It is this conviction that dominates the historical perspective of the apocalypses, not the fate of the individual, which is left unspecified within the movement toward the new age.

Theology of History

The author of Daniel tells the story of the past in such a way that the persecuted Jews may understand that their suffering had a place in God's purpose and may see that the tyranny of Antiochus fell within God's plan. The situation had not developed by chance or in defiance of the divine decree.

Though the king may seem to succeed in his proud revolt against the Prince of princes, and may with impunity trample over the people of the Prince, his triumph is illusory: "he shall prosper until the period of wrath is completed, for what is determined shall be done" (11:36). And though it might seem that such emphasis on God's absolute control of human affairs must encourage a laissez-faire attitude, a directly opposite effect was intended and achieved.

This confident assurance that history, divinely guided, moved toward a goal fixed by God fired the tiny band of faithful Jews with indomitable hope when any hope seemed vain, and urged them to supreme effort where resistance seemed doomed to failure. Indeed, their plain duty was put before them in explicit terms: "The people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action" (11:32). The book always looks to the final victory, to the time of the end, to the coming of the kingdom. The author sees the messianic age about to dawn, just beyond the "time, two times, and half a time" of the persecution.

Apocalypticism is a child of prophecy and here the link with the prophetical writings is clear. The prophets before and during the exile believed that deliverance from Babylonian bondage would herald the last age. The author of this book expected the great change to come with the death of Antiochus. In both cases we have the characteristic foreshortening of prophecy. The prophets had seen a vision and were overwhelmed by the majesty of it. If the kingdom will not come as speedily as they had imagined, they are certain that it will come. God's victory is assured, and those who serve him faithfully will have a glorious part in his triumph.

Wilfrid Harrington is a Dominican priest in Ireland. A well-respected Scripture scholar, he has written numerous articles and books on the topic of apocalyptic writing and the Book of Revelation.

Next: The Communion of Saints (by Elizabeth McNamer)


Living the Scriptures  

Typical of the apocalyptic approach, the Book of Daniel addresses the very real situation of the people for whom it was written. It is a message of hope, demonstrating that God will ultimately prevail, no matter how desperate current conditions may seem. How might such a message apply to our own 21st-century political, economic, social and cultural scene?



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