Thursday, September 18, 2014

Daniel: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  The book of Daniel has inspired not just painters, but musicians throughout the ages.  To accompany this report, I will include paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens, and songs by Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, and Bessie Jones.

The book of Daniel is split into two main parts.  The first half is a kind of Jewish novella which scholars believe reached its final form in the 2nd century B.C.E.  Rather than being a strictly historical narrative, the book is a literary work meant to show Jews living under foreign powers how they can maintain their identity in exile.  The second half falls into the genre of "apocalypse" literature.  In it, the prophet Daniel has visions about the end of the world, which are actually a complex historical commentary on political powers in the Middle East, stretching from the reign of Babylon to the Greek Empire of the second century, when the book was completed.

Part 1: The Daniel Novella (Ch. 1-6)

Contrary to the visions of a renewed state of Israel predicted by earlier prophets, the Jewish people continued to experience waves of conquest by foreign powers well after the Babylonian exile—the Medes, the Pesians, and the Greeks would rule their lands.  Living under foreign rule became a fact of life for Jews, even until the time of Christ, when the Romans ruled Israel.

The book of Daniel tells the story of a young, well-educated Jew named Daniel living in exile in Babylon.  It shows how, even in foreign lands, he maintains his faith, and even has a transformative effect on his Babylonian (and later Medean) rulers.  The first half of the book revolves around a series of “tests” to Daniel’s faith, which he passes with great courage and perseverance.

Daniel and his three friends are taken to the court of King Nebuchadnezzar and educated to serve as court officials.  Their first test happens when they are given non-kosher food to eat, which they refuse.  For their faithfulness, they are rewarded with good health.  Dietary restrictions, even to this day, are a way for Jews to maintain their identity.

The next test comes when king Nebuchadnezzar has a troubling dream, which none of the Babylonian seers can interpret.  Much like the story of Joseph, Daniel correctly interprets the king’s dream, and is rewarded and promoted.  This is actually quite amazing, because the dream, which predicts the rise of the Medean, Persian, and Greek empires, does not bode well for Babylon.  Despite the bad news, Daniel is respected for his honesty and wisdom.  Again, Daniel serves as a model Jew in exile—honest, courageous, and wise.

The next test involves Daniel’s three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  King Nebuchadnezzar builds a golden statue of himself, sort of reminiscent of the golden calf that the faithless Israelites built in Exodus at Mt. Sinai.  All the court officials are ordered to bow down and worship the statue of the emperor.  This sort of emperor-worship was not uncommon among ancient powers, including Persians and later Romans.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego remain faithful to Yahweh, and refuse to worship the statue.  For this, they are thrown alive into a fiery furnace, which they miraculously survive with the help of an angel.  Again, the faithful Jews serve as a model for those in exile—do not forsake God, and He will protect you.  Nebuchadnezzar is so impressed that he promotes these three guys.

Celebrated jazz Musician Louis Armstrong recorded a song called "Shadrack" about the story of Shadrach, Mechach, and Abednego...

Then Nebuchadnezzar has another troubling dream, which Daniel also interprets correctly.  Like the first dream (of a broken statue), this dream (of a felled tree) does not bode well for the king.  Daniel says that Nebuchadnezzar will temporarily lose his mind and live in the wilderness like an animal, because he has exalted himself above Yahweh.  After seven years of madness, the king regains his senses, and actually gives praise to the God of Israel.  This episode shows the power of God, and also the transformative effect that a faithful Jew can have, even in exile.

In time, Nebuchadnezzar dies and is succeeded by a ruler named Belshazzar.  At a great feast, Belshazzar profanes sacred Jewish temple objects by drinking wine out of them.  During the banquet, a creepy disembodied hand appears and writes a scary message on the wall.  This is probably the origin of the expression “The writing’s on the wall.”  Belshazzar calls Daniel to decipher the mysterious text, which Daniel says means that Babylon will be defeated by the Medes and Persians (this, in fact, did happen).  That very night, Belshazzar dies.  Shortly thereafter, the Medes conquer Babylon.  For his faithfulness, Daniel survives this conquest, and becomes a court official for the new Medean emperor, Darius.

Country singer Johnny Cash recorded a song called "Belshazzar" about this story from Daniel...

And Rembrandt did a painting called "Belshazzar's Feast" in 1636...

The final, and most famous, test happens when some of Darius’ court officials become jealous of Daniel, and conspire against him.  They convince the emperor to pass a law which states that anyone who prays to any god but the emperor must be killed by lions.  Daniel, the faithful Jew, continues his daily prayers to Yahweh, despite the danger.  He is caught and thrown into a den of lions.  Emperor Darius, who likes Daniel, is actually upset by this, but cannot take back his royal decree.  Amazingly, as Daniel is being thrown to the lions, Darius says, “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!”  Miraculously, the lions don’t eat Daniel.  He emerges from the lion’s den unscathed, much to the king’s relief.  Darius then issues a a decree actually urging people to worship Daniel’s God.  The faithful Daniel passes all his tests.

Gospel singer Bessie Jones recorded an amazing song called "Daniel in the Lion's Den"...

And Peter Paul Rubens did a painting called "Daniel in the Lion's Den" in 1615...

Part 2: Apocalyptic Visions (Ch. 7-12)

The apocalyptic visions which comprise the second half of Daniel rival Ezekiel’s in their psychedelic strangeness, horror, and creativity.  But Daniel’s visions are much more complex than Ezekiel’s in their meaning.

In these visions, past, present, and future are collapsed into a kind of ecstatic divine poem which uses memories and legends of the past, and apocalyptic visions of the future to comment on the present situation of persecuted Jews living under the Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century B.C.E.  This was indeed a turbulent time in the history  of the Jews.  The “apocryphal” books of Macabees describe a Jewish revolt against their Greek oppressors, and the author(s) of Daniel were probably living and writing in this time of turmoil, calamity, and revolt which must have felt like the end of the world.  The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed (again) and Jews were forbidden from certain important religious practices.  The book of Daniel, like pretty much all biblical texts, emerged from a time of suffering and crisis.

Reading the visions of Daniel, I’m again reminded of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land.  After the cultural, social, and political desolation of World War I, Eliot wrote a poem which brilliantly collapsed past, present, and future into an ecstatic vision of the present.  Like the author(s) of Daniel, Eliot used cultural and religious memory and myth to craft a kind of metaphorical vision of the present—full of anguish, desolation…and a little hope.  I have to think that Eliot was inspired by Jewish prophets like Daniel.  I find the visions of Daniel to be astonishingly brilliant works of literature, full of power, grace, and poetry.

I feel like I’m not really going to be able to do this literature justice by trying to summarize it, so I’m not going to.  You’ll just have to read it yourself, preferably with a good commentary (I’ve been using the New Interpreter’s Study Bible).  

The Four Beasts from Daniel's Apocalypse

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