by Ed Gallagher
The Book of Daniel gives instructions on how to live faithfully in a pagan world. Thus, it is a book for our time. It encourages realism: your faith will conflict with the world around you, and the pagan empire will try to compel you to conform—or it will kill you. It encourages perseverance: when the pagan empire tries to kill you, be faithful unto death. And it encourages hope: one day God will turn everything upside down. These three key elements of the book of Daniel (realism, perseverance, hope) provide an apt summary for all of Scripture, but they are more front-and-center here.
The Book of Daniel can be divided in a couple different ways.
According to content:
- Chapters 1–6, children’s Bible stories
- Chapters 7–12, apocalyptic visions
According to language:
- Chapter 1, Hebrew
- Chapters 2–7, Aramaic
- Chapters 7–12, Hebrew
Taking the issue of language first, the Book of Daniel is one of the few books in the Hebrew Bible that contains Aramaic alongside its Hebrew. Both of these languages are written in the same alphabet (and script), so you can’t really tell that the language changes until you know the language (that is, they look just alike on the page). Hebrew and Aramaic are related languages, but they’re also distinct, like English and French. Being able to read one does not mean that you can read the other, though there are a lot of similarities. Aramaic appears in the Hebrew Bible in Ezra (4:8–6:18; 7:12–26), in Jeremiah (10:11), and a little bit in Genesis (31:47), but more in Daniel than anywhere else.
Honestly, it’s not at all clear why half of Daniel is written in Aramaic. Some scholars have guessed that maybe the whole book was originally written in Aramaic and the beginning and end were translated into Hebrew; others have thought that the book was originally written in two languages for some reason. (See summary in Collins, pp. 12–13.) But those are just guesses; all we have are guesses. Why would an author want to switch languages like that? It would be like writing an introduction and conclusion in English and then putting a big block of French right in the middle. Actually, sometimes we see something like that, don’t we?—English-language movies with some bits in a foreign language, say, a spy speaking Russian or German to his bosses, and the movie doesn’t supply a translation. What’s that supposed to communicate? Actually, maybe we should reverse the roles, since Aramaic at the time Daniel takes place, like English today, was the international language, whereas Hebrew was the language of one particular people. Aramaic had been adopted by the Assyrians as the the language of administration around 700 BC, and Aramaic retained this position (alongside Akkadian) for the Babylonians and also for the Persians. So maybe the language issue in Daniel is a bit like The Two Popes. Have you seen that movie on Netflix, about, you know, two popes? It starts with people speaking Latin, and Spanish, and Italian, and German, whatever would be the natural language in the particular location, and then at some point it switches to English, after already establishing that they weren’t really speaking English but some other language. Maybe, in Daniel, there’s a point to the changing of the languages. Maybe the book uses the language of empire (Aramaic) while discussing the empire, and then it uses Hebrew on the bookends to establish the reader’s position within a different empire, not the empires of the world, which will all come tumbling down. (Similar ideas in this academic article.) In that sense, the language switching corresponds to themes within the book.
The Aramaic portion actually starts in the middle of a verse: when the Chaldeans respond to Nebuchadnezzar in 2:4, the text says they respond in Aramaic. All of the book up to that point (1:1–2:4a) is in Hebrew, but the response of the Chaldeans is in Aramaic, and the stories stay in Aramaic until the end of chapter 7.
The other easy way of dividing the book—the one more obvious to English speakers—is based on the genre of the text. It begins with tales of our heroes and ends with strange visions. The first six chapters are well-known, the last six … not so much. Both the stories and the visions have the same basic theme: be faithful to God, be patient, God will set all things right.
The stories in the first six chapters are of basically two kinds: stories of bravery and stories of interpretation. There are three chapters that involve offering an interpretation of some mystery (chs. 2, 4, 5), and each time the wise men of Babylon prove to be completely useless and Daniel must come and interpret the mystery. The other three chapters in this section display the importance of bravery, whether that involves young teenagers standing up to a king by refusing the eat his fancy food (ch. 1), or refusing to bow down to an idol (ch. 3), or an old man refusing to pray exclusively to the human king (ch. 6). In each case, the bravery, the faithfulness, of the heroes is rewarded by God.
The strange visions in the second half of the book are written in a genre called apocalyptic. It’s the same style of writing as in the book of Revelation, and it’s the book of Revelation that gives the genre its name. The Greek word for “revelation” is “apocalypse” (ἀποκάλυψις, apokalypsis). So when we talk about how to read the visions of Daniel, we are also learning how to read Revelation, and studying the Book of Daniel is the best preparation for studying Revelation. In fact, the book of Revelation—without ever quoting the Old Testament—constantly borrows imagery from Daniel (and Ezekiel and other books).
These visions in Daniel (and Revelation) are supposed to be “revelations” or “unveilings.” They are supposed to reveal (not conceal!) the way things really are. They pull back the curtain on our world, and show us what is really going on. They reveal how God views things, and they reveal the heavenly struggle mirrored in earthly conflicts.
Apocalyptic writing is distinct from classical prophecy in a few ways:
- the medium of divine communication. In classical prophecy, often “the word of the LORD” came directly to the prophet somehow. In apocalyptic, there’s an angel that brings information.
- the subject matter. Apocalyptic literature often deals with the end of the age (not the end of time!), whereas classical prophecy often deals with contemporary times or the near future (e.g., the threat of coming punishment).
- imagery. Apocalyptic literature often reports strange visions. This is not characteristic of classical prophecy.
- theme. The classical prophets usually called on people to repent of their sins, and secondarily held out hope for the faithful. In apocalyptic literature, hope is front and center. Daniel encourages perseverance and faithfulness. There is much less emphasis on repentance here (but see chapter 9), because Daniel and his three friends have little need for repentance.
- ch. 1: Introduction
- chs. 2–7: Daniel vs. Foreign Rulers—chiastic, almost completely Aramaic
- a. Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream: Four Empires Destroyed by God’s Kingdom (ch. 2)
- b. Fiery Furnace: The Faith of Daniel’s Friends Tested (ch. 3)
- c. Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation (ch. 4)
- c´. Belshazzar’s humiliation (ch. 5)
- b´. Lion’s Den: The Faith of Daniel Tested (ch. 6)
- b. Fiery Furnace: The Faith of Daniel’s Friends Tested (ch. 3)
- a´. Daniel’s Vision: Four Empires Destroyed by God’s Kingdom (ch. 7)
- chs. 8–12: World crises and final renewal
There are difficult historical issues in the Book of Daniel. The book talks about four empires, without naming them, and the identity of those empires has exercised exegetes since the book was written. (On the whole idea, see this open access book from Brill.) The very beginning of the book mentions a time of captivity during the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, a captivity otherwise unattested. The character named Darius the Mede, who ruled during the “Lion’s Den” chapter (ch. 6), is unknown outside this biblical book. These various historical problems that lead to much scholarly work and speculation will not occupy us in this series of lessons.
The Book of Daniel was very popular in ancient Judaism and Christianity. It’s language had a decisive impact on the way Jesus described himself (Son of Man!) and the trial that led to his Crucifixion (see Mark 14:62; cf. Dan 7:13–14). While many Old Testament books are important for a proper understanding of the Christian religion, few are more important than the Book of Daniel.
As always, you should check out the Bible Project video on the book you’re studying. Here’s the Daniel video.