Daniel - Introduction
The book of Daniel combines the humor of folktale with the mystery of apocalyptic to create a message of hope and encouragement. Daniel himself is as much a mystery as the symbols in the book that bears his name. The earliest occurrence of a figure named Daniel is as a character in Ugaritic epics of the fourteenth or thirteenth centuries BCE, where he is a Canaanite king. Ezekiel 14.14 associates this figure with Noah and Job: three non‐Jewish individuals whose piety and wisdom were legendary; according to Ezek 28.3 , he is wise and knows secrets. The hero of the book of Daniel is similar in knowledge and fidelity; he is, however, emphatically Jewish.
Blending theological emphasis on personal piety and divine intervention with staples of folktales such as wise courtiers, endangered heroes, and foolish kings, the first six chapters entertain and edify even as they provide encouragement to Jews living under foreign rule. The accounts of Daniel and his friends, Jewish youths exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon in the early sixth century BCE, reflect a time in which the imperial rule is ignorant and often dangerous rather than malevolent, and in which Jews can live at peace with their non‐Jewish neighbors, though perhaps without complete security. Consequently, the tales are most often regarded as products of the Persian (539–333 BCE) or early Hellenistic (333–168) periods. Like Joseph in Gen 40–41 , Daniel succeeds in service to the ruler through his ability to interpret dreams; like Mordecai in the book of Esther, he succeeds in service to a Gentile king despite challenges by rival politicians. These stories contrast with the apocalyptic materials in chs 7–12 , which depict hostility to foreign governments and underscore ongoing tribulation rather than temporary personal danger. In this section, Daniel is not the interpreter of visions but the visionary in need of an angel's interpretive skills. In a series of dreams, he learns of Near Eastern and Egyptian history from the Babylonian Empire in the sixth century BCE, through Persian rule, to the time of Alexander the Great, and finally to the attacks against Judaism and Jerusalem by the Syrian‐Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the early second century BCE. The increasingly detailed descriptions of the period following the division of Alexander's empire up to the rule of Antiochus suggest that the apocalyptic sections were composed in 167 BCE on the eve of the Maccabean revolt against the Hellenizing policies of Antiochus and his allies in Jerusalem's priestly circles (see 1 Macc 1 ). The author may have been one of the “wise men” who emphasized confidence in a divine plan to overthrow the Gentile kingdoms, even in the face of martyrdom, rather than the militant resistance of the Maccabees (Dan 11.33–35 ); in the end, the author believed, God would punish the wicked and redeem the faithful (Dan 12.3 ). The visions are presented pseudonymously, that is, under the name of an ancient figure who “foresees” what is to come, as in other apocalypses such as 2 Esdras, 2 Baruch, and the later Christian text the Apocalypse of Peter.
Daniel 2.4b–7.28 is written in Aramaic, the common language of the Near East during the Persian and early Hellenistic periods; 1.1–2.4a and chs 8–12 are in Hebrew, which had been eclipsed by Aramaic during this period, but which enjoyed a literary revival in the second century BCE. Complicating the history of the book are some ancient Greek translations. These texts contain additions to the story of Daniel: Susanna, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews, and Bel and the Dragon. In most editions of this Bible these additional texts appear in the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. More tales belonging to the cycle of stories about Daniel appear among the Dead Sea Scrolls. One text, the Prayer of Nabonidus (4QprNab), may represent an earlier version of Dan 4 ; that Nabonidus engaged in erratic behavior, and that he rather than Nebuchadnezzar was the father of Belshazzar (Dan 5.1 ) make this supposition particularly intriguing.
The wisdom of Jewish courtiers in negotiating the difficulties of living under an often arbitrary and dangerous foreign rule is juxtaposed with visions of wars, persecutions, and, finally, salvation under God's sovereignty; through these images the book of Daniel offers both advice and consolation. The folktales speak to all persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, especially under conditions of colonial rule. The apocalyptic materials, whose meanings would have been known to the author's own circle, have provided for over two thousand years occasion for speculation and, often, hope.