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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Symbolic Visions

The central medium of revelation in the apocalypses concerned primarily with the end of history is the symbolic vision. In Daniel 8 , for example, Daniel has a vision of a ram with two horns, one longer than the other, which overpowers all other beasts, but is finally overcome by a he-goat. At the height of the he-goat's power, its horn breaks, and in its place there come forth four horns. From one of these emerges a little horn, which tries to exalt itself above the heavenly host.

In the interpretation of this vision provided by the angel Gabriel, the two horns of the ram represent the two linked kingdoms of Media and Persia, the great horn of the he-goat is Alexander, referred to only as the first king, and the four horns that appear when the great horn is broken off are the kingdoms founded by Alexander's generals out of his empire upon his death (Dan. 8.20–22 ). The little horn is clearly Antiochus IV with his terrible persecution of the Jews. He is not mentioned by name either. Since the visionary is represented as a figure of the past, even the explanation of the vision must remain veiled. Although the identities of the great and little horns were surely intended to be obvious to the author's contemporaries, for Daniel, a seer in the court of the last kings of Babylonia, these names would be meaningless.

This mode of deciphering a vision by breaking it down into constituent parts has a long history in the dream and oracle interpretation of the ancient Near East. Joseph's interpretation of the dreams of his fellow prisoners and of Pharaoh stands squarely in this tradition (Gen. 40–41 ). Such visions have some precedents in the earlier prophets (Amos 7.1–8.3; Jer. 1.11–16; 24.1–10 ), and the visions of Zechariah in the late sixth century B.C.E. are quite similar in form to the complex visions of the apocalypses.

The appearance of these complex visions first in Zechariah and then in the apocalypses reflects the growing importance of interpretation in early Judaism. In the wake of the exile, the Torah first appears as a written document. With a written Torah comes a new type of religious functionary, the scribe, the skilled interpreter of the Torah. Zechariah, one of the last of the biblical prophets, no longer hears God's word, but rather sees visions that require interpretation. The symbolic visions of the apocalypses, then, are a development of prophecy appropriate to an age of interpretation.

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