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The Book of Daniel

17 mins read
Book of Daniel

The book is by nature open to multiple interpretations; despite thorough historical and linguistic analysis, it still leaves unsolved debates regarding its historical accuracy and setting. Its relationship with prophecies, the protection from the current sovereign power, the creative philology, and the structure and presence of multiple languages are all ingredients to a book that transcends its reality. It is written mainly in Hebrew, although the middle portion (2:4b through the end of chap. 8) is in Aramaic, and it also
contains some words in Greek.


The first six chapters narrate about Nebuchadnezzar besieging Jerusalem, and the incidents happened to Daniel, Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah. A sequence of events presented in a linear storytelling style. Chapters six to twelve, instead, present preapocalyptic literature, visions, and interpretations that extend the meaning of the context itself in a unique fashion for the Hebrew Bible. Some scholars interpret the book as an opportunity to have a historical lens on the Babylonian exile, while others
emphasize the metaphoric language that transcends the historical setting. Some scholars believe it is a metaphor about life outside the land of Israel, and for others, it is about a dimension beyond life as known at the end of times.

Image of JPS Tanakh Book of Daniel

The book is also found not only in the Hebrew Bible but also in the Christian Bible. It had an impact in early Christianity – with some variations – and it is used as a reference in later apocalyptic literature.
Brettler states the book does not present reliable historical facts. He points out that the chronology of rulers is not accurate, Belshazzar as the last King of Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar exiled from his kingdom are historical misinterpretations. This last one probably is an event related to the last king of Babylon Nabonidus, who took a “leave of absence” on the Arabian peninsula. For Brettler, a person living in the Babylon empire would not have made those mistakes. He concludes that “Daniel’s purported setting during the Babylonian exile is not plausible” (How To Read The Bible, p. 212).


In his vision, the book must be from a later era.
Brettler agrees, like most scholars, to divide the Book of Daniel into two parts. Daniel (and his friends) was tested, then showed the ability to interpret dreams (surpassing Joseph, wisdom theme presence), walked through a fiery furnace, interpreted mysterious writing on the wall, and survived the lion’s den. The second half of the book comprises apocalyptic visions that reveal a “transcendent reality” that is both temporal and spatial (p.213).


Brettler claims the book was not written during Babylonian times, but instead in Greek times, specifically between 167BCE and 164BCE. His analysis of Chapter 8 supports his position. Scholars agree that Daniel 8:8 “And the he-goat grew very great, but at the peak of his power, his bighorn was broken. In its place, four conspicuous horns sprouted toward the four winds of heaven” refer to Alexander the Great and the four generals who succeeded him. Therefore Brettler writes the book was written after
Antiochus IV Epiphanes converted the Jerusalem Temple into a Temple for Zeus but (167BCE) but before the Maccabean victory (164BCE) that restored the Temple.


Daniel 9 “… (Daniel) consulted the books concerning the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord that had come to Jeremiah the prophet, were to be the term of Jerusalem’s desolation – shiv’s (seventy) years” (9:2). Either Jeremiah’s prophecy was false, or what he said must have had a hidden meaning. For Brettler, the author of Daniel chose the later one. Daniel 9:21 “yea, while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly swiftly, approached close to me about the time of the evening offering. (22) And he made me to understand, and talked with me, and said:
‘O Daniel, I am now come forth to make thee skillful of understanding. (23) At the beginning of thy supplications a word went forth, and I am come to declare it; for thou art greatly beloved; therefore look into the word, and understand the vision.(24) Seventy weeks are decreed upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sin, and to forgive iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal vision and prophet, and to anoint the most holy place”.


It is safe to say that the Book of Daniel records an important step about how
prophecies were perceived. Jews who inherited prophecies came to believe that older prophecies could be interpreted to understand the divine will of the present. This is a crucial key point as witnesses the general idea that new prophecies were not needed. Brettler states the author reinterprets Jeremiah’s prophecy as seventy weeks of seventy years, namely seventy times seven equal to four hundred and ninety years. Brettler says it is not what Jeremiah meant and mentions “creative philology” where words not necessarily need to have their usual meaning, especially if divine words. This leads to his point that the late biblical period can be viewed as proto-rabbinic as there is no clear line that divides the different interpretations.
In his conclusions, Brettler states that it is not necessary to conclude if ancient Jews read Daniel as ‘real history’ or legends. To him, the facts in Daniel are so exaggerated that the book’s primary purpose is to strengthen the Jewish faith during difficult times; it is a glorification of G-d as savior. “Jews are Jews for good reason” (p. 218). The answer to the question if the story originated in the Diaspora or during Antiochus persecutions has no definitive answer but is not the main point of Brettler’s analysis.


In his commentary on the Book of Daniel, John J. Collins agrees with Brettler on the historical inaccuracy. He references external biblical sources such as other cultures literature and archeologic findings: “We note several points in which Daniel is in conflict with other historical witnesses, beginning with the date given for the capture of Jerusalem in the opening verse of the book. For the present, it will suffice to discuss the two most famous of these problems, the references to a king of Babylon named
Belshazzar and to his supposed successor, Darius the Mede.” (p.30).
Collins points put that the Babylon empire did not fall to Medes but to Persians, and that there are different scholar interpretations about who could have been “Darius the Medes”. Collin suggests I could be Darius I of Persia. The fact that Darius I suffocated two revolts in Babylon shortly after his accession (522 BCE) could have originated the mistake.
Collins dives into an archeological analysis about the Belshazzar mentioned in the Book of Daniel. “In 1854, J.E. Taylor, a British- vice council at Basra, discovered multiple inscriptions on cylinders at Tell Muqayyar (ancient Ur). (p.32). These cylinders were deciphered by Henry C. Rawlinson and contained a record of the work of Nabonidus, king of Babylon. The inscription ended with a prayer for Bel-sarra-usur, son and heir of
the king. The connection to the Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel was immediate but still with some inaccuracies. In the Book of Daniel, Belshazzar is the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar, but Collins writes the word “son” could mean “grandson” or “descendent”.

Another problem with the Belshazzar in Daniel’s book is that he is portrayed as “king”. Belshazzar was not a king as the “akitu” festival couldn’t be celebrated until Nabonidus was absent from Babylon.
Moreover, Collins’s thorough linguistic study of the Book of Daniel also supports the idea that the book was written during the Greek era. The fact the book was written in such a later setting than the Babylonian era, and the similarities between the tales in Daniel and Joseph and Esther, spur Collins (citing L.B. Paton) to suggest the book belongs to the class of literature “the Jewish romances” (p.39).


A scholar that does not take the Book of Daniel as a romance is Rabbi Hersh
Goldwrum. Rabbi Goldwrum is a traditional conservative interpreter of the book of Daniel and dates the events of Daniel in Babylon from 432 BCE to 421 BCE (chapters 2-4). He places the book setting during the Babylonian exile and focuses his analysis on the message rather than on history or linguistic data. Daniel maintaining its Jewishness in the Diaspora is “laying the ground for the future rebirth of Jewish national greatness” (p.xx).
The entire flow of events is by G-d’s will and is the inevitable consequence of Menasheh’s (3228-3283 Heb. cal) and Ammon’s (3283-3285 Heb. cal) wicked reigns.
The lens thru which he is reading the book is the biblical covenant between the Jews and G-d; Israel must suffer an exile, and the Temple robbed of its sanctity. Goldwrum’s historical analysis is a preparation to read Daniel from that perspective as he uses the Hebrew calendar in dating facts.
Ammon’s son, Josiah, was the great and noble scion of David’s house (p.xxi). However, that was not enough to stop a series of events already set in motion. At his death, and after a brief three-month reign of his son Yehoachaz, the Egyptians deposed him with his brother Yehoyakim (3316-3327 Heb. cal). When Babylon decided to overthrow Egypt as the world-leading power, he decided to conquer Eretz Israel. Judah had
become vassal of Babylon. After three years, Yehoyakim revolted against Babylon, and Nebuchadnezzar tolerated the new freedom for only other three years. Babylon put down the rebellion and this time took away from Judah to Babylon some of its most exceptional youth, including Daniel, Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah. The goal was to train them to court manners so that “the legendary wisdom of Jerusalem could be put
to service of Babylon” (Daniel 1:2-3).
The way Rabbi Goldwrum is analyzing history is to support a biblical interpretation of the facts in the Book of Daniel. Nevertheless, he also faces some common debates, such as Belshazzar’s identity.
Goldwrum starts by citing Rashi (p.156); according to Midrash Asarah M’lachim in Otzar Midrashim both Belshazzar and Evil Merodach, who reigned before him, were sons of Nebuchadnezzar. Goldwrum asserts that the consensus of commentators is that Balshezzar was Evil Merodach’s son, based on the verse in Jeremiah (27:7) “And all the nations shall serve him (Nebuchadnezzar) and his son and his son’s son”. In other passages of the Scriptures, grandfathers are presented as fathers as well (refers to read
Rashi to Numbers 10:29).

Overall, his religious approach to the Hebrew Bible can be well identified when he cites Rav Huna bar Acha “(The events are not listed in direct chronological sequence) so that they should not say it is narrative poetry, so that all should know that he (the author of the book) wrote it under the influence of the Holy Spirit”.


Brettler, Collins, and Goldwrum have different approaches to a book that, by its nature, conceals different truths and transcends its reality. Brettler focuses primarily on analyzing the text and its meaning. Collins applies an extensive scientific approach comprehensive of extra-biblical sources, in archeology and literacy, and Rabbi Goldwrum keeps a more traditional covenant perspective both for perspective and references.
In conclusion, all of the above scholars add a piece of interpretation to a book that can stand on multiple grounds. I appreciate all three of them in different ways and for different purposes. However, I feel it is Brettler’s analysis, the one that allows me a structure of thoughts that I can keep consistent while analyzing the rest of the Hebrew Bible. If the most traditional interpretation claims that the non-linearity of some events
becomes a proof of divine inspiration, it is also true that Brettler concludes that the linearity of historical events is not critical to the meaning of the Book of Daniel. The two opposites coexist by not nullifying each other. It probably is a natural outcome for a book that positions itself in a unique way to the rest of the Hebrew Bible and inspired future literature.


Sources consulted

  1. Sefer Daniel by Rabbi Hersh Goldwrum, published by Mesorah Publications
  2. Daniel by John J. Collins, published by Fortress Press
  3. How to Read the Bible by Marc Zvi Brettler, published by JPS
  4. Tanakh, published by JPS

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