The book of Daniel is the Bible in microcosm. Indeed, it contains the essence of biblical truth. For Daniel is not simply a religious book full of pious stories. It speaks the language of humanity in a holistic manner, not only spiritually by inviting us to prayer and meditation, but also intellectually by challenging the mind and inviting research.
The book of Daniel is not only a personal appeal that speaks to our souls in privacy, respecting the difference of our exiles, but it is also a universal book that concerns every human being who is bound to death and eager to hope. This book will surprise, conveying the powerful word of the God of Israel to us and ultimately disclosing the keys for happiness and the secrets of human history.
A Spiritual Book
As we follow Daniel, we discover that this busy man was also a man of prayer and reflection. Significantly, this book contains seven prayers, a way of suggesting the importance and fullness of this experience. Prayer for Daniel was not a means of escape from the reality of life and this world. For him, prayer was lived within real life, while confronting reality and struggle. Prayer, for Daniel, was often a question of survival, a matter of death and life. He prayed because he had no other choice: when Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful king of that time, threatened his life; when the hungry lions surrounding him were ready to devour him. But he also prayed when his people suffered in the darkness of the exile and Jerusalem was destroyed. Thus Daniel not only prayed about the present, but also for the future of human history. His prayer was, then, a shout, a call for change, from the bottom of his hopelessness. Daniel also prayed in the context of his ordinary existence not just as a heroic martyr, but as an obscure saint in the privacy of his room. He prayed regularly— three times every day—no matter what the circumstances were. His life was rhythmed by prayer, just as were the beats of his biological heart. For Daniel, spirituality was not a mystical experience, designed to take him away from the world and this life. In fact, spirituality was life itself, just as it is testified in the Hebrew language. The word ruach, which means “spirit” and expresses the notion of spirituality, also means “breath,” which represents the very principle of life. The book of Daniel tells us that religion is not a choice; it is an inherent part of real life. Just as we cannot do without breathing, we cannot do without spiritual life. For if a person stops breathing, he stops having spiritual life; the dead cannot worship (Ps 115:17).
A Beautiful Book
Daniel’s book is a literary masterpiece. The general structure of the book shows balance and symmetry in the form of a chiasm or of a menorah that encompasses the whole message of the book (see Table). Parallelisms, poetic verses, and plays on words abound. Daniel speaks through the beauty of his words and the intricate rythms of his stories and songs. The book of Daniel is music that should charm the ears and touch the cords of our souls. Even the frightful, mysterious words written by the divine hand on the white wall are poetry. In fact, this message of judgment announcing the end of the kingdom of Belshazzar is given through the rhythm of four, a number which symbolically means the end of human power. Each of the four words from the inscription (mene,mene,tekel uparsin) receives an explanation made of four word units. In this book, poetry and the value of beauty prevails over policy. This principle permeates the literary inspiration of the great king himself. As long as Nebuchadnezzar was concerned with politics and power, he wrote decrees and policies. As soon as he recognized God in his life and became a human soul, he suddenly began to compose poetry. This is particularly true in chapter 4. In the preceding chapters, the king appeared only to give orders and decrees. Beginning with chapter 4, this cruel and vindictive ruler and administrator changed into a poet, breaking into a song about the Most High. Although composed by a pagan king, it is a model prayer: Signs, how grandiose! Wonders, how mighty! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom, His dominion from generation to generation (Dan 4:3). Reading this passage, the Talmudic Rabbis exclaimed: “The king has stolen all the songs and praises from David” (Sanhedrin 92b).
An Intellectual Book
It may come as a surprise to some Bible readers, but Daniel was a philosopher who challenged thought and intelligence. Thus the book is not located in the third section of the Tanakh because it came late in the process of canonization or because the Jews did not appreciate the book of Daniel and wanted to lower its value. The reason is simple: it belonged among the Writings, associated with wisdom literature. Daniel was first a wise man, a hakham, who was able to see the far future and understand the secrets of life and history (see Dan 1:20; 2:13; Ezek 14 and 28). One of the key words of the book is bin (“understand”). Daniel strives to “understand” (Dan 9:13). The angel makes Daniel “understand” the visions (Dan 8:17; 9:22, 23). Daniel may even remain “without understanding” (Dan 8:27). The book urges the people of God to “understand and make others to understand” (Dan 11:32, 33). The prophecy uses mathematical riddles and the reader must make an effort to pierce the enigma of the 70 weeks prophecy and reach the solution to the problem. It has been said about this book that one of its most important contributions is its “emphasis on the connection between faith and understanding.”1 The book of Daniel teaches us that faith should go along with intelligence, and intelligence with faith. The effort of intelligence is a part of the spiritual enterprise. It is not an accident that the book ends with a challenge to the intellect. The book is to be “sealed”(Dan 12:4, 9)—an invitation to search its pages and decode its difficult words.
A Universal Book
Even first contact with the book of Daniel affirms its universalism. The most polyglot book in the Bible, Daniel is written in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people, as well as Aramaic (2:4–7:28), the lingua franca of that time. In addition, the book contains words in Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, Greek, and even Sanscrit. This literary feature testifies to the author’s capacity to communicate with people from other cultures. Daniel was a professional in international politics and wisdom—an educated man in touch with the world. His reference to God as the “God of heaven” expressed his universalistic scope. His prophetic visions go beyond the borders of ancient Israel and the Jewish people to concern all nations, embracing the entire world. The geography of the book betrays this same universalistic concern. Daniel speaks about Jerusalem, Babylon, Egypt, Persia, Lybia, Cyprus, and the four corners of the world.
Significantly, Daniel evokes the event of Creation throughout his book: from the first reference, in which he quotes a passage from the Creation story (“vegetables given to eat,” Dan 1:12, cf. Gen 1:29), to the last chapter, where he speaks about the wonder of re-creation from the dust of death (Dan 12:2). The book also describes a rich nature that reflects the landscape of many countries: mountains, rivers, seas, trees, grass. All types of material are mentioned: gold, brass, silver, iron, clay, and stone. The heroes of the book are diverse: there are Jews, but also non-Jews (Babylonians and Persians), kings and queens, slaves, officers and administrators, wisemen and fools, clean and unclean, hybrid animals. This book should interest every person, touching all kinds of sensitivities. Amazingly, this biblical book has been read by many different people—Jews, Christians, and Moslems—who have read it and searched its pages for answers to their questions. Philosophers, novelists, scientists, and musicians have taken inspiration from its pages.
A Human Book
Although this book deals with profound and universal issues, bringing the prophetic truth from above, its message is embedded in the flesh of existence and concerns the daily life of humans. Interestingly, this “heavenly” book, so rich with the beautiful words of God, speaks about eating and drinking. Yes, Daniel, an intelligent and broad-minded young man, had dietary concerns and struggled with ethical choices. His religion was not just made of books, meditation, and prayers. Daniel lived his “understanding” in daily life as he faithfully served the king and even when he decided to disobey him. Daniel ran all the risks. His book provides contrasts between a religious minority and a crowd of people who did not think and who simply followed the trend of the majority. Daniel refused any compromise and with his friends remained faithful, even if God did not always appear to respond (Dan 3:18). Daniel provides us with an example of holiness. But he is not aloof, lost in the clouds of “saintliness.” Daniel remains human. He manages to stay in good relation with the chief of the eunuchs. Humbly and with grace, he requests favors. Also the great, serious, and uncompromising Daniel has a sense of humor. The satyre of the Chaldeans in chapter 3, who obeyed mechanically like puppets “at the sound of horn, flute, harp and lyre and symphony with all kinds of music”(Dan 3:7), as well as the tragi-comedy about the proud Belshazzar who lost control of his dignity (“his knees knocked together and his legs gave way,” Dan 5: 6), show a Daniel who at times indulged himself in laughter. Daniel was a model of what it means to be, as Abraham Heschel put it, “human and holy.”2
A Theological Book
Of course, this is also a book that has to do with God. It speaks from God when visions and prophecies are given and divine revelations are disclosed. The God of Daniel, unlike the God of the Chaldeans, comes down from his heavenly place and communicates with humans. In one of his prayers, Daniel himself describes this God who gives what He has: “Wisdom and might are His. . . . He gives wisdom and might” (Dan 2:20-21). He is the God who “reveals deep and secret things”(Dan 2: 22); the God we speak to, as the seven prayers of the book and the numerous names He is known by attest to: “God of heaven,” “God of gods,” “Lord of lords,” “living God,” “Most High, Awesome God,” and “YHWH” (“Adonay”), which appears seven times in chapter 9. God is indeed present here. It is highly significant that “the theme that is central to Daniel as it is to no other book in the Bible is the kingdom of God.”3 The God of Daniel is not only the God who rules and controls history, but also the God who is personally involved in the great conflict between Babel and Jerusalem. He is the one who will ultimately have the victory. He is the God of heaven, the God of the universe, omnipotent and omnipresent, the God of justice and Torah. But He is also the God who draws near to humans, speaks to them, and takes care of them. He is the God of grace and love. It is interesting how these two dimensions of God are intertwined and given in tension in this book. An eloquent illustration of this tension is found in chapter 1. On one hand, the four Hebrews became “ten times better”(v. 20) than all the others as a result of their faithfulness during their ten-day test (v. 14), suggesting thereby a causeeffect relation between the human doing and the divine blessing. On the other hand, the same text emphasizes that their health, well being, and superior intelligence was the result of grace, which “God gave them” (Dan 1:17).
A Prophetic Book
The book begins and ends with prophecy. The first words are a reminder of Isaiah’s prophecy predicting the exilic event (Isa 39: 6, 7). Likewise, the last chapter of the book concludes with a prophecy that concerns the coming of the kingdom of God and the end of human exile. Each chapter contains a prophecy. The vision or dream may predict an event that belongs to the present, individual life: the promise of wisdom and health after ten days (chap.1); Nebuchadnezzar’s illness of seven years (chap. 4); the end of Belshazzar’s reign. But prophecy will also take us to the far future: the rise of new kingdoms; the coming of the Messiah; a time of trouble, persecution, and war; and, more importantly, the time of Judgment, the time of the end, and the coming of God’s kingdom. The most characteristic feature of Daniel’s prophecy is its emphasis on the end. Out of the forty-nine biblical occurrences of the word “end,” nineteen are found in this book. Remarkably, the space devoted to the time of the end in the prophetic chapters of Daniel is greater than that given to any other moment of history. The book of Daniel is the book of the end. Even Daniel’s personal existence is affected by this emphasis. In his present life, he experienced a time of the end (Dan 1:18). It is interesting that the same expression is used to qualify the time of the cosmic end (Dan 12:13). The book concludes with this perspective that concerns every human being. The angel, who thus far had been speaking to Daniel, suddenly shifted and became more personal, seeming to address every one of us: “But you, go your way till the end; for you shall rest, and will arise to receive your inheritance at the end of the days”(Dan 12:13).
These last words, which encapsulate the essence of the whole book, aim at the Kingdom of God, the goal of all spiritual journeys. It nurtures our nostalgia for beauty within the mud of our daily struggles. It puts us on the right path of wisdom; the only one that has a future. It concerns every individual who exists in time and space, all of whom are waiting and hoping for another city where God will give His last word.
1.André Lacocque, The Book of Daniel, trans. David Pellauer, Eng. ed. rev. by author (Atlanta: John Knox, 1979), 191.
2.Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), 238. 3.John E. Goldingay, Daniel, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1989), 330.
Image: Daniel in the lions' den saved by Habakkuk (France, 15th century). Public Domain