The Big Picture of Daniel
THE APOCALYPTIC GOD IN DANIEL
The book of Daniel shows us new dimensions of the Old Testament view of God. Especially the description of the apocalyptic God, which is important in Daniel but seldom discussed. As we continue to walk through the world of/within the text of Daniel, we’ll build on our earlier discussions and look at other ways that the text depicts God. In this way, we will draw connections between the first half (court tales) and second half (visions) of the book.
First, the book as a whole uses a multitude of names, references, and elaborate descriptions to present us with a multifaceted view of the Hebrew God. In the court tales (chs. 1–6), the narrator has a sharp focus on the hand of God. God actively works among his faithful servants—Daniel and his three friends—through miraculous rescues, protection, and guidance. God is in control of the rising and falling of kings and empires, as well as in the promotion and survival of Daniel and his faithful group. From another angle, the sovereignty of God is exhibited through the contests between two kings—first Belshazzar, then Darius—and the confident Daniel (chs. 5 and 6), between the earthly rulers and the Hebrew God (ch. 3, esp. v. 29), and between court officials and Daniel (chs. 2–6). Reading the book as resistance literature or as a survival manual, one can see the overarching message that the hand of God is always working in the history of Judah; it’s a message that echoes through every chapter of the book.
With the view of God presented in the historical recitation of 9:2–19 (the penitential prayer) as a theological backbone, chapters 7–12 use a host of highly descriptive elements and a variety of names to present us with an otherworldly, awe-inspiring portrait of the sovereign God. God is the Ancient of Days; the one who carries out judgment (7:9–10) and sets the appointed time (11:27, 29, 33); the humanlike figure riding on clouds (7:13–14); the one who works through his angels and heavenly messengers, like Gabriel and Michael (7:21–27; 8:13–16; 10:12–11:1; 12:5–7); the Most Holy and the Anointed One (9:24–26). God is the one dressed in linen above the water of the river (12:5–6). The most extraordinary description is the luminous and fearful man (10:2–6) who speaks like the sound of a multitude (10:6). God is also the divine warrior who fights for his people and punishes those who oppress them (chs. 10–11).
To modern readers, not only is this portrayal of God rich and splendid, but it also engages our senses and imaginations through its use of “apocalyptic” literary traits to communicate its theology. A rational analysis of the names of God wouldn’t be enough. Moreover, the apocalyptic understanding of God is revealed to us through the visions of Daniel, in his own voice. Daniel watches with his eyes, hears with his ears, feels the impact of the visions physically and emotionally, seeks to understand the full extent of the visions, and initiates the deep cry, “How long?” (12:6–8). Through the literary medium of a first-person vision report, Daniel invites all of his contemporaries, as well as we modern readers, into the experiential dimension of his visions. In other words, Daniel views God as a being who may be experienced in life-transforming ways by people of faith. Readers are encouraged to experience God as Daniel experiences him: with all our being, and in awe of him.
The word “apocalypse” derives from the Greek word for a supernatural revelation (apokalypsis).
Revelations in the Bible are usually visions, which are explained by an angel, concerning heavenly mysteries (for instance, God’s throne in heaven or the climax of history). Some of the imagery in Daniel’s visions parallel ancient Near Eastern mythology (for example, beasts rising from the sea, the figure riding on the clouds, etc.). There are also parallels to earlier passages in the Hebrew Bible (see Isa 24–27).
Second, the distinctiveness of the portrayal of God within the book of Daniel is shown in the extent of God’s intervention. In the Old Testament, God is reaching out and speaking to humanity through the voice of Moses and the prophets. Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job show us a new side of the dynamic: humanity is reaching out/speaking to God. The realm of this twofold framework (God reaching out/speaking to humanity and humanity reaching out/speaking to God) is placed within the history of humankind—in other words, on the earthly scene. In Daniel, from chapter 11 onward, God’s intervention in the history of humankind is slowly moving toward another sphere—over and beyond human history.
This is the true function of apocalyptic literature: It takes an entirely new genre to communicate the mystery of the sovereign God, the events of the end times, and the dynamics in their unfolding, such as the final victory of God for his people (11:40–12:10), the promise of resurrected life (12:2–3, 12), and the eternal perseverance of the people of God (the saints; 12:11–12). God’s intervention moves from the earthly scene to a realm of over and beyond human history.
Third, the book of Daniel portrays God as mysterious. There are dimensions of the apocalyptic vision of God that are puzzling to Daniel—not to mention to us modern readers—even when angels explain his vision. Perhaps this fits with the function and nature of apocalyptic literature—to communicate mysteries while maintaining their mysteriousness. It would be difficult for us to pinpoint all of the characteristics of God shown in Daniel. Among the emphatic announcements that the visions are true (10:1), and that the message is truth from the Book of Truth (11:2), and in the assurance that things will happen at the appointed time, readers may acquire glimpses into the mystery of the sovereign God. He is the one who decrees, who sets appointed times, and who is in full control of world events.
DANIEL AND OUR OWN TRANSFORMATION
Kazoh Kitamori was probably the first Asian-American theologian to contribute to the theology of the pain of God. His monograph Theology of the Pain of God came out in the mid-1960s. In identifying himself with the pain and suffering of the Japanese nation during the aftermath of the atomic bomb, he wrote this insightful and penetrating book.
In the context of biblical interpretation, this process may be referred to as the process of “appropriation,” in which the experiences of others in an ancient text—in our case, the book of Daniel—are brought into conversation with modern faith.
We begin with the concept of appropriation as the practice of bringing any given text in the Bible into contextual relevance for the reader. Andrew D. Kille notes that “appropriation involves not only an analysis of various aspects of the text, it requires a re-expression of those elements in a way the reader can grasp.” Appropriation is a two-way street, from the world of the text to the circumstances of the reader and vice versa. It takes place in the interactive space between the reader’s own world and the possible world projected by the text and is controlled neither by the text nor by the reader. Appropriation occurs in the intersection between text and reader, through the interplay of their perspectives, and takes two distinct steps: reliving and reexpressing.
Toward a Renewed Affirmation of Our Faith in the Apocalyptic God
We have already discussed the importance of the exotic and elaborate depictions of God in the book of Daniel, which are highlighted by a host of divine names. There is, however, always an element of mystery and suspense behind these depictions. Just like the exilic community in Daniel’s time, our collective and individual experiences of God are most often based on who God is.
God saves, protects, guides, comforts, sustains, and empowers us through his intervention in our lives. Through the six court tales (chs. 1–6), the original audience learned of and preserved the acts of God as they played out in history. In a similar way, our faith is built on the promises and our experiential knowledge of God. The revelation of various dimensions of divine mystery, especially toward the end of the present era (chs. 11 and 12), creates a sense of suspense and uncertainty that may challenge our faith. Daniel expresses the same sentiment with his earnest desire to know “how long?” (12:6). The same inquiry, “How long will it take for the vision to be fulfilled?” (8:13), in combination with nonspecific references (for example, “at the appointed time” [11:27, 29]; “a time yet to come” [10:14]) and the timeframe presented via the apocalyptic timetables (for example, 2,300 evenings and mornings [8:14]; 1,290 days and 1,335 days [12:12]) suggest that our interpretive goal should not be to decode the mysteries of Daniel but to renew our faith in the Most High and sovereign God, the God of gods (11:36). The narrator drives this point home most strongly at the end of the four visions. Toward the end of the first-person retellings of the visions, Daniel is given a promissory charge: “But you, go on to the end, and you shall rest and stand in your lot at the end of days” (12:13, my translation).
On the one hand, we may wonder whether it is enough for Daniel to “go on to the end,” whenever that may be, or if more is required of him. The same could be said of the ideas of “rest” and “[rising] to receive your allotted inheritance” (12:13). On the other hand, the promise of resurrection and eternal reward was more distant and foreign for Daniel and his contemporaries than for us. The ending of Daniel is, in essence, a call to put our trust in the eternal promise of the sovereign God who will bring these things to pass at their appointed time. At the end of Daniel’s visionary experience, that which has calmed his tormented soul also has a soothing effect on us: “But you, [Carver/Christine/Warren], go on to the end; for you shall rest and stand in your lot at the end of days” (12:13, my translation).
Second, in addition to the revelation of God through the other books of the Old Testament, God’s intervention in the book of Daniel is over and beyond human history (especially in chs. 11–12). From the third-person perspective of the narrator of chapters 1–6, God’s sovereignty manifests through his work on the earthly scene. God continues to rule over world events in present and future eras, and will be in control over and beyond human history.
What, then, are the implications for those of us who are pilgrims on this journey? To relive the turbulence of Daniel’s time and to reexpress the significance of this aspect of the apocalyptic God so that, somehow, we can come to terms with the extent of human evil and the intensity and magnitude of human suffering in our chaotic world. In spite of current appearances, the sovereign God is still in control—this is how we may appropriate the message of Daniel in our daily lives.
Daniel as Resistance Literature and as a Survival Manual
Reading Daniel chapters 1–6 as resistance literature and as a manual for survival highlights the coping strategy that Daniel adopts. Daniel’s world is unpleasant and difficult for him because he is a religious and ethnic minority under foreign rule. Perseverance and the ability to adapt are necessary tools for survival. If we read Daniel as a success story, the overall values of the narrator of chapters 1–6 are loyalty, optimism, and, perhaps, accommodation to the ruling power, but not to the extent of giving up individual identity (in Daniel’s case, being a Jew from Judea). Crossing borders between their home and host cultures, immigrant families today go through the same journey of alienation, adaptation, assimilation, and, for some, reorientation. As in Daniel, pleasure, pain, success, and failure are among the possibilities of border crossing. Daniel exemplifies an individual’s breaking away from captive status to become an aspiring sage in an adopted culture, bringing the positive characteristics provided to him by his home culture into the royal court and using his background for the good of all. Failing to see this possibility, we might remain perpetual captives in a free land, hiding the good that we have to offer our new situation and neighbors.
Daniel is also a text that is often appropriated by people who discover that it speaks to the contexts in which they find themselves. In 9:2, Daniel himself turns to a text—Jeremiah—as he seeks to understand his present situation. In doing so, he mirrors our search for meaning and significance in the traditions that have been handed down to us. If Daniel can be read as a manual for survival under hostile and dominating empires, then Daniel and his group’s coping strategy is the subtle yet creative use of satire and humor. This may have profound implications for coping strategies on the part of minority persons today—in society at large, as well as in some professional fields.
The “Daniel” in Each of Us: Tension between Public and Private
No characterization of Daniel would be complete without attending to the fact that the book presents us with two Daniels: the public Daniel as portrayed in the court tales of chapters 1–6, and the private Daniel in the first-person reports of chapters 7–12. Daniel’s public self is the epitome of self-confidence—an aspiring sage. He climbs the “corporate ladder,” from a captive prisoner to the prime minister of the whole kingdom (6:28). The summary appraisal in 6:28 best captures the accomplishments of the public Daniel: “So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” Time and again, Daniel is described as a man with the spirit of the holy gods and possessing superior qualities that stand out, distinct among his peers.
As discussed already, the twelve chapters of Daniel are not arranged in chronological order. The visions in chapters 7 and 8 occur during the reign of King Belshazzar of Babylon, presumably before the events in chapter 5. Chapters 6 and 9 take place during the reign of Darius. The last vision (chapters 10–12) occurs during the reign of Cyrus. An arrangement of the chronology of the chapters has important bearing on Daniel, as his public and private personas are simultaneously revealed to us within the same temporal timeframe. If we were to read the chapters in chronological order, rather than how they are arranged currently, we would find that while Daniel functions publicly as an aspiring sage with insight, intelligence, and outstanding wisdom to interpret dreams (5:12, 14), he simultaneously admits that the vision is beyond his understanding (8:27). Deeply troubled (7:15, 28) and exhausted by his visions, he lies ill for several days. Yet he still has to get up and attend to his public functions—the king’s business (8:27). In his private life, he has to keep troubling thoughts and matters to himself (7:28). Another sharp contrast prevails as we compare Daniel’s two selves. In chapter 5, a bold, self-confident Daniel confronts a weak and frightened Belshazzar. Yet in his private life, Daniel’s fear is described in much the same manner as the king’s (compare 7:15, 28; 8:17, 27 with 5:6, 9–10).
A closer look at the inner conflict of Daniel suggests a certain tension caused by his ability to interpret the dreams of others and the difficulty he experiences in interpreting his own visions. Daniel’s ability to understand visions and dreams of all kinds is a gift from God (1:17), and he thus distinguishes himself among the administrators and satraps by these exceptional qualities (6:3). Living through his own visionary experience places Daniel in a predicament as both an outstanding sage and an overwhelmed, troubled seer. This tension may contribute to the emotional upheaval and symptoms of physical illness that the private Daniel suffers.
From a pastoral perspective, the effect of the inner life of Daniel on the corporate dimension—the community of saints—is seldom focused on. We potentially have a “Daniel” in each of us and in each of our communities. Yes, the world of Daniel is full of conflict, turbulence, and the rising and falling of kings and empires. It is also a world that the book of Daniel may express only through imagery, embedded in dreams and visions. Yet, as we penetrate the surface of the text and zoom in to those deeper structures below, we are drawn to the internal world of Daniel—his private self. In other words, as Daniel engages our feelings through his first-person descriptions, we may naturally bypass the turbulent external world of Daniel and touch his inner feelings through our engagement with the text. In my case, my reading takes me from Daniel’s public self as an aspiring sage to my public role as a theological educator and shepherd-teacher; from his private self as a suffering seer to aspects of my own inner life.
In short, Daniel’s interior world is a world of paradoxes. Daniel asks but cannot comprehend the answer; he wants to know but fails to understand; he sees but cannot perceive; he hears but is unable to respond. As we seek to interact with both Daniels, public and private, and as we relive and reexpress Daniel’s conflicting emotions and appropriate them to our own context, we may find that we face the same dilemma in some areas of our lives. We may shine light on areas where we cannot meet our own expectations or understand what we wish to understand. What this parallel between us and Daniel teaches is that sometimes we must rely not on our own abilities but on the certainty of God’s “vision,” his timing, and the promise of things eternal.
Daniel’s Probing Spirit and the Path to Transformation
As discussed in the above section, Daniel’s external world is that of peril and turbulence, while his interior world is full of paradox. In chapters 7–12, even with the aid of angelic explanation, Daniel admits that the meanings of the visions are beyond his understanding. Given that the interpretation of some parts of the visions is meant to remain sealed forever (8:26; 12:4), the probing spirit of Daniel provides us with pointers toward the path of transformation.
All through his first-person vision reports, one thing truly captures our attention: Daniel never ceases to ask for a fuller understanding of the meaning or fulfillment of the visions. His inquiring spirit is evident: “Then I wanted to know the meaning” (7:19); “I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked” (12:8); “While I, Daniel, was watching the vision and trying to understand it” (8:15). Daniel also initiates the question “How long?” (12:6). Instead of getting a concrete answer, he is assured that the fulfillment of the vision is certain and will be realized at “the time of the end” (8:17); “at the appointed time” (11:24, 29); and that the message is true (10:1) and concerns the Book of Truth (10:21).
To contemporary readers, Daniel’s inquiring spirit may be regarded as a key directive toward the path of “faith seeking understanding.” Though faced with bewilderment, frustration, and puzzling thoughts time and again, Daniel is assured and reassured of the promise of the sovereign God—everything will happen at the appointed time. In like manner, embracing our lives along with all of life’s trials, we have been in the same situation—spiritually and physically asking God “How long?” Readers are encouraged to seek a deeper level of experiential understanding of what is happening and has happened in our lives and in the lives of the people around us. With faith as our basis, we may seek to understand and experience more and more of God’s sovereignty and mystery. To appropriate Daniel’s probing spirit into our faith journey is to be invigorated, and it may well be the function of the first-person perspective of the vision reports. This is another example of how we may reexpress what we learn from Daniel, the person, in our own attempt to improve our understanding of God through engagement with Daniel, the book.
Daniel is a difficult book. Decoding the apocalyptic timetables and demystifying the exotic dreams and visions to a full extent are both beyond our reach. We lack the tools necessary to gain a firm grip on the meaning and specifics of Daniel’s visions. However, as many have rightly noted, it is the function of apocalyptic literature to unveil end-time mysteries, but to do so in a way that conceals these mysteries from those who are not meant to understand. Assigning a sixth-century date for the book places most, if not all, of the events to come in the “near” and “distant” future for the first audience. In other words, the key to uncovering the significance of the book of Daniel, for both the original audience and readers of today, is to engage the question of how to handle the element of mystery in our faith.
The book of Daniel does not provide us with the “how,” but it does provide us glimpses into the mystery of the sovereign God. Time and again, we are assured of the certainty and truth of the events yet to come. The book’s twelve chapters allow us to perceive the same hand of God working in human history, and also over and beyond the present human era. Through the inquiring spirit of Daniel, we are reminded of our limits to fully comprehend but are encouraged to embark on a journey of faith that is fueled by the quest for understanding. The notion of mystery and suspense, and the awareness that only glimpses of the mystery of God are available to us, create an inviting space for all readers to engage and to appropriate the collective message of Daniel. It is in this area of appropriation that this mysterious and puzzling book may become so meaningful.
As we contemplate the conclusion of Daniel (12:12–13), we might anticipate a more powerful, climactic, and dramatic ending after Daniel’s exotic visionary experience, especially after the fourth vision. Reading 12:12 as a blessing and encouragement for those who persevere, we can see that verses 12–13 together are an empowering ending, though oftentimes we ask, “Is that enough, Lord?” I invite all readers to reflect silently and deeply on this promissory charge of God: “But you, [Pastor Grace/Brother Tony/Sister Gladys], go on to the end; for you shall rest and stand in your lot at the end of the days” (12:13, my translation). It is a serene but assuring hope.