Daniel: interpreter of visions

It was only Nebuchadrezzar’s second year on the throne (the regnal year beginning Nisan 603 BC), but one night the king had a dream, and he wanted his wise men – the dream-interpreters, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers – to tell him what the dream was. They answered, “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will reveal the interpretation.” The king was sceptical. “If you cannot divine what I saw, you are not true mediums and your interpretations are worthless. Tell me, or you will be torn limb from limb.”

Dreams, planetary conjunctions, eclipses, animal entrails were all regularly interpreted in the ancient world. Nebuchadrezzar wanted assurance that his advisers really did have access to secret knowledge. The situation called for frankness. “This is not reasonable,” they replied. “No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not dwell with mortals.” A day was set for the wise men to be executed.

A few years earlier Nebuchadrezzar had deported a number of high-ranking Jews to Babylon, including a youth named Daniel. Having undergone a long program of training in Babylon’s literature and arcane arts, he too was one of the king’s advisers and on the execution list. He urged his friends to pray with him In a nocturnal vision God answered their prayers and revealed the mystery. Being granted an audience with the king, Daniel told the dream.
   “You looked, O king, and there before you large statue. The statue was great, extremely bright, and frightening in its appearance. Its head was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and loins of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand and struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold together were broken in pieces and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that no place was found for them. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
And this, he said, was the interpretation:
   “The God of heaven has given you kingship, power, and might, and glory, and given into your hand the children of man, the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler of them all. You are the head of gold.
   After you another kingdom inferior to you will arise, then a third kingdom of bronze, which will rule over all the earth. And there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it will break and crush all these.
   And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it will be a divided kingdom, but some of the strength of iron will be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the muddy clay. And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. And as you saw the iron mixed with muddy clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay.
   And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will the kingdom be left to another people. It will break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end. It itself will endure forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold. The great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.”

The astonished king prostrated himself before Daniel. “Truly your god is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries.” Amongst other honours he made him ruler over the province of Babylon.

That Daniel was a historical figure seems clear from Ezekiel’s holding him up as an example of righteous- ness (Ezek 14:12), for Ezekiel was a prophet of the 6th century and thus a contemporary of Daniel’s. But did the developments foretold in the dream come to pass?

The four empires and afterward

Daniel lived long enough to witness the end of the first empire symbolised. A coalition of Medes and Persians conquered it while Belshazzar, its last king, was holding a feast. That was in 539 BC. At its height the Persian empire stretched from Turkey and eastern Libya to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it continued until its defeat by Alexander. His most decisive battle against the Persians was in 331 BC, at Gaugamela, northern Iraq. On his death his empire – symbolised by the belly and loins of bronze – broke up into four kingdoms. The longest-lived of these, Ptolemaic Egypt, fell to the Romans in 31 BC. The Roman empire was the legs of iron, eventually dividing into a western and The Colosseum, Romeeastern part. It was bigger even than Alexander’s empire, but had different borders, extending from Spain to Syria. North to south, it extended from Britain to the northern coast of Africa.

After the sack of Rome in AD 410 Rome’s empire disintegrated into multiple entities, though its spiritual core – Christianity, which had supplanted paganism – remained a unifying and civilising force. Collectively these entities amounted to a fifth, divided kingdom. The German and Gallic kingdoms retained imperial ambitions. At times they saw themselves as reviving the Roman empire, whether as the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne (742-814) or the short-lived empire of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Hitler’s ‘Third Reich’ was also conceived in these terms. After two devastating wars, the European Union was a further attempt to bring unity to western Europe, but full political and economic unity remains elusive. Symbolised by the feet of iron and clay, the European states intermingle but do not cohere. It is in their days that God will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed.

The ram and the goat

In the third year of Belshazzar, Daniel saw a vision of a ram with two horns. One of its horns was higher than the other and came up after it, and charged westward, northward and eastward. Then from the west came a goat, with a conspicuous horn between its eyes, passing so quickly over the earth that it did not touch the ground. It overthrew the ram and grew exceedingly powerful, until its horn was broken. In its place came up four horns. An angel explained that the first animal represented the kings of Medo-Persia. In part, Daniel knew what was coming when he interpreted the writing on the palace wall in Belshazzar’s final year. The second animal represented the kings of Greece, with the conspicuous horn representing the first of those kings (Alexander).

Then the angel gave details of what would happen in the days of a little horn that rose from one of the four horns: a figure identifiable as Antiochus IV, ruler from 175 to 164 of the Seleucid portion of Alexander’s empire. The vision was so exactly fulfilled that some commentators have concluded it was written after the fact – an explanation A 7th-century bulla or seal thought to have belonged to the prophet Isaiahfirst put forward by Porphyry (AD 232-305) in his work Against the Christians. The same logic would also apply to the book of Isaiah, who, ostensibly in the 8th century BC, prophesied the fall of Babylon and the rise of Persia under Cyrus. At that time Assyria was the dominant power in the region. Since it is axiomatic that no one can know the future, the prophet we know as Isaiah must have been an impostor, a liar so consummate that, knowing the prophecies to be bogus, he had God expressly insisting that they were not (41:26, 44:6–8, 25f, 46:10f, 48:3).

True but false?

The tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae, Iran (http://blogtext.org/TruthSeeker/)It is of course a serious matter to accuse a person of forgery, even if one excuses such mendacity as ‘pious’. In Daniel’s case, the charge is buttressed by the claim that the book is historically inaccurate, chiefly in respect of two details.

One is the statement that on Belshazzar’s death, and ostensibly some time before the reign of ‘Cyrus the Persian’ (6:28), ‘Darius, son of Ahasuerus [Xerxes], by descent a Mede’ received the kingdom (5:31, 9:1). Scholars have argued that this Darius is not otherwise attested. They deny the Medes a major role in Babylon’s conquest and accept Cyrus’s own testimony that he had previously conquered the Medes. But why would a forger have placed in this prominent position a person unknown to history? And why did Isaiah, and subsequently Jeremiah, who both lived before the fall of Babylon, prophesy that the Medes and neighbouring peoples subject to them would destroy the city (Isa 13:17, Jer 51:11, 27-28)? The questions are only the more pertinent if the prophecies originated, or were edited, after the fact.

However, it is not true that Darius is unattested. Three ancient historians come into the reckoning here: Berossus, Josephus, and Xenophon (Anderson & Young 2016). In his work Babyloniaca, of which only fragments survive, Berossus states that Cyrus defeated the last Chaldaean king of Babylon, Nabonidus, and forced him to flee to Borsippa. After capturing Babylon Cyrus gave Nabonidus the province of Carmania, but ‘Darius the king took some of the province for himself’. Apparently there was a king (then or subsequently) called Darius at the time of the city’s fall and he had greater authority than Cyrus. Cyrus, king of Persia and commander of the attacking army, was his subordinate.

It seems that Cyrus’s father had formed an alliance with Media by marrying the daughter of Astyages, king of Media. Josephus says that Darius, son of Astyages, was Cyrus’s relative but known to the Greeks by another name. That other name, we know from Xenophon, was Cyaraxes; Cyaraxes was the son of Astyages and became king of the Medes when his father died. ‘Darius’, we may infer, was the throne name that Cyaraxes assumed on becoming king of Babylon, and Cyrus’s mother was Darius’s sister, Mandane. Many commentators on the book of Daniel have made these connections, including Jerome (AD 347-420).

Archaeological documents are also supportive. A stele set up some time before the fall of Babylon in 539 BC but after Cyrus’s supposed conquest of Media mentions a certain ‘king of the land of the Medes’ alongside the kings of Egypt and Arabia as Babylon’s principal enemies, indicating that Media was then an independent state; it was hostile to Babylon, whereas Persia was not. In his famous cylinder inscription Cyrus accuses Nabonidus of neglecting the god of Babylon and provoking the god to look for a replacement: he presents himself as Babylon’s divinely appointed liberator rather than conqueror. Significantly, Cyrus does not say he came as a friend who had conquered the Medes. Evidently he could not make such a claim, because the city knew he had not conquered the Medes.

We can therefore surmise that Darius, having, as Xenophon says of Cyaraxes, no son of his own, appointed Cyrus to be his heir and that, following the death of Cyrus’s wife in 538, he sealed the arrangement by giving him his daughter in marriage. In this respect he would have followed in the footsteps of his father, who had given his daughter in marriage to Cyrus’s father. Xenophon indicates that Cyrus’s reign lasted 7 years, i.e. it started in 537 or 536, not 539. Only from that point did Cyrus become king of Babylon, alongside Darius, and only after Darius’s death – he was already 62 in 539 BC (Dan 5:31) – did Cyrus become the ruler of both peoples. With a disregard for historical truth characteristic of despots, he erased the memory of his former co-regent and wrote inscriptions claiming to have been Media’s conqueror (Anderson 2014). In Daniel’s vision of the ram one of its horns was higher than the other and, without breaking the other, came up after it. The meaning must be that Cyrus – the greater horn – rose to supremacy without violence after Darius, and after Medo-Persia had been established.

The other detail on which the charge of historical inaccuracy rests is the reference to King Belshazzar. Prior to the mid 19th century Belshazzar was otherwise unknown, so that critics could reject Daniel’s authenticity with some confidence. Then inscriptions were discovered at Ur showing that Belshazzar was the son and heir of Nabonidus, the last Chaldaean king. That Daniel knew the name which history subsequently forgot was in fact evidence that Daniel lived close to Belshazzar’s time! Nabonidus praying to the Moon, Sun and VenusThen it was objected that Belshazzar was not a king. However, further discoveries indicated that Nabonidus had been campaigning for more than half his reign in Arabia, leaving Belshazzar, the Crown Prince, to rule in the capital as co-regent. Daniel does not mention Nabonidus as present on the night of Babylon’s capture because he had fled to Borsippa. It was Belshazzar who fulfilled the prophecy that Babylon would fall during a drunken feast (Jer 51:39, 51:57). Herodotus and Xenophon both agree that the city was distracted by some such celebration.

Co-regencies were not uncommon in the ancient world. To forestall any conflict over the succession, the heir apparent would be invested with royal authority while the father was still alive and formally anointed when he died. That Belshazzar was not the only ruler is clear from Belshazzar’s proclamation that Daniel, having solved the riddle of the writing, should be made the kingdom’s third, not second, ruler (5:29), joint with himself and Nabonidus. Similarly, Nebuchadrezzar is described as king (1:1) at a time when, strictly, he was only Crown Prince.

Darius succeeded Nabonidus as king on the night that Babylon was captured. Israel’s historians counted regnal years on a factual basis (Robinson 1991), i.e. from the day of accession, so that his first year began in June/July 539 BC. He lived long enough to start organising the empire into satrapies (Dan 6:1), and we know that his reign extended into a second year because the year is mentioned in Zechariah 1:7. Scholars have assumed that Zechariah’s Darius was the one who reigned 522 to 486 BC, but this is clearly wrong, for the question is asked, “How long, O Yahweh of hosts, will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?” (1:12). The ‘seventy years’ refer to the length of time that Jeremiah told Judah it would have to serve Babylon as vassal (Jer 29:10). The prophet urged the Jews to escape Babylon because the seventy years were about to end (Zech 2:7). Darius even lived to a fourth year (7:1), by which time the exiles had returned.

As portrayed, Daniel was a man of integrity, whom men of ill will sought to denigrate in his day just as men unsympathetic to his testimony do in ours.

Actually, the book was written in Palestine in the mid-second century BC by an author who expected God to set up his everlasting kingdom in his own near future. … The original purpose of the Book of Daniel was to comfort and encourage persecuted Jews during the Maccabean revolt.

C. Sandoval, 2010. The Failure of Bible Prophecy

Jesus considered Daniel to have been a historical person and a genuine prophet (Matt 24:15). Certainly someone is not telling the truth. Either his book is a forgery or, with its prophecies reaching all the way to the present, it is one of the most significant works in all literature.

Nebuchadrezzar’s second dream
Some time later Nebuchadrezzar had a dream of a tree in the midst of the earth, which grew very tall. Like Babylon’s ziggurat, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the earth. Then an angel cried, “Chop the tree down. Let his mind be changed from a man’s to a beast’s. Seven times must pass, until those living come to know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of man, gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.” As before, knowing that the dream must be significant, the king asked Daniel to interpret. In fact most of the meaning had been given in the dream itself. The tree represented Nebuchadrezzar. Soon the king would be banished from human company, lose his mind and live like a beast, but after seven times had elapsed, he would understand that the supreme God ruled the kingdom of man and set over it whomever he chose. So it turned out. At the end of the period he came back to his senses and praised the God of heaven, recognising that he was indeed the ultimate ruler.

However, after the dream foreshadowing the succession of future empires, this second dream is puzzling. Why seven times in particular? Why did the Babylonian empire continue through Nebuchadrezzar’s reign if the dream indicated it would be cut down? Was Nebuchadrezzar really the lowliest of men? Why does Scripture record the dream at all, if it adds so little to what was communicated by the first dream?

In truth the significance was more far-reaching. As Daniel said, the tree represented a kingdom, not just an individual, one whose dominion reached to the ends of the earth. In the light of Revelation, this has to be the final kingdom, Babylon the Great. The seven ‘times’ are seven years, twice the ‘time, times and half a time’ prophesied for Jerusalem at the end of the age (Dan 7:25, Rev 11:2, 12:14). The strange circumlocution is precisely in order that we might make that connection. The period of the seven trumpets and seven bowls of wrath during which world civilisation is laid low will last seven years. In the chaos people will not think or act rationally. It will begin when fire is cast on the earth and end on the great Day of the Lord when the cities collapse, probably on the last day of the feast of Tabernacles, the ‘great day’ (John 7:37). Then the Messiah will no longer be ‘the lowliest of men’ as when he came two thousand years ago (Isa 53:3). Ezekiel’s parable of the cedar tree (17:22-24) is to the same effect.