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.” He was not impressed. “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. The king wanted to be assured that his advisers really did have access to a secret source of knowledge. The wise men had no choice but to speak frankly. “With respect, you are not being reasonable. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not dwell with us mortals.” A day was set for the wise men of Babylon to be executed.

Nebuchadrezzar had previously deported a number of high-ranking Jews to Babylon, one of whom was a youth named Daniel. Having undergone a long program of training in the language, literature and arcane arts of the Chaldeans, he too was now one of the king’s advisers and on the execution list. He urged his friends to pray with him and ask God to reveal the mystery. In a nocturnal vision God answered his prayer. Coming before the king, Daniel told the dream.
   “You looked, O king, and there before you stood a great statue. The statue was enormous, exceedingly 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 it 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 not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
And this, he said, was the interpretation:
   “You, O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you kingship, power, and might, and glory, and into your hand he has given 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, and 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. 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, and will itself 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. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.”

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

That Daniel was a historical figure seems clear from Ezekiel’s holding him up as an example of righteousness (Ezek 14:12-23), for Ezekiel was a Jewish prophet of the 6th century BC and thus a contemporary of Daniel’s. Did, then, the developments which the dream foretold come to pass?

The four empires and afterward

Daniel lived long enough to see the end of the first empire symbolised in the dream for himself. A coalition of Medes and Persians brought it to an end while its last king, Beleshazzar, was holding a feast. That was in 539 BC. At its height the Persian empire stretched from Turkey and eastern Libya in the west to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east. It continued until Alexander the Great, king of Greece, conquered it, in one short lifetime. His most decisive battle against the Persians was in 331 BC, at Gaugamela, northern Iraq. On his death in 323 Alexander’s empire – symbolised in the dream 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. This was the kingdom symbolised by bronze. The Roman empire was the legs of iron, eventually dividing into a western and an The Colosseum, Romeeastern part. It was bigger even than Alexander’s empire but had different borders, from Spain in the west to Syria in the east. 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 having supplanted paganism – remained a unifying and civilising force. Collectively these entities amounted to a fifth, divided kingdom. The German and French (or Frankish) 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, although he was hostile to the Church. After two devastating wars, the European Union continued to be a further attempt to bring unity to western Europe. But full political and economic unity has yet to be achieved. Symbolised by the feet of iron and clay (distinct from the legs of iron), the European states intermingle but do not cohere.

So that is where we are in history. It will be in their days that God sets up a kingdom that will never be destroyed. The nation states of this present age will be broken in pieces and become like chaff. Not a trace of them will be found

The ram and the goat

In the 3rd 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. It passed so quickly over the face of the earth that it did not touch the ground, and it overthrew the ram. The goat grew exceedingly powerful, until its horn was broken. In its place came up four horns. An angel explained straight out that the two animals represented the kings of Medo-Persia and the kings of Greece. The goat’s horn represented the first of the Greek kings. In part, Daniel knew what was coming when he interpreted the writing on the palace wall in Belshazzar’s final year.

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 readily identified as Antiochus IV, ruler from 175 to 164 BC of the Seleucid empire that emerged after Alexander’s death. The vision was so exactly fulfilled that some commentators have concluded that it was written after the fact – the 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. So too the book of Isaiah, who had prophesied the fall of Babylon and the rise of Persia under Cyrus in the 8th century BC (Isa 13, 21, 45:1-4). At that time Assyria was the dominant power in the region. Since God, it is supposed, could not have known 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, 42:9, 44:6-8, 25f, 45:21, 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’. The charge is buttressed by the claim that the book of Daniel 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, by descent a Mede’ received the kingdom (5:31, 9:1). Some 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 then why would a forger have invented him? Why place in this prominent position a person unknown to history? And in addition, why did Isaiah, and subsequently Jeremiah, who both lived before the fall of Babylon, prophesy that the Medes would destroy the city, aided by the turncoat province of Elam (Isa 13:17, 21:2, Jer 51:11)? The question is only the more pertinent if their prophecies were after the fact, or if failed prophecies were routinely edited to conform with actual history.

In fact, it is not true that Darius is unattested. Three ancient historians come into play 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, in battle and forced him to flee to Borsippa. After capturing Babylon Cyrus gave the deposed king 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 the king of Media, Astyages. 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 (in the same way as a Pope takes a new name on accession), 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 consistent with this understanding. A stele set up a few years 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: Cyrus presents himself as Babylon’s divinely appointed liberator rather than conqueror. Significantly, he does not say that he came as a friend who had conquered the Medes. Evidently he could not make such a claim, because the city knew that 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 BC, 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 BC. 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 as an entity had already 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 king before Babylon was overthrown. The fact that Daniel knew the name of this son and heir, whom history subsequently forgot, was evidence that Daniel lived close to Belshazzar’s time! Nabonidus praying to the Moon, Sun and VenusThen it was objected that, contrary to Daniel’s account, Belshazzar was not a king. However, further discoveries indicated that Nabonidus had been campaigning for more than half his reign in Arabia (one of Babylon’s three chief enemies), 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 wasn’t; he had fled to Borsippa. It was Belshazzar who fulfilled the prophecy that Babylon would fall during a drunken feast (Isa 21:5, 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 then formally anointed king 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. Nebuchadrezzar, likewise, is described as king (1:1) at a time when, strictly, he too was only the Crown Prince.

Darius succeeded Nabonidus as Babylon’s 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 1:1), and we know that his reign extended into a second year because that year is mentioned in the book of Zechariah (1:7) – yet another attestation. Not recognising any earlier Darius, scholars have always 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 a vassal (II Chr 36:21, Jer 29:10). The point is that the Jews should escape Babylon because the prophesied vassalage was about to end and Babylon fall (2:7). Darius even lived to a fourth year (7:1), by which time the exiles had returned.

‘Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord’. 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. … During the revolt, pious Jews began to circulate an anthology of stories allegedly written four hundred years earlier.

C. Sandoval, 2010. The Failure of Bible Prophecy

Certainly someone is not telling the truth. Either his book is a forgery or, with its prophecies reaching right to the present, it is one of the most significant works in all literature.

Nebuchadrezzar’s second dream
Some time later Nebuchadrezzar had an alarming 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 elapse, until the living come to know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of man and gives it to whom he will, and sets over it the lowliest of men.” As before, the dream was so vivid he knew that it must be significant, so he asked Daniel to interpret it. In truth, most of the meaning had been given in the dream itself. The tree represented the king. Soon the king would be banished from human company and would live like a beast, eating grass out of doors. But after seven times had passed, he would understand that the supreme God ruled the kingdom of man and gave it to whomever he chose. So it turned out. At the end of the period he came back to his senses and praised the supreme God, saying,
His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
    and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
    and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
    and among the inhabitants of the earth.

But how satisfactory is this? After the previous dream, prefiguring the succession of empires through history until God destroyed them all and set up an everlasting kingdom, the second, as interpreted, is distinctly bathetic. Why seven times in particular? Why did the Babylonian empire in fact 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 fact the significance is more far-reaching. As Daniel said, the tree represents a kingdom, not just an individual; an empire whose dominion reached to the ends of the earth. In the light of Revelation, we may take this to be the final kingdom, ‘Babylon the Great.’ The seven ‘times’ are seven years, twice the ‘time, times and half a time’ of forty-two months prophesied for the occupation of Jerusalem at the end of the age (Dan 7:25, Rev 11:2, 12:14). The strange circumlocution is precisely so 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, and will end with the coming of the Messiah. At that time the inhabitants of the earth will be accounted as nothing. The Messiah will no longer be ‘the lowliest of men’ as when he visited the earth two thousand years ago (Dan 4:17, Isa 53:3).

The seven years will begin when fire is cast on the earth, approximately three and a half years before Jerusalem comes under foreign occupation.