Painting of Daniel in the lion's den.
(Painting by James Northcote, 1818, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Introduction to the Book of Daniel

Filled with fantastic visions and miraculous escapes, Daniel is concerned with foreign persecution and the end of days.

Found in the section of miscellaneous writings called Ketuvim, Daniel is one of the last additions to the scriptures. It is set during the Babylonian Exile and named for the protagonist who serves as an advisor to the kings of foreign lands (Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar and Darius) and, later in the book, receives a series of apocalyptic visions. Some of the most famous moments in Daniel include the writing on the wall (chapter 5), Daniel surviving the hungry lions’ den, and the symbolic visions of a statue of many materials (chapter 2) and then a series of beasts (chapter 7) that both foretell that a succession of kingdoms will successively pass away and make room for a new world order.

Daniel is preoccupied with addressing the problem of exile and the challenges of being a minority in a potentially oppressive foreign land. It is also famous for detailing apocalyptic visions of the end of days, when persecution will cease and the righteous will receive their reward while the wicked receive their comeuppance. It is also bristling with fantastic dreams and visions. 

Summary of the Book of Daniel

Daniel is a challenging book because it doesn’t present a single narrative arc, but is instead episodic. It is even written in two languages (chapters 2–7 are in Aramaic rather than Hebrew) — further suggesting that it is a composite. Nonetheless, the editors of Daniel obviously ordered these materials intentionally to give the book coherence. Roughly speaking, Daniel begins with a series of stories and ends with a series of visions.

Chapter one is written in Hebrew and begins by describing how Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonian Empire, conquered the Kingdom of Judah and took many of the Jewish people, including Daniel and his friends, into exile in Babylon. Daniel and his friends are selected to be trained for service in the royal court, given new names and taught the language and texts of the foreign land. They refuse, however, to eat unkosher food or worship idols. Ultimately, their fidelity to God is the reason they not only thrive but become Nebuchadnezzar’s most prominent advisors.

Chapters two through seven, in Aramaic, recount stories of Daniel and his friends in the foreign court. In these stories, Daniel interprets a dream of a statue of many materials that foretells the succession of empires (chapter 2), his friends are thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship and idol and miraculously survive (chapter 3), Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a tree that foretells his own fall from power and subsequent rise (chapter 4), Daniel interprets writing on the wall for Nebuchadnezzar’s son Belshazzar (now king) which foretells his demise that very night (chapter 5), Daniel is thrown into a lion’s den for refusing to worship an idol and emerges unscathed (chapter 6) and, finally, Daniel has a vision of four beasts that are succeeded by an “arrogant horn” on the last beast (representing King Antiochus IV) and ultimately conquered by the divine, foretelling the end of persecution and the end of day (chapter 7).

Together, these stories and visions of Daniel in the court of the foreign kings suggest that faithfulness to God and God’s laws is rewarded, close cooperation with kings is acceptable and even necessary for survival, and that the state of exile is temporary because a new and better world order is on the horizon.

The eighth chapter of Daniel switches back to Hebrew and gives us more of his visions. In this chapter, Daniel sees a vision of a particularly evil king that will come from the North and attack Jerusalem (Antiochus again). In chapter nine, Daniel learns that the exile, which was supposed to last only 70 years, will in fact last seven times that. In the last three chapters, Daniel receives more visions of the final apocalyptic battle that will free the Jews from persecution and restore a new world order, complete with resurrection of the righteous.

Themes in Daniel

Daniel is preoccupied with the challenges faced by Jews who no longer live in the promised land and can no long self-govern but are at the whims of an at best indifferent and at worst oppressive regime. The book stresses that success under these circumstances is best achieved through faithful waiting. Continuing to worship God’s law and keep the divine law are key to thriving, but it is also important to follow the laws of the land wherever possible and avoid antagonizing the king. Cooperation with foreign power is encouraged; Daniel serves as a good and faithful advisor to several foreign kings. In the end, there is no need, Daniel suggests, to mount a rebellion even against the most oppressive foreign kings, because Jewish suffering at their hands is a sign that God will soon come to the aid of the Jewish people. In this way, Daniel is very different from the story of the Maccabees recounted on Hanukkah (which describes a brave rebellion against the same foreign king alluded to in Daniel, Antiochus IV) and also the Book of Esther, which recounts a story in which Jews stood up to persecution.

The world view of Daniel is unique for the Hebrew Bible. Most of the Hebrew scriptures are concerned with the history of Israel, its successes and failures in serving God and attaining peaceful self-governance in the promised land. Daniel evinces no interest in the particulars of Jewish history before the exile, and suggests that the messianic end times — which will put an end to history altogether — are imminent. This intense focus on the end of times and disinterest in previous history makes the apocalyptic nature of Daniel more developed than that in any other of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Daniel in the Synagogue

Apocalypticism became a less popular world view in Judaism following the composition of Daniel. This is perhaps one reason that Daniel is not read in full in Jewish synagogues as part of regular Jewish worship. However, verses from Daniel are invoked in Jewish prayer, perhaps most notably in Selichot prayers, Tachanun and the Kaddish, whose central line — yehi shmei rabbah m’vorach l’olam u’lalmei almaya (“May His great Name be blessed forever and ever”)takes inspiration from Daniel 2:20. In this way, though it is not as widely read by Jews as many other biblical books, Daniel has placed an indelible mark on Jewish life and worship.

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