Thursday, August 7, 2014

Struggles with Daniel 2

I am reading the Book of Daniel for my daily quiet time.  A few days ago, I was reading Daniel 2.

In Daniel 2, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has a dream about a statue, which is made of various metals.  A stone from heaven shatters the statue, and the stone becomes a mountain filling the entire earth.

The Jew Daniel interprets that dream to the king and says that the statue represents the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar and the kingdoms that will come after him.  In the days of these kings, Daniel says, God will set up a kingdom that will fill the earth.

I grew up on this vision, since the church of my upbringing emphasized Bible prophecy.  We were taught that the statue’s head of gold was Nebuchadnezzar, its silver breast and arms were Medo-Persia, its bronze thighs were Greece, its iron legs were Rome, and its feet of clay and iron were a revived Roman empire, which would be the Antichrist whom God would overthrow in our future.

Many biblical scholars have interpreted the statue differently.  They see the iron legs as Greece, not Rome, and the feet of iron and clay as the divided Greek empire after Alexander the Great died.  The idea is that the author of Daniel 2 (or someone who added things to Daniel 2) was expecting God to set up God’s kingdom in the days of the Diadachoi, the Greek successors to Alexander.

As I was reading Daniel 2, that scholarly interpretation was making sense to me.  V 44 says that God would set up God’s kingdom in the days of those kings.  What kings?  Could it be the kings whom the statue represents—-Babylon, the Medes and Persians, and Greece?  Was the author expecting God to intervene when these kingdoms were still around?  If so, how could we say that Daniel 2 is about God setting up God’s kingdom in our own future, when there is no more Babylonian empire, Medo or Persian empire, or Greek empire?

V 42 says that the iron-clay mix means that this particular human kingdom will be strong, yet brittle.  That applies to the Diadachoi: they were strong, yet not as strong as Alexander’s empire, since they were divided.  And v 43 says that the iron and clay will mix with each other by human seed, which the NRSV translates as marriage.  As the HarperCollins Study Bible note states, “The Ptolemies and Seleucids unsuccessfully sought peace and stability between themselves through intermarriage…”  Daniel 11:6-7, 17 appears to describe this very attempt.  Are the iron-clay feet that will be overthrown by God’s kingdom a revived Roman empire of the future?  Or are they Alexander’s successors in the past?  Did the person who wrote these passages in Daniel 2 expect for God to overthrow Alexander’s successors and to set up God’s kingdom, only for that not to happen?

Of course, what I am saying poses theological problems.  Is Daniel’s prophecy human (rather than divine) in origin and incorrect in its ultimate prediction?  I suppose one could try to rescue Daniel by saying that the Seleucids are a type of the Antichrist that will come, or something like that.  But does that work, or is it an artificial attempt to explain away difficulties?

How can I read Daniel from a religious perspective, then?  Well, I do respect how people in Daniel stand up for what they believe, notwithstanding threats and potentially life-threatening consequences.  I also believe in God, on account of people’s experiences that indicate to me that there is a spiritual world, and also some hope that I have that a God who created this world will one day fix it.  I can honor Daniel as an expression of that hope.

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