Daniel – why the Bible is even vaster than you think (@nicolahwriter)



These days when we can read the Bible on our Smart Phones or Google up a reference I wonder if we miss something of the scope and enormity of the text. There is nothing like turning to a new section of the text in an old Church Bible, requiring two hands and sending up a cloud of dust as the pages thump down, to remind you of how vast this thing is. The span of history covered, the diversity of voices, the different genres and audiences envisaged all contribute to making the Bible what it is, absolutely fascinated and massively complex.

The book of Daniel is a wonderful example of this. Even the text itself is shrouded in mystery with the earliest manuscripts existing in two different languages, opening in Hebrew in Chapter 1 then switching to Aramaic in chapter 2 and back to Hebrew again in Chapter 8. The genre of the book switches too from story telling to the recounting of visions that would leave even the most eccentric Hollywood film producer reeling.

The story portion of the book is set during the Babylonian exile. Daniel, a young captive, rises to prominence in the court of the Babylonians, but faces significant trials along the way as he attempts to live faithfully to his ancestral beliefs in this new and strange land. Many of the stories are familiar, not least Daniel’s turbulent night in the lion’s den. There are mentions of the enigmatic figure of Daniel elsewhere in the Old Testament. Ezekiel the exilic prophet we considered last month, mentions him in his prophecies in chapter 14:14 and 28:3 as a wise and righteous man.

But when it comes to the visions portion of the book we start to find hints that there might be more to this great work than the retelling of the story of a wise man in exile. The visions have new preoccupations including the desecration of the temple and cessation of certain sacrifices, the rising up of empires destined to clash with each other and death on a vast scale demanding justice in the next life. Not all of this seems to place well in the events of the Babylonian exile and particular historical details, such as names of kings and empires, give the visions away as a composition of a later time. It seems that the visions are concerned with, and written at, a later time which scholars have dated to the 2nd century BC, about 400 years after the Babylonian exile.

The situation in Jerusalem at this time is described through the books of the Maccabees. It was a time of invasion, persecution and rebellion of such intensity, with over 40,000 people killed and as many more sold into slavery, that some scholars think it may have contributed to the rise of to a whole new kind of writing, the apocalyptic genre. Dark visions combine with the promise of a day of justice and of resurrection from the dead for the martyred people. These words comes alive when considered in the context of 2nd century BC Jerusalem in all it tumult.

The book of Daniel has much to teach us about approaching the biblical text. It reminds us that it truly is a vast work speaking out of events spanning hundred of years. Like the whole Bible the book of Daniel is a living text with stories emerging across generations growing, developing and always speaking anew. This is something to be celebrated in the text rather than feared. The vastness of the Bible is a gift that we can never finish exploring, always bringing new insights to life as we seek to allow the text to speak to us today.

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