People of the Book: Daniel
An important biblical text for both Jews and Christians is the Book of Daniel. This apocalyptic work not only describes the “end times” (Greek eschaton) in vivid fashion, but is quoted by Jesus in his own prophecy about the trials and tribulations which will face the blossoming Christian movement (Mt 24: 15). The prophet Daniel stands as a witness to God’s coming justice and the inauguration of the Messianic Age.
Daniel, whose name literally and fittingly means “God is my judge” in Hebrew, lived during the 6th century B.C. under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar during the Jewish exile in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar is widely viewed as a typological antichrist figure, the supremely evil tyrant who forces his people to worship the state religion under penalty of death. Interestingly Roger Williams, the Baptist founder of Rhode Island, likened the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the early seventeenth century to such a dangerous marriage of civil and religious authority. He viewed himself as a latter-day Daniel protesting such a monolithic religious civilization and likened his followers to the prophet’s companions who were persecuted and locked in a fiery furnace because of their unwillingness to adopt the religion imposed by the State.
Daniel was familiar with the astrological studies of the Chaldeans, those residents of modern-day Baghdad some of whose descendants would one day adopt Christianity and face persecution even until our own day. (Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly condemned a recent spate of violence against the longstanding Chaldean Christian community in the Middle East). When brought before Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel was able to interpret one of the king’s terrifying dreams, as none of the other wise men of the period could. He relayed to the ruler that the statue made of clay feet, iron legs, brass thighs and belly, silver arms, and golden head from Nebuchadnezzar’s vision represented various worldly kingdoms of different eras. The stone which “smote the image, breaking it to pieces to become like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors, carried away by the wind” (2:35) and afterward itself becoming an all-encompassing mountain, foretold the coming eternal Messianic kingdom, which will have no end and whose power will supersede that of every nation before establishing itself as the eternal reign of God.
Later in his life, Daniel’s powerful enemies influenced the successor to the throne, Darius the Mede, to prohibit supplications and displays of homage to anyone other than the king. When they intentionally spied on Daniel praying toward Jerusalem to praise God, they incited Darius to exert the capital punishment he had promised for the “crime,” despite the king’s hesitancy to do so. After Daniel was cast into the lion’s den by the executioners, God protected his servant by sending an angel to cleave together the mouths of the lions because of the prophet’s innocence. In response, Darius had the Lord of Israel proclaimed throughout the land, “For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions” (6:26-8). In the typical retributive justice of such a narrative, his transgressors are then cast into the den to be devoured.
Daniel of course serves as a model of trust and fidelity to God despite the prowling forces of doubt, selfishness, and pride which hem us in from every side in our daily lives. But perhaps even more importantly, he eschatologically points forward to the last days, when the “multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (12:2-3). There is then an ever-present challenge in reading the Book of Daniel, a call to better ourselves and to stand firm in our faith in the face of evil, in the effort to lead others to the God who has so profoundly protected our lives and saved us from imminent physical, emotional, and spiritual harm.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies