Daniel 1-3

Good morning! Today we start the book of Daniel with chapters 1-3. Taken at face value, this book presents as the exploits of a leader named Daniel among the Babylonian exiles. In actuality, scholars think it dates from centuries later, but was set in exilic, “heroic” times in order to inspire those who lived under similar oppressive circumstances later on. The book tells one story after another of faithful leaders like Daniel persevering under hostility, and coming out stronger because of their trust in God.

In chapter 1, we meet Daniel and three other colleagues who find themselves tested by pressure to conform to the occupier’s culture. They have won a scholarship of sorts, chosen to satisfy Nebuchadnezzar’s curiosity about Hebrew customs. They are to be trained and then deployed in the king’s court, as cultural ambassadors and examples of “civilized” Hebrews, I suppose. Their request for different food from the normal rations is a small declaration of their determination to be independent. This small distinction is tested and the Hebrews come out ahead of anyone else, so their resistance to acculturation is encouraged and justified by their Babylonian handler.

A more serious test comes in Daniel 2, when the prophet faces the same challenge that Joseph once had back in Genesis: interpret a dream he doesn’t know the first thing about. When all the seers, magicians and enchanters of the court are about to be put to death, wise Daniel comes to the rescue, telling both the dream and its meaning. Like Pharaoh’s dream that Joseph interprets (seven fat cows, seven thin cows, etc), this dream also foretells the future and involves symbolic action. Four substances make up the great statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and scholars generally agree with the meaning of each kind. Gold represents Babylon, silver for Persia (which overthrows Babylon eventually and lets the people return to Jerusalem), bronze for the Greeks and clay for the Romans. This is how we can date this to the Roman period, and more specifically to the time of the Maccabean revolt around 150-200 years before Christ. The Maccabees would describe themselves as the small protest movement that, like the piece of chiseled rock, brings down all oppressors and establishes a new kingdom “forever”.

Final marvel for today concerns the three associates of Daniel who are commanded by Nebuchadnezzar to worship an idol. Chances are that you know this story—it’s one of the most common stories told outside the Torah. The reversals of fortune bring other great biblical literature to mind, particularly Esther and Ruth. Those hearing these stories in the original context of Maccabean rebellion and threat from dominant outside kings (if the scholars are correct) would have gleaned from these stories a sense that even when the situation looks terrible, trusting in divine help will always turn out well in the long run. Happy reading!

Read Daniel 1-3.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Daniel 4-6. Thanks for reading!

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