The book of Daniel is many things to many people. For children it’s a wild story about superheroes in fiery furnaces and lions’ dens. For eschatomaniacs and their biblical cartographers it’s a brilliant algorithmic masterpiece predicting the end of the world. We’re either to be like Daniel in face of our own “lions” (courageous, prayerful, faithful, etc.). Or, we are to look to the East for our imminent rapture. We must tap into our childlike imaginations and trust God to silence our enemies. Or, we must become PhDs in mathematics (or donate to those who are!) to really understand Daniel’s timeline.
We’re either to refuse the world’s food and suffer our own fiery furnace. Or, we’re to ingest the morning headlines because Iranian missiles are aimed at Jerusalem. If we didn’t know any better we’d assume Daniel used a lion’s back to draw detailed eschatology charts!
Daniel is indeed rapturous, but for far different reasons. Daniel isn’t really about cartoonish protagonists or prophecy charts. According to Jesus, Daniel is about Jesus (Lk 24.27). Daniel doesn’t prepare us for Russian attacks, American superiority or Israeli sovereignty. Daniel prepares us for the gospel and the glory of an otherworldly kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. The interpretations I espouse and encourage are hardly new. They’ve simply been shelved while more profitable interpretations drive the eschatological market. In my estimation, Daniel is much more simple than assumed.
I remember reading through Daniel in the Court of the Gentiles (a.k.a. Starbucks). Upon learning what I was reading a kind gentlemen lit up saying, “Man, that 70th week is going to be something else, isn’t it?” I smiled, nodded and sipped knowing we shared far different ideas about Daniel’s “70th Week.” So I realize in questioning the modern, mainstream assumptions about Daniel that I jump headlong in the lion’s den. To suggest Daniel is not actually about a rapture and Great Tribulation might be heresy to some. I only hope those who disagree might still offer a cup of cold water to a weary traveler on the journey home.
Before getting into the text let’s consider some introductory necessities. First, I will assume the traditional view that Daniel himself either wrote and/or provided the material for the book. And he did so during Israel’s 6th century exile in Babylon. The earliest date referenced is 605 BC (1.1.) and the last date 537 BC (10.1). We can surmise Daniel wrote over the course of 70 years or so while in Babylonian exile.
Second, our interpretation of any literary work depends on the genre of the work. We read our car manual differently than a love letter. We read a love letter different than a history book and that different than autobiography. For example, our car manual may refer to “refueling,” but in a love letter that means something far different. A history book will describe a battle in terms of three cannons flanked by two brigades of infantrymen armed with muskets. An autobiographical account of that same battle will describe the smell of smoke, cries of dying friends and the pain of fresh wounds.
We intuitively understand there are different rules depending on the type of literature. And the same holds true in biblical interpretation and the Bible contains a wide variety of genres. When we read apocalyptic literature (highly symbolic like Revelation) like we would historical narrative then we start erroneously reading today’s headlines into symbolic details. If we read biblical poetry like historical narrative then we confront apparent contradictions (e.g. the sun doesn’t come forth like a bridegroom from his chamber, Ps 19). If we read Proverbs (general statements) like prophecy then we start expecting everything in Proverbs to be universally true in all situations at all times.
So what genre is Daniel? No one agrees. Interestingly, we place it among the prophets in our English Bibles as one of the four “major” prophets. But in the Hebrew Bible it’s among “the Writings” after Esther and before Ezra-Nehemiah (which makes sense historically).
Daniel was not technically a prophet. He was a statesman in the Babylonian government. The first half of the book (chs 1-6) is generally biography and historical narrative. The second half (chs 7-12) resembles apocalyptic literature, which is its own breed of prophetic literature (i.e. full of symbolism and mixed metaphor relevant to the original audience). Interestingly, chapters 2-7 were originally written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. Aramaic was the language of Babylonian aristocracy and the Persian empire whereas Hebrew was the language of Israel. All in all, Daniel is a literary masterpiece that is not a mathematics textbook.
Before diving into the text we do well to keep an open mind. As with any biblical text, we must labor to understand what the author intended for his original audience. Hopefully, we will be faithful to do so with Daniel. In the end, all biblical texts compel and commend us to Christ in whom we must believe for eternal life. Daniel would not have us conclude we should be like him. He would compel us to believe in and become like Jesus. Of course, we pray Jesus returns before going any further!