Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Statue Got Me High

The prophet Daniel has a lot in common with Joseph from the book of Genesis.  Both were exiles who found success working as civil servants for a foreign king; both became important administrators in their new homes; and most importantly, both were skilled at interpreting dreams.

We last left Daniel and his friends at the end of Daniel chapter 1 studying at the University of Babylon where they are being trained to serve in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. The king was impressed by their wisdom and understanding, which greatly surpassed that of any of the magicians and enchanters in his kingdom.

Which brings up a curious side question:  What exactly was Daniel and his friends studying?  The implication I see is that they were studying Astrology and Divination, disciplines which our modern age would call superstition and which the Babylonians would call science and which many Christians would call Satanic. 

Now the text is scrupulous about always crediting Daniel’s wisdom and insights to God; but it still seems highly likely to me that if they Babylonians were going to be teaching him stuff, they would have been teaching him their cutting-edge science.  It may seem strange to call the study of horoscopes Science, but in defense of the Babylonians, the underlying premises of Astrology may be faulty, but they took it damn seriously, and the data they compiled in their study of the stars became useful and important as their system of Astrology developed into the science of Astronomy. 

(I once read an economist remark that many of our sciences started out as superstition; that Astrology became Astronomy and that Alchemy became Chemistry; and that someday we might find out what science will come out of Economics.)

But the point of this that I see is that those who fret that secular learning is dangerous because it isn’t rooted in the Bible forget that Daniel managed to emerge from a thoroughly non-Jewish course of study with his faith in God intact.  I know that my own interests in history, science and fantastic literature has given me perspectives that have, I think, deepened my understanding of my own beliefs. I dare say that gaining an understanding of Babylonian history, culture and laws, as well as Babylonian religion and science, gave him insights which enabled him to better relate to the king and to the members of his court.

But back to the story.  In the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, the king became troubled by dreams and unable to sleep.  And here we have a discrepancy.

In chapter 1, we are told that Daniel and his friends came to Babylon in the first year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and underwent three years of study, entering the king’s service after graduation.  But now this story is taking place during the king’s second year.  What’s the deal with that?  Some critics have tried to explain the discrepancy by saying that the second year mentioned here is dating from the consolidation of his empire after Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Egyptians a couple years after he ascended to the throne.  Or it could be that this story took place while Daniel was still an undergrad.  Or it could be sloppy editing of individual stories which originally came from diverse sources.

Nebuchadnezzar calls together all his magicians, enchanters, sorecerors and astrologers, (“Chaldeans” in the original text; the region of Chaldea in southern Mesopotamia was so identified with the development of astrology that the name became synonymous with “guys who study the stars”).  He commands them to explain his dream.

Then the astrologers answered the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever!  Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”  (Daniel 2:4 NIV)

Why does the text make a point of mentioning that the astrologers were speaking in Aramaic?  Well, there’s a reason.  Because at that point, the narrative switches from Hebrew to Aramaic, and continues in that language for the rest of the story and for much of the rest of the whole book.

Aramaic was a language related to both Hebrew and Phoenician, spoken in the region of present-day Syria.  Abraham lived for a time in that land, which is why it is said in the book of Deuteronomy, “My father was a wandering Aramean…” (Deut.26:5).  Aramaic was the language spoken in Assyria, which was a dominant political force through much of the Old Testament period, and the language was important even after Assyria became absorbed into the Babylonian Empire and when Babylon was in turn conquered by the Persian.  It’s generally believed that during the Babylonian Captivity, the Jewish exiles adopted Aramaic, the lingua franca of the empire, for their everyday speech, even after they returned to Judea. They continued using Hebrew in their Scriptures, but had become a language of lore and of religious ritual rather than one of every day conversation.  Although the Gospels were written in Greek, Jesus did most if not all of his teaching in Aramaic, and some of the Gospel writers quote snatches of that language in their narrative.

It is believed that the narrative portion of the Book of Daniel consists of stories written during this Post-Exilic period, and for some reason, the author of the book left them as is, rather than translating them into Hebrew.  The last half of the book, consisting of a series of prophetic visions, shifts back into Hebrew again; perhaps because Aramaic was just to mundane a tongue to do justice to the full weirdity of Daniel’s visions.  But back to the story.

The magicians and professional wonder-workers ask the king to tell him his dream so that they may interpret it, but Nebuchadnezzar isn’t having any of that.  He seems quite testy with his staff seers; perhaps he doesn’t really trust them; perhaps it has occurred to him that if his psychic friends are all that hot, he shouldn’t have to tell them what he dreamed.  Or perhaps, according to some interpretations, he can’t remember what the dream was about and it’s driving him crazy.

The king replied to the astrologers, “This is what I have firmly decided:  If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piled of rubble.  But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive form me gifts and rewards and great honor.  So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.”  (Daniel 2:5-6)

Ouch.  And I thought the James Randi Challenge was tough.  The astrologers admit that what the king asks is impossible.  “What the king asks is too difficult.  No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men.” (Daniel 2:11)

This angers Nebuchadnezzar, and he orders the execution not just of his court astrologers, but also of all the wise men of Babylon.  This includes Daniel and his friend.

Daniel has the opportunity to speak with Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, who has been tasked with the responsibility of gathering up all these wise guys.  He speaks to Arioch “with wisdom and tact” and learns the whole story.  Daniel asks for a little more time so that he can try interpreting the dream himself.

Daniel goes back to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, (better known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) and they pray asking God for mercy and enlightenment so that they can answer the king’s riddle and save their own lives as well as the lives of the other magi.

In the night, Daniel also has a dream and in it the mystery is revealed.  The ghost is actually the shady banker in disguise.  Wait.  Wrong mystery.

The narrative pauses here for a moment as Daniel utters a psalm praising God as the source of wisdom and power, who reveals deep and hidden mysteries.

Although in this story, Daniel receives the solution to a mystery by Divine Revelation, there are other stories involving Daniel, the canonicity of which are disputed, in which Daniel actually employs deductive reasoning to uncover crimes, making Daniel the only detective in the Bible.  I hope to tell some of these other stories another time.

Daniel is brought before Nebuchadnezzar to explain it all.

“No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.  He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in the days to come.”  (Daniel 2:27-28)

The king’s dream was of a tremendous statue, the head of which was made of gold, the chest and arms of silver, the belly and thighs of bronze, the legs of iron and the feet and toes of iron mixed with clay.  As the king observed the statue in his dream, a large rock was cut out, not by human hand.  The rock struck the feet of the statue, causing them to crumble and the entire statue to collapse in a ruin.  The rock then grew to the size of a mountain encompassing the whole earth.

That was the dream; but what did it mean?

The golden head of the statue, Daniel said, represented Nebuchadnezzar himself and his glorious kingdom, given to him by the God of heaven.  The silver torso represented the kingdom which would succeed him, spiffy, but not quite as impressive as his own.  Then a third kingdom, one of bronze, which would rule over the whole earth, and finally a fourth one, as strong as iron, but not wholly so; a mixture of strength and weakness which would not remain united. (And yes, this is where the expression “Feet of Clay” comes from, meaning an underlying character flaw in an otherwise admired figure).

Finally, the rock cut out of a mountain but not by human hands represented a kingdom which God would someday establish which would not be destroyed but would endure forever.

Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by Daniel’s revelation of his dream and by the interpretation of it.  “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery” (Daniel 2:47)  The king gave Daniel a high position in his court in charge of his staff magi, and appointed his friends to posts as administrators.

But looking back with historical hindsight, did Daniel’s prophecy come true?

The traditional interpretation of both Jewish and Christian scholars is that Four Kingdoms of the statue represent (1) the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar; (2) the Empire of the Medes and the Persians which conquered Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar’s death; (3) the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world, and of his successors, specifically the Seleucid Dynasty which ruled over the former Babylonian territories and which squabbled with the Ptolemies of Egypt for control of Palestine; (4) Rome, the mightiest empire of all, but one which eventually fell to internal weakness and division.

Christians like to interpret the carved by no human hand as the Christian Church, established by God and outlasting the kingdoms of men and growing to fill the whole earth.  Some later Christian groups with a more eschatological bent, interpret the mixed feet of the statue as representing a later successor to the Roman Empire and the rock as the Millennial Kingdom to be established once Christ Comes Again.

More modern scholars have been skeptical of Daniel’s prescient visions, and assume that the kingdoms described in the dream are ones the writer would have been familiar with.  Because much of Daniel is written in Aramaic, and because some of the later prophecies in the book seem to specifically refer to the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Seleucid ruler who incited the Maccabean Revolt, it’s generally thought that the Book of Daniel was written, or at least compiled in its final form, during the time of the Maccabees.  Under this interpretation, the golden head remains Babylon, but the silver torso becomes the kingdom of the Medes, and the brass belly that of the Persians.  The iron legs then become the succeeding period of Greek rulers.  Except that the Medes and the Persians did not rule one after the other; they were ethnic divisions within the same Empire.  I don’t know how this interpretation regards the rock; perhaps as a hopeful anticipation of a Messianic Age.

These two interpretations are based on the assumptions that either (A) Daniel was writing about future events revealed by Divine Revelation, or (B) Daniel was written later using 20/20 hindsight and pretending to make predictions about things that had already happened.  Another possibility occurs to me.

It doesn’t take either divine foreknowledge or historical hindsight to know that Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom wouldn’t last forever.  Eventually it would pass and be superseded by something else, and that this new kingdom too would fade away.  So how do Daniel’s predictions about these future kingdoms compare to what really happened?

In some ways, the historical record of Empire in the Middle East is the exact opposite of that predicted in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.  He dreamt of four kingdoms, each succeeding one inferior to the one before.  As it turned out, the Persian Empire was larger and lasted longer than the Babylonian; the Greek Empire, (if we count the Seleucid Dynasty) lasted even longer, and Rome longest of all.

True, the Empire of Alexander covered pretty much the entire world that Nebuchadnezzar knew about; and the Roman Empire was renowned for its strength, yet ultimately became divided, so those points match… sort of… if we squint at them in just the right light.

Or perhaps Daniel was framing his interpretation in such a way to make Nebuchadnezzar look good.  “Here are the kingdoms which will succeed your own; but none of them will be as glorious as yours.”

And what about the Rock?  I have to admit, I like the interpretation that the Rock is Christ and the kingdom which he told Pilate was “not of this world.”

In the latter part of the book, Daniel revisits this prophecy; recounting a vision of four beasts, once again symbolizing four kingdoms to come, and here he gets even more apocalyptic; but that is another vision for another time.

No comments:

Post a Comment