Old Testament 102: Just what is the go with Daniel?

Talk to anybody from the more “loony fringe” side of Christianity and if their favourite book of the Bible isn’t Revelation, it’ll be Daniel. Daniel has all the hallmarks crazy people look for – cool stories, cool symbolism that can be taken literally, and figurative descriptions of political entities that can be interpreted, or reinterpreted, in order to negatively describe just about any political institution that has developed in the last 2,000 – 3,000 years.

Daniel’s dating is a pretty hot topic amongst scholars, most, if not all, have now settled on a date somewhere in the second century B.C, which makes Daniel the last book (chronologically speaking) of the Old Testament, and gives us some picture of the kind of thinking happening in Israel 100-200 years pre-Jesus.

The M Div/Grad Dip question in the exam is likely to focus on the question of meaning in Daniel – and my lovely wife wrote a most excellent essay on Daniel’s genre, which overlapped substantially with the question of meaning. So this post is largely dependent on that work.

She settled on a definition of Daniel’s genre as satire in the first half, with a healthy dash of apocalyptic style in the second half – this means Daniel functions largely as a rebuke of foreign rulers, those who are oppressing Israel, and an affirmation of God’s rightful place with regards to those rulers.

Robyn’s essay says:

“Daniel is God’s assertion of his authority over foreign kingdoms and all who reject him.”

Daniel’s genre has huge ramifications on its meaning – and the genre is notoriously different to nail down. A guy named Valeta suggests 32 different genres have been identified for Daniel. Almost everybody thinks chapters 7-12 are apocalyptic. A satirical reading, as advocated by Valeta, requires a 6th century narrative setting, with a second century composition. Part of the argument for a second century dating is an assumption that Biblical prophecy is not as predictive as chapters 7-12 appear to be (which is an interesting assumption). There are, however, a few historical inaccuracies in the account of Israel’s history in 1-6 which make a satirical reading seem plausible.

Historical inaccuracies include the silence of 2 Kings concerning the siege of Jerusalem in the third year of Jehoiakim (Daniel 1:1),14 the lack of evidence for the historicity of King Belshazzar, Darius the Mede, or Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity. Second-century apologists also cite literary evidence such as the use of the term “Chaldeans,” and a bunch of Persian and Greek loan words as evidence for a later date of composition than the 6th century.

Here are some thoughts from Robyn’s essay about the dating and predictive prophecy:

On the issue of predictive versus descriptive interpretation, particularly in light of Daniel 8:23-25 and 11:3-45, evangelical second-century supporters ask not “could God prophecy?” rather “would God do it?” and “did God do it?” To which Collins (1993) replies “there is no apparent reason… why a prophet of the sixth century should focus minute attention on the events of the second century.” Goldingay (1989) adds that such specificity is inconsistent with God elsewhere in scripture for, “he does not give signs and reveal dates. His statements about the future are calls to decision now; he is not the God of prognosticators. He calls his people to naked faith and hope in him in the present, and does not generally bolster their faith with the kind of revelations that we are thinking of here.”

While it’s possible that some of these points rest on assumptions that may or may not be provable, it comes down to a question of balancing the pros and cons of both datings – and the application of the book if it is a late composition (God is more powerful than oppressive foreign rulers) is possibly or greater worth than the application of an early dating (be like Daniel). While this isn’t a great rubric for deciding between two options, none of the assumptions in the paragraph above are any less plausible than those put forward by sixth century advocates. And a satirical reading actually does away with a bunch of the objections (the book seems to be quite conciliatory to foreign rulers at face value).

Longman pushes a sixth century dating, as almost the lone scholarly horse in that race (though he may even be shifting – but I haven’t read his alleged shift yet).

Longman’s (1999) historical reading of Daniel finds the first six chapters as “deceptively simple stories of faith under pressure,” in which Daniel is a clear and encouraging figure to emulate. Longman recognizes the second half of the book as the prophetic visions of Daniel, the message of which are “in spite of present appearance, God is in control.”

Goldingay suggests the court tales narratives of Daniel 1-6 “portray a God who rules in heaven who is also sovereign over the realm of death, who is active in the past and trustworthy for the future.”

Valeta defines the function of satire within this court tale setting as:

“Satire is more than “linguistic and rhetorical cleverness,” it bears “a serious side that can be used to indicate judgments against individuals and institutions and to highlight reversals of status and importance.”

He argues that Daniel fits the criteria for Menippean satire, a serio-comedic precursor to the novel that was studied and defined by Bakhtin. Bakhtin characterises
Menippean satire with fourteen characteristics, all of which are present in Daniel.

Elements of satire include, “comic elements; a freedom of plot an philosophical inventiveness; a use of extraordinary, fantastic situations or wild parodic displays of learning to test the truth; some combination of both crude and lofty imagery, settings, and themes; a concern for ultimate questions; scenes and dialogue from the earthly, heavenly, and netherworldly realms; observation of behavior from an unusual vantage point; characters who experience unusual, abnormal moral and psychic states; characters who participate in scandals, eccentric behavior, and/or inappropriate speech; sharp contrasts and oxymoronic combinations;
elements of social utopia; a variety of inserted genres within the work; a multi-styled, multi-toned, or multi-voiced work that is dialogic based on inserted genres, voices and languages; and a concern with current and topical issues.”

The purpose of the book, employing a satirical reading, is the deconstruction of “kingly authority and power in favor of God’s authority and power” and in this way acts as resistance literature to the regime of Antiochus IV, and as such, the book is a cohesive work, characterized by “a consistent and persistent message of judgment.”

Chapter 1 is vital for establishing the genre of the book…

Here, a narrative reading would identify verse 8 as the lynchpin, honoring Daniel’s faithfulness and Jewish distinctiveness. Satire, however, may suggest verse 17, identifying God as the source of Daniel’s wisdom. Furthermore, irony is at work, undermining of the king’s power and dominance; firstly that his victory and looting occurs only because God allows it (Daniel 1:2); secondly, his unsuccessful and superficial attempt to limit God’s power through the changing of the captive’s names (Daniel 1:6, 17-20);45 and, finally, the negotiation and approval of Daniel’s request for vegetables and water proving favorable (Daniel 1:8-16). Additionally, the food episode is hyperbolic because of the profundity of the change in a short period of time.

What Menippean Satire looks like:

“Menippean satire is frequently characterised by fantastic, or otherworldly aspects. Such displacements from reality are frequent in Daniel51 and “shift the viewpoint from normal everyday reality to the unexpected and the divine.” It is used to mock its target and confront political and social norms. In Daniel, “these stories are humorous, ultimate expressions of the crowning and decrowning of authority that is so characteristic of the carnival and menippea. The stories of Daniel 1-6 reinforce again and again the critique of the accepted norm of relationship between the powerful and the powerless, representing the realities of the true authority that comes not from earthly power but by divine fiat.”

There is plenty of irony present in the narrative.

“Furthermore, the cry ‘O king, live forever!’ which resonates throughout is heard when the king is at his weakest. In the midst of the confusing dream of a grotesque tree (Daniel 2:4), at the dedication of the absurd state (Daniel 3:9), when being manipulated by his officials (Daniel 6:6), when kneeling beside the lion pit (Daniel 6:21) and, perhaps most amusingly, it is uttered by the queen when the king was ‘weak-kneed’, or had lost his bowels, before his dinner guests (Daniel 5:10). When read through a satirical lens, such a refrain, which has a facade of positive assertion for the king, is used for ridicule and mockery. To similar effect are hyperbolic multiple-synonyms lists of government officials, citizens, and musical instruments (Daniel 2:2, 6, 10, 27, 37, 40, 46; 3:7, 10, 15; 6:7, etc.) and outlandish actions (Daniel 2:12, 3:19).”

The presence of two languages in the manuscripts –  Aramaic, and Hebrew, suggests a satirical reading.

“The ‘official’ language of the royal court, is used in some very ‘unofficial’ ways’ such as paronomasia, repetition and consonance.” Aramaic itself is used to ridicule the king.”

Some concluding thoughts:

“Satire asserts the theme as condemnation for all who reject God’s rule; it enthrones God as supreme ruler and gives prominence Daniel’s prayer as a right response to God’s kingship.”

“God’s judgment is clearly evident in the apocalyptic chapters, particularly in the vision of the Ancient of Days and Son of Man (Daniel 7:1-13). It clearly attests to the destruction of earthly kingdoms and the inauguration of the eternal kingdom (Daniel 7:23-28).”

“The case for a satirical reading of Daniel is compelling. It negates the need for historical accuracy, a stumbling block for advocates of a historical and prophetic-apocalyptical reading. It gives meaning to the countless absurdities, ironies, wordplays and comedic elements that other readings brush over. Daniel conforms to the linguistic stipulations of Menippean satire, making sense of the interplay of voices, mixing of style, language and elements to create a piece that is both comic and serious, episodic and unified.”

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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