Daniel: A whistle-stop tour

Everyone knows a few Daniel stories. Daniel in the lions' den is one of the most famous Bible stories of all. Then there's Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, and the writing on the wall at King Belshazzar's feast. But there are also long passages about Daniel's visions, some of them belonging to a kind of writing called 'apocalyptic' – like Revelation in the New Testament.

The events of the book of Daniel are set in the 6th century BC, during the time of the Jewish exile in Babylon. Daniel and his friends are among the exiles, and the background of the story is their attempts to live as faithful Jews, far from home in a strange land. Most scholars believe Daniel was written much later than the events it describes, and was designed to bolster the faith of Jews under attack by the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd century BC.

It goes like this: 

Chapter 1: The scene is set, with Daniel and his three friends selected to be educated as young Babylonian courtiers.

Chapter 2: Daniel interprets the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar and is rewarded.

Chapter 3: Nebuchadnezzar commands everyone to worship him on pain of death; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse, and survive the fiery furnace.

Chapter 4: Nebuchadnezzar dreams again, and becomes insane. Chapter 5: King Belshazzar, one of his successors, holds a feast at which writing appears on a wall predicting his downfall.

Chapter 6: Daniel refuses to pray to King Darius and is thrown to the lions.

Chapters 7–12: Daniel prays and sees visions of the future.

The message of the early chapters of Daniel – reflecting the enormous pressure the Jews were under during the brutal regime of Antiochus, who according to the Jewish historian Josephus sacrificed pigs in the Temple (9.27) – is that God alone is to be worshipped and believers should not compromise. It has powerful lessons for us today as we too seek to live faithfully in a world that's sometimes hostile to faith.

The later chapters, in which Daniel sees visions, are more complex. Much of their content can be mapped on to what we know of that period of ancient history, but not all. While it's a mistake to see these chapters as detailed predictions of the future, however, like other kinds of apocalyptic writing their fundamental message is one of hope: God is just, and his intention is to bring a just and peaceful world into being.

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