Daniel is a book of two halves. The first six chapters contain stories about ‘Daniel’, an exile in a high position in the Babylonian court, and what he did to survive as a Jew in that potentially hostile environment. The final six chapters contain a series of visions about the future and God’s intervention into that future. To add to the complexity of the book, it is written in two different languages: 2.4–7.28 are in Aramaic, whereas 1.1–2.3 and 8.1–12.13 are in Hebrew.
20 Blessed be the name of God from age to age, for wisdom and power are his. 21He changes times and seasons, deposes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. 22He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with him. (Daniel 2.20–22)
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. (Daniel 2.44a)
2 Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12.2–3)
After the engaging and inspiring stories of chapters 1–6, the visions of 7–12 are much harder to read. Also a number of the details in the stories are at variance with the historical record (e.g. some of the names of kings) which raises questions about how to understand them.
The book is traditionally associated with Daniel, the book’s hero, but there are problems with this. Some of the details associated with the stories in chapters 1–6 are hard to tie up with evidence from the Babylonian and Persian periods. Also details in the visions in chapters 7–12 are uncannily accurate about events that took place in the second century BC. So although it appears to be set in the sixth century BC, it seems to be more knowledgeable about the second century BC.
One explanation for this is that the stories from chapters 1–6 originated in the sixth century BC, but were talked about and retold over a period of 400 years until eventually being written down in the second century BC, along with the visions in chapters 7–12. This would make Daniel a book with a long period of composition that was used in various different contexts as a reflection on how to remain faithful to God in hard times.
Daniel, a young man, was a member of the aristocracy in Judah and taken into exile by the Babylonians. His wisdom and skill marked him out and he was promoted to a position of influence in the Babylonian court. He served the king with skill and loyalty while at the same time remaining loyal to God.
The book of Daniel tells another side of the exile story from the one with which we are familiar from Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. The exile was a national tragedy that deeply scarred the people, and there's no doubt that it brought great suffering to many of them.
For some of those taken into exile, however, things weren't all bad. For talented people like Daniel (and Esther) it was possible to rise to positions of influence in the Babylonian and Persian courts, though this brought with it challenges regarding how to remain faithful to God in a situation where he was not recognised as God.
Daniel reveals a different set of emotions from other exilic books. Books like Lamentations talk about the grief and pain of loss; Daniel is much more pragmatic and reflects on how to live in the new context.
Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Esther.
Historical story and Apocalyptic.
The first six chapters are very like other stories in the Old Testament (such as Ruth or Esther). These stories exist to reflect on live issues and offer advice (like how to treat foreigners – Ruth; why to celebrate Purim – Esther; and how to live faithfully in a foreign land – Daniel).
The second six chapters are of a very different kind. They consist of visions which are reminiscent in some ways of the book of Revelation. They contain weird beasts and violent battles between good and evil, but beneath everything there is a certainty that God is in control. There are only two full apocalypses in the Bible (Daniel and Revelation) but outside the Bible this was a very common way of writing – the most common, in fact, between around the second century BC and the sixth century AD. The word 'apocalypse' means 'revelation' and points to the fact that all these books seek to reveal God’s role in the world even where he appears to be absent.
1.1–21 Living a healthy life
2.1–49 Dream interpretation
3.1–30 The fiery furnace
4.1–37 More dream interpretation
5.1–31 Writing on the wall
6.1–28 The lion’s den
7.1–28 A vision of the beasts from the sea and the victory of the Son of Man
8.1–27 The ram and the he-goat who challenge God and lose
9.1–27 A prayer of Daniel
10.1–12.13 Another battle of kings against God, with a message of encouragement for the faithful who stand firm
There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.
Babylon, Persia, Edom, Jerusalem, Judah, Media, Moab, Tigris
Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Ammonites, Cyrus, Darius, Israel, Jehoiakim, Medes, Moses, Nebuchadnezzar I
Hebrew, Aramaic, post-exilic period, burnt offering, Day of the Lord, lampstand
The theme that holds the two very different halves of this book together is faithfulness in a tough situation. Look out for it as you read.
Another important theme is hope. See what you think looks like hope in this book.
Underpinning both of these themes is the belief that God both can and will deliver his people from even the worst of situations. Reflect on this and how it is revealed in the book.
What makes this book fascinating is how it approaches the question of what one should do to remain faithful to God in a situation where God is not acknowledged. This is a very modern question. Reflect on it as you read – can we learn anything from Daniel about how to live faithfully in a secular world?