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Daniel: From History to Apocalypse

1 Introduction

2 Heroic Tales

3 Apocalypses

4 Daniel as a Book

5 Apocryphal Additions

Study Guide


Antiochus IV, Apocalypse, Apocalyptic eschatology, Apocalyptic literature, Apocalypticism, Belshazzar, Belteshazzar, Daniel, Dualism, Eschatology, Hanukkah, Hasids, Hellenism, Hellenization, Judas Maccabee, Kingdom of God, Leviathan, Maccabean, Nebuchadrezzar, Prophetic eschatology, Resurrection, Seleucid, Son of man

Ancient of Days

William Blake's Ancient of Days

William Blake depicts the “ancient of days” figure of Daniel 7:9. This contains the only verbal picture of God presented in the Hebrew Bible: “his clothes were white as snow, the hair of his head like pure wool.

Source: Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on William Blake’s (1757–1827) Ancient of Days (God as an Architect), a 1794 relief etching with watercolor (London: British Museum).

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Will the world actually end some day? If so, will that day come soon? Will it be in our lifetime? Will the world end with a bang or with a whimper? For decades the specter of global thermonuclear holocaust hung heavy over history. Even now, as the nuclear threat recedes, global warming poses a new danger, and the peril of ecological disaster provides another very scary scenario for the end of the habitable world. Science, technology, and industrialization provide countless means whereby we can kill ourselves and take the planet with us. Certainly, an interest in the end of civilization has fueled a great deal of speculation, not a little of which has a religious flavor. Entire religious publishing industries have been built on our hopes and future fears, such as The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind phenomena.

1.1 Apocalyptic Literature

The adjective apocalyptic is a modern label for end-time-oriented literature. Ancient writers did not tag their own material with an “apocalyptic” label. Yet the term is appropriate; it derives from the Greek verb apokaluptein, which means “to reveal, disclose, uncover.” From this word, we get the word apocalypse.

As we begin to study apocalyptic literature in its various dimensions, it is important to distinguish two basic concepts having to do with the study of apocalyptic literature. The term apocalypse is a literary genre that can be found in apocalyptic literature. An apocalypse is a revelation of future events initiated by God and delivered through a mediator (typically an angel) to a holy person.

Within the Hebrew Bible, only Daniel 7–12 strictly fits this definition, though Isaiah 24–27 also has some characteristics of apocalyptic literature. Other major works falling into the genre of apocalypse are the New Testament book of Revelation (its Greek title is apokalupsis), 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch. The first three Gospels of the New Testament each contain an apocalyptic chapter (Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 24) but as a whole would not be considered apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic literature is associated with an identifiable religious outlook and sociological profile that is called apocalypticism. This applies to the thought world or worldview of the communities that gave rise to apocalyptic literature. Most apocalypses were written during times of political persecution. They were intended to encourage perseverance by revealing the destruction of the wicked and the glorious future that awaited the faithful.

It is now generally recognized that all literature is significantly shaped by the historical and sociological characteristics its community of origin. A study of the developmental dimensions of the apocalyptic movement reveals that one of the main features of an apocalyptic community is its marginal status within the larger society (see Schmitals, 1975). In its social, political, or economic alienation, the community constructs an alternate universe where eventually it and its deity will triumph. This alternate universe comes to expression in apocalyptic literature.

Another important term associated with the study of apocalyptic literature is eschatology. Eschatology (from eschaton, the Greek word for “end”) refers to the complex of religious beliefs that have to do with the end-times. The eschatological perspective of biblical literature views history as moving to its culmination defined by God and brought about primarily by his initiative.

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Another important distinction is between prophetic eschatology and apocalyptic eschatology. Prophetic eschatology is more humanistic in that it sees God using historical agents and natural processes to bring about his purposes in history. In this view, God acts and reacts in relation to human action. Even predicted judgments can be averted with repentance and renewal. This perspective on the future characterizes the classical biblical prophets.

Apocalyptic eschatology is more supernatural and one sided. It views God as one who sovereignly and overpoweringly breaks into history in cataclysmic ways to realize his goal. History is closed, mechanistic, and predetermined. Human agency is only secondary to divine initiative.

The role of God’s people is to discern and accept his plan and to prepare themselves to support it.

1.1.1 Formal Features

Apocalyptic literature in the biblical tradition partakes of a common fund of characteristics (see Russell, 1964). Not every apocalyptic literary work evidences all these characteristics, but they are representative of what you can expect to find.

Most apocalyptic literature is in the form of dreams or visions that were witnessed by a seer. The seer then describes the dream in the first-person voice using the pronoun I. Most apocalyptic works are anonymous; that is, we do not know exactly who wrote them. The books themselves claim to be the work of certain individuals, most of whom are famous legendary figures. Apocalyptic books have been ascribed to Adam, Enoch (see Genesis 5), Ezra, Moses, Baruch, and many others. This phenomenon of ascribed authorship is technically called pseudonymity or pseudonymous authorship. The practice probably was designed to help facilitate the acceptance of the work by giving it automatic authority.

Most apocalyptic writings also employ highly imaginative symbolic imagery. Strange hybrid animals are not unusual. Numbers are also used in symbolic ways. Secret code words, presumably understood by the intended audience but unclear to the uninitiated, are also found. Many apocalypses contain a review of past history but frame it as if it were predictive prophecy. Predictive prophecies after the event (it is a lot easier and a lot more accurate that way) are called vaticinia ex eventu.

Apocalyptic literature has a more universal scope than most other Hebrew literature; that is, the writers are interested in historical forces and events beyond just Israel. It might even be said that they are more concerned about the other nations than with Israel itself. They see the other nations as under the control of Israel’s God, who is determining their history to achieve God’s own ends. Almost all apocalyptic literature shares the belief that God has determined the conclusion of history from the beginning.

Apocalyptic literature is full of dualisms. A dualism is a binary or bipolar way of looking at matters that does not allow for ambiguity. Apocalyptic literature’s cosmic dualism construes the universe as heaven and earth, a two-storied world. The literature of Israel’s earlier monarchic period did not depict heaven as the theater where world events worked out. Heaven was more or less just the residence of God. In apocalyptic literature, heaven is the place where the most important events take place, including fierce wars between good and bad angels who are patrons of the parties down below. The outcome of such conflicts inevitably determines the course of history on earth.

Temporal, or chronological, dualism divides the course of history into two eras. History as we know it is called “this age” and is dominated by the forces of

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FIGURE 16.1 Leviathan

The serpent Lotan, a name akin to Leviathan, had seven heads according to Ugaritic myth. This sea monster threatened life and good order but was defeated by Baal. Compare Psalm 74:14, where this creature makes an appearance; Day (1985) recovers the background of this combat myth and its associated imagery.

Source: Drawing by Barry Bandstra based on R. Merhav, ed., Treasures of Bible Lands (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum, Modan Publishers, 1987), no. 16.

godlessness and evil. Apocalyptic writers were very pessimistic about the prospects for improvement in their time. They believed that God would bring this age to an end and would introduce “the age to come,” when goodness would prevail.

Ethical dualism is a dualism of human action and character. In apocalyptic literature, humanity is divided into two groups. One group, the large one made up of everybody else, is motivated by evil and violently opposes the smaller group of God-fearing, persecuted ones. At the culmination of history, God will take the side of the latter and vindicate the cause of right. But until then, the righteous remnant should only expect the worst. The smaller group, the apocalyptic community, believes that only they are in the right. They advocate a separatist policy, no doubt in response to the domination of the majority population that has marginalized them.

1.1.2 Literary Roots

Only one book in the Hebrew Bible is generally classified as apocalyptic literature, and that is the book of Daniel. But that is not to say that Daniel is the only book that displays characteristics typical of apocalypticism. Certain motifs typically found in apocalyptic eschatology can also be found in the myths of ancient Mesopotamia.

Motifs of cosmic warfare pervade mythic texts such as the battle between the high gods and the sea monsters. This divine warrior motif is also present in biblical apocalyptic literature. The royal cult of Jerusalem, where Yhwh is king, may be the source of various warrior motifs in biblical apocalyptic literature. Persian dualism may also have affected the development of apocalyptic ideology.

Isaiah’s prophecies refer to the Leviathan creature (see Figure 16.1) when he uses Canaanite imagery of the combat-myth in his apocalyptic condemnations of Israel’s political enemies. The archenemy Leviathan became the personification of the evil that Yhwh’s people faced:

In that day Yhwh will punish
   with his hard and great and strong sword

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Leviathan the sliding serpent,
   Leviathan the twisting serpent.
He will murder the dragon in the sea. (Isaiah 27:1)

In addition to having affinities with literature that predates Hebrew Bible apocalyptic, some scholars suggest that biblical apocalyptic has similarities with both the wisdom and the prophetic traditions of the Hebrew Bible. Von Rad (1972) argues that it has its origins in wisdom. Hanson (1975) traces the precursors of Jewish apocalyptic literature back to biblical prophecy and dates the movement from prophetic eschatology to apocalyptic eschatology in the early postexilic period, roughly 538–500 BCE. Second and Third Isaiah, dating to the sixth century, contain a good deal of apocalyptic material. This attests a move toward apocalypticism, but it really achieved prominence in the early 100s BCE during the Hellenization program of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV.

1.2 Reading Guide

The book of Daniel is grouped with the prophetic books in the Christian Old Testament. Daniel can be found after Ezekiel and before the twelve Minor Prophets. In the Hebrew Bible, it is one of the Writings and is located after the Five Scrolls and before the Chronicler’s History (Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles).

The book of Daniel can be divided more or less cleanly into two main parts based on content. The first part, Chapters 1–6, contains six tales of Jewish heroism set in the late seventh and sixth centuries BCE. They are told in the third person and concern Daniel and his three friends, or Daniel alone, or the three friends alone. The second part, Chapters 7–12, contains four apocalypses, which Daniel narrates in the first person.

The book of Daniel does not claim to have been written by Daniel. The first six chapters are a narrative about Daniel (and his friends). While the final chapters contain Daniel’s first-person dream accounts, they are introduced using third person editorial frameworks. Nonetheless, Daniel is the dominant figure of the book and is only absent in Chapter 3.

Who exactly was this Daniel? We get conflicting signals. The first hero tale tells us Daniel was a young man when he was taken captive in 606 BCE. The story of Daniel in the lion’s den found in Chapter 6 has a setting after 539, which would make Daniel an old man by that time. On the other hand, the book of Ezekiel (14:14, 20; see also 28:3), which was written around the time of the exile in 587, refers to Daniel in the same breath with Noah and Job—all exemplary righteous men. These references suggest that Daniel and the other two were already well-known symbols of godliness. But how could Daniel be considered legendary to the preexilic Israelites if most of the stories told about him had not yet been written?

The Ugaritic texts from Syria come to the rescue. These texts, dating to the fourteenth century BCE, written in a language akin to Hebrew, contain an account of a certain Danel in the Aqhat Epic; this name is close enough in spelling to the biblical Daniel that they may be considered equivalent. This Danel was a notably righteous Canaanite king who wanted to see justice done in his kingdom. This suggests that Danel/Daniel was a known hero of the ancient world, and that perhaps he was the model or namesake for our hero in Israel’s exilic period. Or (so other scholars claim), the Daniel of Ezekiel fame has nothing to do with the Daniel of the Hebrew book by his name!

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Daniel Timeline

FIGURE 16.2 Time Line: Book of Daniel

The stories of Daniel are set around the time of the Babylonian exile (see Figure 16.2), and the tales may have originated at that time. But the apocalypses of Chapters 7–12 betray a much later setting. The history they (fore)tell culminates in the time of the Maccabees, specifically the years of Antiochus IV. The evidence strongly suggests that the apocalypses were written around 165 BCE, shortly before the death of Antiochus in 163, and that the entire book was edited and finalized around that time. This would make Daniel the prime candidate for the latest book of the Hebrew Bible.

The accounts of Daniel and his friends are some of the best-loved human-interest stories in the Bible. Because they are interesting and entertaining, read the tales of Daniel and his friends as found in Chapters 1–6. Then conclude your reading with the first apocalypse of Daniel in Chapter 7, which contains the vision of the Son of Man and the Ancient of Days. The apocalypse vision contained within this chapter is critical for understanding the son-of-man language that is used extensively in the New Testament Gospels and elsewhere in Judaism.

As you read the text, notice the interesting variations in the way the book of Daniel references deity. The name Yhwh of the Israelite god is found only in Chapter 9, which is Daniel’s dream and Gabriel’s interpretation; it takes place in Daniel’s Jewish mind, not as interaction with Persians. Elsewhere Elohim is used, or its equivalent Eloah in the Aramaic portions of Daniel. The latter is sometimes qualified with the adjective Most High, and sometimes Most High stands alone in reference to God. What is interesting about this is that the writer does not use the nationalistic Israelite name Yhwh in mixed company with Babylonians or Persians but instead deliberately uses a nonsectarian term.


The first six chapters of Daniel contain some of the most popular stories in the Hebrew Bible. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. Daniel in the lion’s den. The handwriting on the wall. In addition to their popular appeal, the tales had moral and spiritual lessons with special application to Jews living in the Diaspora.

The hero tales of Daniel send two fundamental messages. First, no matter what political and religious pressures urge you to conform to the dominant culture, do not give up your faith in Yhwh. If you are faithful, God will surely deliver and prosper you. Fidelity to the Mosaic Torah brings divine reward. Second, ultimately the evil

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kingdoms of this world will crumble before the kingdom of God, for Yhwh orders history. The hero tales will be treated under these two headings.

Keep the Faith

Daniel 1 introduces the hero tales by describing Daniel and his three friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Each was given a Babylonian name as part of the process of their acculturation into Babylonian society. Respectively, they became Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Interestingly, Daniel is referred to by his Hebrew name through much of the book, whereas the friends consistently go by their Babylonian names.

These young men were handsome and intelligent and were to be trained as Babylonian courtiers. This follows the common imperial practice of educating indigenous young men to become civil servants, presumably in the expectation that they would serve as administrators or diplomats in the Judean territories. The problem for these Jewish trainees was that eating at the Babylonian court would violate their dietary laws, called the laws of kosher, or kashrut. They were given a special reprieve by their overseer, and despite eating only simple Jewish-type food, they turned out to be healthier than any other trainees. This proved that a person could observe religious laws even in a foreign land—a situation many deported Jews faced.

Chapters 3 and 6 are similar. By now Daniel and his friends had become important government officials, and they had acquired powerful political enemies. These rivals enacted religious requirements that they knew these Jews would not obey. First the three friends (3) and then Daniel (6) were found guilty of breaking the law and were to be executed. The friends were thrown into a well-stoked furnace but were delivered by God by means of the an angel’s protection. Daniel, in a separate incident, was thrown into a pit full of ravenous lions. He too was protected and survived. Both incidents demonstrate again that God cares for the faithful.

2.2 Lord of History

Chapter 2 describes Nebuchadrezzar’s dream experience. He woke up one time and remembered that he had had a fascinating dream, but he could not remember the details. Daniel came to the king’s attention. It turned out that he was the only one who could bring the dream to Nebuchadrezzar’s recollection and then interpret it. The dream’s central image was of a statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, midsection and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. A rock pulverized the statue and it blew away. The rock grew into a mountain that dominated the earth. Daniel’s interpretation associated each of the four metals with an empire. These empires were destroyed and a kingdom set up by God took over in their place. As we will see, this statue dream has important parallels to the apocalypse of Chapter 7, which also has a sequence of four empires eclipsed by the kingdom of God.

In separate episodes, Chapters 4 and 5 reveal the arrogance of Babylonian power. In the first, Nebuchadrezzar has a dream about a great and marvelous tree that was home to all life but was later cut down. Daniel interpreted the tree to be Nebuchadrezzar’s empire. One day after he bragged about his own kingdom and glory, Nebuchadrezzar was afflicted with madness and was removed from power for seven years, after which time he came to his senses and acknowledged the supremacy of the Most High God. This tradition of kingly madness may be reflected in the apocryphal Prayer of Nabonidus. It was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls from

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Qumran and contains “the words of the prayer that Nabonidus, king of Assyria and Babylon, the great king, prayed.” In the prayer, the king notes how he was cut down with a dread disease by the decree of the Most High. He was set apart from men for seven years and was later restored to his throne. The details are reminiscent of Nebuchadrezzar’s seven-year dementia in 4:31–34 (see McNamara, 1970).

The second episode recounts the evening the Babylonian Empire fell. King Belshazzar was holding a raucous feast in which the sacred Jerusalem temple cups were used, clearly a sacrilege to Jews:

Immediately the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand; and the king saw the hand as it wrote. (5:5)

Daniel was called in to read and interpret what turns out to be a very clever inscription, “mene, mene, tekel, parsin” (5:25). On one level, the four words are terms for coins: a mina, a shekel, and a half shekel. And each of these terms is related to a verb: number, weigh, divide. Speaking to Belshazzar, Daniel spins this into an oracle of judgment. God has numbered your days, weighed your deeds, and will divide your kingdom among the Medes and Persians.

The message of both stories for Diaspora Judaism is unmistakable. Their God will not abide profane empires forever. The words from Nebuchadrezzar’s prayer articulate Daniel’s theology of history:

All the inhabitants of the earth are reckoned as nothing. He does what he wants among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. None can stay his hand or say to him, “What are you doing?” (4:35)

The Most High God is ultimately in control and orders even the destinies of empires. The kingdom of God is coming, and Jews can partake of its glories if only they remain faithful to God and the Torah.


To understand the setting of the final portion of the book of Daniel it is necessary to summarize the history of the Maccabean period. The Maccabean conflict is the historical setting for the apocalypses (see Table 16.1), as well as for the final compilation of the book as a whole.

Alexander the Great began his conquest of the eastern Mediterranean world beginning in 333 BCE. By the time of his death in 323. Greek control extended as far east as the Indus Valley. After his death, control of the empire was divided among four generals, of whom only two are important for our purposes. Most of Mesopotamia went to Seleucus and became the Seleucid kingdom. Syria, Palestine, and Egypt went to

TABLE 16.1 Four Apocalypses of Daniel



7 Four beasts and son of man Kingdom of the persecuted Jews
8 Ram and he-goat Persian to Greek rule
9 Seventy weeks of years History from exile to Maccabean war
Kings of south and north
Ptolemies and Seleucids

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Greek Kingdoms

FIGURE 16.3 The Greek Kingdoms

Ptolemy and became the Ptolemaic empire. Palestine was roughly the dividing line between these two empires and for that reason became a matter of contention.

Palestine was under the control of the Ptolemaic empire until around 200. The Greek way of life, with its attractive cultural institutions such as gymnasiums and theaters, Greek language and literature, refined manners and colorful religion, was a serious temptation to the Jewish population and found not a few cultural converts. But during this time, Judaism was still an acceptable and even thriving enterprise.

This changed when the Seleucid Empire extended its area of control to include Palestine (see Figure 16.3). The Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV, nicknamed Epiphanes, ruled his empire from 175 to 164. He faced growing opposition to his rule throughout the Seleucid Empire. He interpreted the movements toward independence as being in part inspired by local religious and cultural practices. He decided to eradicate everything that smacked of provincialism and impose, by force if necessary, a uniform system of Greek cultural expression, a process called Hellenization. He outlawed such traditional Jewish practices as circumcision, dietary restrictions, and Sabbath observance and he made ownership of a Torah scroll a capital offense.

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Antiochus took visible and outrageous actions to demonstrate royal disfavor of Judaism. He forced Jews to eat pork in violation of kashrut and even sacrificed a pig on the altar of burnt offering in the Jerusalem temple complex. Then he set up a statue of Zeus in the most holy place of the temple. Many Jews accommodated Hellenism, the culture of the Greek world, and assimilated. Others opposed any sort of compromise. These latter were called Hasids, “faithful ones.” The struggle between the Seleucids and the Hasids is told in 1 and 2 Maccabees.

Armed Jewish resistance broke out in 167, led by a provincial Jew named Mattathias and his sons. The most famous son is Judas Maccabee, meaning Judas “the hammerer.” They successfully waged a guerrilla campaign against the Seleucids, eventually resulting in the retaking of Jerusalem. They cleansed and restored the temple and resumed ritual activity as prescribed in the Torah. The temple was rededicated in 164 in a celebration called Hanukkah that lasted eight days. In apocalyptic literature’s typically cryptic and veiled way, the apocalypses of Daniel 7–12 relate to the history of this period.

Son-of-Man Apocalypse (7)

The apocalypses of Daniel consist of private dream visions followed by official interpretations communicated by angels. In this first apocalypse, Daniel saw four beasts and one like a son of man (1–14); this is followed by an angel’s interpretation (15–27):

In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel saw a dream and his mind had a vision while he was in bed. Afterwards he wrote down the dream. Daniel related it and said: “I saw the four winds stirring up the great sea in my nighttime vision. Four great beasts came up out of the sea, each different from the others. The first was like a lion and had eagle’s wings. Then its wings were pulled off as I watched, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human, and it was given a human mind.” (7:1–4)

This narrative introduction introduces the dream vision. The year is 554 when Belshazzar ruled over Babylonia on behalf of Nabonidus. The great sea out of which the beasts arose recalls the mythic waters of chaos associated with evil and populated with dragons and monsters (see Isaiah 51:9–10 for a similar allusion to the waters of chaos). The stormy sea is a fitting image for the tumultuous affairs of the nations that threaten God’s people. The lion represents Babylonia (see Figure 16.4).

Daniel goes on to describe three other beasts: a bear standing for Media, a leopard for Persia, and a beast with ten horns so terrible that it was unlike any natural creature standing for Greece. As he watched,

thrones were put in place, and an Ancient of Days took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head was like pure wool; his throne was on fire and its wheels were burning. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand ten thousands stood attending him. The court sat in judgment and the books were opened. (7:9–10)

The Almighty, described as a stately elder and called the Ancient of Days, was surrounded by the Divine Council. He presided from atop his mobile fiery throne-chariot, recalling Ezekiel’s throne-chariot vision and even Elijah’s translation to

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Ishtar Gate

FIGURE 16.4 Ishtar Gate, Babylon

The gate into Babylon and the royal processional way was decorated with hybrid creatures. They may have influenced Daniel’s description of the evil empire beasts.

Source: Robert Koldewey. Das Ischtar-tor in Babylon, nach don Ausgrabungen durch die Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1918), Plate 20.

heaven. Together they rendered judgment, and the terrible beast was destroyed by fire. Then another figure appeared who received command of the earth:

As I watched the night visions, I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He went to the Ancient of Days and was presented to him. To him was given dominion, glory, and kingship. All people, nations, and languages would serve him. His dominion would be an everlasting dominion that would not disappear. His kingship would never be destroyed. (7:13–14)

A humanlike figure, “one like a son of man,” next appeared in the vision and was given total power over the kingdoms of this world. This mysterious and intriguing figure is separate from the supreme deity yet comes from heaven. It may be the angel Michael, who appears by name in the fourth apocalypse.

The identification of the “one like a son of man” figure in 7:13 is problematic. The phrase “son of man” is used in the book of Ezekiel when Yhwh addresses the prophet (for example, 2:1 and 3:1) and seems only to mean human being. In Daniel the phrase “a human-like figure” refers to an angel (8:15 and 9:21; but a different figure is being referred to in these references than the one in 7:13).

Thus, the son-of-man figure is suggestive yet open ended (see Angel, 2006). It develops into a messianic notion in postbiblical literature. For example, according to the first book of Enoch (37–71), the Enoch of Genesis 5:24 will return to earth as “son of man” at the end of time and establish the rule of God. Son of man is a component of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament Gospels. Jesus prefers the title “son of man” over all others, perhaps just because it both affirms and veils his claim of divinity.

One of the members of the Divine Council gave Daniel the interpretation of the vision, and in that interpretation, the humanlike figure is a symbol for the collective

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people of God, just as the individual beasts each stood for an empire. The “holy ones,” as they are called, come to possess the kingdom of God for all time.

The setting of this vision, as well as the detailed description of the fourth beast in verses 23–27, suggests that the term holy ones stands for the righteous Jews who were persecuted by Antiochus IV. The writer of Daniel 7 wrote this apocalypse at the time of Antiochus’s oppressive rule over Judea (175–164 BCE). He was writing in the expectation that the Seleucid kingdom of the wicked Antiochus would come to an end, and then Israel would receive the power of the kingdom of God forever.

Clearly, the writer of the Daniel 7 apocalypse knew the tale of Nebuchadrezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 and updated it to his time. The four metals of Nebuchadrezzar’s dream correspond to the four beasts; the stone that becomes a mountain is the “one like a son of man,” later the “holy ones.” The four age scheme of world history, found twice now in Daniel, can be found elsewhere in ancient literature. For example, a Mesopotamian dynastic prophecy describes the fall of Assyria and the rise of Babylonia, the fall of Babylonia and the rise of Persia, and then the fall of Persia and the rise of the Hellenistic monarchies (see Grayson, 1975). Also, the Works and Days of Hesiod divides history into four ages: gold, silver, bronze, and iron.

3.2 Other Apocalypses (8–12)

The other apocalypses provide additional details about the rule of the wicked kingdoms. The tale of the ram and the goat (8) allegorically relates the transition from Persian to Greek rule. It spends the most time on “the little horn,” the code word throughout the book of Daniel for Antiochus IV. It tells of the desecration of the sanctuary and its reconsecration at Hanukkah.

Chapter 9 updates Jeremiah’s prophecy that Israel would be in captivity to Babylonia for 70 years (25:11–12; 29:10). In Daniel’s apocalypse, the period of domination is extended to seventy weeks of years, or 490 years. This accounts for the long delay after the fall of Babylonia; the restoration of Israel still awaits the future.

The extended apocalypse of 10–12 relates the conflict between the Ptolemies and Seleucids for control of Palestine in great but cryptic detail. It includes a description of the great tribulation introduced by the military campaigns of Antiochus IV. The end-times will be a period of great distress, but God’s people will be delivered:

There will be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation until that time. But at that time your people will be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will wake up, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness (will shine) like the stars for ever and ever. But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many will run to and fro, and knowledge will increase. (12:1–4)

With the possible exception of Isaiah 26:19, this passage contains the clearest reference in the Hebrew Bible to resurrection, a return to life after death. The dead will be raised and judged, some gaining eternal life and others punishment. Most of the Hebrew Bible knows nothing of resurrection, and there was no developed concept of an afterlife. Only Enoch and Elijah escaped death. Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (37:1–14) is a corporate resurrection and is essentially a symbol of national restoration. The primary mode of individual after-existence was through

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offspring who carried on the ancestral name. Still, death was not considered the absolute end of personal existence. After death a person descended into sheol, the underworld, where that person existed as a shade or shadow of the former self. This late passage in Daniel is a hint of the notion of resurrection that takes hold strongly within Judaism and Christianity after the second century BCE (see Segal, 2004).

Observe that Daniel is to keep these apocalypses sealed—just the opposite of classical prophecy that was to be broadcast. This is typical of apocalyptic literature generally. Apocalypses were to be kept secret until the end of time—that is, the time of the great conflict therein predicted. This perpetuates the literary fiction that these materials were written long before the events themselves transpired and that their meaning would only be revealed at the end.

Some conservative Christians lay great store in the apocalyptic material of Daniel as well as other Old Testament and New Testament apocalyptic passages. Like pieces of a giant divine jigsaw puzzle, the biblical references are correlated with contemporary events to provide a “map” of the end of the world. Genuinely creative, apocalyptic literature could be considered the ancient equivalent of our modern genre of science fiction for the way it tries to conceptualize and visualize the shape of the future. The book of Daniel reflects a new approach to dealing with historical experience. It extrapolates from the present and tries to imagine how the future might look, heavy on the imagination (see Boyer, 1992, for the impact of apocalyptic on American culture).


We have divided the book of Daniel into two parts based on content: the heroic tales and the apocalypses. But one feature of the book compromises the clean division of Daniel into these two parts. Daniel is one of the two books in the Hebrew Bible that contains a substantial amount of text written in Aramaic rather than in Hebrew; the other is Ezra. The section of Daniel written in the Aramaic language, 2:4 through the end of Chapter 7, spans the division based on form and content. Nobody knows exactly why (see Hartman and Di Lella, 1978).

The book of Daniel was classed with the Writings rather than the Prophets in the Jewish canon for a variety of reasons. Daniel does not play the role of a prophet in the book but rather the roles of wise man, diviner, and counselor to kings. The latter half of the book consists of apocalypses rather than prophetic oracles of the type found in classical prophecy. And the book is much later than the prophetic body of writings, which was considered closed after around 400 BCE. Daniel is classed with prophetic literature in the arrangement of books in most English Bible translations. But the book of Daniel obviously differs from mainstream prophetic literature.

How was Daniel heard by Jews in the post-Maccabean period? There would seem to be a problem insofar as the book of Daniel foretold the end of world history and the triumph of God’s kingdom with the demise of Antiochus IV. Yet the world did not end in the way or at the time predicted. In fact, it did not end at all as the writer expected it would. Some might judge the book to be mistaken. So how could it still speak to a later age? And how could it be canonized?

Although the future that the book of Daniel imagined did not come to pass as he had envisioned it, the book gives powerful expression to the need for vision and the need to conceptualize the future imaginatively in order to prepare for it. The book is

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quite pessimistic about the ability of human structures to redeem the world. The kingdom comes by the intervention of God. Yet even this is profound testimony to the writer’s abiding hope in the power of God’s rule and in the ability of the faithful to cope and endure in a time of severe social and political crisis.


Perhaps just because Daniel’s future did not come to pass, Daniel continued to be central to the faith. The figure of Daniel became very popular in Judaism and more came to be written about him. These postbiblical stories are called the Additions to Daniel and they are present in the Greek version of the book of Daniel, which is an expanded edition of the Hebrew version. The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men is found within Chapter 3. The story of Susanna and the story of Bel and the Dragon follow Chapter 12. The tale of Susanna is especially clever and delightful.

Go to the companion website and read the “Additions to Daniel.”

5.1 Addition 1: The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews

The Septuagint version of Daniel inserts an account of Daniel’s three friends’ furnace experience between 3:23 and 24. This addition addresses questions that must have arisen in some believers’ minds, such as what was it like in the furnace and what were these pious young men thinking at the time. The first part is a prayer in the form of group complaint (or lament) psalms. It is voiced by Azariah, otherwise called Abednego in the stories. It contains a corporate confession of sin, a general description of their plight, and a cry for deliverance. Nothing in the prayer is specific to the conditions in the furnace and does not even mention it. Rather, this composition is typical of general complaint psalms from this period.

Then follows a short narrative description of the fire and furnace:

The angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariah and his companions, and drove the fiery flame out of the furnace, and made the inside of the furnace as though a moist wind were whistling through it. The fire did not touch them at all and caused them no pair or distress. (26-27 NRSV)

The final portion of this addition is a long group thanksgiving psalm marking their deliverance from the furnace. Virtually every couplet of this song has the form “Bless the Lord” followed by a target audience, and the B-line is “sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

5.2 Addition 2: Susanna

The tale entitled “Susanna” places a young Daniel in the role of detective, and it is a cute story. It is ordered as Daniel Chapter 13 in the Septuagint version of Daniel. Susanna was a very beautiful, Torah-observant Jewish woman. She was married to Joakim, and they lived in Babylon during the exile.

Joakim was very wealthy, and Jewish leaders used to gather in his garden. Two influential Jewish judges took to lusting after Susanna and trapped her in the garden

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one day, expecting to have their way with her. She then faced a legal dilemma. If she gave in to their demands, she would be guilty of adultery and subject to the death penalty. If she refused, they would accuse her of liaison with a young man, and she would still face execution. She was in quite a bind.

The two elders brought her to trial on charges of consorting with an unnamed young man. Unable to answer the charges, Susanna was sentenced to death. As she is being led to execution, Daniel came forward and demanded that he cross-examine her accusers. He separated the two elders and asked each independently which tree it was she and the young man were under when they had relations. When they gave conflicting responses, Daniel exposed their deception, and the elders themselves were sentenced to death for bearing false witness.

The story serves to affirm the ultimate justice of God in the face of unjust accusation and innocent suffering. It also serves to enhance the reputation of Daniel as a righteous and wise man of God. Finally, it is yet another tale that illustrates how vulnerable God’s people can sometimes be in the face of evil forces–especially young women who might find themselves powerless in a patriarchal religious culture where males are presumed to be in the right.

5.3 Addition 3: Bel and the Dragon

This addition consists of two parts and is rendered as Chapter 14 in the Septuagint. Bel, the first part, displays Daniel again as the clever detective and a champion for the Most High God in the face of idolatry. It is set during the early Persian period and shows Cyrus as supreme ruler who honors Marduk, the high god of Babylon who is referred to as Bel in this story (same as the Hebrew and Canaanite word baal, meaning “Lord” or “Master”).

Cyrus marvels to Daniel that Bel must be a living god because daily he consumes substantial quantities of food brought to him as sacrifices. Daniel rejoins that Bel is not a real God and he does not really eat all this food. The priests of Bel propose a test to prove he does, but Daniel demonstrates just the opposite in a very inventive way. To find out how he did it, you will have to read the short tale.

The second part of this addition is the story of the Dragon, along with imaginative elaborations of the lion’s den episode. The Babylonians considered the dragon, a snakelike entity, to be a living being. Daniel set about exposing the untruth of this claim. He cooked up a mixture of pitch, fat, and hair that was fed to the dragon. After eating it, the dragon exploded, thus proving it is not an eternally existent god.

Altogether, these additions to Daniel attest a lively interest in this, the greatest Jewish hero of the era. On multiple occasions, his quick wit and intelligence saved the day. His piety was an enduring example to his compatriots, and his faith was duly honored by God, even on occasion snatching him from certain death.



1. Apocalypse, apocalypticism, and apocalyptic. What is the definition of each term, and how do they differ?

2. Apocalyptic literature. What are the main literary characteristics of apocalyptic literature?

3. Daniel. What are the two main sections of the book of Daniel, and what kind of literature is in each?

4. Heroes. Who were the main heroes of the book of Daniel, and what were the moral lessons of their heroic tales?

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5. Maccabees. What is the connection between the book of Daniel and the history of the Maccabean era?

6. Prophecy and apocalyptic. What is the relationship of classical biblical prophecy and apocalyptic prophecy? What are their similarities and differences?


1. History or legend. Do you think that the spectacular events in the lives of the heroes of Daniel really happened, such as the three friends surviving the furnace or Daniel coming out of the lion’s den alive? Did they have to happen exactly that way for the book to be true?

2. Prediction. Can we rightly expect Daniel along with other biblical books like it to provide a road map for the future of humanity? If not exactly a GPS system, then how else might such books function? Does the book of Daniel have a message for today?

3. History and hope. How does one’s vision of the culmination of history impact the way life is lived in the present? Do you have any sense of where history is going and how it will affect you?

4. Apocalypse now. Can you think of any books, movies, or popular songs that deal with apocalyptic “end of the world” themes? How do they portray the future? Are they generally optimistic or pessimistic or what?

5. Managing the future. In what ways do we in our day try to discern and control the future? What social institutions are in the business of dealing with the future? How do our methods compare to biblical apocalyptic methods?


See Daniel, An Active Volcano: Reflections on the Book of Daniel, by D. S. Russell (1989), for discussions of Daniel and the modern world. Prophecy and Apocalypticism: The Postexilic Social Setting, by Stephen L. Cook (1995), examines the development of apocalyptic literature out of prophecy and argues that biblical apocalypticism, contrary to prevailing reconstructions, did not originate among the socially disenfranchised. Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World, by Catherine Keller (1996), is a feminist counterapocalyptic argument that explores our postmodern millennial world. Apocalypse Movies: End of the World Cinema, by Kim Newman (2000), explores the explosion of films that imagine the end and what life could be like afterward.