As we begin in earnest our look into Daniel, there a few housekeeping items that we must put on the table. When we are dealing with a passage that is very familiar, we tend to blaze through what we think we already know. There are five key areas to remember at the outset.
- There is a tendency to sanitize biblical narratives. When a well-meaning Sunday school teacher emphatically says, “dare to be a Daniel!” has she stopped to consider what she is asking her students to do? Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah regular risked grizzly deaths in order to take a stand. Do we really have the guts to tell students to do the same? Furthermore, are we equipping them with what they need in order to actually do it? Food for thought.
- Use of assumed exegesis. Exegesis simply means the critical explanation and interpretation of the text. It literally means “to dig out”. Think ‘excavate’. Instead of asking over and over what the text is really saying and what is the message, we assume we already know. We have all done it. When we do, it is called eisegesis. We put back into it what we already know. The latter presupposes the meaning and risks a loss of true knowledge.
One of the best ways to test your own exegesis/eisegesis is to read an ancient book with which you have no prior experience. Go online and find a free copy of Homer’s Iliad. Don’t read the translator’s preface, introduction, or Sparks Notes. Just begin reading. You will find yourself asking questions of exegesis because eisegesis will be impossible. The first time your eyes take in the opening line of the poem that says, “Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Acheans.” you will probably ask, “who is the goddess?”, “who was Achilles and why was he so cheesed off?”, “who is Peleus and what are Acheans?”. You see? You will have to pay attention in order to get the meaning of the text.
- A tendency to mythologize characters in a narrative. I doubt I have to convince many of my readers that the stories we read are real, but we must remember that these characters were of flesh and blood; mind and spirit. They really existed in space and time. If we treat biblical narrative like a legend we risk missing an opportunity to better understand that some of them were directly part of world history changing events.
- We must remember that biblical narratives are not just history; they are theological history. Simple, accurate history tells us what happened. Theological history, on the other hand, tells us why.
My theology students are often flummoxed as to why books like Judges appear in the biblical text. Judges goes downhill pretty fast and it ends quite badly. They can’t understand how that stuff would be allowed in the Bible. Well, Joshua explains why Judges happened. The biblical text does not attempt to clean up a mess in order to hide unsavory details. It tells us of the bed man has made and why he is lying, many times, in his own stink.
- An unhealthy imbalance regarding future events. Make no mistake, Daniel is a treasure trove of prophecy. Some events have happened and we are awaiting others. Daniel also provides us with some very helpful tools in order to live rightly in a world that is completely antithetical to a biblical worldview. Let us not miss the trees for the forest. Eugene Peterson says it well in the introduction to Daniel in The Message. “Century after century, Daniel has shot adrenaline into the veins of God-obedience and put backbone into God-trust” (Peterson, 1581).
Rise of an Empire
The city of Babylon (from the Akkadian which means “gates of the gods”) is extremely old. The official history, although the town had been there for centuries, begins with the famous Hammurabi who ruled between 1792-1750 BC. Hammurabi is known for his laws but he also began building impressive walls and temples. He also instituted several political initiatives that lead to the consolidation of power in 1755 BC. All of Mesopotamia was united under Hammurabi and his capital was Babylon.
The Hittites sacked the city in 1595 BC and were followed by the Kassites. The Assyrians under Sennacherib (705-681) completely destroyed the city after a revolt. It was a man named Esarhaddon who finally rebuilt the city and it was during this time that Babylon became renowned as the place of culture and learning.
A very powerful man named Nabopolassar (625-605 BC) launched the most infamous and powerful dynasty Babylon had ever seen. He quickly set to work amassing the wealth and splendor of the city as well as planning the destruction of his enemies.
Nabopolassar successfully sacked the Assyrian capital of Ninevah in 612 BC after a three-month siege. Assyria was weakened but was not ready to give up. They forged an alliance with Egypt in order to hold onto the Assyrian-Palestine region. City-states have been fighting over Palestine for a very long time.
Judah’s King Josiah (one of Judah’s decent kings) attempted to break up the Egyptian-Assyrian alliance. He met the Egyptian Pharaoh, Necho, to fight him on the plains of Megiddo. Josiah was fatally wounded, taken back to Jerusalem where he died, and he was buried there. Necho took charge and installed his choice of king in Judah. His name was Jehoiakim (II Chronicles 35:20-36:4).
Three years later would see the beginning of great suffering in Jerusalem that would last several decades. Nabopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar (“May Nebu protect the crown”) set out to end the only obstacle to complete Babylonian superiority. According to the Babylonian Chronicle – an ancient stone tablet detailing Nebuchadnezzar’s accomplishments – Nebuchadnezzar completely crushed what was left of the Egyptian-Syrian defenses in the summer of 605 BC at the battle of Carchemish.
General Nebuchadnezzar received word that his father had died and the crown would be his. What does a Babylonian megalomaniac do to celebrate? He takes tributes from his vassal states, of course. Nebuchadnezzar made a stopover in Jerusalem before heading home. Here, in the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim (Daniel 1:1), Nebuchadnezzar does what all conquering kings do, he takes home prizes of victory. In this case, there are two categories. The first is material. He helps himself to some of the articles from the temple and he puts them on display back home. The second are people. It is here our story begins.
We learn the specific names of four (although there were many others) very young men that Nebuchadnezzar is going to force to transfer to the University of Babylon. Conquering kings have practiced taking the best and brightest back to their capitals. It helps keep the rebellion to a dull roar and they are used to help rule their vanquished countrymen. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were shipped off 900 hundred miles from home and dropped into the most technologically advanced and idolatrous city on the planet. Their worldview, belief in and allegiance to Yahweh, would be put to the test…just like every other college student to this day.
Our next installment will look at a fundamental worldview question: what is my purpose? Scores of my students have told me that this is the question that haunts them the most. In order to have a genuine grasp of each individual life purpose, we must first ask one other question: who or what is behind human history? Is there really a story or not?
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Against the Flow – John Lennox
The Message – Eugene Peterson
The New American Commentary: Daniel – Stephen R. Miller
The NIV Application Commentary: Daniel – Tremper Longman III