Daniel is the last of the major prophetical books and it is set in the exile, though some of the book pertains to events much later on in Israel’s history, specifically in the second century BC. This has led to the nearly universal scholarly consensus that Daniel was not written until the second century or later, even if there are older traditions included within it. As a whole, Daniel is considered to be a largely fictional account of Israel’s exilic experience, especially as it has some similarities to two other “hero” stories of the time: the Apocryphal books of Tobit and Judith. Along with Ezra, Daniel is the only other book of the Old Testament to be (largely) written in both Hebrew and Aramaic (chapters 2-7).
Daniel 1 introduces us to Daniel, a pious young man in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. As the story quickly unfolds, Daniel is trained to enter the king’s service and yet steadfastly refuses to compromise his Israelite faith. In spite of this seeming hurdle to Daniel, he and his companions are found to be most worthy to serve the king. Daniel becomes an interpreter of the king’s dreams (as Joseph was in Genesis). In the first dream, Nebuchadnezzar sees a statue made up of gold, silver, iron, and clay, each representing a different successive kingdom (the clay represents Greece under Alexander the Great). At the end of the dream, a stone smashes the statue, which represents the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom.
Two of the better-known scenes in this book are when Daniel and his friends are thrown into a furnace and then when Daniel himself is thrown alone into a lions’ den. In both stories, these pious Israelites come out unscathed; leading the king to acknowledge the Israelite God’s power. The object lesson here to Jews living after the exile is that faithfulness to God will make the world take notice, and so they should take heart in the present circumstances. In another famous scene, a finger mysteriously appears and writes on a wall during a banquet thrown by king Belshazzar. No one can interpret it but Daniel, and he tells those at the banquet that God is bringing judgment upon Belshazzar: his kingdom will be divided among the Medes and Persians.
The second half of the book, chapters 7-12, is a series of dreams and visions that have been a constant puzzle for Christian interpreters. These chapters depart from the style of the first half of the book and come to us in the form of apocalyptic literature. They speak of God’s coming judgment on the present world order and which will be replaced with the eternal rule of God. This is not “end of the world” language, however. Apocalyptic literature uses graphic and cosmic language to describe significant events within the world, not beyond it. In particular, Daniel’s visions contain animals representing kingdoms (like the precious metals and clay in chapter 2). Also, Daniel’s prayer leads the angel Gabriel to give him a vision for the future ofIsrael. Seventy “sevens” of years—490—will pass from the restoration of the temple until the “anointed one” comes. Near the end of that period, a great abomination will occur in the temple, which scholars say refers to Antiochus IV Epiphanes who desecrated the temple in 167 BC, which in turn provoked a major Jewish revolt. This historical reference is one of the main reasons scholars believe that the book of Daniel was written relatively late, most likely in the second century BC.
Chapter 12 is the only clear reference in the Old Testament to a future resurrection, either to everlasting life or contempt. There is some significant question as to whether this chapter is intended to be taken literally or, like the rest of the book, symbolically. Since 12:7 uses the same language as that found in 7:25, where the unfolding of national events is the topic, it is likely that this passage is also dealing with a historical moment, though using a different image to describe it. The dead raised are likely Jews who met their end in persecution.
All in all, Daniel is a book about the ups and downs of Jewish history during and after the exile. Amid the troubles of history, where God’s people are subject to foreign rule—Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and finally Romans—Israel’s God is still the one who rules history and will vindicate God’s people. This message is similar to what we read in the book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible, likewise a highly symbolic book.
– Peter Enns