We get more and more predictions about the fate of the Persian empire, with increasingly complex realities as Daniel shares the fate of generations. But I want to hone in on one particular idea. “And the wise of the people will allow the public to understand, and they will stumble by the sword and with flames, with captivity, and with plunder for days. And when they stumble, they will be helped with a little help, but many will join them because of smooth speech (Daniel 11:33-34).” I’ve spent the last three days at an incredible conference, learning from professionals, elected officials, and thought leaders in my field. While I know these two verses include both positives and negatives, the parts that drew me in were the positives – the ideas of allowing the public to understand, and being helped. Interacting with all of these leaders and inspiring figures motivates me, not because they’re somehow perfect, but rather because they stumble, and show authenticity in such a way that demonstrates their authenticity and complexity. I believe all great leaders are educators in some way, because whether or not they do so intentionally or by profession, they are successful in conveying understanding to the public and to their followers. And having had those interactions, our job is to carry them forward, not just leaving them as theoretical, but as actionable next steps to make the world a better place.
Another chapter, another world-altering vision. “In the third year of Cyrus, king of Persia, a word was revealed to Daniel, who was named Belteshazzar, and the word was true, and for a long time, and he understood the word and he understood it in the vision (Daniel 10:1).” Daniel has been in mourning for three weeks, for unknown reasons, and he’s by the river when he sees a man wearing linen, gold, and jewels. Daniel is the only one who can see him, and everyone else with him only senses his presence, which is intimidating enough, because they all immediately go hide. The experience is overwhelming, to say the least. Upon hearing his voice, Daniel collapses to the ground. The man/angel has come to help Daniel understand what will happen to the people at the end of days.
I guess this is my ignorance showing, because I had no idea that the book of Daniel was so full of esoteric, apocalyptic things. I knew about the lion’s den, and had also heard the story about his friends in the furnace, albeit with little context, but all of these dreams and visions full of angels and prophecy, were not something that I had ever really come across before. Realizations like these are what I love about Project 929, because had it not been for this project, I probably wouldn’t have read this on my own in its entirety, and now I feel like I’ve been exposed to a whole new layer of the Jewish canon. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve been considering what I want to study next, as this project marches towards the close, because rather than satisfy me, I find it’s only whetted my appetite for more reading and learning.
We seem to have had a time jump, because a generation has been skipped. “In the first year of Darius, the son of Ahasuerus of the seed of Media, who was crowned over the kingdom of the Chaldeans (Daniel 9:1).” Does this mean that there was crossover between Daniel’s story arc and that of Queen Esther? I wish that meant we could get his perspective on the events of that book, if he had predicted them, or how he, as another Jew intimately familiar with the court, handled the impending doom of the people. It’s interesting to think about all of the points in history when people could have crossed paths, but one story is told and the other is silenced in our collective memory and understanding of the world. It honestly never occurred to me that characters from different parts of the overall story could have interacted with each other beyond the pages of the text, but now all of these biblical fan-fiction-esque scenarios are running through my mind. What would those conversations have been like? Guess we’ll never know.
Daniel has another vision, this time of a ram and a goat. “I saw the ram goring westward, northward, and southward, and no beasts could stand before it, and no one could save [anyone] from its hand, and it did according to its will, and it grew. And I was pondering, and behold a he-goat came from the west over the surface of the entire earth, and it did not touch the ground and the goat had a conspicuous horn between its eyes (Daniel 8:3-4).” The dream is described in much further detail, and turns out to be a vision of the end of days. The chapter ends with Daniel describing himself as being so scared that he’s sick, and yet he powers through and gets up and does his duty for the king. It can be so hard to balance the things that one is dealing with personally (though, for most of us that means work/life struggles, not awareness of our visions of the end of the world), and to still carry out our responsibilities to the world. Daniel isn’t holing up by himself and cutting himself off from the world. He’s still very much out, doing his work, and making a difference, as well as processing his internal struggles. I respect that kind of devotion, and admire it in regular people, as well as [apparently] biblical prophets.
This time, instead of Daniel interpreting a dream for someone else, he gets to have one of his own. “Daniel raised his voice and said: I saw in my vision during the night, and behold the four winds of the heavens were stirring up the Great Sea (Daniel 7:2).” He dreams of mythical beasts, and this incredible yet terrifying world of fire. He got scared, which makes complete sense to me, and then interpreted his own dream of multiple kingdoms on earth and their eventual destruction. He kept the whole thing to himself. I often remember bits and pieces of my dreams when I wake up, and thankfully they’re never as scary or world-altering as Daniel’s appear to be. When I was little, I’d share my dreams with family and friends, but now I find that I like to keep them just for myself. Particularly as the memories of them often fade over the course of the day, I keep my reflections internal, and by the time I go to sleep the next night am usually just left with the general feeling that they gave me. I am intrigued by dream theory and symbolism and all of the things that our nighttime thoughts may or may not mean, and clearly based on this chapter, that kind of fascination is age-old!
So we’ve gone through two kings at this point in the book, and it’s time for a new one. “And Darius the Mede received the kingdom at the age of sixty-two (Daniel 6:1).” Darius seems to govern well, at first. He has three ‘satraps’ to carry out his wishes, and over them are viziers, one of whom is Daniel. It seems like a government bureaucracy, which hopefully will keep things from escalating out of control for this new ruler. But first, he has to deal with the issue of Daniel. Daniel is naturally superior to the other government officials, which upsets all of them, because Darius favors him over all of them. “Then the viziers and the satraps sought to find a pretext against Daniel regarding the kingdom, but they could find no pretext or fault because he was trustworthy, and no error or fault was found about him (Daniel 6:5).”
So they take another tactic – if nothing can be found wrong with the man, they go on a mission to delegitimize his faith. They coerce the king into issuing a decree saying that anyone who prays to either a god or a man other than the king for thirty days should be thrown into a pit of lions. Leaving aside that this is insane, it’s clearly a plot against Daniel, because we know that he will not go a month without praying to or consulting God. And he doesn’t – he prays publicly, just as before, three times a day, and the bureaucrats seek him out with the goal of catching him in the act. The king is upset when he hears the news, and tries to give Daniel a reprieve, but the men don’t let him, reminding him that his decrees cannot be altered. They’re just the absolute worst.
So the king carries through, much like in the book of Esther where the king wanted to change his mind and walk back his decision, but couldn’t. Daniel is thrown into a pit of lions overnight. The king is restless, and wants to see if he lived, and in the morning, it turns out that God protected Daniel. “My God sent His angel, and he closed the mouths of the lions and they did not hurt me because a merit was found for me before Him, and also before you, O king, I have done no harm (Daniel 6:23).” The king has him taken out of the pit, and now, all of the men who set Daniel up, and their families, women and children included, are thrown into the pit and are crushed to death by the lions. I realize this is meant to be some kind of poetic justice, but it just seems to me to be just like the story back in Esther where justice turns into revenge, which turns into excessive brutality. I’m all about justified retribution, but these kinds of escalations leave me with a bad taste.
“King Belshazzar made a great feast for his one thousand dignitaries, and he drank as much wine as the thousand (Daniel 5:1).” So this new king is introduced, and he’s a clear lush. He’s Nebuchadnezzar’s son, and follows the tradition of ancient near-Eastern kings throwing excessive parties – flashback to Esther and Ahasuerus in the Purim story! This king takes things even further and decides to take the vessels that his father looted from the Temple to drink out of at his party. So with this massive foreshadowing, we know that only bad things will come to him.
Just as the debauchery is reaching a peak, things get weird. “At that time, the fingers of a human hand emerged and wrote opposite the candelabrum on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the palm of the hand that was writing (Daniel 5:5).” So that’s terrifying, and the king agrees. We are told that the color drains from his face, and like his father, he calls for the necromancers and astrologers and promises rewards for someone who can tell him what it means. Everyone fails yet again, and the queen (who is nameless) comes to save the day. It reminds me of the Esther story, where the wife of the king has the answers, and yet her voice and role are marginalized in the kingdom due to her gender. In this case, she points her husband towards Daniel, who is immediately brought before the king.
Though the king promises Daniel gifts and power, he’s modest. “Then Daniel raised his voice and said before the king, ‘Keep your gifts for yourself, and give your lavish gifts to someone else, but I shall read the writing for the king, and I shall let him know the interpretation (Daniel 5:17).'” Daniel gives major insights, the king is happy and rewards him regardless of his admonitions not to, and all seems good. Until the next sentence, the final verse of the chapter.
“On that very night, Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was assassinated (Daniel 5:30).” WHAT? This is one of the first cliffhangers I really remember in Tanakh. I actually can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow, when things inevitably blow up in Daniel’s face.
This chapter starts with a change of narrator, and Nebuchadnezzar is speaking in the first person. “I, Nebuchadnezzar, was tranquil in my house and flourishing in my palace (Daniel 4:1).” He has another nightmare, and once again brings the wise men of Babylon to help him. All of them fail, until Daniel/Belteshazzar shows up. Nebuchadnezzar relays all of the details of his bizarre dream, and expresses his confidence in Daniel, because of his past experiences with him. Daniel is confused at first, and then gets scared, but eventually he realizes that the dream isn’t meant for Nebuchadnezzar himself, but rather for his enemies. “That is, O king, for you have become great and strong, and your greatness has increased and reached the heaven and your dominion [extends] to the end of the earth (Daniel 4:19).”
The king freaks out again, and the people eventually rebel against him. He is ostracized from humanity, but then he is restored, and once again ends up praising God. I swear, this king runs so hot and cold. He goes back and forth seemingly constantly, and doesn’t seem to have any stockpile of memories or past experiences to draw from. Every day is a clean slate, which strikes me as very dangerous.
“King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, its height sixty cubits, its width six cubits; he set it up in the plain of Dura, in the capital city of Babylon (Daniel 3:10.” I know that we’re anti-idols, particularly in Tanakh, but I have to say, this sounds kind of awesome. Sorry for that awkward blasphemy. All of the leaders of the community and kingdom gather for the dedication of the statue, and there’s a new edict that whenever the people in the kingdom hear music of any kind, they should immediately prostrate themselves to the gold statue. I can already tell that this won’t go well, particularly with the memory of our last book and how much Jews don’t like being told to bow.
And, just a couple of verses later, I’m right. “In view of this, at that time, some Chaldean men approached and denounced the Jews (Daniel 3:8).” They basically call out the Jews, Daniel’s friends, for not listening to the edict. The king becomes enraged that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego don’t follow his commandment, particularly given that the punishment of choice is being thrown into a fiery pit. However, this doesn’t seem to bother them too much, as they are confident that God will save them from the fires. This doesn’t sit well for the king, of course, and he has them tied up and thrown into a furnace.
All of this backfires, as the men who did the throwing end up falling in and burning. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego are there and don’t burn, and there’s also a fourth figure, who is said to be an angel. Nebuchadnezzar is amazed, and calls them out of the fire. Once again, he is impressed by God, and he issues a new edict that no one can blaspheme the God of the Jews. “How great are His signs, and how mighty are His wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom, and His dominion is with every generation (Daniel 3:33).”
“Now in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar dreamed dreams, and his spirit was troubled, and his sleep was interrupted (Daniel 2:1).” This anecdote, about a king who is disturbed in his sleep and needs someone to interpret his dreams, gives me massive flashbacks to Joseph interpreting for pharaoh, which set him on his rise to power back in Egypt. Several try to interpret for Nebuchadnezzar, but there’s a lot of confusion, and the king is angry. “In view of this, the king was in great wrath and anger and ordered to destroy all the wise men of Babylon (Daniel 2:12).”
Daniel and his friends are part of that category of wise men. Daniel speaks with Arioch, the chief executioner, and finds out that the decree against the wise men is because of dream interpretation fails, so he immediately goes to tell his colleagues and they get a vision from God to help them interpret for the king. “Then the secret was revealed to Daniel in the vision of the night; then Daniel blessed the God of heaven (Daniel 2:19).” Arioch brings Daniel to the king so he can share the meaning of the dream. Nebuchadnezzar is blown away, and rewards Daniel extremely. “Then the king elevated Daniel and gave him many great gifts and gave him dominion over all the capital cities of Babylon, and he was the chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon (Daniel 2:48).” So far, so good! This chapter, at least, ends on a high note, though I’m sure there’s much more drama to come.