If it had been composed a little bit later, the Book of Daniel may have been consigned to the pile of texts labelled the ‘Apocrypha’, and the stories of Daniel in the lions’ den, the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast, and Nebuchadnezzar throwing Shadrach and his fellow Jews into the fiery furnace would not have become the well-known tales they are.
So, why did the Book of Daniel become part of the canon, despite being composed so late – some four centuries after the events it describes? And how should we interpret the book’s meaning and significance?
Before we offer an analysis of the Old Testament Book of Daniel, here’s a brief summary of its contents.
The Book of Daniel: summary
The name of Daniel is mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel as a man famed for his wisdom and righteousness. He forms a kind of holy trinity with Noah and Job, two other righteous figures from the Old Testament. However, in being grouped with those two well-known men, it is implied that Daniel is clearly an ancient figure, rather than someone alive at the time of the events of the Book of Daniel. The name ‘Daniel’ was probably therefore appropriated by the author of the later Book of Daniel – whoever that author may have been – because of its connotations of religious fidelity. The ‘Daniel’ of the Book of Daniel is, though, a fiction.
The main events of the Book of Daniel are as follows.
The Jews are living in exile in Babylon, some time in the sixth century BC. We are told that the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar (probably really Nabodinus, who was a later ruler) has a dream and calls upon the wise men of his court (who included Daniel) to interpret its meaning for him. Unfortunately, Nebuchadnezzar can’t remember the dream, so Daniel has to remember it for him and then divine its significance, otherwise he and his fellow ‘magicians’ or wise men will be put to death. The dream Daniel interprets represents the different empires and kingdoms of the day, while prophesying that Alexander the Great’s Macedonian empire would rise up and swallow the rest. (This detail proves that the Book of Daniel was written later on.)
The next key event in Daniel is the famous incident of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – Daniel’s fellow Jews in exile in Babylon – being thrown into the ‘burning fiery furnace’ for refusing to pay homage to an idol of Nebuchadnezzar. God intervenes and the men are spared from the flames, emerging unscathed. We have analysed this story in more detail here.
The next event also concerns Nebuchadnezzar, who has a dream that he will lose his mind and end up eating grass like an ox, unless he repents his sins. Sure enough, before the year is out he is ‘driven from men’ and retreats outside to eat grass with the oxen. In ancient writings, this strange story is first attached to the ruler Nabodinus (as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s revealed), suggesting that the author of Daniel substituted Nebuchadnezzar for Nabodinus in the events described. The story of the ruler becoming like an ox is thought to derive from Assyrian worship of bulls as representatives of good-luck deities.
Then we come to Belshazzar’s feast. Daniel is now an old man, and is called upon to interpret the mysterious ‘writing on the wall’ that appears during Belshazzar’s feast: ‘MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN’. This cryptic inscription is thought to mean something along the lines of ‘Babylon has been weighed in the balance and found wanting’, prophesying (again) that the Babylonian empire will be swallowed up by a much mightier one (the Persians).
Sure enough, Darius and his Persian army invade, and Belshazzar dies. The remainder of the Book of Daniel includes the incident in which Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den for praying to God when an edict prohibited it (since Darius set himself up as godlike and wanted no competition). Once again, God intervenes, and the lions do not harm Daniel. There follows a series of prophetic dreams and apocalyptic visions.
The canonical Book of Daniel omits them, but the Apocrypha (which the Catholic Church includes as canon) contains three further Daniel stories: the story of Susanna and the Elders (in which some old men attempt to seduce the virtuous Susanna, and then accuse her of adultery when she refuses their advances; Daniel cross-examines the elders and reveals their accusation is a fabrication) and the two conflated stories of Bel (in which Daniel reveals the deity of Bel to be a false god, because the offerings supposedly eaten by Bel are actually consumed by priests) and the Dragon (in which Daniel is ordered to worship a ‘Dragon’ or large snake as a god, but he kills it with poison to reveal it to be mortal).
The Book of Daniel: analysis
The Book of Daniel is a curious text. Although it concerns events of the sixth century BC, during the reign of ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ in Babylon, it was clearly written many centuries later: some time in the second century BC is the best guess. And there are some, as Isaac Asimov argues in his informative (but sadly out-of-print) Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament by Isaac Asimov (September 19,1973), who have argued that the Book of Daniel should really have been grouped with the Apocrypha, with the Book of Susanna or Bel and the Dragon, because it was written long after the other ‘prophetic’ books (the Book of Jonah was written in around 300 BC).
But Daniel was included in the canon of Biblical texts, and its stories have consequently become among the best-known in all of the Old Testament. The Book of Daniel deals with the Jews deported from Judah to Babylon in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, and shows Daniel and his co-religionists resisting the Babylonian king’s tyrannical demands that they leave aside their religious devotion to God.
So the purpose of the book is to encourage Jewish people to remain true to their religion, even when faced with pressure (upon pain of death, in some cases) to compromise or turn away from it. The miraculous events of the book – Daniel himself remaining unharmed in the lion’s den, Shadrach and his fellow Jews emerging from the fiery furnace unscathed – serve as reassurance to the faithful that God will intervene to protect them.
Curiously, though, the Book of Daniel wasn’t composed until around the second century BC – the Dictionary of the Bible puts the date at around 164 BC – even though the events it describes occurred some four centuries earlier. And it’s clear that those events are inventions, perhaps based on earlier legends, to which the name of Daniel has been attached. The Book of Daniel is, then, historical fiction, like someone of the twenty-first century writing a book set during the English Civil War.
But it’s more than this: it’s historical fiction functioning as allegory. During the time of the book’s composition, Jews were facing oppression and persecution from the Seleucids, a group who dwelt on the coast of what is now Syria. But the anonymous writer of Daniel could not call out the Seleucid empire directly, for doing so would invite charges of treason.
Setting the events of the Book of Daniel firmly in the past in an altogether remote period would cloak their contemporary relevance, but those Jewish readers with ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’ would doubtless pick up on the allegorical meaning of the stories for their own time. There may not be many valid comparisons between the Book of Daniel and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but the device of turning to an earlier historical period to comment on contemporary persecution is something they both have in common.