Daniel – a Prophetic Vision Part 3

1642again, Going Postal
Nebuchadnezzar, Tate impression
William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Dream of Nebuchadnezzar – Daniel Chapter 2

The second chapter of Daniel is Daniel’s first big moment ‘on stage’ in which he interprets a dream for King Nebuchadnezzar, the great king of Babylon who had conquered many surrounding countries, including Judaea, and taken the Jewish elite, among them the young Daniel, back to Babylon to prevent them stirring up trouble in his new territory.  They don’t seem to have been enslaved but rather forced to live in exile among their overlords, in some ways as hostages.

Summary of the Chapter

Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and summons his astrologers, magicians and priestly advisers to interpret its meaning, but clearly does not trust them so instructs them both to tell him what he dreamt and its meaning.  The latter protested that they could not interpret his dream if they did not know what it was.  The king remained obdurate, saying they if they truly had magical powers to interpret a dream, they should not need to be told what it was.  Nebuchadnezzar then sentenced all them and any other wise man to death, among them Daniel even though he was not present.

Daniel asks the arresting soldiers led by Arioch, captain of the king’s guard, what was happening. and Arioch explains.  Daniel prays to God and overnight has a vision from God explaining the nature and meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and then Daniel goes to Arioch to say he is able to explain it to the king.  Arioch brings Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel first describes the dream: Nebuchadnezzar had seen a image of a great statue bathed in light, with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, abdomen and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet and toes of a mix of iron and clay, and that the feet of the statue were shattered by a rock thrown by presumably Jehovah, and the statue toppled over and shattered, it’s tiny fragments being blown away like dust in the wind until nothing remained, while the rock grew and grew until it filled the Earth.

Daniel then interprets the dream for Nebuchadnezzar. The golden head is Nebuchadnezzar himself and his empire, but his kingdom will eventually be replaced by an inferior one and that by a yet still inferior one which will rule over the whole Earth or known world, and that itself will be replaced by another Empire, that of iron, or a military superpower like iron, that crushes others as a weapon but which can shatter and which is divided into two – the two legs. This shall then break down into two weaker empires, iron mixed with clay, and ultimately into ten smaller kingdoms made of the same partly strong and partly weak amalgam – hence our saying of someone having ‘feet of clay’ or being great but flawed.  Eventually, these successor kingdoms which be shattered by the kingdom of Jehovah which shall obliterate want went before and institute the eternal divine rule.

Nebuchadnezzar is impressed by Daniel’s explanation and his accuracy, and rewards Daniel lavishly and makes him his leading adviser while recognising Jehovah as the most powerful of the gods (he remained a polytheist in other words and such syncretism was not unusual among pagan cultures.

The Dream’s Contemporary Context

The dream story is fascinating and is still a cause of debate 25 centuries later.  It’s not unique, either in the Book of Daniel or indeed in ancient literature of the mid and early 1st millennium BC – such things appear in many ancient cultural records of the day – Greek (Herodotus’ Histories contains many), Babylonian inscriptions (one recording a dream of Nabonidus, Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, has been recovered from archaeological excavations in Iraq), Persian records etc.  Such things became less common in the later ancient world outside fiction and poetry.  This in itself tends to support the argument that much of Daniel is original and dates to the 6th century BC, even if it has been added to by later editors.

Before I get into talking about Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, I want to make four further points on the text of chapter 2 of Daniel.

  1. The first four verses of the chapter are in Hebrew and the remainder (and indeed until the end of chapter 7) are in early Aramaic, and indeed the first words of verse 5 is in Hebrew and the latter part quoting Nebuchadnezzar’s words are Aramaic. Why this should be so is much disputed, but it seems pretty clear that the later Hebrew editors who probably added the explanatory chapter 1 in Hebrew also added the first few verses to the Aramaic original to help explain it to their contemporaries.
  2. The whole of chapter 2 is an ancient literary device as is the whole of the Book itself, called a chiasmus in which the central lesson for the reader appears in the central passage with wrappings of story arranged before and afterwards, so:
    1. Introduction (v.1)
    2. The king and his unwise courtiers (vv.2-12)
    3. Daniel and Arioch (vv.13-16)
    4. Daniel and his friends pray to God (vv.17-23)
    5. Daniel and Arioch (vv.24-25)
    6. The king and Daniel, the wise courtier (vv.26-47)
    7. Result (vv.48-49).
  3. The whole story of Daniel’s first prophetic explanation is again relatively common among writings of the period and earlier across a number of Near Eastern cultures – it’s a Court and Commoner story in which a kingdom’s elite are unable to answer/solver a problem for a king and the explanation/answer is provided by a marginalised figure such as a prisoner or commoner. It’s a subversive paradox utilised by writers such as Hesiod (not the slightly earlier Homer) and Herodotus.  Furthermore the dividing of prior history into different ‘ages’ associated with metals etc and predicating a decline is also seen in several ancient cultures.
  4. The primary purpose of the whole chapter and entire Book is to emphasise the sovereignty or supremacy of Jehovah over all nations, not just the Jews.

Explanation of the Dream

The imagery of is so vivid and striking that it still has resonance today and is perhaps one reason why the Book of Daniel remains of such interest to later peoples, especially when their own times seem so unstable, even apocalyptic.  But what does it mean – Daniel does not identify the empires and kingdoms to come after that of Nebuchadnezzar?

The modern secular explanation, predicated on the questionable assumption that Daniel was largely written in the early second century BC (itself a circular argument) is that the four empires were the Babylonians, Medes, Persians and then the Greeks of Alexander the Great.  Part 1 set out the reasons why and the most probable explanation that Daniel is a mix of a 6th century core with 2nd century editing and additions, but the dream of Nebuchadnezzar is included in the original core.  Furthermore, there is another problem with the modern interpretation – the Medes were allies of the Babylonians until they were annexed by the Persians of the Cyrus the Great before the latter conquered them, and never ruled over the Jews or Babylon and were not successors to the imperium of Nebuchadnezzar.  Furthermore, the Medes and Persians were regarded as a composite people by other nations being of the same ethnicity, culture and language, who drew little distinction between them.  For this and the other dreams stated elsewhere, the modern secular interpretation does not fit Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.

1642again, Going Postal
Stained glass depiction of Daniel interceding with Arioch, commander of the king’s guard, who was ordered to execute the Babylonian wise men after they were unable to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.
David Jackson [CC BY-SA 2.0 uk], via Wikimedia Commons
The traditional Christian interpretation works much better.  The golden head is the Babylonian empire of Nebuchadnezzar, the silver breast and arms that of the Medo-Persian empire of Cyrus and its successors, the bronze that of Greece, specifically that of Alexander whose empire did pretty much encompass most of the then known world, which was in turn replaced by the greatest military superpower of the ancient world – that of the Romans with their iron clad legions.  As we know, the Roman Empire split into two eventually – that of East and West (two legs) which in turn fragmented into smaller kingdoms which retained something of Rome (e.g. Holy Roman Empire, the Christian church, Byzantium and utterly even the Ottomans who claimed to be the inheritors of Rome as did the Russians).

Even today the Christian church, especially the Roman Catholic church, claims descent and authority from that of Rome, while the latest openly acknowledged attempt to reinstitute a secular Roman empire, the EU, whose founding document was deliberately called the Treaty of Rome for that very reason and only in the last weeks the head of the EU Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, openly called the EU an ‘empire’.  And this is why so many scriptural Christians, especially among the Protestant tradition, are so adamantly opposed to the EU – they see it as the feet and toes of iron and clay, strong but profoundly flawed, which is opposed to God and will be destroyed by Him in the End Times.

So, what are the ten toes or smaller successor kingdoms to that of Rome?  They are impossible to identify but are often seen as the most important constituent nations of the EU that were once within the orbit of Rome.  They are portrayed as strong and weak, divided and fractious but mixed together, a very good description of the EU’s membership!

The feet and toes will be shattered by the Rock.  Elsewhere in the Christian tradition the ‘Rock’ is St Peter, called by Christ the rock (Petros) on which the Earthly church is founded, or even Christ Himself – the eternal unchanging Rock, the ‘Rock of Ages’.  The rock of Nebuchadnezzar fits this image of the direct rule of Christ in the End Times much better – one which fills the whole world and will endure forever.

Of course, this interpretation requires that the Vision of Daniel be original and an accurate prophecy which spans to the far future, which causes problems for many.

The Value for Us

The primary message of the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is that of the sovereignty of God and how he helps the faithful in times of great difficulty, not by direct intervention but by giving wisdom and insight to those suffering.  For the Babylonian exiles who were at risk of assimilation by the pagan cultures around them, such writings as Daniel, Job and Ezekiel were important in reminding themselves of their unique culture/faith and telling themselves that the dark days would pass and that God would restore them to their homeland.

In terms of the meaning of the prophecy itself, the Christian interpretation works far better than the secular one, the latter having some major flaws of fact.  The challenge of it is that, if it is accepted by us as it is by many Christians around the world as being relevant to our own times and contemporary events, is how do we view them and respond?

© 1642again 2019

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