Monday, December 3, 2012

From Darwin To Daniel

What follows is not a blog; they are the notes from a recent bible study. Interest in the subject and the contemporary need to "take back" Daniel from violent hermeneutics suggested they be posted here.

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Daniel is one of the last books of the Hebrew bible. Parts of it were written only 160 years before Jesus' birth. It could be compared with Darwin's Origin of Species, a book written in the recent past (middle of 19th century) which significantly affects present perspective. The worldview of fervent Jews living in the time of Jesus was as profoundly shaped by Daniel as many people are today by the writings of Darwin. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain fragments of eight manuscripts of Daniel, making it second only to Isaiah with twenty one copies. The Pharisees' belief in resurrection depends crucially on the book of Daniel. And, of course, the gospels are deeply informed by Daniel.

The comparison of Darwin and Daniel is not relevant just in terms of timescale: it works in terms of how people are shaped in respect of violence, something acutely pressing both at the time of Jesus and today. Is violence something inscribed in the nature of existence? Or is it something the biblical God is working to overcome? Daniel suggests the latter.

Christians today are called to acquaint themselves with Daniel's dramatic compositional process, in order to gain an accurate sense of what is at stake in the book, and in the gospels which frequently depend on this work.

The make-up of the book explains some of its nature. It consists first of a series of five accounts known as "court stories," telling of the Jewish youth, Daniel, in exile in Babylon. From chapter seven onward there follows a series of four visions experienced by Daniel and centering on the devastating circumstances of the attack by a Syro-Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, on Jerusalem.

The two sections are bound together by the figure of Daniel and a common thread or theme of successive violent kingdoms, ruling the world yet always under the imminent judgment of a God of justice and right.

The court stories circulated in the post-exilic period as a response to the dominant Babylonian, Medean, Persian and Greek cultures. These were military powers experienced at first hand by the exiles, which held total military control over the territory of Judea and Jerusalem.

In the context of national and cultural defeat the stories show the true superiority of the wisdom that comes from the God of Israel. God's Wisdom completely transcended that of the pagan court figures who claimed mantic insight (the dominant mysterious knowledge of those cultures). The God of Israel reveals to Daniel dreams and signs experienced by the kings and, within those dreams, the real truth is opened up. The truth is that these proud kings and kingdoms are destined to be overthrown and replaced by another kingdom, one established by God. (See especially chapters 2 and 4; note 2:31-45, the four kingdom sequence, which is then overwhelmed by a stone "not cut by hands." The stone becomes "a kingdom that shall never be destroyed.")

Stepping back, it is impossible to overstate the traumatic effect of the 6th century exile on devout Jews who survived it. If Exodus produced the national consciousness of Israel, with king, prophets and temple, Exile produced the Jews, a people conscious of the near-intolerable drama of being chosen by a God of justice. All through the post-exilic period their existence was balanced between the twin realities of abandonment by God and God's enduring commitment.

The Daniel court stories demonstrate the latter and they do so with a growing consciousness that the character of God is qualitatively different from that of the kingdoms of pride and violence that rule the earth. This is a critical step, distinguishing God's power from that of the violent empires. A key comparison to make is with the book of Ezekiel which fully identifies God's action with the atrocious violence of Babylon (see especially chapter 9). In Daniel God never threatens to use the violence of the kingdoms, let alone identifies with it. He rules the earth by sovereign divine power in which there is hardly any imagined or figured violence. The symbolism of the single stone invisibly cut out and striking the feet of the statue (2: 34) is both passive and as ascetic in terms of violence as it can get, and yet still be effective. This breakthrough constitutes the core revelation or "apokalypsis" of the book of Daniel, and powerfully underpins the vision section that follows.

In the 2nd century BC a new crisis erupted in Judea. The last remaining area of Israel had existed as an anonymous colony of the Persians, and then of the splintered kingdoms arising from Alexander the Greek's conquest of the world. Judea first came under the Egyptian line known as Ptolemies and then, at the beginning of the second century, it was taken over by a Syrian dynasty known as Seleucids. The Syrian regime proved itself more offensive and violent, both militarily and culturally, reaching a peak offense in the figure of Antiochus Epiphanes IV. (1 Maccabees 1, for account of Antiochus' actions.)

The book of Daniel shows Antiochus as perhaps one of the first truly "secular" rulers of history. It describes him as exalting himself above any god and honoring only "the god of fortresses," i.e. the god of state power (11: 36-38). Through a combination of Jewish assimilationists in Jerusalem (cf. 2 Maccabees 4: 7-20) and Antiochus' own eager arrogance he set out on an anti-Torah kulturkampf, trying to suppress the practice of Jewish religion and institute the worship of Zeus in the temple. This occurred between the years of 168 and 164 and it became the greatest crisis that Judaism had to confront since the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the exile itself in the 6th century.

The experience of the crisis was so fierce that it provoked in members of the Daniel group (i.e. those who had maintained the traditions about the mystery-revealing Daniel) an upsurge of dreams and visions which disclosed the secret of what was really going on, always in the key of the court stories. The visions were attributed to Daniel himself, setting them in the period of the exile, the archetypal time of trauma. Added to the court stories they created what we now know as the book of Daniel. Understood in this way the book of Daniel becomes a startling reading of intolerable present violence from the sense of a God as "other than violence" who was revealed in exile among the nations. It also witnesses to a group of pious Jews who practiced a de facto and even spiritually valued nonviolence. (For a fascinating parallel account of a group of Jews responding nonviolently out of piety see 1 Macc. 2: 29--38. This group and the Daniel group cannot be far apart, and may even be the same. Cf. Daniel 11:33--35.)

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The literalist reading which takes everything as indeed foretold in the 6th century must be rejected, on these grounds.

1. It ignores the placing of the book of Daniel in the Hebrew bible. It is found in the Writings (ketuvim), the last section of the bible, not in the grouping of the Prophets (nebiim). In other words the physical composition of the Hebrew bible implies that Daniel comes chronologically at least after Malachi, the last of the prophets in the 5th century. In fact the early second century Wisdom book, Sirach, knows and mentions the other three "major prophets," Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, but it knows nothing of Daniel

2. The literalist view does not recognize that the supposed 6th century foretelling gets the critical circumstances of Antiochus' death wrong (Daniel 11:45; Antiochus died in Persia, not Palestine). It is this error which enables us to conclude that the text was written during the events of the persecution but before the actual date of death in 164.

3. The literalist view glosses over the actual creative device of a blow- by-blow account (especially chapter 11) of the violent history of the 3rd and 2nd centuries: vague enough not to be exactly a report, but far too detailed and precise compared to any previous biblical prophecy.

4. In view of all the above the literalist reading neglects the creative process of imagination and composition, and therefore the full "grammatical" meaning of the text which must involve what the author and text intend to convey and the means chosen to convey it. The compositional device of dealing with 2nd century events by speaking of them back in the 6th century exile witnesses the dramatic need to underline the structural revelation of violence: something which it had taken four centuries of powerlessness to assimilate and understand.

5. The literalist reading thereby passes over the actual human experience of trauma and violence, remaking everything as "supernatural" and "foretold," actually trivializing revelation and downplaying any new awareness or understanding of human violence given by inner understanding. It thus in fact short-circuits biblical revelation and reinstalls the old order, reinventing a god of violence; while the book of Daniel represents a hugely significant shift away from such a god, a shift which reaches its fulfillment in Jesus.

6. The literalist reading reduces revelation to information, rather than seeing it as transformation, and neglects the preparation of the heart needed for interior insight.

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The visions presented by the book of Daniel begin with the most famous one, in chapter seven, that of the four military kingdoms represented as beasts from the abyss and the heavenly court session involving "one like a son of man." The discussion is always focused on this figure: an angel, the people of God, a single human individual? These alternatives imply the underlying question of whether the figure can in any way warrant the New Testament ascription of "the Son of Man" title to Jesus. What is so often missed is the stark contrast between this "human being" and the beasts. There is actually no violence on the part of God. The destruction of the beast takes place in a passive form without emotional violent signals. Authority is given to the human figure simply as a fact and without any kind of battle. In other words God is installing a kingdom of humanity, without military violence. The nonviolence and nonretaliation of God's people is also clearly signaled at 7: 25. Whoever or whatever the "one like a son of man" is the figure's core identity is nonviolence.

Chapters ten to eleven introduce a closely related figure of "one in human form," and also the angel Michael (10:20--21).. These two figures now contend at a cosmic level with "the prince of Persia" and "the prince of Greece." Once more there is a displacement of violent engagement. There are no violent emotional signals, only the sense of a struggle at another, more significant level. Typically the cosmic conflict was simply added to the human one (in the Qumran writings and in the "Left Behind" books). But it should much rather be read as taking the conflict out of human hands. If once again we read the text as a new sensitivity which sees God acting at least without human violence, and on an unknown transcendent level, we are both faithful to the insight of the Daniel group and much better placed to see how the book may have informed the decisions and actions of Jesus.

Finally, the doctrine of the resurrection comes at the beginning of chapter twelve (1--3), on the crest of a wave and as a sudden blinding flash. But it makes total sense. Resurrection belongs to biblical nonviolence and biblical nonviolence to resurrection. Because there is another, transformed order of life, rather than violent retaliation, it is possible to turn the other cheek. And because a group has been prepared to turn the other cheek they have achieved insight into the radical truth of resurrection. Jesus was the first completely to entrust himself to this insight of the book of Daniel, to put it to proof and turn it into gospel.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

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