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By the time you finish reading Daniel, you'll probably be wondering how all these Babylonian and Persian kings could be so incredibly thick. In the course of the book's opening stories, the kings keep realizing that Daniel's God is, in fact, everybody's God, or the only God—and then they immediately do something entirely disrespectful and ridiculous like drinking booze out of sacred vessels or chucking people into furnaces. But that's part of the problem posed by The Book of Daniel: how do you live under the control of people who just don't get it while still remaining true to yourself? It was an issue that the Israelites happened to be struggling with in a big way at the time the book was written.
The Book of Daniel came out of a period when Israel was going through some major problems, like getting invaded, plundered, and totally devastated by different imperial armies while seeing the best-educated Jews carried away into captivity. So… yeah—not a picnic.
When the book was actually written, sometime between 300 and 165 BCE, they were dealing with an unusually nasty king by the name of Antiochus IV Epiphanes—one of the Greek generals squabbling over the remains of Alexander the Great's empire. Not only did he try to prevent the Jews from worshipping in their temple and practicing their religion freely, he made owning a copy of the Torah punishable by death. He even attempted to install a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies, the very place where God was supposed to reside. (See the Apocryphal Biblical book 2 Maccabees for more details.)
Naturally, none of this went down well with the Israelites, and eventually a rebellion led by the heroic warrior, Judah Maccabee, overthrew Antiochus' reign. But before that happened, the Israelites were debating exactly how they should react—whether with violent revolt, or by waiting patiently for God to overthrow Antiochus, just as the Babylonian tyrants had been overthrown by the Persians earlier. The Book of Daniel was evidently written by people from the "Let God Do It" camp. The book keeps telling stories about how Daniel and his friends are saved by God whenever the light seemed like it was about to go out and the wicked kings were about to do something horrible.
Daniel fits into the Bible in an interesting way, too. Christians put Dan in with the books by and about the Prophets, but the Hebrew Bible places his book in with the Writings, alongside works like Esther and the Song of Solomon. Both of these ways of placing Daniel make sense. He has prophetic visions of the future and the end of the world and tries to counsel kings toward justice. But the Book of Daniel is similar to the Writings in that it contains plenty of classic short stories. Some of the Bible's best yarns are in here, like the tale of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, and Daniel in the lion's den.
Ever had a weird dream? We mean, like, classically weird? Like the ol' forgot-to-wear-clothes-to-math-class dream? Well, Daniel, the prophet and seer, would have rushed to your aid and explained—provided you had just threatened the lives of all the wise men in Babylon, that is. We can't suggest what he would've made of the "naked in math class" thing, but we do know that he was an expert on dream interpretation. Of course, he usually interpreted the dreams of kings, and those dreams typically involved some sort of broad historical lesson or a prophecy of personal catastrophe.
Like Joseph in Genesis before him, Daniel was an ace dream-analyzer, sort of the Sigmund Freud of his era (except much more religious and probably lacking a cigar). But what the Book of Daniel gives to readers today is much more significant than a glimpse into the slumberous visions of ancient Babylonian royalty.
For instance, the entire second half of Daniel offers up a fairly detailed account of the future history and final end of the world; it's not quite as far out as Revelation, but it's some Grade A Head Candy, nonetheless. And as you may have noticed, quite a few people today are way anxious about the world ending and believe that we're living in the last days. That's something Daniel can shed some light on.
Perhaps most importantly, Daniel is the story of a guy who stuck to his guns. He had to deal with a succession of thick-headed and unpredictable kings who, on different occasions, try to kill him, his friends, and all the wise men of Babylon. But Daniel never takes the easy way out. He and his friends—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—don't collaborate with things that strike their conscience as being wrong. Somehow, miraculously, this totally works out for them.
In a way, Daniel's like Dr. Jennifer Melfi from The Sopranos. She also tries to talk some sense to and interpret the dreams of a bad guy, a ruthless mobster and sociopath (though she's a lot less successful than Daniel). She's trying to "speak truth to power," to the worst kind of power, too: power controlled by evil. But Daniel is dealing with a slightly different kind of villain. The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar isn't evil. He's just deluded and confused. He's not willfully ignoring the truth or what's right. He just doesn't know any better. And in a lot of ways, it is the patience and honesty of Daniel that help him to recover.
That's where the essence of the book lies: the main character's struggle to endure the most horrible trials and terrors out of a desire to demonstrate an act of mercy towards the king. It's an example that can inspire anybody. Although the king has more earthly power than Daniel, it is ultimately Daniel who takes pity on the king because Daniel, at least, can see the truth.
The Book of Daniel
This is a TV movie production of the stories from the Book of Daniel, released in 2013.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King Jr's famous letter to clergymen compares the trials and sufferings that the people working for civil rights will need to undergo to those of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Calvin's Commentaries on Daniel
The famous Protestant reformer wrote a great deal about Daniel, authoring an extensive commentary on the book.
The Bunny Song
Okay, you have one last chance to watch this video. It burrows its way into your brain with its charm and its strangeness—a talking pickle, playing Nebuchadnezzar, sings a hymn to his preferred idol: a giant chocolate bunny.
Louis Armstrong Plays the (Biblical) Hits
This jazz hit from the 1930s narrates the story of the whole fiery furnace episode.
"The Fourth Man in the Fire"
Johnny Cash's country song—performed here with June Carter and John Prine—is another pretty straightforward retelling of the fiery furnace story.
Britten's Burning Furnace
This is a performance of the twentieth-century British classical composer Benjamin Britten's musical parable about the fiery furnace story. It originally aired on the BBC, with singers from the English Opera Group.
Here's a really recent performance of William Walton's choral piece on the "Writing on the Wall" incident. (Walton was another famous twentieth-century British composer.)
The nineteenth-century British artist, Briton Reviere, painted this picture of Daniel in the Lions' Den, which is more accurate than a lot of other ones since it shows Daniel as an old man (which would've been the case.)
The Statue Dream
Here's a painting from an anonymous medieval artist, dating to around the fourteenth century. The statue appears to be supporting some sort of weird stone wheel between its knees.
The Fiery Furnace
Simeon Solomon was an eccentric British artist—one of the nineteenth-century "Pre-Raphaelites" who were known for their dangerous and outlandish lifestyles. Solomon was of Jewish descent, and liked to paint subjects from the Hebrew Bible—like this one of the fiery furnace scene.
Another Fiery Furnace (Sort Of)
Here's is another depiction of the fiery furnace, from a manuscript belonging to a Byzantine Emperor (dating to sometime around the 1st Millenium, CE).
Hans Holbein the Younger's, a famous fourteenth-century German artist, painted his own interpretation of the four beasts from Daniel's first vision.
Rembrandt's excellent painting captures Belshazzar's shock and surprise at the feast.
Napoleon as Belshazzar
This political cartoon from the early nineteenth-century ties the Belshazzar story into events from the artist's own time, showing the Emperor Napoleon as a man forced to see the "writing on the wall."
Peter Paul Rubens paints Daniel as a somewhat younger man in the lions' den—not all that historically accurate, but a really powerful image.
Here's another classic painting of the lions' den scene, this time from Eugene Delacroix, another heavy-hitter in the art world.
This is Michelangelo's version of Daniel, from the walls of the Sistine Chapel.
"The Ancient of Days"
William Blake's painting of "The Ancient of Days" from Daniel's first vision isn't meant to depict God, surprisingly. It's actually meant to depict the human mind's tendency to try to cut everything down to its own size and make it measurable (in a bad way), which is why the Ancient is holding a compass. Nevertheless, it's become known as one of the classic paintings of God the Father, despite Blake's intentions.