Some Thoughts on the Message of the Aramaic Section of Daniel (Dan 2:4b-7:28)

daniel picThe book of Daniel is one book that has elicited much controversy. This is due in large part to the apocalyptic chapters found at the latter half of the book (Dan. 8-12). Yet, another oft-neglected issue deserves exploration, namely, the reason for the Aramaic and Hebrew portions of the book. The Aramaic section of Daniel (2:4b-7:28) is the largest Aramaic portion in the Old Testament. Does this Aramaic section give a clue as to the structure of the book? It is our purpose to make an attempt at answering this question, and in turn offer some reflection as to how this question of structure informs our grasp of the message of the book.

A common structure that is discerned divides the historical narrative portion (chapters 1-6) from the apocalyptic one (chapters 7-12). While this genre grouping approach to Daniel’s structure is an understandable move, there are some weaknesses it. The greatest weakness to be mentioned up front is that Daniel 2 and 7 have some significant parallels.

The Question of Genres

The crux of this question lies with how we understand Dan 7. We must ask: Does the apocalyptic genre of Dan 7 clearly require its placement with the chapters that follow? Or does the fact that this chapter is written in Aramaic place it with the prior Aramaic chapters in spite of its genre? There are a few features of chapter seven as it relates what comes before it that warrants an affirmative to the second question.

In chapter 2, we find a distraught king who is seeking not only the interpretation for a dream that has brought him great consternation, but for someone to recount the dream in detail (v. 9)! It’s clear that no one could possible tell the king is one dream without some supernatural assistance, and it appears that is the very thing the king Nebuchadnezzar wants. He wants divine certainty regarding the import of this anxiety producing dream.

Then, we see Daniel enter the scene. Earlier we learned that he was one of the Jewish exiles of royal blood from the tribe of Judah (Dan 1). After Daniel and his companions pray (vv. 17-18), “the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision by night” (v. 19). Daniel responds to this revelation of the mystery by praising God. In this praise, we notice something interesting. He says of God, “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (v. 21).

With this description of God, we find a parallel in Dan 7. In v. 21a, we read “He changes times and seasons.” This is linguistically parallel to the description of the fourth beast in Dan 7:25c. Here, we read, “… and shall think to change the times.”

Thus 2:21a reads

וְ֠הוּא מְהַשְׁנֵ֤א עִדָּנַיָּא֙ וְזִמְנַיָּ֔א (“He changes times and seasons”)

and 7:25c reads

לְהַשְׁנָיָה֙ זִמְנִ֣ין (“to change the times”)

This fourth beast, moreover, seeks to overthrow God (v. 25a). Thus, there is significant conceptual overlap between Daniel’s description of God who changes times and seasons (2:21a) and who has authority over the kings of the earth (2:21b) and the fourth beast arrogant aspirations to authority in Dan 7. In other words, the close linguistic connection between 2:21a and 7:25c coupled with the conceptual overlap between the authority of God and the ‘authority’ of the fourth beast in 2:21b and 7:25a serve to bridge Dan 2 and 7 together, with these two chapters, in turn, servings as bookends to the Aramaic portion of Daniel (2:4b-7:28). This is substantial for placing Dan 7 with this portion, despite its different apocalyptic genre, yet, the thematic connection even further demonstrates this connection.

Themes of Daniel 2 -7

Most scholars recognize that the dream received by Nebuchadnezzar and interpreted by Daniel in Dan 2 is a dream which gives a bird’s-eye view of history. There are four kingdoms described: (1) the neo-Babylonian Empire (the head: cf. 2:32a, 37-38); (2) the Medo-Persian Empire (the breast and arms: cf. 2:32b, 39a); (3) the Grecian Empire (the middle and thighs: cf. 2:32c, 39b); and (4) the Roman Empire (the legs and feet: cf. 2:33, 40-44). Dan 7, which consists of four beasts, parallels the dream in Dan 2. Though we do not have the space to fully substantiate this claim, a few things stick out which point in this direction.[1]

First, the fourth part of the statue is given the most attention in chapter 2, which corresponds with the amount of attention given the fourth beast relative the preceding three in chapter 7 (7:19-27; cf. 7:19, “different from all the rest”). Second, during the time of the fourth part of the statue, “God … will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed” (2:44). This corresponds with emerges of the “one like a son of man” who will be given an “everlasting dominion” that will not “pass away” (7:13-14). Third, this kingdom established by God in Dan 2 and 7 will defeat the kingdoms of the world, with the emphasis placed on the fourth empire (2:44-45; 7:26-27).

Yet, something emerges in Dan 7 that does not have a direct correspondence in Dan 2, namely, persecution of God’s people (Dan 7:21; 25b). This persecution of God’s people will be reversed, resulting in God’s people receiving “the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven” (7:27). Thus, it is better to understand to understand Dan 7 as having significant parallels with Dan 2 while contributing further to the overall message of Dan 2-7 by making more explicate who was going to inaugurate the kingdom of God (7:13, “one like a son of man”) and the ultimate vindication of God’s people who, for a time, would suffer persecution at the hands of the world empires with a special focus on the fourth empire.

Thus, we see throughout Dan 2-7 Daniel and his companions asked to compromise with idolatry and forsake their God by the pagan rulers whom they serve in exile. Daniel and his friends are placed in high ranking positions because of their faithfulness to the Lord and the Lord’s obvious presence with them, seen especially in Daniel’s interpretation of dreams but also with God’s miraculous deliverance of them from what seems to be unavoidable doom. Alongside this is the theme of God supervening over the lives of the kings throughout the time of his people’s exile for he is a God who “removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan 2:21).  In sum, there are three themes that intersect throughout Dan 2-7: (1) God’s supervening power over kings and kingdoms; (2) the persecution of God’s people; and (3) God’s (ultimate) defeat of God’s enemies and vindication of his people. But, something else must be made of note of that further fills out the message of the Aramaic portion of Daniel.

The Time of Exile

In Dan 2:1, we learn that Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream “[i]n the second year of his reign.” Nebuchadnezzar inaugurated Israel’s exilic period (2 Kgs 24-25; Jer 21-22, 24-25; cf. 24:1; Dan 1:1). The Hebrew portions of Daniel mention Daniel living from the beginning of exile with Nebuchadnezzar until the beginning of the end with Cyrus (Dan 1:21; 10:1). Cyrus is the one whom Isaiah prophesied would restore Israel back to her land (Isa 44:28; 45:1). So, the mention of him is significant here. Especially worthy of note is that it was in the Cyrus’s first year that efforts to end the exile of God’s people began (Ezra 1:1; 5:13; cf. Dan 1:21).

Now, least we think this doesn’t pertain to the Aramaic section, we ought to notice Dan 6:28: “So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” Already in Dan 1:21, Daniel is connected with Cyrus; later in Dan 10:1 mention of Daniel in connection with “the third year of Cyrus.” Given his name (“Belteshazzar”) in this latter text, he was likely in service to Cyrus, though clearly an old man at this point. In sum, Dan 6:28 seems to include Dan 1:21 and 10:1, but also seems to suggest a continuation of Daniel’s service  beyond these times. That is to say, Daniel’s message has a direct bearing on the exilic situation both with the Hebrew and Aramaic sections of the book.

Richard Belcher sees Dan 1, 8, 10-12 as referring to the “life in exile” in contrast to Dan 2-7; and, even though Dan 9 shares some overlap with Dan 2 and 7 thematically, Dan 9 is for him “from the standpoint of extended exile.”[2] Thus, he does not see the theme of exile as pertaining to the Dan 2-7. Yet, we would suggest (though not develop fully at this time) that the mention of Daniel’s relationship to Cyrus at the end of the historical narrative genre portion of the Aramaic section was for the purpose of drawing the audience’s attention to this very connection (and consequently to exilic realities) not merely in the Hebrew section but in the Aramaic as well, albeit from a different vantage point. This may help to explain why Dan 1-2:4a is written in Hebrew rather than Aramaic with the abrupt intrusion of Aramaic at 2:4b.

Though more could be said, we will leave the reader with one last thought. Dan 2-7 clearly has parallels with Joseph. The connection between Daniel and Joseph is often minimized but the lexical connection of “dream” (חֲלוֹם [Gen 37; 40-41; Dan 1:17; 2:1-3; cf. Num 12:6; Deut 13:1-5; 1 Sam 28:6, 15; Joel 2:28) as well as the theme of God’s representative before pagan kings (i.e., Joseph with Pharaoh; Daniel with Nebuchadnezzar, et al.) suggests a connection that we believe would substantiate what we have argued thus far regarding Dan 2-7.



[1] See the relevant sections of Edward J. Young’s fine commentary on Daniel for further defense of the position taken here (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957).

[2] Richard P. Belcher Jr., ‘Daniel,’ in A Biblical Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised, ed. Miles V. Van Pelt (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2016).

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