Daniel’s Vision of the Four Beasts: The Prehistory of Chanukah
The story of Chanukah is generally viewed as post-biblical, attested in sources such as 1–2 Maccabees, Josephus, and rabbinic literature. But the earliest references to Antiochus and his decrees, the basis of Chanukah, are in fact found in what is probably the latest biblical book, Daniel. This book offers its own theological perspective on the events that transpired and the hope for their resolution.
The book of Daniel is comprised of two sections. The first (chapters 1–6) presents stories about the life of the protagonist in the courts of the foreign empires. The second (chapters 7–12) contains four apocalyptic visions received by Daniel, which describe in rather cryptic language and vivid imagery the past, present and future history of these foreign empires. The visions in these chapters are apocalyptic, reflecting on the relationship between these earthly kingdoms and their heavenly counterparts, and Israel’s place within these larger schemes.
The Vision of Chapter 7
Scholars agree that the numerous historical allusions in the apocalyptic visions refer to none other than Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the arch-villain of the Chanukah story.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes first appears in the context of a complex Aramaic vision in Daniel 7. This chapter presents a double apocalyptic vision, and alternates between a prose description of four beasts, representing four kingdoms, and a poetic description of the heavenly court in which these beasts are judged and convicted. The differences between these two have led to the suggestion that they are in fact the work of two different authors that have been combined here. However, it seems more likely that instead of two authors, we have in this case a subtle literary technique by which the author of Daniel 7 distinguished between the two scenes within the mythic realm.
The Four Beasts
The vision begins with the appearance of the four beasts:
דניאל ז:ב עָנֵה דָנִיֵּאל וְאָמַר חָזֵה הֲוֵית בְּחֶזְוִי עִם לֵילְיָא וַאֲרוּ אַרְבַּע רוּחֵי שְׁמַיָּא מְגִיחָן לְיַמָּא רַבָּא. ז:ג וְאַרְבַּע חֵיוָן רַבְרְבָן סָלְקָן מִן יַמָּא שָׁנְיָן דָּא מִן דָּא.
Dan 7:2 Daniel related the following: “In my vision at night, I saw the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea. 7:3 Four mighty beasts different from each other emerged from the sea.
The first three beasts are mixed creatures, combinations of different animals that clearly distinguishes them from realistic, earthly ones:
1. Lion with Eagle’s wings
ז:ד קַדְמָיְתָא כְאַרְיֵה וְגַפִּין דִּי נְשַׁר לַהּ חָזֵה הֲוֵית עַד דִּי מְּרִיטוּ גַפַּיהּ וּנְטִילַת מִן אַרְעָא וְעַל רַגְלַיִן כֶּאֱנָשׁ הֳקִימַת וּלְבַב אֱנָשׁ יְהִיב לַהּ.
7:4 The first was like a lion but had eagles’ wings. As I looked on, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted off the ground and set on its feet like a man and given the mind of a man.
2. Three-fanged bear
ז:ה וַאֲרוּ חֵיוָה אָחֳרִי תִנְיָנָה דָּמְיָה לְדֹב וְלִשְׂטַר חַד הֳקִמַת וּתְלָת עִלְעִין בְּפֻמַּהּ בֵּין שניה [שִׁנַּהּ] וְכֵן אָמְרִין לַהּ קוּמִי אֲכֻלִי בְּשַׂר שַׂגִּיא.
7:5 Then I saw a second, different beast, which was like a bear but raised on one side, and with three fangs in its mouth among its teeth; it was told, ‘Arise, eat much meat!’
3. Four-winged leopard
ז:ו בָּאתַר דְּנָה חָזֵה הֲוֵית וַאֲרוּ אָחֳרִי כִּנְמַר וְלַהּ גַּפִּין אַרְבַּע דִּי עוֹף עַל גביה [גַּבַּהּ] וְאַרְבְּעָה רֵאשִׁין לְחֵיוְתָא וְשָׁלְטָן יְהִיב לַהּ.
7:6 After that, as I looked on, there was another one, like a leopard, and it had on its back four wings like those of a bird; the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it.
Even within this mythic context, the fourth beast is described as fundamentally distinct:
4. A ten-horned beast with iron teeth
דניאל ז:ז בָּאתַר דְּנָה חָזֵה הֲוֵית בְּחֶזְוֵי לֵילְיָא וַאֲרוּ חֵיוָה רביעיה [רְבִיעָאָה] דְּחִילָה וְאֵימְתָנִי וְתַקִּיפָא יַתִּירָא וְשִׁנַּיִן דִּי פַרְזֶל לַהּ רַבְרְבָן אָכְלָה וּמַדֱּקָה וּשְׁאָרָא ברגליה [בְּרַגְלַהּ] רָפְסָה וְהִיא מְשַׁנְּיָה מִן כָּל חֵיוָתָא דִּי קָדָמַיהּ וְקַרְנַיִן עֲשַׂר לַהּ.
Dan 7:7 After that, as I looked on in the night vision, there was a fourth beast — fearsome, dreadful, and very powerful, with great iron teeth — that devoured and crushed, and stamped the remains with its feet. It was different from all the other beasts which had gone before it; and it had ten horns.
This powerful and terrifying creature is indeed “different from all the other beasts which had gone before it”; This creature has “iron teeth” and is unlike any known animal. The beast is described as having ten horns but it morphs before Daniel’s eyes:
* The new little horn that speaks arrogantly
דניאל ז:ח מִשְׂתַּכַּל הֲוֵית בְּקַרְנַיָּא וַאֲלוּ קֶרֶן אָחֳרִי זְעֵירָה סִלְקָת ביניהון [בֵּינֵיהֵן] וּתְלָת מִן קַרְנַיָּא קַדְמָיָתָא אתעקרו [אֶתְעֲקַרָה] מִן קדמיה [קֳדָמַהּ] וַאֲלוּ עַיְנִין כְּעַיְנֵי אֲנָשָׁא בְּקַרְנָא דָא וּפֻם מְמַלִּל רַבְרְבָן.
Dan 7:8 While I was gazing upon these horns, a new little horn sprouted up among them; three of the older horns were uprooted to make room for it. There were eyes in this horn like those of a man, and a mouth that spoke arrogantly.
This new horn, which displaces three other horns, and has eyes and a mouth that speaks arrogantly, is a unique feature of this fourth beast; this further distinguishes it from the first three.
God and the Heavenly Court Appear
Daniel’s vision continues with the appearance of the heavenly court, including a poetic description of the “Ancient of Days” (עַתִּיק יוֹמִין, i.e., God) on his throne, with his book, a heavenly register of the behavior of those on earth, open before him, surrounded by fire and thousands of angels (vv.9-10). Judgment of the final beast ensues:
דניאל ז:יא חָזֵה הֲוֵית בֵּאדַיִן מִן קָל מִלַּיָּא רַבְרְבָתָא דִּי קַרְנָא מְמַלֱּלָה חָזֵה הֲוֵית עַד דִּי קְטִילַת חֵיוְתָא וְהוּבַד גִּשְׁמַהּ וִיהִיבַת לִיקֵדַת אֶשָּׁא.
Dan 7:11 I was looking on and then, because of the arrogant words that the horn spoke, the beast was killed as I looked on; its body was destroyed and it was consigned to the flames.
A less harsh judgment on the first three beasts follows (v. 12), and the vision ends when sovereignty on earth is given to the “one like a man” (כבר אנש, v. 13), who receives an eternal kingdom (vv. 13-14).
Symbolic Meaning of the Beasts
The vision is enigmatic and even Daniel cannot understand it and needs to enlist the interpretive assistance of an angelic intermediary:
דניאל ז:טו אֶתְכְּרִיַּת רוּחִי אֲנָה דָנִיֵּאל בְּגוֹא נִדְנֶה וְחֶזְוֵי רֵאשִׁי יְבַהֲלֻנַּנִי. ז:טז קִרְבֵת עַל חַד מִן קָאֲמַיָּא וְיַצִּיבָא אֶבְעֵא מִנֵּהּ עַל כָּל דְּנָה וַאֲמַר לִי וּפְשַׁר מִלַּיָּא יְהוֹדְעִנַּנִי.
Dan 7:15 As for me, Daniel, my spirit was disturbed within me and the vision of my mind alarmed me. 7:16 I approached one of the attendants and asked him the true meaning of all this. He gave me this interpretation of the matter:
ז:יז אִלֵּין חֵיוָתָא רַבְרְבָתָא דִּי אִנִּין אַרְבַּע אַרְבְּעָה מַלְכִין יְקוּמוּן מִן אַרְעָא.ז:יח וִיקַבְּלוּן מַלְכוּתָא קַדִּישֵׁי עֶלְיוֹנִין וְיַחְסְנוּן מַלְכוּתָא עַד עָלְמָא וְעַד עָלַם עָלְמַיָּא.
7:17 “These great beasts, four in number mean four kingdoms will arise out of the earth. 7:18 then holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom, and will possess the kingdom forever – forever and ever.”
The heavenly attendant explains the vision as outlining four earthly kingdoms, likely in sequential order. Scholars have identified the first three kingdoms as Babylonia, Media, and Persia respectively, with the fourth and final earthly kingdom as Greece (Dan 8:21; 10:20; 11:2). This will be followed by an eternal kingdom under heavenly auspices.
The Nature of the Fourth Beast
Daniel seems uninterested in the first three beasts but wishes to understand the fourth better, especially the talking horn that spoke arrogantly. He sees the following:
דניאל ז:כא חָזֵה הֲוֵית וְקַרְנָא דִכֵּן עָבְדָה קְרָב עִם קַדִּישִׁין וְיָכְלָה לְהוֹן.
Dan 7:21 I looked on as that horn made war with the holy ones and overcame them. 
This horn is described as fighting with heaven and even winning, but it will ultimately be punished by a heavenly court, which will take away his dominion, and in its place a heavenly sanctioned, eternal kingdom will be established:
דניאל ז:כב עַד דִּי אֲתָה עַתִּיק יוֹמַיָּא וְדִינָא יְהִב לְקַדִּישֵׁי עֶלְיוֹנִין וְזִמְנָא מְטָה וּמַלְכוּתָא הֶחֱסִנוּ קַדִּישִׁין.
Dan 7:22 Until the Ancient of Days came and judgment was rendered in favor of the holy ones of the Most High, for the time had come, and the holy ones took possession of the kingdom.
At this point, Daniel receives a detailed explanation of the fourth beast:
דניאל ז:כג כֵּן אֲמַר חֵיוְתָא רְבִיעָיְתָא מַלְכוּ רביעיא [רְבִיעָאָה] תֶּהֱוֵא בְאַרְעָא דִּי תִשְׁנֵא מִן כָּל מַלְכְוָתָא וְתֵאכֻל כָּל אַרְעָא וּתְדוּשִׁנַּהּ וְתַדְּקִנַּהּ. ז:כד וְקַרְנַיָּא עֲשַׂר מִנַּהּ מַלְכוּתָה עַשְׂרָה מַלְכִין יְקֻמוּן וְאָחֳרָן יְקוּם אַחֲרֵיהוֹן וְהוּא יִשְׁנֵא מִן קַדְמָיֵא וּתְלָתָה מַלְכִין יְהַשְׁפִּל.
Dan 7:23 This is what he said: ‘The fourth beast means – there will be a fourth kingdom upon the earth which will be different from all the kingdoms; it will devour the whole earth, tread it down, and crush it. 7:24And the ten horns mean – from that kingdom, ten kings will arise, and after them another will arise. He will be different from the former ones, and will bring low three kings.
The heavenly being’s explanation ends with a description of the judgment of the fourth beast and the establishment of the final, heavenly kingdom that will follow.
Interpreting the Interpretation
As noted above, based on the internal considerations of the book of Daniel and extrabiblical sources, this final kingdom can be identified as Greece. Although the beginnings of this empire are not described in chapter 7, the beginnings of both chapters 8 and 11 (8:5,8; 11:3–4) refer to a great king who dies at the peak of his power and was succeeded by four kings (8:8; 11:4ff.).
In the context of the Hellenistic empire, these can be identified rather easily as Alexander the Great and the Diadochoi, his generals who succeeded him and divided up his empire into smaller kingdoms. The dynastyies of two of these generals, Seleucus Nicanor who founded the kingdom of Syria, and Ptolemy Lagus, who founded the kingdom of Egypt, were particularly relevant for the subsequent Hellenistic history of the land of Israel, which is located between Syria and Egypt. In fact, Daniel 11 goes on to describe the acts of the King(s) of North [= Seleucid king(s)] and the King(s) of the South [= Ptolemiac king(s)].
The ten horns of the fourth beast thus refer to a series of kings in one of these kingdoms, culminating with the blaspheming sovereign represented by the new horn. Scholars agree that the kingdom in question is Syria, and the kings are from the Seleucud dynasty, culminating in Antiochus IV as the blaspheming monarch. It is not fully clear if the number ten here is precise (in which case it would include Alexander too), or whether it is a typological or schematic number.
Antiochus IV and the New Little Horn
The new little horn (קֶרֶן אָחֳרִי זְעֵירָה) that grows on the beast speaks arrogantly, and makes war on heaven is none other than Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The same arrogant king, Antiochus IV, is criticized and feared elsewhere throughout the Danielic apocalypses, which describe in detail his attack on Jerusalem, its Temple, and the religious life of the residents of Judea.
As suggested by John Collins, the final three kings uprooted by Antiochus IV were probably his brother Seleucus IV (ruled 187–175) and his two sons, Antiochus and Demetrius, who were both in line to inherit the throne before Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Seleucus IV was mudered by Heliodorus, and Demetrius was in Rome at the time as a hostage, allowing Antiochus IV to ascend to the throne.
The Horn’s Blasphemies
The text goes on to describe further the outrageous behavior of the new little horn:
דניאל ז:כה וּמִלִּין לְצַד עליא [עִלָּאָה] יְמַלִּל וּלְקַדִּישֵׁי עֶלְיוֹנִין יְבַלֵּא
Dan 7:25 He will speak words against the Most High, and will speak [יבלא] (against) the Most High Holy One(s)(קדישי עליונין).
The accusation of “speak(ing) words against the Most High” may refer to Antiochus’ usage of divine epithets (“God Manifest [= Epiphanes]”) on his coinage, but more likely refers to his general challenge of God’s Temple and people, which was viewed as blasphemous:
1 Macc 1:54 Now on the fifteenth day of Kislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering… 1:59 On the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar that was on top of the altar of burnt offering.
2 Macc 6:4 For the temple was filled with debauchery and reveling by the Gentiles, who dallied with prostitutes and had intercourse with women within the sacred precincts, and besides brought in things for sacrifice that were unfit.6:5 The altar was covered with abominable offerings that were forbidden by the laws.
The defiling of the Jerusalem Temple and the establishment of “desolating sacrilige” (βδέλυγμα ἐρημώσεως) – the equivalent of the שקוצ(ים) משֹׁמם “the appalling abomination” in Daniel 9:27 (see also 8:13; 11:31; 12:11) – is one of the primary accusations against Antiochus IV. It was perceived as an assault on the divine realm.
The Horn’s Attack on Jewish Holidays
Finally, the text describes this king’s attempt to make changes, presumably in Jewish practices:
וְיִסְבַּר לְהַשְׁנָיָה זִמְנִין וְדָת וְיִתְיַהֲבוּן בִּידֵהּ….
He will think of changing times and laws, and they will be delivered into his power….
This king’s desire to “change times and laws” is almost certainly a reference to Antiochus’ decrees against observing Shabbat and other cultic festivals (cf. 1Macc 1:45; 2 Macc 6:6):
1 Macc 1:44 And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, 1:45 to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, 1:46 to defile the sanctuary and the priests, 1:47 to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, 1:48 and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, 1:49 so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances.
2 Macc 6:6 People could neither keep the sabbath, nor observe the festivals of their ancestors, nor so much as confess themselves to be Jews.
Thus, the king represented by the small, new horn seems clearly to refer to Antiochus IV, and his abominable behavior is almost certainly a reference to the Antiochian persecutions which motivated the successful Hasmonean revolt commemorated by Chanukah.
The Pre-Chanukah Story
The apocalypses of Daniel thus contain the earliest version of the story of Chanukah, told in the form of an apocalyptic vision. More accurately, they contain descriptions of the Antiochian persecutions, but without the resolution. The vision in ch. 7 was, therefore, composed at the height of his religious decrees, sometime between 167–164 B.C.E. At that time, salvation could be imagined only through direct divine intervention, and not through the human agency of the Hasmonean revolt that occurred only a few years later. Daniel 7–12 thus offers a different religious lens by which to understand the Chanukah story.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
December 12, 2017
May 28, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Michael Segal is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and also serves as Editor of the Hebrew University Bible Project. He is the author of The Book of Jubilees: Rewritten Bible, Redaction, Ideology and Theology (English: Brill; Hebrew: Magnes; 2007).
Essays on Related Topics: