Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream: The Revision of Daniel’s Role During Antiochus’ Persecution
Overview of Daniel 2
Daniel chapter 2 begins when Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, awakens agitated from a dream. The parallels with the Joseph story are clear:
Genesis 41:1, 7-8
וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ שְׁנָתַיִם יָמִים וּפַרְעֹה חֹלֵם… וַיִּיקַץ פַּרְעֹה וְהִנֵּה חֲלוֹם. וַיְהִי בַבֹּקֶר וַתִּפָּעֶם רוּחוֹ…
After two years‘ time, Pharaoh dreamed… Then Pharaoh awoke: it was a dream! Next morning, his spirit was agitated…
וּבִשְׁנַת שְׁתַּיִם לְמַלְכוּת נְבֻכַדְנֶצַּר חָלַם נְבֻכַדְנֶצַּר חֲלֹמוֹת וַתִּתְפָּעֶם רוּחוֹ וּשְׁנָתוֹ נִהְיְתָה עָלָיו.
In the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream; his spirit was agitated, yet he was overcome by sleep.
Nebuchadnezzar and Pharaoh call on their diviners to explain the dream’s import:
…וַיִּשְׁלַח וַיִּקְרָא אֶת כָּל חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת כָּל חֲכָמֶיהָ...
…And he sent for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men…
וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ לִקְרֹא לַחַרְטֻמִּים וְלָאַשָּׁפִים וְלַמְכַשְּׁפִים וְלַכַּשְׂדִּים….
The king ordered the magicians, exorcists, sorcerers, and Chaldeans to be summoned…
Nebuchadnezzar opens his message to the diviners in words very reminiscent of the way Pharaoh first speaks with Joseph:
חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי וּפֹתֵר אֵין אֹתוֹ
I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it.
חֲלוֹם חָלָמְתִּי וַתִּפָּעֶם רוּחִי לָדַעַת אֶת הַחֲלוֹם
I have had a dream and I am full of anxiety to know what I have dreamed.
Hiding the Content of the Dream
In Daniel, however, when the diviners ask what the dream was, the story has a new catch: Nebuchadnezzar, unlike Pharaoh, will not (or cannot) reveal the contents of the dream. Instead he wants his diviners to tell him both the content of the dream as well as its interpretation. In other words, this story-teller knows the Joseph story, but wants to up the ante.
After two rounds of cajoling and threatening, the diviners respond that such a thing is impossible (vv. 10-11). In response to this, Nebuchadnezzar decrees that all his diviners, including Daniel and his friends, should be put to death (v.13).
Before the execution of all the wisemen is carried out, Daniel hears about it and tells the king that he needs a little time, but that his God can do what Nebuchadnezzar requested (vv. 13-18), and after receiving the answer in a dream (v. 19) and thanking God for it (vv. 20-23), Daniel proceeds to fulfill his promise (vv. 24-30).
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel tells him, was about a statue with a golden head, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, and legs of iron, which is crushed by a giant stone, which itself becomes a mountain (vv. 31-35). Daniel explains that each of these metals represents a kingdom that would rule the world, and the stone is God’s kingdom (vv. 36-45).
Nebuchadnezzar is impressed, and, in keeping with Pharaoh’s reaction to Joseph (Gen 41:38-45), appoints Daniel to be governor of Babylon and his chief wise man:
דניאל ב:מז עָנֵה מַלְכָּא לְדָנִיֵּאל וְאָמַר מִן קְשֹׁט דִּי אֱלָהֲכוֹן הוּא אֱלָהּ אֱלָהִין וּמָרֵא מַלְכִין וְגָלֵה רָזִין דִּי יְכֵלְתָּ לְמִגְלֵא רָזָה דְנָה. ב:מח אֱדַיִן מַלְכָּא לְדָנִיֵּאל רַבִּי וּמַתְּנָן רַבְרְבָן שַׂגִּיאָן יְהַב לֵהּ וְהַשְׁלְטֵהּ עַל כָּל מְדִינַת בָּבֶל וְרַב סִגְנִין עַל כָּל חַכִּימֵי בָבֶל.
Dan 2:47 The king said in reply to Daniel, “Truly your God must be the God of gods and Lord of kings and the revealer of mysteries to have enabled you to reveal this mystery.” 2:48 The king then elevated Daniel and gave him very many gifts, and made him governor of the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect of all the wise men of Babylon.
In its general contours, the story as outlined above seems to make sense, but a closer look shows that it is riddled with contradictions.
Was Daniel Already Nebuchadnezzar’s Advisor?
Certain details in the chapter seem to be in tension with each other or with the previous chapter, which introduced Daniel:
Advisor or not? – In Chapter 1, Daniel is appointed as one of the king’s advisors, thus in 2:13, he should be executed along with the other advisors.
וְדָתָא נֶפְקַת וְחַכִּימַיָּא מִתְקַטְּלִין וּבְעוֹ דָּנִיֵּאל וְחַבְרוֹהִי לְהִתְקְטָלָה.
The decree condemning the wise men to death was issued. Daniel and his companions were about to be put to death.
But if so, why wasn’t he consulted about the dream in the first place? Instead, he has to find out about the dream from the king’s executioner.
Sending Counsel to Arioch? – When Daniel is taken along with other wisemen to be executed he “sends instruction and counsel” (הֲתִיב עֵטָא וּטְעֵם) to Arioch, captain of the guards (v. 14). However, in the next verse, Daniel simply asks Arioch directly what is happening. Where is the “instruction and counsel”?
Access to the King – When Arioch tells Daniel what is happening (v. 15), Daniel is free to go directly to the king and informs him that he will be able to fulfill his request shortly (v. 16).
וְדָנִיֵּאל עַל וּבְעָה מִן מַלְכָּא דִּי זְמָן יִנְתֵּן לֵהּ וּפִשְׁרָא לְהַחֲוָיָה לְמַלְכָּא.
So Daniel went to ask the king for time, that he might tell the meaning to the king.
And yet, when he is ready to tell Nebuchadnezzar what he has learned, he seems to need Arioch to provide him access to the king (v. 25).
Daniel Introduced a Second Time – Once the dream is revealed to Daniel, he approaches Arioch again, who then tells the king about Daniel as if Daniel had not spoken to Nebuchadnezzar just the day before:
דניאל ב:כה אֱדַיִן אַרְיוֹךְ בְּהִתְבְּהָלָה הַנְעֵל לְדָנִיֵּאל קֳדָם מַלְכָּא וְכֵן אֲמַר לֵהּ דִּי הַשְׁכַּחַת גְּבַר מִן בְּנֵי גָלוּתָא דִּי יְהוּד דִּי פִשְׁרָא לְמַלְכָּא יְהוֹדַע.
2:25 So Arioch rushed Daniel into the king’s presence and said to him, “I have found among the exiles of Judah a man who can make the meaning known to the king!”
Nebuchadnezzar then asks Daniel if he really can tell him the dream and interpretation, as if they hadn’t already had this conversation.
How are we to explain these narrative problems?
A Redacted Story
The best explanation for these narrative problems is that vv. 13b which includes Daniel among those to be executed, and vv. 15-23, which assume that Daniel was already an advisor with access to the king, are redactional supplements. Note the resumptive repetition (Wiederaufnahme) in v. 24a (underlined) that repeats the contents of from v. 14, and how Daniel’s “instruction and counsel” promised in v. 14 appear in v. 24b:
ב:יג וְדָתָא נֶפְקַת וְחַכִּימַיָּא מִתְקַטְּלִין
2:13 The decree condemning the wise men to death was issued.
וּבְעוֹ דָּנִיֵּאל וְחַבְרוֹהִי לְהִתְקְטָלָה.
Daniel and his companions were about to be put to death
ב:יד בֵּאדַיִן דָּנִיֵּאל הֲתִיב עֵטָא וּטְעֵם לְאַרְיוֹךְ רַב טַבָּחַיָּא דִּי מַלְכָּא דִּי נְפַק לְקַטָּלָה לְחַכִּימֵי בָּבֶל.
2:14 Then Daniel sent instruction and counsel to Arioch, the captain of the royal guard, who had set out to put the wise men of Babylon to death.
ב:טו עָנֵה וְאָמַר לְאַרְיוֹךְ שַׁלִּיטָא דִי מַלְכָּא עַל מָה דָתָא מְהַחְצְפָה מִן קֳדָם מַלְכָּא אֱדַיִן מִלְּתָא הוֹדַע אַרְיוֹךְ לְדָנִיֵּאל. ב:טז וְדָנִיֵּאל עַל וּבְעָה מִן מַלְכָּא דִּי זְמָן יִנְתֵּן לֵהּ וּפִשְׁרָא לְהַחֲוָיָה לְמַלְכָּא…
2:15 He spoke up and said to Arioch, the royal officer, “Why is the decree of the king so urgent?” Thereupon Arioch informed Daniel of the matter. 2:16 So Daniel went to ask the king for time, that he might tell the meaning to the king….
ב:כד כָּל קֳבֵל דְּנָה דָּנִיֵּאל עַל עַל אַרְיוֹךְ דִּי מַנִּי מַלְכָּא לְהוֹבָדָה לְחַכִּימֵי בָבֶל אֲזַל וְכֵן אֲמַר לֵהּ
2:24 Thereupon Daniel went to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to do away with the wise men of Babylon; he came and said to him as follows,
לְחַכִּימֵי בָבֶל אַל תְּהוֹבֵד הַעֵלְנִי קֳדָם מַלְכָּא וּפִשְׁרָא לְמַלְכָּא אֲחַוֵּא.
“Do not do away with the wise men of Babylon; bring me to the king and I will tell the king the meaning!”
The Original Storyline
In the older version of this story, Daniel is a Jewish outsider who hears about the king’s decree regarding his wisemen, and runs to Arioch, the king’s captain of the guards to tell him that he can do what the wise men cannot.
This is why Arioch rushes to the king, to introduce Daniel as someone who was “found among the exiles of Judah” (v. 25 דִּי הַשְׁכַּחַת גְּבַר מִן בְּנֵי גָלוּתָא ). In this version, Daniel was not yet a royal advisor, and Nebuchadnezzar is meeting Daniel here for the first time.
Closer to the Joseph Story
The core story is even closer to the Joseph story than our current version, since in Genesis 41, Joseph is not one of Pharaoh’s advisors but a Hebrew slave sitting in prison. Just as Daniel requires an introduction from Arioch, Joseph cannot simply appear before Pharaoh, but only receives an audience with Pharaoh through the king’s chief butler, who knows him from prison and is aware of his abilities. Finally, it is on account of the interpretation of their dreams that Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar met Joseph and Daniel respectively for the first time.
Understanding the Redaction
The reason for the supplement is related to the literary history of the book as a whole. The first section of Daniel (chs. 2-6) is a collection of quasi-independent court tales from sometime in the Persian or early Hellenistic period. Once they were combined, however, and placed into the book of Daniel in its current form, the story of Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was edited to reflect Daniel’s position in Chapter 1, where he has already been made an advisor to Nebuchadnezzar’s court.
Once the story was recast with Daniel already a court appointee from the get-go, then Daniel must be understood as having also been in danger of being executed as well. Similarly, if Daniel already had access to the king as in chapter 1, he would not have needed an introduction here. And yet, the redactor did not erase the original introduction scene, but rather created an additional scene (vv. 15–23), which clarifies that Nebuchadnezzar was already familiar with Daniel.
Daniel’s Prayer of Thanksgiving
But this updating of Daniel to fit the context of the book does not explain the supplement in its entirety. In the supplement (and in contrast to the Joseph story), Daniel receives the information he needs from God in a night vision (v. 19), and in response, recites a long prayer of Thanksgiving (20-23).
This prayer does not connect Daniel to its immediate context the way the other supplemental material does, so why was it added to the text? I believe that the point of the prayer only becomes fully clear when we look at it in the context of the book of Daniel as a whole.
Two Parts of Daniel
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 as well as the Seleucid Greeks who ruled Judea at the time of their composition.
Scholars have long understood that the climax of these apocalyptic visions in the latter half of the book are cryptic descriptions of the persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, which the authors were likely experiencing. Although this is not the theme of the first half of the book, I suggest that Daniel’s prayer was composed both to foreshadow and offer a contrast to Antiochus’ blasphemous behavior in 7:24–25, thus helping to tie together the two disparate parts of the book.
The Little Horn’s Blasphemy vs. Daniel’s Praise of God
Daniel 7 describes Daniel’s vision of four beasts, which represent four kingdoms. The terrifying fourth beast with ten horns and iron teeth is the Greek kingdom of Syria. This beast grows a talking horn, which represents Antiochus IV, whose persecutions (167–164 B.C.E.) can only be stopped by divine intercession.
The horn, i.e., Antiochus IV, speaks arrogantly and even blasphemes God:
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 (against) the Most High Holy One(s).
To anticipate Antiochus IV’s arrogance and blasphemy, as well as to heighten his impending punishment and downfall brought about through divine agency, the supplement in chapter 2 depicts Daniel giving a doxology praising the Most High (2:19).
דניאל ב:יט אֱדַיִן לְדָנִיֵּאל בְּחֶזְוָא דִי לֵילְיָא רָזָה גֲלִי אֱדַיִן דָּנִיֵּאל בָּרִךְ לֶאֱלָהּ שְׁמַיָּא (תה”ש: עלאה). ב:כ עָנֵה דָנִיֵּאל וְאָמַר לֶהֱוֵא שְׁמֵהּ דִּי אֱלָהָא מְבָרַךְ מִן עָלְמָא וְעַד עָלְמָא דִּי חָכְמְתָא וּגְבוּרְתָא דִּי לֵהּ הִיא.
Dan 2:19 The mystery was revealed to Daniel in a night vision; then Daniel blessed the God of Heaven (LXX [Old Greek]: “Most High”). 2:20 Daniel spoke up and said: “Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, for wisdom and power are His.”
God as a Foil to Antiochus IV
More significantly, in ch. 7, two accusations are made against Antiochus IV, the “little horn”:
1. Overthrew three kings (7:24…26)
וּתְלָתָה מַלְכִין יְהַשְׁפִּל… וְשָׁלְטָנֵהּ יְהַעְדּוֹן
He will bring about the downfall of three kings… and his dominion will be taken away
2. Change times and laws (7:25)
וְיִסְבַּר לְהַשְׁנָיָה זִמְנִין וְדָת
He will think to change times and law
Both these accusations are anticipated by parallel language used by Daniel to describe God, presented in reverse order (2:21):
וְהוּא מְהַשְׁנֵא עִדָּנַיָּא וְזִמְנַיָּא
He changes times and seasons,
מְהַעְדֵּה מַלְכִין וּמְהָקֵים מַלְכִין
He removes kings and installs kings;
Overthrowing Kings – The description of God’s ability to install and remove kings (v. 21aβ) stands in opposition to the portrayal of Antiochus causing the downfall of the three kings before him. While 7:24 describes the perceived political perspective, the author of the supplement stresses that the rise and fall of kings is the result of one cause alone: God’s intervention in the workings of the world. According to 7:26, and corresponding to the use of the same verb in 2:21, Antiochus’ dominion will eventually be removed by the divine court.
Changing Times – The accusation against Antiochus in 7:25 is admittedly different than the praise of God. Antiochus thought or planned to change the cultic calendar and Jewish laws, whereas God controls the times and seasons of the earth. And yet, the use of similar language in the two verses suggests that the supplement in ch. 2 is based on ch. 7, and likely created to highlight the chasm of power between Antiochus IV and God.
The praise of God found in the prayer’s doxology can be placed within the larger context of biblical theology, specifically, the notion of divine control over the natural order. The power of Antiochus in the vision in chapter 7 is thus contrasted with the true sovereign in the world—God, who is the one who installs and removes kings, and he is the one who establishes the world order. Daniel 2:21 thus serves a foreshadowing foil to 7:24–25.
In sum, the editor of Daniel, who wove the stories together in part 1 and wrote, or edited, the apocalyptic visions in part 2, did so during the time of the Antiochian persecutions. He took the popular character of Daniel, a wise man about whom a number of stories and even story collections were circulating, and turned him into the receiver of apocalyptic visions predicting the immanence of God’s redemption of his people and the ultimate destruction of Antiochus IV and his evil ways.
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December 5, 2018
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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).
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