The Statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream and the Golden Calf
In Daniel 2, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has a dream that sends him into a panic. He gathers his advisors and demands that someone interpret his dream. First, however, the interpreter must recite the dream to him. While none of the Chaldeans are able to accomplish this—they even complain that the request is unprecedented—Daniel, the Judean, after a revelation from God, proceeds to do so.
Daniel begins by describing a statue that Nebuchadnezzar saw:
דניאל ב:לא (אנתה) [אַנְתְּ] מַלְכָּא חָזֵה הֲוַיְתָ וַאֲלוּ צְלֵם חַד שַׂגִּיא צַלְמָא דִּכֵּן רַב וְזִיוֵהּ יַתִּיר קָאֵם לְקָבְלָךְ וְרֵוֵהּ דְּחִיל. ב:לב הוּא צַלְמָא רֵאשֵׁהּ דִּי דְהַב טָב חֲדוֹהִי וּדְרָעוֹהִי דִּי כְסַף מְעוֹהִי וְיַרְכָתֵהּ דִּי נְחָשׁ. ב:לג שָׁקוֹהִי דִּי פַרְזֶל רַגְלוֹהִי מנהון [מִנְּהֵין] דִּי פַרְזֶל ומנהון [וּמִנְּהֵין] דִּי חֲסַף.
Dan 2:31 O king, as you looked on, there appeared a great statue. This statue, which was huge and its brightness surpassing, stood before you, and its appearance was awesome. 2:32 The head of that statue was of fine gold; its breast and arms were of silver; its belly and thighs, of bronze; 2:33 its legs were of iron, and its feet part iron and part clay.
Daniel explains this statue as an allegory about the political future of the world:
דניאל ב:לח ...(אנתה) [אַנְתְּ] הוּא רֵאשָׁה דִּי דַהֲבָא. ב:לט וּבָתְרָךְ תְּקוּם מַלְכוּ אָחֳרִי אֲרַעא מִנָּךְ וּמַלְכוּ תליתיא [תְלִיתָאָה] אָחֳרִי דִּי נְחָשָׁא דִּי תִשְׁלַט בְּכָל אַרְעָא. ב:מ וּמַלְכוּ (רביעיה) [רְבִיעָאָה] תֶּהֱוֵא תַקִּיפָה כְּפַרְזְלָא כָּל קֳבֵל דִּי פַרְזְלָא מְהַדֵּק וְחָשֵׁל כֹּלָּא וּכְפַרְזְלָא דִּי מְרָעַע כָּל אִלֵּין תַּדִּק וְתֵרֹעַ.
Dan 2:38 …You are the head of gold. 2:39 But another kingdom will arise after you, inferior to yours; then yet a third kingdom, of bronze, which will rule over the whole earth. 2:40 But the fourth kingdom will be as strong as iron; just as iron crushes and shatters everything. And like iron that smashes, so will it crush and smash all these.
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream draws upon historical imagery found already in Greek sources predating Daniel 2, whose author apparently lived in the early Hellenistic period.
Three Kingdoms: Persian Perspective (Achaemenid Period)
The view of history as a succession of kingdoms ruling the world is a Persian notion, reflecting their own history. Persia was once ruled by Assyria, then by Media, against whom Cyrus rose and established the Persian Empire.
This historical scheme appears, for instance, in the 5th century Greek Historian Herodotus, who wishes to offer his readers the background of the Persian empire (History 1:95, LCL trans.):
1:95 But it is next the business of my history to inquire who this Cyrus was… and how the Persians came to be the rulers of Asia…. When the Assyrians had ruled Upper Asia for five hundred and twenty years, their subjects began to revolt from them: first of all the Medes. These, it would seem, proved their valor in fighting for freedom against the Assyrians; they cast off their slavery and won freedom…. 1:130 In Astyages’ time, Cyrus and the Persians rose in revolt against the Medes, and from this time ruled Asia.
Four Kingdoms: Greek Perspective (Post-Alexander)
When Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, defeated the Persian King Darius III, the scheme needed to be updated, with the Macedonians/Greeks as the fourth great empire. And thus we read in the words of Aemilius Sura (ca. 2nd cent. B.C.E.):
The Assyrians were the first of all races to hold power, then the Medes, after them the Persians and the Macedonians.
Sura, who lived in the Roman period, continues by describing Rome as the fifth kingdom, but it seems reasonable to assume that in the Pre-Roman Hellenistic period, when Daniel was composed, the scheme had only four kingdoms, with Macedonia or Greece as the final one.
It is clear that Daniel is making use of this Persian/Hellenistic historical schema. The earliest sources for the “kingdoms schema” predate the author of these chapters of Daniel. Moreover, Daniel includes Media, an empire which never ruled over Judea, showing that he was using a borrowed list of nations.
The book of Daniel, however, replaces Assyria with Babylonia, which was very important to the Judeans, as Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Judah and the First Temple. But Babylonia was not part of the Persian three-kingdoms schema, since the Babylonians never ruled Persia.
Four Metals—Four Epochs
In constructing Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel 2 also borrowed the motif of generations degrading over time, symbolized by moving down the hierarchy of precious metals.
Persian Example: Bahman Yasht
The schema is found in the Persian religious text, the Bahman Yasht, in a vision Zaruthustra has of a tree with branches made of different metals. Ahuramazda, the Zoroastrian God, explains that this tree represents the descent of human history into a period of demon rule (ch. 1):
He beheld the root of a tree, on which were four branches, one golden, one of silver, one of steel, and one was mixed up with iron….
Ahuramazda spoke to Zarathustra the Spitaman thus: “That root of a tree which you saw and those four branches are the four periods which will come. That of gold is when you and I converse, and King Vishtasp shall accept the religion… And that of silver is the reign of Ardakhshir the Kayan king, and that of steel is the reign of the glorified Khusro son of Kevad and that which was mixed with iron is the evil sovereignty of the demons with dishevelled hair of the race of Wrath… (West translation with modernized English)
It seems likely that Daniel 2 is working with this Persian theme.
Greek Version: Hesiod’s Five Generations
An earlier source for Daniel’s image, from the Greek tradition, is the work of the 8th/7th century B.C.E. Greek poet, Hesiod, in the opening section of his Works and Days, which divides human history into epochs, assigning each a metal (lns. 109ff):
1st Generation: Golden and Happy
First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief…
This generation lives off the fruit of the earth, and when they die, they remain on earth as kind spirits helping others.
2nd Generation: Silver and Foolish
Then they who dwell on Olympus made a second generation which was of silver and less noble by far…. When they were full grown and were come to full measure they lived only a little time in sorrow because of their foolishness, for they could not keep from sinning and from wronging each other, nor would they serve the immortals, nor sacrifice on holy altars…
Zeus eventually removes this generation, who live on as spirits in the underworld.
3rd Generation: Brazen and Violent
Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from ashtrees, and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence… Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements…. These were destroyed by their own hands.
This generation passes into Hades on their own as a direct result of their violent tendencies.
4th Generation: Heroic Demi-Gods
Zeus the son of Cronos made yet another, the fourth [generation], upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own…. Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them… But to the others father Zeus the son of Cronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of the earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed…
Following this heroic generation, Hesiod describes humanity as we know it.
5th Generation: Contemporary Iron Humanity
And again far-seeing Zeus made yet another generation, the fifth, of men who are upon the bounteous earth…. Now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night, and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth…
In his construction of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream statue, the author of Daniel appears to have combined both the mythic, precious-metal motif, and the historical four-kingdoms motif. The message of the dream, however, only becomes clear when we learn that the impressive statue is not destined to last.
The Destruction of the Statue
Following the appearance of the statue, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream continues:
דניאל ב:לד חָזֵה הֲוַיְתָ עַד דִּי הִתְגְּזֶרֶת אֶבֶן דִּי לָא בִידַיִן וּמְחָת לְצַלְמָא עַל רַגְלוֹהִי דִּי פַרְזְלָא וְחַסְפָּא וְהַדֵּקֶת הִמּוֹן. ב:לה בֵּאדַיִן דָּקוּ כַחֲדָה פַּרְזְלָא חַסְפָּא נְחָשָׁא כַּסְפָּא וְדַהֲבָא וַהֲווֹ כְּעוּר מִן אִדְּרֵי קַיִט וּנְשָׂא הִמּוֹן רוּחָא וְכָל אֲתַר לָא הִשְׁתֲּכַח לְהוֹן וְאַבְנָא דִּי מְחָת לְצַלְמָא הֲוָת לְטוּר רַב וּמְלָת כָּל אַרְעָא.
Dan 2:34 As you looked on, a stone was hewn out, not by hands, and struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and crushed them. 2:35 All at once, the iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold were crushed, and became like chaff of the threshing floors of summer; a wind carried them off until no trace of them was left. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
This again Daniel explains as an allegory, with the stone which becomes a mountain and “fills the whole earth,” symbolizing the kingdom of God:
דניאל ב:מד וּבְיוֹמֵיהוֹן דִּי מַלְכַיָּא אִנּוּן יְקִים אֱלָהּ שְׁמַיָּא מַלְכוּ דִּי לְעָלְמִין לָא תִתְחַבַּל וּמַלְכוּתָה לְעַם אָחֳרָן לָא תִשְׁתְּבִק תַּדִּק וְתָסֵיף כָּל אִלֵּין מַלְכְוָתָא וְהִיא תְּקוּם לְעָלְמַיָּא. ב:מה כָּל קֳבֵל דִּי חֲזַיְתָ דִּי מִטּוּרָא אִתְגְּזֶרֶת אֶבֶן דִּי לָא בִידַיִן וְהַדֶּקֶת פַּרְזְלָא נְחָשָׁא חַסְפָּא כַּסְפָּא וְדַהֲבָא...
Dan 2:44 And in the time of those kings, the God of Heaven will establish a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, a kingdom that shall not be transferred to another people. It will crush and wipe out all these kingdoms, but shall itself last forever 2:45 just as you saw how a stone was hewn from the mountain, not by hands, and crushed the iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold….
The imagery of God’s mountain filling the whole earth, וּמְלָת כָּל אַרְעָא, is reminiscent of what the divine cohort of seraphim proclaim about YHWH’s glory:
ישעיה ו:ג ...קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ.
Isa 6:3 …Holy, holy, holy! YHWH of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!
Similarly, later in Isaiah, we are told that, in the future, knowledge of YHWH will fill the earth:
ישעיה יא:ט לֹא יָרֵעוּ וְלֹא יַשְׁחִיתוּ בְּכָל הַר קָדְשִׁי כִּי מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ דֵּעָה אֶת יְ־הוָה כַּמַּיִם לַיָּם מְכַסִּים.
Isa 11:9 In all of My sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of YHWH as water covers the sea.
Note here especially the connection with God’s mountain. The verse may have been a source for the author of Daniel, in which the stone that becomes a mountain symbolizes the kingdom of God and fills the earth. The connection between God and the mountain may have another layer in Aramaic, since the Aramaic word for mountain, טור is cognate with Hebrew צור, a common metaphor for God.
Despite the fact that the metals represent four different kingdoms, the statue as a whole represents the kingdom of humanity, which is why the statue is specifically of a person. This statue, the physical manifestation of human rule, is crushed, meaning that human dominion will eventually obliterated and replaced by the kingdom of God.
The text’s emphasis that the stone הִתְגְּזֶרֶת אֶבֶן דִּי לָא בִידַיִן “was hewn out, not by hands” forms a sharp contrast with a metal statue; shaped metal is a classic sign of human design, while the stone is unsullied by human craftsmanship. The contrast may be building on what we find in Exodus 20, where golden statues are forbidden and the stones used in building the altar must be uncut.
שמות כ:כ...אֱלֹהֵי כֶסֶף וֵאלֹהֵי זָהָב לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם... כ:כב וְאִם מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי לֹא תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ.
Exod 20:20 …You shall not make for yourselves gods of silver, and gods of gold… 20:22 And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.
The contrast between the human and the divine kingdoms is highlighted by the use of gold in the statue, which brings up the specter of another golden statue.
The Golden Calf and the Golden Head of the Statute
Several literary connections between Daniel 2 and the story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32 and Deuteronomy 9 imply that the author of Daniel 2 was purposefully alluding to this story:
Golden Statues—The obvious connection between the two stories is that both are problematic statues made of gold, which stand in opposition to God’s kingdom.
Stone vs. Gold—While Moses, atop the mountain, receives tablets with God’s laws, לֻחֹת אֶבֶן כְּתֻבִים בְּאֶצְבַּע אֱלֹהִים “stone tablets engraved with writing by the finger of God,” the Israelites, at the foot of the mountain, sin by building a golden calf for themselves to worship in place of God.
שמות לב:ג וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ כָּל הָעָם אֶת נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶל אַהֲרֹן. לב:ד וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 32:3 And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 32:4 This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
Again, we have a contrast between divine stonework and human metal work.
Crushing (ד.ו.ק)—In his dream, Nebuchadnezzar sees the stone crash against the statue’s feet and וְהַדֵּקֶת הִמּוֹן “crush them,” after which all the various parts of the statue דָּקוּ כַחֲדָה “were crushed at once.” Daniel explains that God’s future kingdom will תַּדִּק “crush” all other kingdoms just as the unhewn stone וְהַדֶּקֶת פַּרְזְלָא נְחָשָׁא חַסְפָּא כַּסְפָּא וְדַהֲבָא “crushed the iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold.” This root appears in the Golden Calf story as well:
שמות לב:כ וַיִּקַּח אֶת הָעֵגֶל אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ וַיִּשְׂרֹף בָּאֵשׁ וַיִּטְחַן עַד אֲשֶׁר דָּק וַיִּזֶר עַל פְּנֵי הַמַּיִם וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Exod 32:20 He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.
It appears again in Moses’ retelling of the story in Deuteronomy:
דברים ט:כא וְאֶת חַטַּאתְכֶם אֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת הָעֵגֶל לָקַחְתִּי וָאֶשְׂרֹף אֹתוֹ בָּאֵשׁ וָאֶכֹּת אֹתוֹ טָחוֹן הֵיטֵב עַד אֲשֶׁר דַּק לְעָפָר וָאַשְׁלִךְ אֶת עֲפָרוֹ אֶל הַנַּחַל הַיֹּרֵד מִן הָהָר.
Deut 9:21 As for that sinful thing you had made, the calf, I took it and put it to the fire; I broke it to bits and ground it thoroughly until it was fine as dust, and I threw its dust into the brook that comes down from the mountain.
Thus Daniel, in describing how God’s kingdom will crush the statue with the golden head, subtly alludes to the description of Moses crushing the Golden Calf.
Spreading the Remains—We saw above that Moses spreads the remains of the Golden Calf by throwing the powder into the nearby brook. A similar fate awaits the crushed statue in Daniel 2, which is carried off by the wind without a trace left.
The connection between Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and the Golden Calf lies not only in the description of a statue that must be crushed, but also in ending of the two stories. The Israelites are not destroyed after the sin of the calf, but Moses goes up Mount Sinai/Horeb, prays for the Israelites, and receives another set of tablets with God’s revelation. In other words, the crushing of the statue makes room for Israel’s repentance and return to God.
In a similar vein, the book of Daniel is telling its readers that the future has hope. The Judeans have survived the golden head, the body of silver and bronze, and are now living in the time of the crushing iron. Nevertheless, soon God will come, and the Greek oppressors will themselves be crushed, and their remains scattered to the wind, never to be seen again. At that point, God will reign supreme, and those who waited patiently for God’s kingdom will finally enjoy the fruits of the covenant first carved in stone upon the mountain.
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August 6, 2020
September 14, 2020
Dr. Naama Golan is a Lecturer in the Department of Biblical Studies, Kibbutzim College of Education and Herzog College. She received her Ph.D. in Bible from Bar Ilan University, where she wrote on The Daniel Narratives: A Literary Analysis of Daniel 1-6. She has published a number of articles on Daniel, including "Metal and Stone: An Analogy between the Story of David and Goliath and the Story of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream" (ZAW 2019), and "The Surprise and the Role reversal in the Lion's-Den Narrative" (Beit Mikra 2019).
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