Hang In and Hang On

Lessons from the Book of Daniel

This week at GracePointe Church I offered my final installment of this iteration of our Bible Stories for Grown Ups series. Brian McLaren will be closing our series out this coming Sunday with the story of Esther (which I am ridiculously excited about!). Today, instead of just posting my sermon notes, I wanted to offer a more distilled version that gets to the core of what I think the Book of Daniel is doing. 

First, the Book of Daniel is a late text, meaning that it is likely that Daniel was the last text written in the Hebrew canon. This is a significant detail, because based on the language and other in-text clues we can confidently date the text to the second century BCE, specifically to the Maccabean revolution of the 160s. We will come back to this in a bit. 

Second, the Book of Daniel is part of a genre of literature known as Apocalyptic. Another example of this genre in the biblical canon is Revelation—literally Apocalypse in Greek—which doesn’t mean that it’s about the end of the world. The word actually means “unveiling,” a pulling back of the curtain to show that things, as bad and bleak as they might seem, aren’t hopeless, because God is still at work and there is a day of vindication coming for those who stick it out faithfully. In my youth the Book of Daniel was used as a source of flannelgraph-able stories and a source of details about the “End Times.”  Daniel, nor Revelation, are about the end of the world. They are about the end of an age, the end of a time of suffering and oppression for the faithful. That day was in their future, but it is in our past. 

Apocalyptic literature is known by several characteristics: it’s written in a context of oppression (it’s resistance literature), there are angelic beings that interpret visions and dreams, it contains tons of symbolism, and contrasts between light/dark, good/evil, a present age and an age to come, in which the problems of the present have been resolved. It’s a coded message, set in a past time of oppression, because it’s dangerous to be writing about the defeat of the empire that currently runs the world. For example, the Book of Revelation depicts Babylon as the oppressor, yet based on the date (late first century CE) and the details, we know that it was written to Christians that were being persecuted by the Romans in Asia Minor. The same is true with Daniel. The narrative context is during the sixth century BCE, which saw Jerusalem razed and the people exiled to Babylon. The compositional context, when it was written, was another turbulent time that threatened the very existence of the Jewish tradition. 

A brief history lesson for context is in order. In June 323 BCE something happened that changed the world in an instant. At the age of 32, Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, died. After his death, his kingdom was divided up among four generals. The two greatest were Ptolemy, who ruled Egypt, and Seleucus who ruled what was Babylon. Eventually the Seleucids expanded their territory to include what we know today as Israel/Palestine, and instituted a program of Hellenization, the spread of Greek culture, ideas, religion, language, etc. It was the Greekification of the world. 

On September 3, 175 BCE a ruler named Antiochus IV, who also took the title Epiphanies (meaning ‘god manifest, so he definitely had a(n) (un)healthy self esteem) assumed the throne of the Seleucid empire, with the intention of ramping up the Greekification of the world. He would go so far as to essentially make it illegal for Jews to engage in their culture and religious practice.  

The specific issue, it seems, that the Daniel addresses happened in 167 BCE. Antiochus ordered that the morning and evening offerings be stopped in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Some writers have even suggested that the Temple was rededicated to a Zeus-like deity.  This is what Daniel refers to as “the abomination that causes  desolation” (used by the writer of Mark to talk about the Roman destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE). This is the last straw for a Jewish family known as the Maccabees. The Maccabean Revolt took back and cleansed/rededicated the Temple, and brought about a brief independence for the Jewish state, until the Romans showed up in 63 BCE. These are also the events that are remembered during the celebration of Hanukkah. 

The latter half of the Book of Daniel (chapters 7-12) remembers in dramatic and visionary fashion the actions of Antiochus and all of the beastly and inhumane empires that preceded him, while contrasting that with a coming kingdom, governed by a figure known as the Son of Man or literally, a human being. This figure was likely to represent the Jewish people as a whole, but later came to be used of a coming messianic figure (this language is used in the Gospels and applied to Jesus). 

The first six chapters are about people, Daniel and three other faithful Jews, who are persecuted and whose lives are placed in danger because they refuse to recant their faith. They refused to eat the kings food (which would have been against dietary laws), bow to the kings golden statue when the music played (or perhaps they decided to take a knee when another song was played? It is baffling to me how many Christians treat the Star Spangled Banner as a worship song. Protesting the empire’s demand for worship runs deep in our tradition!), nor would they cease praying even when the result was coming face to face with lions. Daniel was composed in the middle of a turbulent and uncertain time, and is encouraging the faithful to keep going, to maintain their convictions. Daniel is saying: Don’t give up. Don’t let fear stop you. Keep being faithful. Keep resisting the brutality and dehumanization of empire. This is all going somewhere if we just keep pushing forward. 

This period also saw an innovation in the Jewish faith—the belief that martyrs who died refusing to violate their conscience and recant their faith, would experience a resurrection. The Book of Daniel contains the only reference to this idea in the entire Hebrew Bible:

But at that time every one of your people who is found written in the scroll will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dusty land will wake up—some to eternal life, others to shame and eternal disgrace. (Daniel 12:1b-2, CEB)

What do we do with this book? It seems to me it is incredibly relevant in this particular time and context. We are living in a time of fear and chaos. The fabric and institutions that we have counted on are being eroded before our eyes. Hate, bigotry, and white supremacy are experiencing a frightening renaissance.  Our relationships are strained in ways that we never imagined before. What does Daniel have to say to us?

Here are a few things that came to mind for me:

How do we resist empire without playing by the rules of the empire? This seems vital to me. If we engage the empire using it’s own methods, embracing violence and a value system that isn’t centered on restorative justice, compassion, and transformation, then how can we actually imagine and midwife a better world into existence? If we end up dehumanizing the dehumanizers, aren’t we just keeping the pain in circulation? 

How do we remain faithful and engaged when it seems like everything around us is falling apart? When it seems like the problems are so large, and our capacity is limited, how do we refuse to give up or give in? How do we stay encouraged? I think this is one of the reasons self-care, and being kind and compassionate to ourselves, is key. How can I fill a bucket from an empty well? How can I give others what I have refused to give myself? 

Finally, how do we remain hopeful when there seems little reason to have hope? I was thinking about this when I came across a video on Twitter. The news of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had just hit, and the next day I saw a video that Senator Elizabeth Warren released online. This line moved me particularly:

“Hope isn’t given to us, it’s created by us.”

There’s something to that, friends. Hope comes from the fact that we keep showing up. Hope emerges from our stubborn refusal to accept what is unacceptable, and our commitment to work, serve, and embody love, which will bring a better world into existence. Hope is what happens when I see my ten year old son, knowing he could face some backlash, decide to wear his Black Lives Matter shirt to school, because sometimes you have to speak the truth, even when your voice shakes. Hope is what happens when we realize that, with our commitment to the work, equality and equity are not an if, but a when.

 At one point I stopped engaging the Book of Daniel. Once I stopped believing in the “End Times” it seems useless. Once I learned it wasn’t about the end, it was actually about holding on and working for a new beginning, it’s been transformed for me. I am so glad the Book of Daniel exists to remind us to hang in, hang on, and never stop hoping.