Reading the Present in Light of the Past - Reflection on Daniel 11-12

Coin of Antiochus IV, with obverse featuring Zeus



            I have been walking through Daniel with my Bible Study group. I’ve not done this before, that is, I’ve not worked my way through Daniel with this much attention to detail, and certainly not in the company of others. It is an intriguing journey. We start with stories of faithfulness to God in the midst of exile. Then, we encounter strange visions that purport to describe the future. One constant theme is that no matter how powerful an empire grows, it will certainly fall. Only the realm of God, on earth as in heaven, will be sustained. This is a word to the people of Judah, living under oppressive rulers, offering a vision of hope that despite what their eyes see and what their bodies and spirits experience, God will emerge victorious.

            Daniel’s visions are set in the sixth century during and after the exile. This vision, found in Daniel 11 and the first four verses of chapter 12, is the final vision. It is quite long and quite detailed. It lays out the progress of history from the time of the Persian ascendancy to the oppressive rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (God manifested), the Seleucid emperor who profaned the Temple and forbade the traditional observances therein. Unlike some of the other visions, this one is quite realistic. In fact, the author follows history quite closely, especially concerning the Syrian wars between the Kings of the North (the Seleucids) and the Kings of the South (the Ptolemies). From the time of Alexander’s death until the fall of both kingdoms to Rome in the first century BCE, these two kingdoms fought for control of the regions of Syria and Palestine. In other words, the land of the Jews—the “Beautiful Land” and the Holy Mountain—stood in the midst of these two warring kingdoms, both of which were Greek in origin and orientation.

The people of Judah were caught middle of these wars and their impact on daily life. Some made their peace with the Hellenizing vision of these two realms and adopted Greek customs and names. In other words, they assimilated themselves to the reigning culture.  Others, resisted. Some, like the Maccabees took up arms. Others, like the Wise described here in the vision, chose a different path, a path of faithful but passive resistance. While Daniel doesn’t criticize either effort, its clear he identifies with the more passive resistance. It is the wise who will shine like stars in the resurrection (Daniel 12:3). What might these words say to us who live in the United States, who are asked to assimilate into a particular cultural dynamic?

Although some modern interpreters have tried to identify the king of the north and the king of the south with contemporary powers, it is clear that Daniel has in mind the Seleucid and Ptolemaic Empires. Interestingly, the historical part of the vision ends at Daniel 11:39. Everything prior to 11:40 skews closely to what we know from history. What is revealed in verses 40-45, however, has no historical corroboration. Antiochus doesn’t attack Egypt or take it over one last time. He doesn’t die in Palestine. He dies in the east, in Persia, interestingly, as he is plundering a temple, something he had done or allowed to happen in Jerusalem. In other words, he lived up to his claims of being greater than any of the gods.

Daniel is told to seal up the vision until the proper moment for its revealing. This is true apocalyptic form. The question for us, is what this interpretation of history suggests. History may not repeat itself, but human nature has some peculiarities that seem to lead to similar outcomes. Nations rise, and nations fall. People elevate themselves to near divine status, believing they can not be challenged. They may make war. They may plunder temples. They may not fear God. But their time in the sun is always short. Persia grew to great heights, even taking the battle to Greece, and winning. But they fell, eventually. Alexander expanded his empire from Greece to India to Egypt, but he died, and his empire was divided into many parts. These empires, rose and fell, with Rome succeeding them. But even Rome couldn’t last forever. Indeed, Constantinople stood fast for a thousand years, but it too fell. One after the other.

We who live in the United States at times think of ourselves as invincible, as divinely protected. We have at times taken over biblical imagery, portraying ourselves as Israel reborn. The truth is, we are simply one more empire, whose time in the sun will dim at some point. We don’t know when that will be. It appears, at the moment, that China is on the rise. Could it be the next power to emerge, as we march onward through history? What might Daniel suggest to us? How might this vision, which is at times opaque, and yet is the most realistic of the visions, speak to our times?

It would be appropriate to note that I write this reflection, even as my Jewish friends, celebrate Hanukkah, a festival that remembers the re-dedication of the Temple profaned by Antiochus and his cronies. For more on that one must go to the two books of Maccabees, but it is worth noting that Daniel covers much of the same history, only from a different vantage point. Again, what word does this offer us?  

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