Daniel: When was it Set? When was it Written?

Look closely at the name “Daniel” and you’ll notice that it includes the Hebrew word for God, “El.” The name signals Daniel’s belonging to Israel as well as his righteousness (the name means “God is my judge”). In Ugaritic texts, Daniel is a righteous king from a time so far in the past that we can only think of it as the “long ago” of storybook lore. In the book of Daniel, our hero lives under the oppressive rule of the Babylonians. He is a youth in exile from his land who strives to maintain his Jewish identity even while living in the court of a foreign emperor and being subjected to relentless indoctrination. 

What genre do you think this story is — history, fantasy, folk lore, fairy tale, chronicle? What expectations do you have about the plot structure based on your assessment of it’s genre? 

You may recall that I often ask you to think about three different contexts when you read something from the Bible. 

  • When did it happen? or When is the story set?
  • When was it written down?
  • When are you living?

We already know that the story is set in the sixth century, during the Babylonian exile. But when was it written? The language gives us a clue. The book of Daniel is written mostly in Aramaic, not Hebrew, which places it as one of the latest books in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. It was most likely written in the Hellenistic period, which began with the rule of Alexander the Great in the fourth century. In chapters 7-12 we get another hint about when it was written: Daniel sees a vision that reveals the history of Judah in great detail up through the mid-second century. Anyone care to guess that it was probably written in the mid-second century?!

What was going on in the mid-second century? Alexander the Great had died, and his empire had been divided among his generals. Judah was ruled by the Seleucids, who tried to force the Jews to Hellenize. This included speaking Greek, studying Greek literature, foregoing circumcision, and abandoning their kosher practices. If you’ll recall that the biggest threat to Judah during exile was that the people might assimilate to Babylonian culture and lose their distinctive identity, then you might have some idea what Daniel wants to say to his own contemporaries.

I wonder what he wants to say to us?


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