People want the Bible to come at them head-on. Sometimes it does. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus often comes head-on (something Pier Paolo Pasolini got right in his 1964 film, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew “). Take, for example, this saying of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). Head on. Or, from the same sermon: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:43-4). Head on again. But sometimes the Bible comes at us obliquely, in story rather than commandment. And sometimes these stories are stories about the Bible itself, about how to interpret it, how to understand it, how to live in its pages. Daniel 2 is one such story—a story about stories, a story about the Bible. I invite you to its many mysteries.
This chapter of Daniel is curious for a couple of other reasons. For one, it’s written in Aramaic (Hebrew through verse 4a). Aramaic is the language of choice in just two biblical settings: Daniel (chapters 2-7) and Ezra (the court documents). Biblical Aramaic, like bureaucratic languages everywhere, tends to be clunky compared to the economy of biblical Hebrew. Perhaps here the use of Aramaic evinces a desire to communicate on a broader stage.
A second reason why Daniel 2 stands out is that this chapter (along with chapters 3 and 4) portrays Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon sympathetically. It’s important to remember that this same Nebuchadnezzar murdered the people of Judah, dragged its youth into exile, robbed the temple, and burnt the city. Perhaps, by the time of writing of Daniel, the historical memory of Nebuchadnezzar had faded somewhat, replaced by in the mind of the people by the cruelties of the Seleucids, the heirs of Alexander, but for the record, here’s how 2 Chronicles tells the story of the fall of Jerusalem:
[Yhwh} brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there. (NIV)
Hardly the slightly-mad-but-wanting-to-do-the-right-thing king of the Daniel stories. But then the Daniel stories are not really about Nebuchadnezzar.
In fact, the stories seem to have been borrowed from stories about a later Babylonian king, Nabonidus (on this, see the standard commentaries and especially Carol Newsom, Daniel. A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014). It was Nabonidus who was known in antiquity as the dreamer. But it’s not really about Nabonidus either. It’s about faithfulness, how to be faithful in a time of empire. And it’s about the power of a certain kind of resistance, a resistance that arises out of the knowledge that the world does not belong to Nebuchadnezzar or to the many other tyrants who follow him in the long history of God’s people.
But let’s get to the story. The story opens with a dream—a dream that troubles the mind of the king, Nebuchadnezzar. We are not told the dream. Newsom speculates that the king is worried that his reign will soon be ended. Nabonidus—from who the story may derive—had usurped the throne; his hold on it was less than certain. The story behind the story may reflect his concern that his right to the throne could be challenged and that a crucial clue to what would happen was to be found in the dream. He needed someone to tell him what it meant.
But that’s to historicize the story. There is another, internal reason why the dream is not revealed at this point in the account. It’s not only to build suspense, which it does, but because the dream doesn’t belong to Nebuchadnezzar. It’s not his to reveal. And so, all we are told at this point is that the king has dreamed and that the dream has troubled him.
As in the Joseph story (Genesis 41:8), on which this story is partially based, when the king wakes up, he summons his crack dream squad—the various categories of mantic priests in Babylon who were supposed to be able to read dreams. Once assembled, he asks them for the dream and its interpretation. In an amusing sequence—amusing for everyone except the dream interpreters themselves—the priests think at first that they have misunderstood or that the king has misspoken: “Tell us the dream,” they say, “and we will tell you what it means.” But they have not misheard the king. He wants both dream and interpretation. Interpretation is easy, Nebuchadnezzar seems to be saying; coming up with the dream, not so much.
Put yourself for a moment in the place of the dream interpreters. Two possibilities may occur to you. The first is what all Sunday School kids (and teachers) assume to be the case: that the king is testing his dream interpreters. If they can’t tell him the dream, why should he trust their interpretation?
A second possibility is that the king doesn’t actually remember the dream. The storyteller leaves this possibility open. In this case, the king is hoping that when they tell him the dream, he’ll recall enough of it to know if what they are telling him is what he dreamed. If this is the game the king is playing, the priests might well make up a dream—something plausible, something that will be ultimately reassuring to the king, something that fits the king’s thinking as far as they know it. Dream memories are often fragmentary. A plausible facsimile of a dream may be enough.
But which is it? Does the king remember the dream? In that case, to try to make one up is certain death. But what if the king doesn’t remember the dream? Then the best chance is to take a shot of coming up with one. As Oliver Hardy (should have) said to Stan Laurel, “It’s a fine mess” (not actually what he said, but oh, well).
The dream interpreters, also known in the story as the “wise men of Babylon,” do not seem especially bright. I suspect they are portrayed that way for effect. They take the Sunday School answer: they assume that the king knows the dream. They are too scared to think clearly. Desperate, they tell him that no human can do what he asks: come up with both dream and interpretation (Daniel 2:11). And for that answer, they are dead. Or soon to be, condemned by the king to death.
Nebuchadnezzar dispatches the chief of the palace guard, Arioch, to do the deed. Note how in these stories the empire is reduced to a few individuals, Nebuchadnezzar, Arioch, Daniel, his friends, and the Babylonian priests. Power in these stories, including the power over life and death, is intensely personal. Among the wise men of Babylon is Daniel. When Arioch comes to kill him, Daniel, still not in the know, asks what is going on. When Arioch tells him, he responds, in the face of imminent death, with what the text calls, “prudence and authority” (2:14).
“Prudence and authority” are not descriptive merely of Daniel’s manner in this instance; it’s a strategy or a recommendation for a strategy for how to speak truth to power, even when that power has, as did Arioch, murderous intent. The phrase conveys to the community to which Daniel was written a posture for survival and perhaps even prosperity in a hostile world.
We could pause at this point to enter a conversation with the text about the role of people of faith in a time of empire. Does this always work? Is it always the right strategy? In our story it does. Daniel brings to the fraught situation in which he and the other wise men of Babylon find themselves a calm gentle authority. He, and not Arioch, is master of the situation. He gently but firmly persuades Arioch to bring him to the king where he will reveal the dream and interpret it. His power lies in his willingness to trust whatever result God brings.
This is an act of faith. By no means does Daniel know that he will at the end of the time allotted to him be given either dream or interpretation. He asks his friends to pray for him—“to plead for mercy concerning this mystery” (2:18). And then he goes home and, we are not told how, enters the dream state.
He is given a dream. He cannot know at this point that the dream he dreams is in fact Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. It’s important to pay attention to exactly what the text says. The language is careful. It does not overstate what Daniel has learned. After Daniel dreams, we are told that “in a vision of the night the mystery was revealed” (2:19). At this point Daniel recites a little thanksgiving poem, whether his own or something he knows. The last verse is key. I’ll use Newsom’s translation:
To you, O God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise,
For you have given me wisdom and power,
And now you have disclosed to us what we asked of you,
For you disclosed to us what concerns the king.
The NIV egregiously mistranslates the last line. It has: “You have made known to us the dream of the king.” This is precisely what the text does not says. It does not tell us that Daniel dreamed the dream of the king. It does not do so quite intentionally, one suspects. It leaves open the possibility that the king does not remember precisely what the dream was about. The poem uses vague language: what has been disclosed to Daniel and his friends (note the plurals) is “the matter of the king.”
Earlier, I noted that the Nebuchadnezzar’s dream interpreters, when confronted by the king’s demand to give him both dream and interpretation, were faced with two alternative understandings of the king’s request: one, that the king remembered his dream and was testing them; the other, that the king didn’t remember the dream and was hoping they would come up with it. Now, we have a third alternative: that it was not Nebuchadnezzar’s dream at all but a divine disclosure available not just to the king but to Daniel and his friends–that this dream had risen up, as it were, from the depths of mystery and could accessed by one who knows how to enter the world of mysteries.
This is what Daniel knows: how to enter the world of mysteries. It’s not a matter of technique. Were it so, the Babylonian dream interpreters would surely know the techniques. It’s a matter of relationship with, as Daniel puts it, “the Revealer of Mysteries” (2:28). And it’s a matter of trust. Daniel is willing to trust that the revelation will come to him.
The revelation does come to him, as the story makes clear, in the context of worship and prayer. Daniel and his friends stand in here for the worshiping community. It’s to this community that the word of God is disclosed. And the dream in this case stands in for the God-inspired imagination of the community. Daniel can access “the matter of the king” because in worship and prayer and, yes, in his dreams, he draws on the source of all revelation: “the Revealer of Mysteries.”
This is a view of revelation in which revelation is not something that can be tied up in a book. I was reviewing again the Reformed teaching that the revelation of God comes in two forms: the scriptures—what has been written down—and creation—what God has made. These “two books,” as the Belgic Confession has it, are often construed as words that have been spoken. In the past. God has spoken, and that’s that. It’s up to us to interpret it. We have the dream; we have to make sense of it.
Daniel 2 raises another possibility: that God has not only spoken but that God still speaks. It suggests that we can only hear this speaking of God if we are willing to trust it, even with our lives. In our hyper-rationalistic world, we have largely cut ourselves off from the sort of mystical disclosure that comes first to Nebuchadnezzar, who doesn’t know what to do with it, and then to Daniel, who does. David Bentley Hart writes in his recent book,Roland in the Moonlight (actually, it’s Roland, his dog, not Hart speaking at this point in the book), “It’s only when the soul is able temporarily to disengage itself from body’s pulses and powers in sleep that it can gaze—or at least peer intently—into hidden things . . .” (p. 225). Daniel, supported by his community, does just that: gazes into hidden things.
Are we called in these troubled times to gaze into hidden things still? There is much more to be said here, I realize, perhaps especially in the way of cautions. Save that for another time. The story in Daniel 2 is not over. To take the full measure of it, we have to go on with the story. What in fact has Daniel seen in “the matter of the king”? You may know the answer: a statue standing upon the earth. A statue that is a key to history. And not only a key to history but a vision that has ever since driven history, even today. But that is for the next post.