Light on the Kingdom of God Theme from Daniel 7

The end of the Aramaic section of Daniel, Dan 7:28, sees Daniel troubled by a recent vision in (some) identical terms to those used to describe Belshazzar’s distress at his own ‘writing on the wall’ vision in Dan 5:6, 9.  That in itself is interesting but I’ll leave it with you to ponder.  My focus here is actually on the previous verse, v. 27.

The word translated ‘kingship’ at the beginning of v. 27 in NRSV and the New Jerusalem Bible and ‘sovereignty’ in the NIV is the same one (in the Aramaic, ‘malkû‘) translated a few words later, and often in Daniel, ‘kingdom(s)’.  It appears 57 times just in the Aramaic chapters of Daniel, showing how important these six chapters, Daniel 2-7, are for the theme of the kingdom of God in our biblical theology.  That, after all, is the point of the opening and closing visions of this Aramaic section.  Chapter 2 features a statue whose successive metals represent successive ancient Near East empires, which is finally wiped away by the uncut rock that represents this kingdom.  The same happens in Daniel 7, at the other end of the ‘envelope’ structure, when the heavenly court decides against the power of all the animal kingdoms and gives authority instead to the ‘one like a son of man’ (7:13).

But something I read in a classic OT monograph gave me a little more insight into this theme of Daniel.  R. R. Wilson in his 1977 work, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World, 81, makes the comment about the Sumerian King List that it “presents the dogma that only one city can possess kingship at any given time [and] also suggests that kingship is now located in Isin.”   While we are quite comfortable with the idea that more than one powerful nation might find room to exist simultaneously in the world, the idea in the Sumerian King List and at least one rival document was that in the Mesopotamian world, only one city could legitimately hold the heaven-sent ‘kingship’ or pre-eminence in human kingdoms.

So suddenly the statue and the animal series make sense, being based on this ‘one-at-a-time’ idea, and the succession of empires that dominated the Tigris-Euphrates valley, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and finally Seleucia, could only have reinforced this obviously widely-held idea.  Only one human kingdom gets to hold the sceptre than heaven gives.  In Daniel it is the ‘Most High’ or the ‘Ancient of Days’ that hands out the sceptre, and when human kingdoms have had enough of a day, takes it back to hand to…the human-like one (v. 13)/’the saints of the Most High’ (v. 27a) and therefore, ultimately, Himself (27b)!

P.S. Out of 20 occurrences of this word, malkû, in the determined singular in Daniel, several occurrences seem to carry this meaning, ‘kingship’, rather than ‘kingdom’.  Check out 2:37-38; 4:31; 5:31 (all English text) as examples.

The Rage Against God

I’m borrowing the title of the Peter Hitchens book to highlight an interesting connection between a psalm and Daniel.  Having recently picked up some Aramaic, I was reading Daniel 6 in the wee hours (see my insomnia post!) and discovered a word in the Daniel-in-the-lions’-den story that also turns up, just once, in the Psalms in Hebrew.  The word is the verb ‘ragash‘, which appears in Psalm 2:1, in the gripping opening line, “Why do the nations rage?”  Being the only occurrence of this verb, its meaning is debated, but it seems to connote a crowd in tumult (see the cognate noun, used positively, in 55:15 (Eng. 14), to indicate a happy, noisy, chaotic crowd headed for worship at the temple.)

Well, the verb turns up three times in the lions’ den story, and in an interesting pattern.  In 6:7 (Eng. 6:6), the group that envies Daniel goes to the king, Darius, urging him to issue a decree that there be no worship for thirty days, except that directed to Darius himself.  We are led to understand this as an appeal to his ego.  Daniel learns of this, but maintains his three-time daily prayer routine towards Jerusalem (we are reminded of the programmatic, and possibly exilic, prayer of Solomon in 1 Kings 8), which makes him a sitting duck for the set-up, and his opponents in v. 12 (Eng. 11) come in in ‘ragash‘ fashion to catch him red-kneed.  When Darius learns of this development, he looks for a way to excuse Daniel, but now Daniel’s rivals in v. 16 (Eng. 15) ‘ragash‘ back into the king to remind him of his obligations to keep the irrevocable law of the Medes and Persians.  Into the lions’ den goes Daniel.

The third encounter in particular gives the reader the sense that the king is not in a strong negotiating position.  These plotting officials have the king pinned with his own strong piece, the legal force of his own edict.  He, like Daniel, is boxed in by them.  Thus the rhetorical force of this part of the story gives us a possible insight into the still-debated meaning of this elusive word.  In the English versions of Daniel 6, we are offered many alternative translations for ‘ragash’: ‘to come by agreement’ (ESV); ‘to go as a group’ (NIV); ‘[the conspirators] came’, says NRSV, giving the noun, ‘conspirators’, a little borrowed connotation from the verb, which may carry this sense in Psalm 2:1.  Somewhere I think I read, ‘stormed in’.  Perhaps that is the closest so far.  My sense is that it connotes the noisy, unruly approach of a group of persons with hostile, though hidden, intentions in this passage, though I don’t claim this with any dogmatism.  This seems to be the sense of the story, which justifies Daniel as courageously devout, and interestingly, absolves the Persian emperor Darius from any responsibility for Daniel’s plight, at the cost of making him seem disempowered.  Such an apologetic might have a real function in a Jewish community still living under Persian power.

So as in Psalm 2, not to mention in Esther, Daniel 6 finds “the nations raging” against the LORD still, and as in Psalm 2, this plotting and rebellion proves ultimately futile.  An interesting instance of how a rare Hebrew OT word lines up in meaning with its rare Aramaic counterpart.

Articles of the Temple part II

Right, back and fed.  Well, the temple articles are mentioned in the texts that talk about the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, along with its earlier sacking by the same (2 Kings 24:13; 25:14, 15; 2 Chron. 36:7, 10, 18-19).  Then in the accounts of the return from exile they feature very prominently as well (Ezra 1:7-11; 5:13-15).  To the Babylonians this stuff was war booty, but to the Jews of the return they were sacred things, essential for worship.  It was scandalous and shameful in their minds that they had fallen into pagan hands.  It was a key part of the restoration of worship to return them to service.  It was a setback when, near the end of Nehemiah, the temple rooms intended for the storage of such sacred articles ended up storing Tobiah the Ammonite’s personal gear (the same Hebrew word in each case, ‘kĕlî‘, Neh. 13:5, 8-9).

But the role the temple articles play in Daniel is also interesting.  Their seizure by King Neb is mentioned in Dan. 1:2, and then they come back with a vengeance when in chapter 5, Belshazzar decides to use the temple cups and saucers (now the Aramaic term, ‘māʾn‘) to have a party in honour of the local gods – a double sacrilege.  It’s clear that this double offence is the key to the sentence written on the wall plaster by the disembodied hand (5:23-24).  Like precious articles, Belshazzar himself has been weighed on the scales (5:27), but hasn’t come up to scratch, and the Giver of Kingdoms decides that his has had its day.

So like the Ark, the articles of God are successfully confiscated by the conquering foreign king, but, like the forbidden fruit, to his own hurt, until the deliverer Cyrus (to call the book of Ezra back here) returns them to their rightful place.

Well, I thought it was interesting, anyway.  Hadn’t noticed this before now in all those years of Bible reading.