Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Book of Daniel for our times

I have just had the great privilege of re-reading two commentaries on the Book of Daniel in preparation for the last two Sundays before Advent. I had almost forgotten what a great book of faith and witness Daniel is, especially when taken in its totality.

The most exciting of the two commentaries is by Norman W. Porteous (Daniel: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965). The second one, by André Lacoque, is notable particularly for its foreword by Paul Ricoeur, no less (The Book of Daniel. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979). The Porteous volume is by far the most accessible, but both of these interpreters insist that the context of the book is the key to its interpretation. That context is not the time of the Babylonian exile in which the stories of Daniel and his friends are set, but the time of the writing of the book c. 164 BC. At this time the Jews of Jerusalem were undergoing persecution and even martyrdom under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, during the time of the Maccabean revolt (a quick look at the early chapters of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees 7 in the Apocrypha gives the idea).

Ricoeur writes that the book of Daniel is concerned with "the relation between radical extrinsic deliverance[the invasion of this orb by the God who is entirely independent of it] and the movement of history...because the apocalypse [revelation to Daniel], as an act of discourse, is itself an intervention of history which responds to a still open question for all those who have not received the vision and known the interpretation. This question asks, How long will tribulation continue? Is God weak? Indifferent? Malicious? What is the meaning of suffering? It is to this existential situation, at the hinge of the next to the last hour and the last hour, that apocalyptic speech wants to respond, with the penultimate efficacy of a call to passive resistance. It is right that henceforth this resistance, with its suffering, should be a part of salvation. For in the final analysis this very resistance, thanks to the word of comfort, knows itself to be situated between what is next to last and what is the Last."

Both of these commentaries are post-critical; that is, they know all the historical-critical issues, they know the philological problems, they know the textual difficulties, they know that the stories about Daniel have legendary features, but they brush all that aside. Thus Lacoque writes that "what the story [of Nebuchadnezzar's dream] loses in verisimilitude it regains in terms of rhythm which becomes heart-throbbing. Daniel rushes to Arioch in the palace, then from the palace to his residence where he mobilizes his companions to implore divine mercy for the revelation of the mystery" (p. 42). And Porteous writes, "We must just recognize that the author of our book is not concerned about historical accuracy...the details are of interest [only] to the philologist, whereas the author uses the [details] as a rhetorician for their effect."

Ricoeur, charmingly, describes himself in his Foreword as one who has been helped by Lacoque's commentary because he is "a reader who has lost his naïveté". In view of the fact that Ricoeur was one of the most sophisticated philosophers of hermeneutics of the twentieth century, this is disarming, to say the least. He has written extensively of the "second naïveté" which comes after the first naïveté is lost. This "second naïveté" is the posture before the Scriptures which all academically-trained preachers should seek. Will Willimon, in his new book Conversations With Barth About Preaching writes:

"One of Barth’s great gifts was his cultivation of naïveté....I love the way that Barth continues to be shocked, surprised and filled with wonderment at Biblical texts all the way to the end of his life. In seminary...we usually think of hermeneutics as a matter of inquiring increasing interpretive sophistication. However, Barth’s childlike naïveté enables him to see and hear things that we more serious adults miss. As a child he was taught Basel-German songs by his mother. These simple songs influenced Barth throughout his life...As a boy he was so sure of the reality of Jesus that he spent Palm Sunday standing at his window, eagerly watching for the entry of Jesus into his Swiss town."

When I read the story of Daniel in the lions' den to my grandson, he looked at me wide-eyed and asked, "Did that really happen?" I am not sure how best to answer that question but it is up to us preachers and teachers to convey the underlying truth of the incomparable stories in the book of Daniel:

--The Most High God rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will, and sets over it the lowliest of men. (4:17)

--Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up. (3:17-18)

--There is no other God who is able to deliver in this way (3:29)

--Even pagan kings will come to know the God of Israel: His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing; and he does according to his will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand (4:34-35)

--The prayer of Daniel is a model for us: We do not present our supplications before thee on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of thy great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, give heed and act; delay not, for thy own sake, O my God, because thy city and thy people are called by thy name. (9:18-19)

--The forces arrayed against God are formidable. The saints will experience the most intense discouragement and suffering. The most powerful of these forces, represented by the “horn” of chapter 7, shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times and the law…However, God will triumph at length, and the court shall sit in judgment, and his dominion shall be taken away, to be consumed and destroyed…and the kingdom and the dominions shall be given to the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom….(7:25-27)

--Those who remain faithful to God in the time of trial will be vindicated by God, sometimes even in this life, and assuredly in the life to come. The saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever and ever (7:18).