Daniel: interpreting divine dreams & God’s graffiti

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Daniel, as I have mentioned in a previous post, is not classified among the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, but as one of the rather more miscellaneous “Writings”. The main reason for that is almost certainly because it was written quite late – around the time of the Maccabean revolt1, as an encouragement for those who were being called to give their lives, if necessary, as a faithful witness to their God.

The writing on the wall at Belshazzar ‘s Feast. See the story in Daniel 5.

The first half of the book deals with previous examples of faith shown by the legendary characters of Daniel and his companions, Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael. The story calls them both by these Jewish names, and their Babylonian names: Daniel is Belteshazzar, and his companions Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. It seems likely that these stories are already old by the time the author of the book of Daniel selects these characters for as the basis for his purpose of encouraging faithfulness in times of persecution.

These stories also present Daniel as a gifted interpreter of dreams, and remind the reader of some of the stories told about Joseph in Egypt. The second half of the book picks up on this aspect of Daniel’s character, the wise interpreter of mysterious dreams and visions. It presents a series of visions given to Daniel. These offer assurance that behind the ups and down of human history, God is in charge of events. The book “unveils” the meaning of events – from the Greek word for this idea of “unveiling” we get the name apocalyptic which is widely used to describe this sort of literature.

The various nations are characterised as in some sense animal-like. To be in rebellion against God is to be less than human. The figure called to represent Israel, a faithful Israel which will be vindicated by God, is presented by contrast as a human figure. Being truly human, a real child of Adam, involves being faithful to God.

This figure is named as “the son of man”, the truly human one, who Daniel sees coming into the presence of the eternal God, the Ancient of Days. He enters God’s presence to be revealed as God’s chosen and vindicated ruler for all eternity. There are other visions, and these build on earlier language in the prophets, to shape a new literary genre. (This genre will come to include the New Testament Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse.)

This vision of the son of man, however, in chapter 7, is the one which has the most impact on Christian understanding of Jesus. Selected verses from it provide the main occurrences of Daniel in the lectionary.2 It is not yet a title, as it will become in later Christian writing. It is a vivid way of stressing the humanity of God’s faithful people, over against the animal nature of those who set themselves against God, and lose touch with what makes people fully human.

The only other section of Daniel used in the lectionary is a brief reading from the beginning of chapter 12, a warning that the end of the present age will be marked by great distress: nonetheless God’s people should trust that he will save them.3 This section also shows, in the developed role given to the archangel Michael as guardian of Israel, how important angels were becoming in this period, and how many people speculated about heavenly actors behind earthly events.

It is never clear in this kind of apocalyptic storyline, just how much of an end is in view, how much this is a metaphor for a world-shaking political realignment, how much it is about a transformation of this world into something new, and how much about “the end of the world as we know it.” What is clear is the summons to live in hope that God will intervene decisively to right wrong, establish justice and vindicate those who have suffered persecution.

Finally, I should note that the book of Daniel went on being edited. The Greek text contains some additional stories missing from the Hebrew version, which are collected together in the Apocrypha in many Bibles, but printed in the appropriate place as part of the main text of Daniel in Roman Catholic ones.

These include two fables, the story of Susanna showcasing Daniel’s role as a wise judge, and another, even more fabulous version of the story of Daniel being thrown into the lion’s den which has the same basic outcome, but is used primarily to mock pagan idol worship. The most significant addition, however, as far as the liturgy goes, is the Song of the Three.4 This poem is placed on the lips of Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael as the words they use to praise God from the middle of the fiery furnace. It was known to older generations of Christians, especially Anglicans who attended Matins, as the Benedicite, a hymn of praise to God.


  1. See this post on the books of the Maccabees for more about the revolt.
  2. The Feast of the Transfiguration, Years A, B and C, and Christ the King, Year C occur in both lectionaries. The Revised Common Lectionary also provides it an alternative reading for Ascension Day in all years, and a slightly different selection from Daniel 7 for All Saints in Year C.
  3. Year B, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.
  4. There is also an additional canticle of lament and penitence given to Azariah alone.

2 thoughts on “Daniel: interpreting divine dreams & God’s graffiti

  1. Pingback: Riddle me this: Jesus as a misunderstood puzzle. Mark's story – Liturgica

  2. Pingback: Visions, vindication and victory: the strange world of the Apocalypse – Liturgica

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