Daniel is the book’s hero. In Hebrew, his name means “God (El) is my judge”.
The first part of the book is a series of stories about Daniel and his three friends, who had been forced by the Babylonians to go to live in Babylon along with many other Judahites about 600 BCE. They face various challenges and crises there but experience God’s miraculous deliverance.
The second half comprises a series of visions concerning events in the centuries after Daniel’s own day. They come to a climax in a period of oppression in Jerusalem in the 160s BCE, in the time of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who banned observance of the Torah and introduced alien forms of worship in the temple. The visions promise that God will rescue his people, put down the forces of wickedness, and bring about the final victory of his purpose.
Date and authorship
The different foci of Daniel’s two parts provide one reason for thinking that the book was not written all at once. The stories were told in the dispersion during the Persian period to bring encouragement and challenge in that context with its pressures. They incorporate reference to real people and events but these dramatized accounts of God’s acting to rescue people are like movies “based on fact” rather than plain history.
The visions address the situation in Jerusalem in the 160s BCE and were presumably written in that context. Other writings from the Middle Eastern and Greek worlds present themselves as predictions of coming events but were actually written after the events. Similarly, the visions in Daniel present themselves as visions received by Daniel in the 6th century but were actually composed in Jerusalem during the crisis there by someone who was perhaps “inspired” by Daniel. Speaking of the past as if it had been predicted reassures people that it has been under God’s control, and encourages them to believe in the visions’ promise of deliverance.
We do not know who actually wrote the stories or the visions.
The stories portray God actively implementing his purpose in the present and delivering his servants. They encourage people to believe that survival and success can be combined with faithfulness to God. The visions presuppose a context when God is not active in history in the present, and his servants are being persecuted. God’s act of deliverance lies in the future, after the martyrdom of some people.
Daniel 12 is the only explicit reference to resurrection in the Old Testament.
Against all odds, the visions’ promise was fulfilled. Antiochus’ forces were defeated and the temple was cleansed. This fulfillment perhaps brought Daniel’s acceptance as scripture. But the final End remained future, and the visions have been reapplied in subsequent contexts. Their references to a “desolating abomination” and to a “Son of Man” figure are taken up in the New Testament.
The stories invite people in situations of pressure to be faithful and expectant that God can enable them to survive and even triumph. The visions invite people to maintain faith and hope in situations where God is not active and to stay convinced that God will eventually put down oppression and bring about the consummation of his purpose.
Russell, David S. Daniel: An Active Volcano. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999.
Seow, C. L. Daniel. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003.
Essays on Daniel in the journal Review & Expositor 109/4 (Fall 2012).