Please start with yesterday’s post. We’re looking at the background to the book of Daniel, and three stories that will help us work out what it’s doing in our Bible. The first story was that of Daniel and his friends, exiled in Babylon in the sixth century BC. Today, we look at the other two stories.
Antiochus IV and the Maccabean Revolution
There’s a second story that’s important for us in understanding the book of Daniel – not the story of Daniel and his compatriots, but the story of its first readers.
You see, although Daniel lived in the sixth century BC, the book of Daniel in the form we have it probably* dates to the early second century BC. And the stories of Daniel and his friends in exile would have been significant for Jews living in this period. Why? Let’s take a quick look at their history.
During the Persian empire, many Jews returned to Judea and rebuilt Jerusalem and its temple. A century or so later, Alexander the Great conquered the Persians and formed a Mediterranean-wide empire. On his death, this empire was split three ways among some of his generals. For over a century, Judea was ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty, based in Egypt. But in 198 BC they were conquered by their arch rivals, the Seleucids, and so the Jews had a new master.
This ushered in a new era of politics in Jerusalem. Ambitious Jews sucked up to the Seleucids in order to gain power, influence, and even the high priesthood! They started to adopt Greek culture and the Greek language. To get ahead in Judea, it seemed, you needed to compromise with the Gentile rulers. And many of the upper class tried to walk this fine line of being Greek and Jewish. It left them with a similar dilemma to Daniel in the sixth century: how is a faithful Jew supposed to act?
It then got worse. In 168 BC the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes, overreached and picked a fight with Rome. He lost, and had to retreat. Although the news got a bit garbled by the time it reached Jerusalem, who thought that he’d been killed. So they took the opportunity to rebel. Bad move. A cranky Antiochus on his way back from humiliating defeat in Egypt decided to put down the Jewish rebellion with all the restraint of Donald Trump after someone questions his hand size.
Antiochus basically went to war with Jewish culture. He outlawed their religious practices, including circumcision, feasts like the Passover, and owning a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures. He made pagan sacrifices compulsory, set up an altar to Zeus in the temple, and sacrificed unclean animals on it. (A Jewish history book of the period, 1 Maccabees 1:54, interprets this as the “abomination of desolation” prophesied in Daniel 12:11.) The only thing he didn’t do was build a wall and make the Jews pay for it.
Of course, the faithful Jews didn’t like it. They wanted the foreigners out of their land. And so they started their own Grexit campaign: a military rebellion under a guy who sounds like he would have had a great WWF career – Judah The Hammer (a.k.a. Judas Maccabeus). It was a war against the Seleucid army, and against those Jews who had sold out to the Greeks and their culture.
Eventually, in 164 BC, the rebels won. They cleansed the temple and once more began to sacrifice to God on the altar. (The purification ceremony, called Hanukkah, is still celebrated each year by Jews.) Yet the tension between “pure” Jews and those who wanted to embrace the culture of the Greek empire remained. It’s still in play even when the Romans took over in the century before Jesus – seen in the Gospels where the Jewish leaders crucified Jesus in order to keep their cosy relationship with Rome intact. (And in how the way the Pharisees tried to wedge him by asking a tricky question about temple tax, in Matt 22:15-22.) Ultimately it led to another rebellion (led by the Zealots) in the late 60s AD , and the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.
So throughout this time, the Daniel dilemma was a daily reality. How does a faithful Jew act? How can they live under the reality Gentile rule, yet remain faithful to the one, true God? (And when will God intervene to put things right?)
The final story is our own, as present day readers of the book of Daniel. We’re not Jews living in exile in Babylon. Nor are we in the promised land living under Gentile rule. But we are God’s people living in a world that’s hostile, or at least indifferent to God. We’re “foreigners and exiles” as Peter calls us (1 Pet 2:11). “Our citizenship is in heaven” as Paul says (Phil 3:20). We are pressured on all sides to conform to the pattern of this world, yet are called to live according to the will of God (Rom 12:2). More than that, we are to called to be “all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 9:22) – while somehow maintaining our separateness as the people of God (2 Cor 6:14-7:1)!
And so every day we wake up to the Daniel dilemma: How does a faithful Christian act? How do we live in a world that doesn’t acknowledge the one, true God? (And when will God intervene to put things right?)
*This is still a matter of scholarly debate. At the extreme, some say that the stories and prophecies of Daniel were simply “made up” in the second century BC. But there is some (complicated) evidence from language and genre that points to the stories’ coming from well before that time. My own view is that Daniel’s stories and prophecies (from the sixth century) were collected and narrated in such a way as to teach and encourage Jews living in the second century in a similar situation.