Commentary on Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
As a commemoration of the dead, the festival of All Saints will always be an ill fit for the Bible.
Practices of necromancy (Leviticus 19:31, Deuteronomy 18:9-12) and veneration of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29) are generally discouraged, but the act of remembrance of those who once struggled on earth is not inconsistent with the Bible. Finding appropriate scripture readings for All Saints can be a challenge as evidenced by the selection of the apocalyptic text of Daniel. In many ways, the reading is an ill fit for the observance, and this is made even worse by the odd choice of verses. Despite these shortcomings, an apocalyptic text presents unique opportunities for reflecting and perhaps redirecting the observance of All Saints.
Daniel 7 marks a critical change in the book of Daniel. As the only fully developed apocalypse in the Old Testament, the book of Daniel introduces elements common to later apocalyptic literature. While in previous chapters, such as chapter 2, Daniel was the dream interpreter, in chapter 7 Daniel is the dreamer, or better put, the visionary. By indicating “dreams and visions,” noting that they take place at night, and using the normal word for seeing visions, translated as “see” in the NRSV, the text indicates Daniel’s status as a visionary. Keeping with apocalyptic tradition, despite his previously demonstrated skills, Daniel requires interpretation for his dreams and visions. After the historical introductory setting in verse 1, the dream report occurs at 7:2-14, with the interpretation of the dream beginning at 7:15-18 and continuing to the end of the chapter. Unfortunately, this lection cuts off aspects of each of these divisions at critical points and presents the reader/listener with a passage that makes little sense.
The vision in this chapter concerns four beasts that emerge from the sea. Like the four part statue of chapter 2 that represents earthly authorities, these individualized beasts stand in for a series of earthly dominions. Unlike the beast’s fourfold image, these beasts emerge from the sea indicating the cataclysmic nature of the events. Incorporating the ancient Near Eastern mythology relating to the sea and waters as elements in the control of primeval chaos, the passage swiftly indicates that by the sea giving up these four beasts chaos is “again let loose on the world.”1
The portion of the vision report left out of this passage goes on to describe the uniqueness of each beast.The emphasis on the uniqueness of each beast appears to make sense when the fourth beast occupies Daniel’s interest (7:19) and therefore the bulk of the interpretation is given to him (7:23-27). Grotesque figures form the heart of apocalyptic literature, and overlooking them easily leads to misunderstanding the point of the text. The brief extract of interpretation that occurs in this lection requires engagement with the dangers, confrontations, anarchy, and struggle ushered in by the presence of these beasts. Therefore, it serves the preacher to read the chapter in its entirety to appreciate its apocalyptic flavor.
The interpretation section beginning at verse 15 ushers in another aspect of apocalypse. Daniel finds the visions confusing and terrifying. And though not introduced in the chapter at any point, the ready to hand “attendants” (verse 16) function as the other worldly beings that translate the mysteries of the heavenly sphere. Although commonplace in Zechariah (Zechariah 1:9, 18; 2:2; 4:2-3; 5:2), the need for an interpreting angel with a skilled visionary like Daniel points to the vast difference in the languages of the earthly and the heavenly spheres. Daniel not only needs help to understand the visions, but since the visions trouble him deeply, he requires assurance that the future to which he is moving would be beneficial to him.
In this chapter, Daniel enters into the visions as a participant or what C. L. Seow calls “the empathetic visionary.”2 Therefore, he cannot help but be impacted by the unfolding events. The need for details, information, explanations, as well as assurance prompts the request for an interpretation. As the interpretation begins at verse 18, rather than following the steps of the vision, it quickly rushes to the conclusion and provides a quick summary of the events. The explanation in verse 18 represents what we have come to know as the conclusion of all classic battles between good and evil: good will eventually triumph. Apart from repeating a well-worn axiom of faith — good conquers evil — this verse on its own will leave the preacher repeating banalities that do little to stretch listeners to newer conceptions of their faith. Those who read Daniel 7 understand what it means to live in times of uncertainty where the resolution of conflicts remains doubtful. Readers find themselves like Daniel in the midst of bewildering events that affright and confuse.
The apocalyptic nature of the text heightens the tension by shifting readers from seeing earthly powers as redeemable and beneficial to being threatening and destructive. Readers of Daniel 7 enter into a vision and an experience of struggle and confrontation with little clear evidence of the outcome until the interpretation of verse 18. And while the outcome appears clear to those of us who live on this side of history, the task of preachers of apocalypse requires engaging the tensions, struggles, uncertainties, and doubts that attend life in the midst of major historical crises.
Apocalyptic texts used on All Saints run into the divergent theological definitions of “saints.” And while all Christian beliefs tend to understand “saints” as human beings, not all apocalyptic texts readily admit to this understanding. The outcome of the battle in Daniel’s visions represents the handing of the kingdom over to “the holy ones of the Most High.” Historically, most interpretations understood “the holy ones” as divine beings in keeping with the use of the term in other parts of the Old Testament and consistent with the apocalyptic nature of the text. In the event that the term refers to human beings, two tendencies appear among interpreters. Some interpreters like Calvin accept this designation reluctantly. On the other hand, some interpreters designate them as a specific historical group that fit within the immediate purposes of the text such as the Maccabees or persecuted Jews under the rule of Antiochus IV. And while this opens the door for a Christian understanding of saints, the challenge here lies in defining saints not simply as those who have died but as those who died as a result of the power struggles that threatened to change to course of history. To think of saints in this way in the context of this passage may appear to set a high bar for most preachers, but the challenge here lies not simply in finding “world-changers” but highlighting the deep engagement of previous generations in the struggles of their day.
Taking on an apocalyptic text on All Saints challenges preachers to do more than simply encourage and assure. Rather, apocalyptic forces preachers to call listeners to engagement with the realities of their day. Readers of apocalyptic in the ancient world were not merely passive bystanders to the events of their day. They received apocalyptic accounts both to assure and encourage engagement in a struggle that for many could be described as life and death. Even with the faith that the outcome would go in their favor, apocalyptic literature required readers to do more than stand on the sidelines or accept that a promised victory forecloses on their involvement in the struggle. To highlight the witness of previous generations engaged in the deep struggle of their day should serve to do more than provide a heroes list or a moment of adoration. Rather preachers who use apocalyptic on All Saints make a choice to call readers to understand the challenges that they face living in times that can be seen as transitioning or uncertain
1 John J. Collins, Daniel, First Maccabees, Second Maccabees with an Excursus on the Apocalyptic Genre, (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1981), 73.
2 C. L. Seow, Daniel (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 109.