Commentary on Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
These verses from the Book of Daniel provide the reader with one of the most graphic depictions of God found in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT) (cf. Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 1; Exodus 33:17-23).
In this passage, the God of Israel appears as the Ancient of Days (or “the Ancient One” in the NRSV translation); a figure clothed in brilliant white who has hair as pure as wool and throne of fiery flames. Such theophanies, in which God appears in human form, are rare in the HB/OT. Biblical writers were cautious about such portrayals, seemingly aware of the danger of making God too human-like.
More than Meets the Eye
Given this reluctance, the passage invites us to consider what’s at stake in this, and any, portrayal of God. A humorous and relevant example may be found in the cartoons of Gary Larsen who drew the popular strip “The Far Side” during the 1980’s and 1990’s. For him, God is an old man with long white hair and flowing beard and robes.
Larsen’s God is omnipotent and omniscient, but also comic and even a bit ridiculous, like always being a million points ahead of the other contenders on the trivia game show. In one strip, God cooks up the earth in his kitchen, shaking a bottle labeled “Jerks” over it while thinking to himself, “Just to make things interesting.” In another strip, God is sitting at the computer, preparing to hit the “smite” button, while watching a guy walk underneath a grand piano that is being lowered out of an upper story window.
This conventional depiction of God as an old man may seem a little unsophisticated, perhaps a little childish at best. At worst, God is petty and arbitrary in looking after human affairs, a little too much like his goofy human subjects. But for Daniel 7, the intention of the passage is to portray God as anything but! The writer of Daniel 7 is, in fact, trying to illuminate the deity’s justice, righteousness, and commitment to God’s people during a time when justice and righteousness seem to be up for grabs, especially when it comes to governing the world.
Show, Don’t Tell
The claims, intentions, and activities of human kings are often the subject of suspicion in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament. This suspicion is front and center in the symbolic vision of Daniel 7, which reflects the events in Jerusalem in 167 BCE when the Syrian Emperor Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” (so nicknamed because he thought he was a manifestation of the gods) outlawed the practice of Judaism and forbade the population from following the Torah.
This event raised important questions, such as, what is God’s response to such dire circumstances? Is God present in the midst of such things and, if so, how is God’s power to be seen? In answer, Daniel 7 shows the workings of the heavenly sphere, a part of reality typically unavailable to humans caught up in the chaos of the mundane world. These verses give the readers a glimpse of a divine courtroom in which angelic jurors (verse 10d) and the divine judge (verse 9) take their places. The divine court consults legal documents (verse 10e) — the scrolls that contain records of past actions (see Psalm 40:7; 56:8) and/or future judgments (Psalm 69: 28) — and renders judgment on Antiochus IV (“the little horn” of verse 11).
The Ancient of Days’ raiment and description are consistent with this courtroom imagery. In this scene, Daniel 7 may be taking a cue from the ancient Canaanite depictions of El, the creator god who presided over the divine courts of the Canaanite gods. El was called “The Father of Years” and “Judge El” and was described as having grey hair, a symbol of his wisdom and experience. Daniel 7 also emphasizes the wisdom and antiquity of the God of Israel, but then goes on to emphasize that God’s appearance is white not grey.
White is the color of purity and righteousness that the prophets associate with God’s actions and intentions (see Isaiah 1:16-18 and Zechariah 3:1-5).1 White hair and clothing are, so to speak, the God of Israel’s judge’s robes. These are visual cues that, despite appearances to the contrary down below on earth, God is indeed meting out judgment and justice against the despicable king.
Where the Wild Things Are
In the verses that come before and after this lectionary passage, the text further contrasts God’s righteous rule with the brutal rule of Antiochus IV and other foreign kings and empires. The biblical writer does this skillfully by depicting these kingdoms as wild, fierce, and predatory animals with unnatural features. They have too many heads, or too many wings, or too many horns. But in contrast, the Ancient of Days resembles a human!
Not only this, but God’s angelic agent and viceroy is also humanlike. The passage describes “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” (verse 13) who will govern all peoples, nations, and languages with the Most High’s power. It is not possible to identify with certainty who the ancient Jewish writer had in mind when talking about this being on the clouds — it may have been the archangel Michael, or it may have been a reference to the entire Jewish community. But what is significant is that God’s features and the humanlike one on the clouds are bound up together with humanity — God has not abandoned the faithful community in Jerusalem, but is identified with and allied with the people.
The Kingship of Christ
Daniel 7 influenced the New Testament enormously. In the gospels, the grammatically indefinite phrase, “one like a human being” becomes the title the “Son of Man” and given new meaning in the person of Jesus Christ. Though the Son of Man suffers now, he is also the chosen one of God who will come again in the future to usher in God’s eternal kingdom (Mark 8:38; 13:26; Matthew 13:24, 37; 16:28; 19:28; 24:30; Luke 12:8-9; see also Revelation 5:11-12). It is this connection that brings Daniel 7 into the lectionary on Christ the King Sunday. And yet as Christians prepare to celebrate Christ’s universal kingship, we do well to remember how the New Testament continues the Old Testament’s critique of kingship and oppressive power. Christ’s kingship is not to be understood in triumphalist terms, but in terms of his radical suffering and service to the outcast.
1Paul Mosca, “Ugarit and Daniel 7: A Missing Link,” Biblica 67 (1986):496-517.