Commentary on Daniel 12:1-3
Our lectionary text for today considers a question that these days may be all too real for those of us beleaguered by the free-fall of the economy, unemployment, a life-threatening disease
— all realities that may leave us with little if any hope: How does one speak about hope when one is threatened from all sides — in the instance of Daniel 12 trapped by the violent actions of empires crushing the least of these, when there is a very real possibility that the faithful may not survive?
Daniel 12:1-3 faces these fears head-on, speaking of a time of anguish that has not been seen. But within this dire reality, this text also speaks of God’s presence and liberation, becoming one of the first Old Testament texts to formulate something of a resurrection hope.
Daniel 12:1-3 follows upon the retelling of history in chapter 10:20-11:45 in which one encounters a birds-eye view of one empire following upon another, with leaders abusing their power and acting as they please (11:36). Within these power struggles, the wise (maskilim) prove to be exceedingly vulnerable, succumbing to sword and flame, and suffering capture and ruin (11:33).
At first glance, it may look as if history is running its course with little or no intervention at all from God. However, it is important to note that this retelling of history is enclosed by references to God’s guardian angels (Daniel 10:20-11:1; 12:1) fighting on behalf of Israel. So God’s presence and liberation is mediated by means of the “protector of your people,” the celestial being Michael who first was introduced in Daniel 10:13 and 21 and now appears as the savior of those believers whose names are recorded in the book of life.
Even in the most devastating of times (perhaps triggered by the attacks of Antiochus IV Epiphanus on Jewish identity, e.g., abolishing the Sabbath and sacrificing pork in the temple), the author can remind his audience of God’s sovereign rule. The elevated role of angels who are employed as messengers and military officers fighting on God’s behalf in these texts actually point to an increasingly bureaucratic view of God’s rule that serves the purpose of countering the worldly power of any and every empire that threatens the faithful.
Daniel 12:3 maintains that in light of the grim reality that the wise ones may not only suffer, but may even be killed (11:33), the faithful who have persevered will be vindicated, shining like bright lights in the sky (cf. Matthew 13:43). For the believers who found themselves in extremely treacherous conditions where the threat of death is an imminent reality, it became very important to be able to hope in life after death.
This idea of many (not all) of those who sleep in the dust of the earth waking up to eternal life is a new development in the Old Testament that probably grew out the extreme duress that gave rise to the apocalyptic visions in Daniel 7-12. In a world where the growing perception was that the world lies in ruins, and where the lives of the faithful were not only threatened but taken away, the only hope for redemption or salvation would be in the sovereign God who got the whole world in his hands.
Earlier texts, such as Isaiah 26:19, that spoke about Israel’s dead living again and the vision of the dry bones coming back to life in Ezekiel 37 likely referred to the restoration of Israel as a people. However, it seems that Daniel 12:1-3 moves beyond this view of restoration to the resurrection of individuals who are judged based on their deeds “at that time” (verse 1) — which in terms of the apocalyptic genre would refer to the end of time.
For believers facing death, the belief in resurrection expresses their profound hope in a sovereign God who will triumph over the forces of death, restoring the believers to life. Spirituals like “I’ll fly away” with its words: “Some glad morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away; to a land where joy shall never end, I’ll fly away,” and “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home” capture this resurrection hope. Moreover, this belief in the resurrection would become increasingly important in New Testament texts that elaborated on the images preserved in these texts from Daniel based on the New Testament community’s experience in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 20).
Two other images in this text are worth exploring. First, the image of those who are found “written in the book” that will be described in Revelation 20:12, 15 as “the book of life” (cf. also Psalm 87:6; Isaiah 4:3; Malachi 3:16) constitutes a compelling image of the importance of being remembered. Reminiscent of the scores of photos and memorabilia of the Holocaust museum that witness to the existence of millions of Jewish men, women and children, the book of life becomes a powerful image of redemption; of the faithful that will not be forgotten by God but vindicated — even if their perpetrators try their best to erase their existence.
Finally, the image of the “maskilim” the ones who are wise and who are said to have led many to righteousness directs our focus to what this text says not only about the sweet hereafter, but also about this life. Much like the suffering servant in the servant songs (Isaiah 42:1-7; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) the faithful are themselves skilled in justice, living a life of service rather than self-interest.
Thus, even in the most dire of circumstances, these faithful offer a model of looking beyond oneself to how one can be of service to others — a perspective that actually may be worth embracing in these days in which one quite often is astounded by the selfishness and the greed that has not only been the cause of the financial collapse but also stands in the way of the economy’s recovery.