The Continuing Four-Kingdom Theme:
Apparently, the Jews did not abandon the four kingdom theme, but interpreted Rome as the fourth and final empire. Within these later Jewish sources it was intended as an anti-Roman polemic. Where five empire lists exist (Polybius), it is most likely a conflation of the prior-existing schema that began with Assyria. Rabbinic and other interpreters obviously relied on Daniel for their interpretations (e.g. 4 Esdras (Ezra) 12:11-12; 2 Bar. 39:3-7), and Jesus speaks of elements within Daniel as still as yet to take place (Matt 24:15; Mk 13:14).
As Rome became viewed as the fourth empire, Babylonia had to remain as the first due to Daniel explicitly saying so; Greece became the third, which left either Media or Persia being cut or combined into one kingdom in the dream. Since the time of at least Josephus, the interpretation has been most popular as follows:
“the two hands and arms signify this, that your government shall be dissolved by two kings” Ant. 10.10.4.
The third empire has been thought to be Greece (belly/thigh, bronze) and finally, the fourth kingdom most popularly interpreted as Rome (legs/feet, iron and iron/clay mixture). While Josephus does not explicitly say he believes the fourth kingdom to be Rome, it appears as though he did. Flusser comments,
“He could not openly speak about the common interpretation of the four empires in Daniel because of its anti-Roman character, but when he interprets Nebuchadnezzer’s dream in Daniel ii (Ant. X, 209-210) his intention was clear to all readers who were prepared to understand him” JOC, 327.
Commenting on chapter eight Josephus also records,
“Indeed it so came to pass, that our nation suffered these things under Antiochus Epiphanies, according to Daniel’s vision, and what he wrote many years before they came to pass. In the very same manner Daniel also wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them” Ant. 10.11.6.
Iian Provan in his commentary on Daniel states:
“There is, moreover, an inherent weakness in the ‘Greek hypothesis’ – that the book of Daniel nowhere explicitly says that there was a Median Empire. It only says that Babylon was ruled for a while by a king of Median extraction, who is said to have applied the laws of the Medes and the Persians (6:8) and may well have been the same person as Cyrus the Persian (if the end of 6:28 is translated ‘the reign of Darius, that is, the reign of Cyrus the Persian’). Media and Persia are two parts of the same empire in Daniel – the two horns on the single ram of ch. 8 [v.20]. The fourth empire on this view is not named in the book, but thought of as coming after Greece (i.e. Rome).”
While Provan does not specifically view Rome as being the fourth kingdom following Greece as third, he does view the fourth simply as
“an empire to come, at some point after the Greek empire has passed away, during which the events of the end times occur” Dunn, Provan, “Daniel,” Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, 667.
Finally, it is interesting to note that nowhere is the kingdom that replaces the fourth (whether identified as Greece, Rome or some other unknown confederacy) called the “fifth.” Due to its description of
1) originating without human hands;
2) encompassing the whole earth;
3) being without end, replacement or destruction, it is clearly not just another kingdom, but rather the eschaton of sorts; another kind of kingdom. Some view this kingdom as the reversion of the Jews to their rightful locale or the rule of God, interpreted through the rise of Christianity.
Whatever identification we assign to the four kingdoms and their exact time of existence and supplanting, it is evident that the point of it all is summed up in the rule of God, and his establishment of a superior kingdom. This is a kingdom dominated by peace (Isa. 2) and a time of rejuvenation of the nations (Isa. 19:22-25). Attempts to predict the time of the end with calculation and application of Danielic text to modern events has proven to be inaccurate while doing a great disservice to the intention of the book. It is a form of chronological snobbery to consider Daniel – or any other biblical text for that matter – irrelevant to the contemporary social context in which it was written.
Pete Enns, in a recent blog post, made some worthwhile observations when he said (albeit in the context of Genesis, but nevertheless still applies):
“All biblical writers were limited by their culture and time in how they viewed the physical world around them. This is hardly a novel notion of inspiration, and premodern theologians from Augustine to Calvin were quite adamant about the point. No responsible doctrine of inspiration can deny that the biblical authors were thoroughly encultured, ancient people, who spoke as ancient people. Inspiration does not cancel out their “historical particularity,” no matter how inconvenient. . . . We do indeed ‘know more’ than the biblical writers about some things. That alone isn’t an alarming theological problem in principle. But that principle has become a problem because it now touches on an issue that some feel is of paramount theological importance. . . . Should the principle be abandoned when it becomes theologically uncomfortable? . . . Acknowledging that we know more than biblical writers about certain things is not to disrespect Scripture. We are merely recognizing that the good and wise God had far less difficulty with ancient categories of thinking than some of us do.”
Daniel must be read within its own cultural context. Did Daniel have a message for its contemporaries, or was it only a book that was meant to be understood much later? It is unfair to place on this collection of writing a system of interpretation that would have been quite foreign to it. While I continue to investigate and attempt to understand the content, I won’t willfully ignore the vast amount of scholarship that has been done on this canonical collection.
There is much regarding Daniel, its timing, interpretations etc. which we may never be completely sure of, but what we can assuredly conclude is that Daniel stresses the action of the God of Israel and his intimate involvement within the affairs of humanity. Nothing, even the most horrific acts, eludes his attention.
Here are some thoughts from Goldingay which are worthy of repeating:
“There is no hint of timing in Daniel’s revelation. Whether it is actually comes from the Babylonian period, the Persian period, or the Greek period, it implies that history can be divinely foreknown, but not that it is divinely foreordained. The chapter does not speak of final events fixed since time’s beginning, of the whole world under evil’s power, of a dualism of this world and the righteous world to come, of judgment in the form of an immutable fate, or of a division of world history into periods determined by God. . . . It assumes that human beings make real decisions that do shape history, yet that human decision-making does not necessarily have the last word. It affirms the sovereignty of God in history, working sometimes via the process of human decision-making, sometimes despite it. The end of history promised here is not history coming to its goal. . . . Nor, however, is it history being broken off. . . . Nor are the four empires succeeded by a further, fifth empire, but by something wholly other. Daniel promises a new future, one which is not merely an extension of the present. . . . It is of supernatural origin. But it is located on earth, not in heaven. Daniel envisages no dissolution of the cosmos or creation of a different world. His understanding of this kingdom is more like the prophetic idea of the Day of Yahweh than that of some later apocalypses. The problems of politics and history can only be resolved by a supernatural intervention that inaugurates a new kingdom, but this involves changing the lordship of this world, not abandoning this world. The new kingdom fills the earth. History is not destroyed; other sovereignties are. . . . The qualities of this new rule are not described except by saying that it is God’s and that it lasts, both of which qualities contrast with those of its predecessors” Goldingay, WBC, Daniel, 59f.
In his book Seriously Dangerous Religion, Provan gives some good thoughts regarding Daniel. Daniel goes out of its way to inform the reader that this world -
“is governed by ‘beasts’ – the beastly empires described in Daniel 2 and 7. It is a world, therefore, that has been turned upside down. The world created by God is one in which human beings should govern the animals (Genesis 1:26-30), but in Daniel, the ‘animals’ govern the human beings. Here the idolatry of the self has been transposed into the idolatry of the state, and upon human beings who refuse such idolatry suffering falls, whether in fiery furnaces or in lions’ dens or in some other way. This is what happens when the emperor, in particular, comes to think that he is a god (Daniel 3)” Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why it Matters, 168.
I will conclude this chapter with this reminder as to the greater picture of God’s plan:
“The belief in the destruction of Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Greek rule is a powerful pronouncement to the listener that God will bring these reigns of terror to an end. All forms of inhumanity are destined to end, and it is this destiny that the faithful are invited to know and act upon by means of an insight in to the future of God’s plan” D.L. Smith-Christopher, NIBD, VII:55.
Check out DustinMartyr blog on Daniel 9, one, two and three.
Check out DustinMartyr blog on Daniel 9, one, two and three.