I just don’t get it,” one of my students had told me. “This book is too difficult for me to understand.” He was referring to the book of Daniel, one of the all-time favorites of Seventh-day Adventists all around the world. “And,” he had added, “what are all these weird animals and strange prophecies supposed to mean, anyway?” Juan1 came from a solid Adventist home and had just recently committed himself to following Jesus. “I know I should pay more attention, but every time I start reading Daniel or Revelation I feel like ‘turning off’—it is just too weird and too complicated.”
Juan’s reaction is, undoubtedly, duplicated many times in Adventist academies, colleges, and churches all around the world. While many love spending time with these fascinating prophetic books, others tend to be turned off by their language, imagery, and complex symbolism. They may struggle to look at the big picture that these apocalyptic books present—all pointing to the Lamb and His final victory in the great controversy between good and evil.2
The book of Daniel was written sometime during the sixth century B.C., a perplexing time for God’s people. Jerusalem had fallen repeatedly to the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and, finally, had been destroyed in 586 B.C. Ruins now marked the place where the Solomonic Temple had once stood. While thousands had perished, others had been taken as prisoners to Babylon, where they had settled. Instead of using their native Hebrew, these captives had been forced to use Aramaic and Babylonian instead. A new language, a new political system, a new country, new gods—where was the God of Israel in all of this? Could He still speak, or had He been silenced forever by the seemingly more powerful Babylonian gods who were worshipped by their masters?
Questions like these must have crossed the mind of more than one of the Jewish exiles. These questions were legitimate in a world in which the power of deities was measured by the success of their earthly worshippers. The book of Daniel was written in this particular historical context and with these questions in mind. Its first part (chapters 1-6) tells the stories of four young men from Judah and their interaction with heathen kings and an often-antagonistic society. Would they stay faithful to their God? Would they withstand the temptations of assimilation and blending in? Would they be able to become a blessing, hinted at so often in Scripture (cf. Gen. 12:1-3), and reach their captors who had become neighbors and perhaps even friends?
Guided by divine revelation, Daniel included not only faith-building stories but also mind-boggling prophetic panoramic scenes that highlighted one important concept: the God of Israel, Yahweh, was in full control of history—and interested in communicating this prophetic timetable to those who loved and worshipped Him—regardless of their racial and ethnic backgrounds. Daniel was not only a book for its time: it speaks to all ages, and particularly to those living at the time of the end (Dan. 12:1-4).
Daniel 2 is a great chapter for seeing the link between God’s story and human history. The condensed version goes like this: a king’s dream becomes the nightmare of his scholars, who fail to tell him his ostensibly forgotten message from on high. Never one to do things halfheartedly, King Nebuchadnezzar threatens his court scholars with execution if they are not able to recount the dream. Daniel and his three Hebrew friends are informed of this drastic decree that will affect them as well, and after requesting more time, they pray for their lives. During the night God reveals to Daniel the dream and its meaning. Daniel then approaches the court official in charge of the execution and is brought before the king.
Truly this is a real-life suspense story, full of nail-biting moments—yet it is also full of God moments. The first occurs right after Daniel received the vision. I would imagine that everybody (including me) would immediately rush out of the prayer meeting and knock on the door of the king’s palace. There is no time to be lost. No precious minutes can be squandered. However, that’s not what Daniel does. He settles down and praises God in one of the most significant prayers of praise in all of Scripture (Dan. 2:20-23).
Here is another God moment. As Daniel is brought before the irate king he is confronted with the key question: “Are you able to tell me my dream?” What a temptation just to say “Yes” and get on with it—it would have looked great on Daniel’s résumé. Yet Daniel does not fall into this trap, either. His answer is illustrative of the type of person he is and the kind of relationship he has with his Lord. “No, I cannot do that; matter of fact, not one of your scholars can do it, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (cf. verse 27). Daniel understands the real balance of power—even at the epicenter of an ancient superpower.
The large statue made of different materials has been a solid staple of Adventist preaching and evangelism for more than 150 years. We have heard about the golden head, the silver chest and arms, the bronze belly and thighs, the iron legs, and the partly iron and partly clay feet. We also recall its end—smashed by a stone cut from a mountain—the remains of the impressive statue became insignificant like chaff on a threshing floor. We may even remember the meaning of the dream pointing to a sequence of four major kingdoms that are finally upended by the establishment of God’s kingdom (verses 37-45). Been there—done that. We know—and yet we often overlook—significant details that may have spoken more profoundly to one of the participants of this incredible drama.
I first saw this when I translated the second chapter of Daniel with my Biblical Aramaic class students—one of the few chapters in the Old Testament that is written in Aramaic.3 Here is my personal translation of Daniel 2:34, 35, followed by the interpretation of the dream in verses 44, 45: “You watched until a stone [indeterminate] was cut—not by human hands—and smote the image at its feet of iron and pottery and crushed them. Then the iron, the pottery, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed altogether, and they were like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind lifted them up, and no place could be found for them. However, the stone that smote the image became a huge mountain [indeterminate] and filled all the earth” (verses 34, 35).
Who would be stronger than the gods that meet on the mountain?
“And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will establish an eternal kingdom, which will not be destroyed; and the kingdom will not be left to another people; it will smite and put an end to all these kingdoms and will be established forever; just as you saw that the stone [determinate] was cut off from the mountain [determinate]—not from human hands—and crushed the iron, the bronze, the pottery, the silver, and the gold; the great God has made known to the king what will be after this and (be assured), the dream is certain and its interpretation is trustworthy” (verses 44, 45).
Did you catch it? The descriptive section mentions a stone coming from nowhere (verse 34) while the interpretive section has the stone coming from the mountain (verse 45). The translators of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, noticed this discrepancy and thus inserted “from the mountain” in verse 34. The biblical text continues with a surprising description of the dramatic transformation of the stone, which becomes “a huge mountain” (verse 35), filling the whole earth. Clearly this stone is beyond this world: its identity and origin has been of particular interest to biblical interpreters.4 A quick search in standard commentaries on Daniel brings to light a number of interpretations of the stone/mountain symbolism in Daniel 2. What is Daniel telling us by saying it the way he did? What would a Babylonian king, living in the sixth century B.C. in Mesopotamia, understand by a text involving stones and mountains?
There are few references in Mesopotamian literature to stones used in circumstances similar to the ones found in Daniel 2. In the Gilgamesh Epic, the Mesopotamian Flood story, the main character has a dream about the coming of Enkidu (a wild created being meant to teach Gilgamesh humility) as a meteor that lands at Gilgamesh’s feet.5 We see from Mesopotamian lists that deities and sacred space were often related to stones. Mountains, on the other hand, played a big role in most religions of the ancient Near East, as we can see in the architecture of many temples and tombs. The design of the Mesopotamian ziggurat (or temple) represents an artificial mountain, similar to the shape and design of Egyptian pyramids.6 Mesopotamian ziggurats were considered to be the actual home of the deity.7 The names of these temples illustrate the relationship between humans and deity. For example, the ziggurat of Larsa, another city-state in Mesopotamia, is called “house of the link between heaven and earth,” while the ziggurat of Kish is known as “exalted dwelling place of Zababa and Inanna, whose head is as high as the heavens.” The name of the ziggurat of Nippur is “house of the mountain.”8 Similar, in texts from Ugarit, a site in northern Syria, the home of the gods is linked to Mount Saphon.9
The exasperated response of the terrified intellectual elite of Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar’s command at the beginning of Daniel 2 is indeed significant: “No one can reveal it [the dream] to the king except the gods, and they do not live among humans” (verse 11). The reference to the gods, not living where mortal beings live, introduces us to one of the main themes of Daniel 2. While the God of Daniel is interested in communicating the future and guides those who trust in Him through difficult times, the gods of King Nebuchadnezzar are not able (or willing) to do the same, since they live far removed from humanity in the high places of mountains or ziggurats.
The God of heaven is different (verses 18, 19, 37, 44). He is able and willing to reveal the future to the king, and the God of heaven does it in a way that the king of Babylon will understand. God wants to guide Nebuchadnezzar from something known to something new. At the same time God is subtly but consistently, undermining familiar religious concepts. The gods do not respond and do not give the necessary wisdom to know the dream of the king or supply its interpretation. The statue, which was so important to the dream and, as we can see later in Daniel 3, also very important to King Nebuchadnezzar, is smashed by a stone that has been cut off from a mountain. In the king’s mind the high elevations and mountains were divine meeting places; who would be able to cut off a sizable stone that could hit the statue and not only topple it over, but crush it into powder? Who would be stronger than the gods that meet on the mountain? It is this great God of heaven, Daniel’s God; and once Nebuchadnezzar has understood the meaning of the dream he falls on his face and worships (verse 46). He does not as yet understand everything about this God of heaven, but he realizes that this God truly is the “God of gods and Lord of kings” (verse 47).
Daniel 2 tells a story of how the God of heaven communicates with individuals living outside the chosen community of faith. As Daniel tells the story, he uses concepts that were known to anyone living in the ancient Near East at the time. Yet these concepts and terminology are not just being used uncritically. Rather, Daniel turns the way people think about religion and history upside down and inside out by unexpected outcomes and surprising effects. Missiologists call this process “contextualization”—the process of “translating” a particular (foreign) concept into a different culture, using concepts and elements that are familiar to this culture.
The stone and mountain references in Daniel 2 are not the only biblical passages that contextualize cultural thoughts and values to meet people where they were.10 God repeatedly sends messages through His prophets that do not leave unbelievers with their false ideas but take them further—much further by introducing them to the living God. At the end of the day Nebuchadnezzar falls to the ground and recognizes the power and strength of Daniel’s God, the God of heaven, so different from his own gods. But the story does not end with this one interaction between Yahweh and Nebuchadnezzar. The book of Daniel describes a long journey that would ultimately result in the king’s recognition of Yahweh not only as the God of heaven, but as “the Most High” (Dan. 4:32), the one above everything, the one who is actively involved in human history, who appoints and removes kings. He is the God who comes close to Nebuchadnezzar and speaks so he can understand. After all—and above all—the great God of heaven is Immanuel—God with us.