The Book of Daniel and the End Time: Towards a Close Reading Approach

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The Sabbath School lessons for this quarter are titled Preparation for the End Time. This is virtually the same as the popular 1960s book Preparation for the Final Crisis—copiously used during my seminary days—which provides an “actionable” timeline of the end (often called soft date-setting).

I think the author sets up a good premise when he writes that Daniel and his friends, living in Babylon in the 6th century BC “were examples of what Israel as a nation was to have been and done” (p. 14). But I felt that this plausible approach is somewhat overshadowed by a tendency to inject historical fulfilments into the prophecy without giving the reasons for such conclusions. Thus the lesson effectively removes the original Jewish readers from the place of “ideal readers” of Daniel and instead places longtime Adventists with expert knowledge on historicist prophetic interpretation in their place.

Surprisingly, although the study this week is titled “Daniel and the End Time,” the lesson does not really delve into the mechanics of “the time of the end” in the book of Daniel. I suspect that I’m not the only Adventist who expected a slightly different take on “Daniel and the End Time” in this week’s lesson.

It goes without saying then that the author understands Daniel as central to the “end times”: Daniel is mentioned and quoted well over 100 times in the entire lesson, second only to Jesus Christ (300+) and God (270+). The book of Daniel colors all references to dates and events in the lesson; in “Christ and the Heavenly Sanctuary” (lesson 4) we read: “From the study of the book of Daniel, we can see that this phase of ministry began in the year 1844” (p. 43). The year 1798 as the fulfillment of Dan 7:25 and Rev 13 appears four times in all thirteen lessons. Modern-day Europe is “depicted” in Dan 2:40-43 (p. 16) and the “unsealing” of Daniel is fulfilled in the “latter days”, i.e., the 19th century (p. 20).

The problem with this approach is that it superimposes a neat template to Daniel (and Revelation). What comes out of the texts then can only pass through this pre-set mold. Like those TV color screens of the 1960s which applied only three colors to black and white images, historicist presuppositions (as well as futurism and preterism) apply a monochromatic pattern to apocalyptic prophecy in favor of a pre-determined end result.

So, for all its worth, I hereby offer a “supplement” to this week’s lesson in the form of a brief exegetical study of the expression “the time of the end” in the book of Daniel. This approach is the product of a “close reading” of the text which simply means that the immediate context controls meaning.

I do so because Adventist interpretations are largely built on the notion that the visions of Daniel (especially chapter 8) refer without exception to the eschatological “time of the end,” a point in time far removed (2,600 years) from Daniel’s time and applies it to another primary audience rather than 6th century BC Jews. But as we’ll briefly see below, this interpretation stems from a circular, “auto-pilot” reading of the book of Daniel based mostly on (incorrect) Bible translations. And misunderstanding the “time of the end” in Daniel will invariably lead to misinterpretation of its prophetic visions.

Let’s look at the expressions of “time of the end” in Daniel.

“The time of the end.”The “time of the end” appears twice in Daniel 8: “the time of the end” (et-qets, v. 17) and “the appointed time of the end” (l’môe‘d qets, v. 19). The meaning of these expressions is clarified by the same “time of the end”(et-qets)when the “abomination of desolation” would appear (Dan 11:31, 35; 40; 12:11). This “time of the end” reappears twice as et-qets in 12:4, 9 and its meaning is further elucidated by Gabriel: it is the time when the book of Daniel would no longer be “secret” and “sealed” but would begin to be understood by the original audience, the Jews.

We see this unsealing of the book of Daniel predicted for the “time of the end” taking place when the Jews began reading and understanding the prophecies of Daniel, probably shortly after the end of the Babylonian captivity or at the latest when the book of Daniel became part of the Hebrew Bible. Thus the unsealing of Daniel in the “time of the end” is parallel to “the latter part [future, posterity] of their rule” in 8:23, that is, the rule of the four Greek kings coming out of Alexander the Great, which happens “many days from now” (8:26). Scholars often call this provisional, contextual “end” the prophet’s own “eschatological horizon”1 and not the actual “end.”

Accordingly, the books of Maccabees (ca. 100 BC) indicate that the Jews understood the visions of Daniel to apply to the desecrations of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the 2nd century BC, especially the “abomination of desolation” predicted for the “time of the end” (cf. Dan 9:27; 11:31, 35, 40; 12:11; 1 Macc 1:41–50, 57; 2 Macc 6:1-12). These events provide a historical starting point to understand the “time of the end” in Daniel.

But there’s more.

“The days to come, future, latter part, posterity.”It is worth noting that Daniel uses a different expression to describe the “final” periods in the visions. We read in Dan 2:28: [God] has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the latter part of the days [Aram. aharît yômayya’]” while Dan 10:14 has: “I …have come to help you understand what is to happen to your peoplethe latter part of the days [b’aharît hayamim]. Notice that I did not translate these expressions as “the end” and there’s good reason for that.

The word aharît present in the preceding verses can have a range of meanings such as “after part, end (of place), latter part, future (of time), posterity, least part, back”2 and lexicons are agreed that its meaning must be decided by the context; aharît means “posterity, descendants” in several passages of the Old Testament (e.g., Prov 24:20; Psalm 37:37, 38; Amos 4:2, 9:1, Dan 11:4; Ezek 23:25) and also means “future” as in Jer 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future [aharît] with hope” (NRSV, cf. also Job 8:7; 42:12; Jer 31:17; Prov 23:18; 24:14; Isa 41:22; 46:10).

Significantly, Dan 8:23 has: “in the latter part of their reign [aharît malkûtam]” while Dan 11:4,––which explains how Alexander’s kingdom was  going to be divided––reads: “And when he has arisen, his kingdom shall be broken up and divided toward the four winds of heaven [cf. 8:8], but not among his posterity [aharît] nor according to his dominion with which he ruled; for his kingdom shall be uprooted, even for others besides these” (NKJV). Notice in Dan 11:4 how aharît has the very narrow meaning of “posterity, descendants” and not “end”.

We need to keep in mind that the “time of the end” appears in a chapter centered on the rise of Greece onto the world stage and its aggression on the Jewish people. In fact, most of Daniel 8 (15 out of 27 verses) is dedicated to explaining how Greece history intersected with the Jewish people. That the vision of Daniel 8 focuses primarily on the Jewish people is evident for three main reasons: (1) the chapter returns to the holy language of the Jews, Hebrew (1:1-2:3) rather than Aramaic (the international language of the time, 2:4-7:28); (2) the animals in the vision stem from the Hebrew sanctuary service (a male goat and a ram) as opposed to the unclean animals of Daniel 7, and; (3) the vision centers on the attack on the “host,” the “holy ones” and their “sanctuary” (8:10-13, 24).

According to Gabriel, this vision is for the “time of the end” which is synonymous with the “latter part of their kingdoms”, contextually interpreted as the time reign of four Greek kings which rise after the death of Alexander, the Great in 323 BC.

Coming back to Daniel 8:23 and 11:4, since both passages are thematically related and parallel, it seems then that the best translation of aharît in Dan 8:23 should be “posterity, descendants” as it does in 11:4 instead of “latter part”; thus we’d have in Dan 8:23: “And during the posterity [the period of the descendants] of these [Greek] kingdoms, when the transgressions have reached their full measure, a [Greek] king of bold countenance shall arise, skilled in intrigue.”

Scholars are unanimously agreed that this refers to the intersection of Greek and Jewish history because the textual evidence demands it. A cursory look at events in the second century BC appear to point to a striking fulfillment of this prophecy in the career of the Seleucid (Greek) king Antiochus IV Epiphanes who rose in 175 BC and inflicted horrific attacks on the Jewish people and the sanctuary. After Alexander and his sons (his aharît, Dan 11:4) were murdered, his four generals fought for control of different regions of his empire (cf. 8:8: “the four winds of heaven”) and this period lasted from 323-281 BC. When Alexander’s generals died, their kingdoms were in turn passed down to their descendants (aharît), called by historians as the “epigonoi” (a term commonly used for the offspring of mythological heroes).3 Thus aharît in Dan 8:23 seems to point to the descendants of the four Greek kingdoms out of which the “little horn” arises.

But even if we take aharît to mean the “latter part of their [Greek] rule”4 in Dan 8:23 as most Bible versions do, Antiochus IV fits here too. When he rose to power in 175 BC the Seleucid empire was in steep decline, having lost 80% of the territory it held since 303 BC (it lost Asia Minor to the Romans in 188 BC). Antiochus IV is considered the last significant Seleucid king by historians, the kings that followed him were negligible. After him, the Seleucid empire never regained the former significance and became increasingly disintegrated under the power of the Parthians (141 BC) and finally fell to Rome in 64 BC.5 Significantly, Antiochus IV’s defeat in the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BC) set the stage for Judea to become an independent state as evidenced by the dynasty of Jewish Hasmonean kings, 140-64 BC. After Antiochus IV, Israel was never to be a subject of Greece again; this was “the end” of their “transgressions” against God’s people.  (A full discussion of the textual evidence for this Greek “little horn” can be found in my essay: “A Response to Clifford Goldstein on the “Little Horn” of Daniel 8.”

Now we can look at another “time of the end” in the book of Daniel.

“The end of all time.”The actual eschatological end of all things in the book of Daniel is found only in 12:13: “But you, go your way, and rest; you shall rise for your reward at the end of the days [l’qets hayyamîn].” The unique Hebrew expression l’qets hayyamîn literally means “the end of the days,” i.e., “when days/time will come to an end.” It appears only here in the entire Old Testament and points to the day when Daniel would be resurrected and thus refers undeniably to theend of all things (cf. 1 Cor 15:51-53; Rev 20:5).

In sum, the expression “time of the end” in Daniel 8, 11 applies to the fulfilment of the events described in the vision involving ancient Greece, the four Greek kingdoms and their “posterity” and the aggressions of a Greek “little horn” on the Jews. Only once does “time of the end” refer to the eschatological end in the book, Dan 12:13.

Conclusion

The evidence perused in this essay indicates that when read in context and with as little external presuppositions as possible, Daniel offers the hope that a heinous assault against the people of God and his sanctuary in the “time of the end” of the visions would not last forever. After a short time (either 2,300 or 1,150 days, both work, see Dan 8:14) the earthly sanctuary would again be consecrated and the worship of Yahweh restored. This restoration was such an important event for Jews that Jesus joined in celebrating it at the Feast of Dedication (Hannukah) as recorded in John 10:22.

Finally–and in this I agree with this week’s lesson–Daniel, especially in chapter 8, provides enduring principles of the “end time” and the struggle between good and evil which are applicable to all such attacks on God’s people and His worship (as also applied by Jesus to the Roman invasion of Jerusalem; cf. Matt 24:15) until the end of time. After all, the horrific aggressions of the Greek “little horn” on the Jewish people and the Temple as well as their continuous iterations throughout history ultimately attempt to overthrow “truth” (Dan 8:12), a core attribute of God’s character and his worship.

Our challenge today is to allow these prophecies to continue to speak without “neutering” them by imposing “preferable” fulfilments in lieu of their clear, original intent as established in the text. Thus the question for us today remains: How are other such “little horns” inflicting attacks on God’s truth and worship and how should we guard against them?

 

Notes & References:

[1] Cf. Carol Ann Newsom and Brennan W. Breed, Daniel: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2014), 63.

[2] R. Laird Harris, “68   אָחַר, [ahar]” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 33.

[3] Cf. Droysen, Johann Gustav, Geschichte der Nachfolger Alexanders (Hamburg: Friedrich Perthes, 1836), 517.

[4] Cf. Goldingay, Daniel, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 30 (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 217: “in the closing period of their rule”.

[5] Cf. Susan M. Sherwin-White, Amalie Kuhrt, From Samarkhand to Sardis: A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), 215-235.

 

André Reis has published articles and book chapters on theology, church history, worship, and music. He has recently finished a PhD in New Testament.

Image Credit: Matt Botsford / Unsplash

 

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