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Daniel 2: What I/We/You/They Have Not Yet Believed


A friend of mine has been reading ahead. I asked him whether there is anything noticeably new in our approach to the Book of Daniel this quarter. He answered “no” without hesitation. “Most things are presented the way we have always done it,” he said. “God has a calendar and follows it. He brings everything to completion by force in his own time.”

What We Have Always Believed

I have not read enough yet to judge whether my friend’s impression is correct. From what I have seen so far, perhaps he is. We are not studying to discover new things. Daniel is familiar territory, and we like to keep it that way. It could unsettle if we were to change our reading from “what we have always believed” to “where we were wrong” or even to “what we have not yet believed.” If Daniel were a sermon, we prefer one with which we are familiar. Once the pastor reaches the end, we’d like to be able to say: “That was a good sermon. It is what we have always believed.”

The subject this week is Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. When Daniel lets him know the content of the dream, he tells him of an extraordinary statue. “The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay,” says Daniel (Dan. 2:32-33). This representation—translated and explained—is understood as a synopsis of world history. The guide in front of me says that “Daniel 2 is not a conditional prophecy . . . It is . . . a definitive prediction of what God foresaw and would actually bring to pass in the future” (SSQ 24). It goes on to the following exposition, here abbreviated to its essence:

1. The head of gold represents Babylon (626–539 B.C.).

2. The chest and arms of silver stand for Media-Persia (539–331 B.C.).

3. The belly and thighs of bronze symbolize Greece (331–168 B.C.).

4. The legs of iron aptly represent Rome (168 B.C.–A.D. 476).

5. The feet partly of iron and partly of clay represent a divided Europe (A.D. 476–second coming of Christ).

For the last point, there is an elaboration that brings it down to our time. “The mixture of iron with clay provides a fitting picture of what happened after the disintegration of the Roman Empire,” says the guide. “Although many attempts have been made to unify Europe, ranging from marriage alliances between royal houses to the present European Union, division and disunity have prevailed and, according to this prophecy, will remain so until God establishes the eternal kingdom” (SSQ 24). “The present European Union,” no less, with a 2500-year-old prediction that the union will fail.

It is imprecise to say that this is what we have always believed, but it is close. The part about the European Union is recent, given that the initiative to create the union began in the 1950s. Message to Brussels: The Bible tells us that your effort to achieve European unity is doomed to fail.

From here on, I wish to make good on the announcement in the headline: “What I/We/You/They Have Not Yet Believed” about the dream in Daniel 2. I’ll go about it incrementally, in three steps.

“There Is a Revealer” (Dan. 2:22, 28, 47)

Daniel 2 has a concentration of know ̶ terms that is unparalleled in the Hebrew Bible. Matters related to knowing are called epistemology, the science of knowledge. Daniel 2 aspires to make a contribution to the subject. The word yāda‘, whether in the form “knowing” or in the form “making known” occurs forty-one times in Daniel, eighteen of which are in Daniel 2. Yāda‘ is on numerous occasions linked with the word gālâ. Both are strong terms for “making known.” The Greek terms for yāda‘ vary, but gālâ is usually translated by apokalypō. If the words in Hebrew or Aramaic are difficult, the word in Greek is not. Apokalyptō means to “reveal.” Apokalypsis, the noun that corresponds to the verb, means “revelation.” For a visual example, think of someone removing the lid from the top of a box to show us what is hidden inside. Apokalypsis is on this logic an unveiling or an uncovering. Knowledge of this kind belongs in a special category. It is knowledge not available by other means.

Let us put this in the context of the king’s dream (Dan. 2:1-45). Nebuchadnezzar knows that he has dreamt. He is accustomed to thinking that dreams communicate messages from a higher power. But he cannot remember his dream (Dan. 2:1-9)! (I don’t think he is pretending). He demands of his advisors not only that they tell him how the dream should be interpreted; he also insists that they retrieve his dream (Dan. 2:9)!

His demand distills the epistemological issue to its essence. Is the dream a window into the king’s mental activity, or is it a form of communication from outside? The king is convinced that only the second alternative is relevant. (This contrasts with Sigmund Freud, who said that all dreams originate in the dreamer and that dreams are a form of wish fulfillment). We must approach this dream from the point of view of theology rather than psychology. If the dream represents a message from God rather than unprovoked human intellectual activity, God is free to share the message with other people than the king. Nebuchadnezzar is on to something when he insists, “Tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can give me its interpretation” (Dan. 2:9). He more than hints that his advisors have been playing games in the past (Dan. 2:9).

It is crunch time in Babylon. It is do or die! The experts try to calm down the king and bring him to his senses. “There is no one on earth who can reveal what the king demands!” they say. “In fact, no king, however great and powerful, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. The thing that the king is asking is too difficult, and no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals” (Dan. 2:10-11). Their consternation and fear are intense. Earth has no resource that can meet the king’s demand! No one has ever been this unreasonable. The task is too difficult! Perhaps the gods can do it, if gods exist! Even if gods exist, there is no reason to believe that they communicate with mortals!

The predicament is dire, but it is also an opportunity. They ask for time. They turn to prayer (Dan. 2:14-18). The result confirms Nebuchadnezzar’s conviction that he has received a message. We find ourselves in theological territory—not psychology. The message “made known” to Nebuchadnezzar in a dream is now “made known” to Daniel. “Then the mystery was made known [Gr. apekalypthē (Th)] to Daniel in a vision of the night” (Dan 2:19, translation mine). 

Again and again Daniel 2 hammers it home: there is knowledge to be had that we do not generate ourselves. Discovery is good, but there is knowledge that is not the result of discovery. Research is good, but there is a horizon beyond human research. Philosophy is good, but human thought is not capable of the thoughts made known by revelation. It cannot be said too often.

* he makes known [Gr. apokalyptō] . . . he knows [Gr. ginoskō] (Dan. 2:22)

* you . . . have made known [Gr. seimaino, gnorizo (Th)] . . . you have made known [Gr. gnorizō (Th)] (Dan. 2:23)

*there is a God in heaven who makes known [Gr. apokalyptō] (Dan. 2:28)

We have a genuine “Known-Maker” in the story, a Revealer (Dan 2:20-30). Daniel agrees with the court-appointed experts that no earthly intelligence “can show the king the mystery that the king is asking” (Dan 2:27). But he does not agree that human limitations exhaust the options. Reality obligates him to add that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (Dan. 2:27). Another disclaimer follows for the purpose of circumscribing the human element: the mystery “has not been made known to me because of any wisdom that I have more than any other living being, but in order that the interpretation may be known to the king” (Dan. 2:30). Daniel’s role is modest, but the prospect for “knowing”—the new epistemic horizon—is vast. Daniel explains to King Nebuchadnezzar that “there is a God in heaven who is a revealer [anakalyptōn] of mysteries . . . and the Revealer [ho anakalyptōn] of mysteries” has opened the door to him (Dan. 2:28, 29, LXX). By this logic, revelation is not only something God does but an expression of what God is. Ideas like openness, transparency, and account-giving come to mind. “Making known” is so characteristic of God as to make God the “Known-Maker” [ho anakalyptōn].   

“What Is to Be” (Dan. 2:29)

A Revealer at the source. God is that revealer; God is a Person who reveals. Revelation is the content, and what is it? Daniel proceeds to recount to the king his dream (Dan. 2:31-36) and then its interpretation (2:37-45). He tells the king “what is to be” (Dan. 2:29). People in my faith community, as noted, are accustomed to see the flow of history in broad strokes: head of gold (Babylon), chest of silver (Persia), hips of bronze (Greece), legs of iron (Rome). This is revelation as prediction. The revealing God is in this paradigm a Person who knows history before it happens: he can foretell. What is foretold is fixed; it is what will happen no matter what.  Sovereignty and ability to foretell go hand in hand. Claims to foreknowledge of this kind are bound to impress and have been used to great effect by expositors of Daniel. Imagine—the Roman Empire predicted centuries ahead of time! Imagine—the failure of Napoleon and Hitler predicted two thousand years in advance! Imagine, too, a prediction that the European Union will come to grief!

Foreknowledge at this level lies beyond human capacity and certifies God as God. We can, with predictive prophecy in hand, argue that there is a supernatural reality and use Daniel 2 to poke holes in purely secular conceptions.

Is there more?

If we take time out of the equation, there could be more. Transience is writ large on the image. Nothing lasts. If we let the time-element dominate, it might seem that we need history to teach us this. Can the image, quite apart from history, teach us anything? It can—if we let our eyes run quickly from the splendor of the head of gold to the inauspicious feet of clay. This take on the statue looks for timeless insights apart from knowledge of history. The statue reeks with finitude; it exposes the fleeting nature of greatness; it pictures decline; it exposes the futility of human attempts to establish enduring structures (Dan. 2:31-33, 37-44). Dissolution seems inherent to the human project itself: it is represented as a statue standing on feet of iron and clay.

Feet of clay are not only an element that comes to light in the future, after the Roman Empire. It is evident in the present; it is evident in the life of every human being and every nation; it was evident the day Daniel spoke to Nebuchadnezzar and pointed him to the feet of clay. Gold and silver and bronze are illusions and delusions once we get the feet of clay in focus. “Dust to dust”—this is how we are constituted—this is what Nebuchadnezzar forgot when he set out to Make Babylon Great Again. God “took the dust of the earth,” we read in Genesis (Gen. 2:7). We are earthlings in a literal sense. “You are dust, and to dust shall you return,” God says at a later point (Gen. 3:19). Feet of clay—this is the dust in Nebuchadnezzar’s image. It is not a historical truth only; it is ontologically true. It is an insight into our being, who we are and what we are.

History can facilitate theology, but it can also stand in the way. For insights that we call apocalyptic, knowledge of the future is not the main thing. The main thing is rediscovery of truth. The word in Greek for truth is alētheia. The a- in front of the word has the same function as apo- in apocalyptic. For the latter word, something was covered up that needs to be uncovered and recovered. It is the same with alētheia: something was lost. Northrop Frye says that this conception of truth depicts “the removal of the curtain of forgetfulness from the mind.”

What we have always believed has pitfalls. It can simplify and distort complexities that cut across the lines with which we divide time. The influence of Greek culture, language, and thought preceded Alexander’s conquests in 333 B.C. It outlasted the demise of his empire. We live in the thought world of Hellenism today; it never disappeared; it lives on in our language and conceptions of reality. I love Lord Acton’s pithy example of what the Greeks did to the Romans. In 155 B.C., he says, the Greek philosopher Carneades came to Rome on a lecture tour. Rome was by then politically and militarily in the driver’s seat. Greece was nothing, politically speaking, and Alexander the Great was long gone. Carneades gave two lectures. “On the first day he discoursed of natural justice,” says Lord Acton. “On the next, he denied its existence, arguing that all our notions of good and evil are derived from positive enactment.” The Romans had met their match. “From the time of that memorable display, the genius of the vanquished held its conquerors in thrall.” Do we get it—how the vanquished prevailed over the victor? The first night, Carneades made his audience into Aristotelians, persuading them that right and wrong derive from the laws of nature. The next night he tore it all down, saying that right and wrong are elements of social contract, a Socratic point of view.

I worry that the view of history current in what-we-have-always-believed comes with the risk of simplifying and trivializing history. We don’t know much and—if my worry is warranted—we don’t need to know much. God is sovereign in the affairs of the nations—we don’t need to know more than that. We don’t need to take responsibility for what happens. Brexit is great—it confirms Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Just a few days ago, I came across an article that used the word apocalypse about the state of the humanities in university curricula in the United States. It describes apocalypse in the sense of collapse: the collapse of literature and history in Western culture.[1] If the historical horizon of what-we-have-always-believed comes with the risk of trivializing history, we have apocalypse as revelation aiding and abetting apocalypse as collapse (the collapse of the humanities).

What We Have Not Yet Believed

The high point in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is the heavenly alternative. 

*a stone was cut out, not by hands [lā’ biydayin] (Dan. 2:34)

*a stone was cut out from the mountain not by hands [lā’ biydayin] (Dan. 2:45)

These verses stress how the stone was not cut out. And, yes—the wording justifies the translation that is usually preferred: “a stone was cut out, not by human hands” We must not rush at this point, however. The text does not specify whether the “hands” in question are human or divine (Dan. 2:34, 45). As it is usually read, the difference refers to agency. The absence of “hands” means that God is at work. Unless we say more than this, we could easily be left with the impression that the stone “without hands” is an instrument of violence.

Here is what we have not yet believed: the text contrasts method and agency, not only agency. “Hand” in Hebrew and Aramaic is the symbol for “power.” In the abstract, as symbol, “hand” means “power.” Non-use of “hand” means non-use of “power.” Translators are well aware of this: in Daniel 12:7, “hand” means “power.” If we include this option for the non-use of “hand” in relation to the stone in Daniel 2, we have a contrast of means and not only agency. Let the distinctive feature of God’s action now read: “a stone was cut out—but not by power” (Dan. 2:34, 45).[2]  

A claim to knowledge that does not have a human origin is proclaimed at the highest level of society: the king dreams, but he cannot remember his dream (Dan. 2:1-7). The claim is corroborated not by the king’s belated recollection of his dream but by God revealing the dream to someone other than the king (Dan. 2:14-19)! The dream depicts history and reality (Dan. 2:31-43), chiefly by the feet of clay on which the figure stands (Dan. 2:41-43). This part of the dream is diagnostic and not only predictive. The structure is intrinsically unstable. Feet of iron and clay suggest that the structure will collapse quite apart from anything done to it from without.

But the stone that “was cut from the mountain without hands” (Dan. 2:34, 45) is not an instrument of violence. A principle other than power is at work in history, an elusive principle that is not of this world—and not only because the one who operates it isn’t human. The stone “was cut from the mountain without power.” The divine hand is superior primarily because it represents a different mode of action (Dan. 2:34, 45). The stone is revelatory and redemptive: it exposes the fragility of the human project, and it comes to the rescue by erecting in its place an enduring structure (Dan. 2:44). 

The usual historical reading does not capture how God does it. It is at pains to show that “the stone kingdom comes into existence only after the four main king­doms have fallen and human history has reached the time of the divided kingdoms, represented by the feet and toes of the image” (SSQ 25). Eagerness to protect what-we-have-always-believed blocks the way to what we have not yet believed even though the latter beckons in the word that is used.

If we need apocalyptic insights to know the future, we need it even more to know what God is like. Information about the future is far less the concern of apocalyptic than the revelation of God. Indeed, Revelation as apokalypsis is certified less by predicting future events than by telling us that the kingdom will be established “without hands.”

What I, We, You, and They have not yet believed is the most important message in Daniel 2: “a stone was cut from the mountain without power,” that is, a kingdom established but “not by means of force” (Dan. 2:34, 45).   



[2] John. J. Collins and Adela Yarbro Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 399; see also Sigve K. Tonstad, “To Fight or Not to Fight: The Sabbath and the Maccabean Revolt,” AUSS 54 (2016), 135-146.


Sigve Tonstad is Professor of Theology at Loma Linda University's School of Religion.        

Photo by Shigeru Aoki on Wikimedia Commons.


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