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Daniel and Empire: Then and Now


Daniel is a thoroughly political book, says Danna Nolan Fewell.[1] It is also a book where politics and religion are inseparable. We find politics and religion as seamless cloth already in the first verses of the book. The narrator says that “King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it” (Dan. 1:1). That is the political part. Then comes the religion. “The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God” (Dan. 1:2).

God and Politics in Daniel

Religion explains the politics in these verses; politics has a theological dimension. While Nebuchadnezzar might be inclined to ascribe his victory to himself, Daniel puts God into the equation. Or, while Nebuchadnezzar might be inclined to ascribe his victory to the superiority of his gods to the God of Israel, Daniel scrambles the logic by claiming that Nebuchadnezzar owes his victory to the God of the people he has defeated! This is not likely the story when he returns to Babylon with a retinue of captives and loaded with spoils. If the gods get any credit, it will go to the gods of Babylon. This is confirmed when Daniel says that Nebuchadnezzar brought the spoils from the temple in Jerusalem “to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods” (Dan. 1:2).

Daniel is not alone in offering a theological explanation for political events. In Daniel, the demise of Judah and the exile of many of its inhabitants are ascribed to the overriding hand of providence. This is more than implicit in the first chapter, and it is explicit in Daniel’s remarkable prayer later in the book (Dan. 9:1-19). Humiliation and exile are the consequences of things the people have done or failed to do. Daniel is aware of other voices giving the same explanation (Jer. 25:11; 29:10; 2 Chron. 36:15-17). Nebuchadnezzar may be a great general, but the Bible makes him a beneficiary of God’s disciplinary and punitive action in relation to Judah. Things are not what they seem. What is celebrated in the Temple of Marduk or heard on the procession street leading to the Ishtar Gate is not the whole story. Notice how the events in Daniel 1 are presented and explained in 2 Chronicles.

The LORD, the God of their ancestors, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD against his people became so great that there was no remedy. Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their youths with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or young woman, the aged or the feeble; he gave them all into his hand (2 Chr. 36:15-17).

These texts have in common that they give a theological explanation for political events. In Daniel, “the Lord let king Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power” (Dan. 1:2), suggesting action where God assumes a permissive role. In 2 Chronicles, God “brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans” (2 Chr. 36:17), suggesting action that is intentional and active on God’s part.

It is not without risk to invoke explanations of this kind. Are we to believe that God inspires the leader of a country to launch military strikes against other nations? Do Nebuchadnezzar’s aspirations to ‘Make Babylon Great Again’ square with God’s plans for the world even though youths will be killed, and the advancing army will show “no compassion on young man or young woman, the aged or the feeble” (2 Chr. 36:17)? Should we bother with questions like this before taking comfort in the thought of God’s sovereignty in the affairs of the world?

God and Politics Now

The relevance of the question may be more apparent if we extend it to events closer to our time. In 1990, a coalition of forces led by the United States, launched an invasion of the country known in the ancient world as Babylon. Among the coalition forces was Great Britain, no stranger to the Middle East because the map of the countries that used to be Babylon and Assyria was drawn by British authorities. The coalition, 500,000 soldiers strong, was carried out under the masculine motto “Desert Storm.” Its goal was to expel Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army from Kuwait, the small, extremely wealthy country to the south of Iraq.

Then, in 2003, Iraq again became the target of an invasion. The attacking force was smaller this time, less than 150,000, a coalition consisting mostly of forces from the United States and Great Britain. The logic this time was more tenuous. A year after the Second Gulf War was launched, the White House acknowledged that “on the day after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush asked his top counterterrorism adviser, Richard A. Clarke, to find out whether Iraq was involved.”[2] Iraqi involvement was implausible, unprovable, and—it turned out—non-existent, but the case for war did not let up. It was believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. On February 5, 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a powerful, assertive, and richly illustrated speech to the United Nations, purporting to prove that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He claimed that the weapons represented an imminent threat to the world community.[3] His speech was meant to convince, but it was not convincing. (I watched the speech, and I was not convinced). Years later, Colin Powell said that the speech was a mistake and a dark blot on his résumé. Before the war was launched, the US Congress had voted to authorize war. Forty-eight of forty-nine Republican senators voted in favor of war. Twenty-nine of fifty Democratic senators (58%) did likewise.

And God—what did God vote?

The fifteen years that have passed since the Second Gulf War have seen chaos and mayhem on a scale hard to imagine. The state machinery of Iraq was dismantled with consequences proving Thomas Hobbes to be correct: without a central government—when human beings are left in a “state of nature”—we represent a mortal danger to each other and to others.[4] (I am aware that many wish to explain the ensuing chaos to “radical Islam.” In my view, there less to explain once Hobbes has received his due). Mosul, the city of birth of my deceased father-in-law, lies devastated. Aleppo, one of the most historic, beautiful, and diverse cities in the Middle East, is in ruins. The carnage has been epic.

Daniel tells us that God had a hand in Nebuchadnezzar’s war of aggression against the surrounding nations. Does God have a hand in the wars now taking place—and, to make it easier for us—taking place in the same region where Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar lived? I don’t know the size of Nebuchadnezzar’s army when he marched on Jerusalem (Dan. 1:1-2), but it must have been smaller than the 500,000 soldiers mobilized for the First Gulf War in 1990, smaller still than the 150,000 soldiers dispatched for the Second Gulf War in 2003, possibly even smaller than the 50,000-strong US force now deployed in and around the country that used to be Babylon.

My wife grew up in Baghdad. Did I mention that her church used to go on church picnics to Babylon, ninety kilometers to the south? On January 3, 2020, a US drone carried out a targeted bombing near the Baghdad airport, killing Qasem Suleimani, the highest military officer of Iran. It was a high-risk proposition, justified on the logic that Suleimani was plotting attacks on American forces in the region. Here, however, I am not interested in the politics or the military wisdom of the strike. I wish to return to the connection between religion and politics that is so evident in Daniel 1 and throughout the book. Daniel says that God had a hand in the politics of the time (Dan. 1:1-2), a view that is reiterated more than once in the book (Dan. 2:44; 4:34; 6:26; 7:14).

Where is God in the politics of nations today?

I am asking for an urgent reason. The claim that God helps a nation defeat another nation in war is not unique to Daniel. Indeed, Daniel makes this claim in a manner that is low-key compared to how a similar claim is made while I write this. Just hours after the strike on the Iranian general three days ago, “Evangelicals for Trump” were gathered at El Rey Jesus Church in Miami. The President was there to address his Christian supporters. The person introducing him described him as a leader ordained by providence. “God is at work,” she said about the religion part. “If you cut him, he will bleed red, white, and blue,” she said of the politics part. “I really do believe we have God on our side. I believe that, I believe that,” the president said to raucous applause.[5]

Do you believe that, too? I am addressing you, the reader of these comments. And I say that our answer to this question is more important than our view of the claims made in Daniel 1 on God’s hand in the politics of Babylon. It is more relevant because it is closer to home and because it affects decisions and commitments in the present. I don’t mean to be sacrilegious, but it might be time better spent to listen to the interaction between the president of the United States and his religious supporters than to read Daniel again.[6] To ponder matters affecting us in the present could also be time better spent than to read the rest of my comments. Religion is thick in the political air, thick like the most noxious poison.

Meanwhile—Back in Babylon

Babylon’s first claim to fame preceded Nebuchadnezzar by more than one thousand years. It became a political and cultural power under Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC). He is famous for creating one of the world’s earliest legal codes, the Code of Hammurabi. “Making Babylon great again” is not a play on words; it is exactly what Nebuchadnezzar II set out to do during his reign (605-562 BC) In this, he succeeded magnificently. Babylon, the city, became the marvel of the ancient world. Its luster did not significantly diminish when it was conquered by the Persian (Iranian) king Cyrus in 539 B.C. Another two hundred years downstream, and Babylon was still the city to beat. Just ask Alexander the Great. He conquered Babylon in 331 BC. I have read somewhere that Alexander planned to make Babylon the seat of his empire and might have done so if not for his premature death in Babylon in 323 BC.

Jump ahead another one thousand years, if only to feel that there is history and culture in the Middle East for many lifetimes. The great city now is Baghdad, the city of Harun-al-Rashid (763-809) and Arabian Nights. Just as Alexander the Great felt drawn eastward, so did those wielding power within the rapidly expanding Muslim empire in the seventh and eighth century. Westerners like me, captive to political illusions, might do well to ponder this statement by Peter Brown, “It was not the Greek fire of the Byzantine navy outside Constantinople in 717, nor the Frankish cavalry of Charles Martel at Tours in 732 that brought the Arab war machines to a halt. It was the foundation of Baghdad.”[7] That is to say, the East seemed more interesting and important than the West. Christians like me, captives to illusions of superiority with respect to Islam, might be wise to listen in on a conversation taking place in Baghdad in the year 781 A.D. between Mahdi, the third of the Abbasid Caliphs at Bagdad, and Timothy, the recognized head of all Eastern Christians. Prominent in his own right, the Caliph is best known through the fame of the second of his sons, Harun al-Rashid. The conversation between the Muslim Caliph and the Christian Patriarch is remarkable for its respectful tone as well as the substance of the discussion: neither one talks down to the other.[8]

Meanwhile, Daniel is in Babylon. He and his friends are selected to study at the best university. Nebuchadnezzar is no fool—he oversees their final examination and promotes the exiles to positions of trust in the government. We should not think that a higher education in Babylon is mostly something to resist or despise. Babylonian science and culture had discovered things of value. Daniel’s promotion is merit based.

But there is a reservation-clause on the part of Daniel and his friends (Dan. 1:8). They will serve, and they will serve well (Dan. 1:18-20), but they retain a sense of loyalty to the God who, in the perception of this book, allowed their homeland to be overrun. “Irony of ironies! The four who disobey the king’s orders are the four who show themselves to be exceptional. The four who refuse to align themselves politically with the king are the ones chosen for royal service.”[9]

How will this end?


Notes & References:

[1] Danna Nolan Fewell, Circle of Sovereignty: Plotting Politics in the Book of Daniel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991).

[2] Eric Lichtblau, “President Asked Aide to Explore Iraq Link to 9/11,” New York Times, March 29, 2004.


[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (London: Penguin, 1985 [orig. 1651]).

[5] Jennifer Medina and Maggie Haberman, “In Miami Speech, Trump Tells Evangelical Base: God Is ‘on Our Side,’” New York Times, Jan. 3, 2020.

[6] For the full speech, see

[7] Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), 202.

[8] Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died (New York: HarperOne, 2008). The original document is Timothy’s Apology for Christianity. In Woodbrooke Studies: Christian Documents in Syriac, Arabic, and Garshuni, vol. 2:1-90, ed. and trans. A. Mingana (Cambridge, UK: W. Heffer & Sons, 1928).

[9] Fewell, Circle of Sovereignty, 22.


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

Photo: Cuneiform cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II describing the construction of the outer wall of Babylon (Wikimedia Commons)


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