YEAR C: ALL SAINTS
(May be celebrated on Sunday November 1 or on the Sunday after November 1)
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
The Book of Daniel divides into two halves: chapters 1-6 concerning the adventures of the hero Daniel and friends in the Babylonian court; and chapters 7-12 containing apocalyptic visions. Today’s reading takes up part of the first vision in second half of the book. Chapter 7 also forms a bridge between the two halves according to some scholars. It has some similarities to chapter 2. The Book as a whole is usually dated to the second century BCE at a time of great turmoil for the Jews living in and around Jerusalem.
Daniel 7 presents a vision of four great beasts emerging from the sea. The section set for today only gives the start of the vision (vv. 1-3) and the statement of Daniel’s reaction to the vision and the start of his seeking understanding (vv. 15-18). The choice of this passage for All Saints Day is presumably the reference to the holy ones of the Most High receiving the kingdom for ever (v. 18). If one is going to preach on this passage then some awareness and mention of the fuller vision in the chapter is needed.
The beasts represent four kingdoms and the sea is symbolic for the forces of evil or chaos. The historical identity of these kingdoms has been vigorously debated. Daniel 7 is set in Babylonian times so we may assume that Babylon is one of the kingdoms mentioned. The question is the identity of the others is less clear but it is helpful to look at other lists of nations and groups of similar items in the book.
In Daniel 2 there is description of a giant statue with various parts made from different metals (gold, silver, bronze and iron with clay for feet). The different metallic parts represent different kingdoms although it is not clear what the references are. The same list of metals is mentioned by other ancient writers, e.g. Hesiod, so the Daniel 7 list has precedents. In Daniel8:18-26 there is another complex vision featuring a ram with two horns, a he-goat that attacks it. At first the he-goat has one large horn but when that is broken four other horns grow, one of them sprouting yet another horn. The four kingdoms represented by the horns are usually understood as Media/Persia (ram with 2 horns), Greece (he-goat), the four horns represent the division of the Greek kingdom and the final horn is a final powerful king. In the Book of Daniel as a whole the kingdoms of Babylon, Medea, and Persia are represented. in other ancient writings four kingdoms are listed on more than one occasion: Assyria, Medea, Persia, and Macedonia. It is likely that Daniel too refers to these kingdoms.
Another important figure in Daniel 7 is mentioned in the vision, namely the so-called Son of Man, or as he is referred to in the NRSV, ‘one like a human being’ (a literal translation but how one reads it depends on whether you see the phrase as a title or a description). This figure stands before the ‘Ancient One’ (i.e. God) and is given everlasting dominion over all peoples. This figure has variously been understood by modern interpreters as either a messianic figure, the archangel Michael, leader of the angelic host mentioned in 10:1, 21; 12:1, or possibly some abstract entity.
It is at this point that our reading again picks up as Daniel wrestles with the vision. Daniel then approaches an interpreting angel (or ‘attendant’) and the interpretation of the dream is given (vv. 17-18). In this interpretation, as already noted, reference is made to the ‘holy ones of the Most High’. These, who are understood to receive the kingdom, are also described as ‘the people of the saints of the Most High’ (7:27). They are also mentioned in vv. 21 and 22 and it is possible that the title or description refers to the people or the faithful on earth who endure the times described in the visions. The Dead Sea Scroll (Qumran) community understood them to be the angels and there is some evidence for that interpretation. It is also possible that the reference to ‘the holy ones’ is deliberately ambiguous and the title refers to both the people of God living on earth and enduring its turmoil and the heavenly army of God fighting the forces of evil in the heavenly spheres. If so then the passage stresses that the present earthly community is not alone in its struggles. It shares them with the heavenly hosts who battle against evil creatures at another level. This is an encouragement for continuing in the struggle. While it is important to stress that the language used here is metaphorical and imaginary, the point that those who struggle in their daily life in faith are note alone, should be underlined.
One scholar, Sibley Towner, has said that while in Daniel as in other apocalyptic literature of the time, one can hear the anguish of the people as they struggle to be faithful against enormous forces, we should not just see there faith centred on some hope of an afterlife, a sort of ‘pie in the sky by and by’ type of faith. In this we note the reference to the idea of resurrection in Dan 12:1-4. Rather, he says: ‘The themes of this literature, though, are not pessimistic themes nor are they very new ones. They presuppose God's goodness, God's power to create and recreate, God's triumph in the cosmic struggle, God's willingness and ability to achieve self-vindication before Israel and before all the other nations. These themes handed down as residue of past religious reflections to theological writers living in the midst of a welter of historical stresses, give rise to a literature which points toward the possibility of a dynamic interim ethic, the ethic discussed just above. As long as people are called by apocalyptic writing to live their lives in this risky and yet vigorous way, surely that writing cannot be equated with a failure of nerve.’ (Daniel (1984) pp. 114-115)
Return to OT Lectionary Readings contents page