Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Posts Tagged ‘The beast from the sea: the Greek Empire

Daniel Chapters 7 – 9

 In the first six chapters of Daniel, we read a series of stories about the integrity and advancement of Daniel and his friends, while captives at a foreign court. For Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel was an inspired interpreter of dreams. Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah survived the fiery furnace, a miracle which caused Nebuchadnezzar to revere God, however briefly.

For Belshazzar – according to the book of Daniel, the son and successor of Nebuchadnezzar – Daniel interprets the writing on the wall which heralds Belshazzar’s demise and the fall of the Babylonian empire. Although a favourite of the next king, Darius the Mede, Daniel becomes the victim of an envious plot, which gets him cast into the lions’ den. Darius is pleased when Daniel survives this ordeal, and has Daniel’s persecutors and their families thrown to the lions.

The language of the book is Hebrew until 2:4, and thereafter in Aramaic until Chapter 8, when the book reverts to Hebrew.

Chapter 7 onward deals with Daniel’s visions, experienced during the reigns of Belshazzar, Darius and Cyrus. These are related by Daniel in the first person, suitable for prophecy, whereas we have had until now a third person narrative.

The first vision, in Chapter 7, resembles the dreams recounted by Nebuchadnezzar insofar as the images are prophetic of future empires, and they are interpreted for Daniel by one of the heavenly beings in the vision. The vision is explicitly a dream,[1] חלמא in Aramaic, which Daniel dreams while in bed at night, and afterwards records in writing.

Four winds from heaven or from the sky break forth on the sea, and four beasts emerge from the sea.

The first animal is a winged lion, usually understood to representBabylon. An archaeologist called Henry Layard, working in Nimrud in Iraq in the 1840s, excavated the palaces of Ashurnasirpal II, Shalmaneser III, and Tiglath-Pileser III and discovered several colossal statues (lamassu) of lions and bulls, two of which are displayed in The British Museum. Winged lions and bulls were part of Assyrian and Babylonian iconography. They were known as lamassu and shedu, protectors of ordinary households and, in more extravagant form, of royal palaces.

Jeremiah uses the metaphor of a lion to refer to Babylon:

A lion has gone up from his thicket, a destroyer of nations has set out; he has gone out from his place to make your land a waste; your cities will be ruins without inhabitant.[2]

Next up is a bear-like animal, with three ribs in its mouth. The bear is said to represent the empire of the Medes and the Persians, but there is no real consensus on the three ribs. One commentator suggests:

They may represent the unsuccessful alliance of the Urartians, Manneans and Scythians who tried to stop the Persians, but they are much more likely to represent Lydia, Babylon and Egypt which were the three major conquests of the Persian empire.[3]

 Ibn Ezra suggests that דב be translated not as ‘bear’, the usual translation of dov, but wolf, which in Hebrew is זאב but the zayin may become a dalet in Aramaic.

According to traditions in Talmud and Midrash, the second animal represents the Persian Empire because the Persians ‘…eat and drink like a bear, are fleshy like a bear, overgrown with hair like a bear, and are restless like a bear.’[4]

 Jewish commentators suggests that the three ribs refer to three Persian kings: Cyrus, Ahasuerus and Darius. The only consensus is that the beasts symbolize kingdoms. The third animal, the winged leopard, is also regarded asPersia, with the preceding bear like animal representing Medea.

The fourth, most fearsome beast with teeth of iron is understood to be the Greek Empire, which fits the supposed dating of the book of Daniel. Several texts of Daniel were found at Qumnran, the earliest, dating from around 125 BCE represents the terminus ad quem. In other words, the Qumrantexts could be later copies taken from an earlier work, or it could be contemporary with the earliest known manuscript. As we saw, Josephus refers to Alexander the Great receiving a copy of the book of Daniel, so it existed in 330 BCE, if Josephus is accurate.

Alexander’s sudden and untimely death in 323 complicated the succession of his enormous empire and the ten horns of the fourth beast are believed to be the various successors among whom the Macedonian empire was divided. The first successors were called the diadochi,  friends, relations and rivals of Alexander, all with some claim to kingship. A state was created in 312 BCE by Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander’s generals, inSyria, southern Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Iran. The rulers were called Seleucids, after Seleucus Nicator. The Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled inEgypt, was founded in 305 BCE by Ptolemy I, the builder of the library atAlexandria.

The Pontine dynasty ruled in north-east Asia Minor until it was absorbed into theRoman Empire.

The Seleucid dynasty eventually produced the tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes who ruled from 175 to 163, the period of the Maccabean revolt. The ‘little horn’ of verse 8 is understood to refer to Antiochus IV who tried to suppress the Jewish religion, and to enforce the hellenization of the Jews.

In the vision which begins in verse 9, the scene is being set as if for judgment.  Thrones are placed, plural and  עתיק יומין, one that was ancient of days sits down, all in white with white hair. His throne is fiery and has wheels. There is a heavenly court, with thousands of thousands ministering.

The judgment is set, and the books were opened.

דינא יתב וספרין פתיחו

William Blake’s painting follows the KJV in using the definite article: ‘The Ancient of Days’. The Aramaic does not call for a definite article, so some of our translations vary from the KJV.

HL Ginsberg in the Jewish Encyclopeda points out that the image is a metaphor for God, just as the beasts are metaphors for human kings and emperors:

One cannot ask therefore ‘Why is God called the Ancient of Days’ in Daniel7?’ because He is not, but only ‘Why is God represented in the vision of Daniel 7 by the figure of an ancient of days?’[5]

 The meaning of Daniel’s name, ‘God is my judge,’ is of interest in this vision of judgment, dina in Aramaic.

The fourth beast (presumed to be Greece orRome) is slain and the other beasts cease to rule, but their lives a spared, for a time.

The next vision is one like a son of man, who comes from the clouds of heaven. You may recall that the expression ‘…coming from the clouds of heaven’ occurs in the NT gospel of Matthew and Mark, in connection with The Son of Man.[6] The Aramaic is כבר אנוש, c’var enosh, ‘like a son of man’.

Traditional Jewish interpretations regard this figure as Israe l(as is the case with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant) or as the messiah (as is the case with the Targum to Isaiah 53). Note that the one like a son of man comes from shemaya, from the sky or from heaven, while the beasts came from the sea.

In verse 15, Daniel approaches one of the ministering figures, perhaps an angel, like Zechariah’s guide[7]and asks for an explanation of the vision.

 The angel interprets: the beasts are kingdoms, but the holy ones of the Most High will receive and possess these kingdoms, for ever. ‘For ever’ is most emphatic: ad alma v’ad olam almaya. A similar idiom appears in the kaddish. The king represented by the ‘little horn’ would make war against the holy ones and prevail against them, until the Ancient of Days would come and judge. The fourth kingdom would spread across the earth; it would be succeeded by ten further kingdoms, then another which would speak against the Most High. The holy ones would be in his power ‘until a time and times and half a time’. Much depends on the interpretation of idan, ‘time’. It may mean year and refer to two and a half years of persecution under Antiochus.

After this period, the kingdom would be given to the kadishei Elyonin, whose kingdom is everlasting.

Daniel concludes that he was much frightened by his vision, but kept his thoughts to himself.

In chapter 8, the language reverts to Hebrew. Daniel experiences another vision in the third year of the reign of Belshazzar, two years after the previous one. In the vision of chapter 8, the location is Shushan the castle, well-known to us from Megillat Esther. Only in Esther and Daniel do we find this reference to Shushan Ha-birah.

In the vision, Daniel sees a ram with two horns, one, the later horn, larger than the first. Given our experience so far of visions in the book of Daniel, we might suppose these horns to represent kingdoms, and Media andPersiafit the bill, coming from the east, to push west, north and south, as reported in verse 4.

The he-goat from the west must then represent Greece, conquering Persia and the known world and the goat’s horns are Alexander and his successors, followed by Antiochus Epiphanes, encroaching on ‘the beauteous land’ of Israel. We find this use of צבי  , which can also mean gazelle, in the writings of another exile, Ezekiel.[8]

 The little horn, Antiochus, is self-aggrandising, and pollutes the sanctuary.

Daniel hears one ‘holy one’ speaking to another,  just as Isaiah heard a dialogue between celestial beings, which segued into Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion…’[9]Daniel is told that the period of oppression will last for ‘two thousand and three hundred evenings and mornings; then shall the sanctuary be victorious’.[10]

 This period works out to about seven years, assuming that 2,300 days are intended, but this verse has been interpreted variously, to signify other periods of time.

 When Daniel sought an interpretation of the vision, there stood before him ‘the appearance of a man,’ which suggests a celestial being in the form of a man. The word for man is ‘gever’. Although this is a common word for a man in Aramaic, our text is now in Hebrew, where gever suggests a strong man or warrior; we then learn that the man’s name is Gabriel, a contraction of gever El, mighty man of God. The heavenly dialogue continues when the voice of a man calls to Gabriel, bidding him to interpret for Daniel.

Gabriel explains that the vision belongs to the time of the end, לעת־קץ. He addresses Daniel as ‘son of man’, as Ezekiel also is addressed in his visions. Daniel is the only book in Tanakh where an angel is named, so it is only in Daniel that one finds mention of Gabriel and Michael. Gabriel appears in the NT and the Qur’an as well as in Enoch and in the rabbinic literature.

In the interpretation which follows, Gabriel specifies מדי ופרס, the ram, and the שעיר (an animal usually associated with Esau, Edomand Rome) is  מלך יון. The great horn is the first Greek king, implying Alexander and after four successors there will come a new king, cunning, powerful and destructive, who will eventually be destroyed – ‘broken without hand’.[11]

 Gabriel assures Daniel that these events belong to the distant future. Daniel faints and is ill, then resumes his work at the king’s court, greatly disturbed by the vision but still not understanding it.

 In Chapter 9, there is a new king and a new kingdom: Darius the Mede, who is the son of an Ahasuerus who is also a Mede – not the Ahasuerus of Esther and not identifiable as any known Median king. Xerxes and Astyages have been suggested; the LXX has Ασσουηρος.

Daniel looks at the prophecy of Jeremiah that Jerusalemwill be desolate for seventy years:

This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.[12]

 Daniel then makes a confession of sin, on behalf of all Judah, who have been unfaithful to God and the commandments. Daniel also refers to the transgression of ‘all Israel’;[13] it may be that the nameIsrael more accurately expresses the people in exile, whereasJudah expresses the region of and aroundJerusalem. These verses are incorporated into the prayers on Selichot and Yom Kippur. Why is Daniel fasting and repenting?  He mentions in verse 2 that he has read Jeremiah’s prophecy thatJerusalem will be desolate for seventy years, so the repentance seems to be associated with the condition of exile and the loss of theTemple. Note that  the spelling of the name of God in these penitential verses is several times written in full, rather than as the tetragrammaton.

While Daniel was praying and making confession, ‘the man Gabriel’ appeared. Note that he is not called an angel but   האיש גבריאל. You will recall that when the text was Aramaic, Gabriel appeared as one having the appearance of a gever, a man.[14]However,it seems that unlike an ordinary man, Gabriel flies. The verb which is mostly translated as flying, or being caused to fly, seems to be not עןף, to fly, but יעף, to be weary (as in hanoten layaef koah).[15] The form of the verb appears to be hophal, passive causative.

 The American theologian Albert Barnes  (1798-1870)  commented thus:

  If derived from this word, the meaning in Hophal, the form used here, would be, “wearied with swift running,” and the sense is, that Gabriel had borne the message swiftly to him, and appeared before him as one does who is wearied with a rapid course. If this be the idea, there is no direct allusion to his “flying,” but the reference is to the rapidity with which he had come on the long journey, as if exhausted by his journey. The Latin Vulgate renders it cito volans and [the Greek versions as] πετομενος … The common representation of the angels in the Old Testament is not with wings, though the cherubim and Seraphim (Isaiah 6:2, following.) are represented with wings; and in Revelation 14:6, we have a representation of an angel flying. Probably the more exact idea here is that of a rapid course, so as to produce weariness, or such as would naturally produce fatigue.[16]

‘I am now come forth to make thee skilful of understanding.’ gabriel appears as a kind of tutor, interpreting visions and revealing the future. Remember that  Gabriel appears in other faiths, to announce the miraculous pregnancies of Elizabeth[17]and Mary[18] and to reveal the Qur’an to Muhammed.[19]

 In the pseudepigraphical book of Enoch,  Gabriel, along with Michael, Raphael, Uriel and Suriel witnesses the blood being shed on earth, in the time before the flood, and appeals to the Almighty.[20]

 The seventy weeks

This period has been interpreted as ‘seventy weeks of years’ – in other words, 490 years. Rabbinic commentary on the meaning of this prophecy cites the Seder Olam Rabbah, attributed to a Tannaitic author, R Jose bar Halafta who died around 160 C.E. His Seder Olam, later called Seder Olam Rabbah to distinguish it from a shorter work, is cited several times in the Talmud as an earlier authority. According to R Jose, the first seven weeks are related to the exile and return and the next sixty-two weeks are in the time of the SecondTemple.

The prophecy which Gabriel shares with Daniel has been the subject of so much commentary that we can hardly begin to adumbrate it here. Within an uncertain period of time, weeks or years, or years multiplied by seven, Daniel’s people, the Israelites, are to finish transgression – פּשע, end their sins – חטאות, and to atone for iniquity – לכפר עון, the language of our liturgy on Yom Kippur.Jerusalemwill be restored in the time of a mashiach nagid, a messiah prince. Judah Slotki’s commentary in the Soncino edition suggests that this refers to Cyrus. After sixty-two weeks, an anointed one will be cut off and people will destroy the city and the sanctuary. This is often understood as referring to the Romans, but it could refer to Antiochus, assuming that Antiochus flourished during the lifetime of the author, which is not demonstrable. The description of the desecration of the sanctuary in verse 27 does seem to suggest the period of Antiochus and the Maccabean revolt.

The talk of weeks and half weeks lends itself to all kinds of interpretation and speculation, and the arithmetic can be adapted to fit doctrinal  requirements. In the Greek of the Septuagint, mashiach nagid is Χριστου ηγουμενου, that is Christou Hegoumenou. It is not surprising that in a Christian bible, the book of Daniel is found in the prophets, between the major and the minor prophets, that is, between Ezekiel and Hosea. In Tanakh, Daniel is not accorded prophetic authority and is therefore in the ketuvim.

This genre of religious writing which reveals the future and especially suggests events leading to the eschaton, the last times, is called apocalyptic (the book of Revelations in the NT is also called by the Greek name Apocalypse).

Josephus offers a view of Daniel’s vision, writing in an age of Roman domination:

…There should arise a certain king that should overcome our nation and their laws, and should take away their political government, and should spoil the temple, and forbid the sacrifices to be offered for three years…and  indeed it so came to pass that our nation suffered these things under Antiochus Epiphanes, according to Daniel’s vision, and what he wrote many years before they came to pass. In the very same manner, Daniel also wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them.[21]

More than a millennium later, Maimonides wrote his rational, non-supernatural understanding of the messianic era;

The Messianic age is when the Jews will regain their independence and all return to the landof Israel. … Do not think that the ways of the world or the laws of nature will change, this is not true. The world will continue as it is. The prophet Isaiah predicted “The wolf shall live with the sheep, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” This, however, is merely allegory, meaning that the Jews will live safely, even with the formerly wicked nations. All nations will return to the true religion and will no longer steal or oppress. Note that all prophecies regarding the Messiah are allegorical. Only in the Messianic age will we know the meaning of each allegory and what it comes to teach us. Our sages and prophets did not long for the Messianic age in order that they might rule the world and dominate the gentiles, the only thing they wanted was to be free for Jews to involve themselves with the Torah and its wisdom.[22]


Lastly in this chapter, Daniel refers to an abomination in theTemple. This could be the desecrations of Antiochus, or it could be the Roman eagles.

[1] Daniel 7:1

[2] Jeremiah 4:7

[3] George Pytlik, internet article on Daniel 7

[4] Kiddushin 72a et al

[5] Encyclopedia Judaica vol 2 p941

[6] Matthew 24:30, 26:64; Mark 14:62

[7] Zechariah 1:9, 2:2

[8] Ezekiel 20:6, 25:9, 26:20

[9] Isaiah 40:3 – 9


Daniel 8:14

[11] Daniel 8:25

[12] Jeremiah 25:11

[13] Daniel 9:11

[14] Daniel 8:15

[15] Gesenius, Mandelkern, BDB, New Englishman’s concordance.

[16] commentary of Albert Barnes on Daniel 9:21

[17] Luke 1:19


Luke 1:26


Qur’an  2: 97, 98; 66: 4

[20] Enoch 9:1–2,

[21] Josephus, Antiquities 10:11:7

[22] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sanhedrin 10:1

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