What does it mean to call Jesus “the Son of Man”?
What does it mean to call Jesus “the Son of Man”?
I am doing a summer sermon series where people had a chance to write in questions that would form all the sermons this summer. Some are theological questions, some are about particular biblical texts, and some are about our own sense of discernment and spirituality. The above question was one that was asked but I was not able to shoe-horn into the sermon series itself and instead thought I would write an “answer” to it in blog form. And that is what you are reading right now!
I’m going to answer this question in two ways: first I will write up a new engagement in brief form, and then I will paste in a paper I wrote in 2009 for a doctoral class on the Book of Daniel which is lengthy, dry, and detailed but completely on point to this question and… what else does one do with old papers they wrote once upon a time??? 😉
The term “Son of Man” is used extensively in the Gospels and in Acts of the Apostles and Revelation, though the term in its Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament) form is found nowhere else. This has led to a lack of consensus in the scholarship of its origin and exact meaning. It is often understood loosely as being a counter-point to “Son of God” where one focuses on the divinity of Christ and one on the humanity of Christ.
I adhere to the belief that the trail to understand the meaning behind “Son of Man”, walked backward, leads to the Book of Daniel and its use of the language “one like a son of man” in the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7. This figure, less a savior figure and more an inheritor and representative figure, is seen as weak and lowly, and yet given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:14) This kingdom is eternal, given by God, and lead by those who have remained faithful after the “Ancient of Days” sat in judgment on the throne and struck dead the four beasts whose kingdoms all failed making way for the eternal kingdom of God.
The contrasts set up here are that the beasts were strong, violent, and fed (devoured) the world around them, whereas the “one like a son of man” (or even pitiable human) is seen as a corporate/representative figure of a remnant of those who stayed faithful when it was hard to do so, one whose faith is strong but not his stature, more enduring than powerful, more wise than “flashy”… namely, he isn’t typically one we would expect to gain dominion. In fact, he doesn’t gain it, earn it, or win it… he is given it. The Kingdom then, is God’s, and any dominion that is to be had is only ever a gift from God for God’s people.
The Gospels’ use of this figure would seem then to place Jesus in the line of this thinking. Jesus is not a warrior. Jesus is not flashy, charismatic, or traditionally powerful. Jesus is, rather, pitiable, all-to-human, and unassuming. And yet, Jesus is possessed of great reserves of patient endurance, resistance to being tempted out of faithfulness, and deep recesses of wisdom which lead us as a caretaker of all people and not for his own gain. Jesus is not – then – a singular messianic figure of a particular people, but a representative of all humanity living as the image of God to foster the goodness of all creation for all people. This, I believe, is what the Gospels claim when they have Jesus self-reference as the Son of Man. And this, I believe, is the way of life that Jesus demonstrates for us to follow him in living. That we are, quite literally, the Body of Christ living as “one like a son of man” – that is to say: a corporate inter-related being whose strength lies in faithfulness to God and one another and a calling to live for, and with, each other accountable to the “way of Jesus Christ” in God’s Kingdom.
I hope that is helpful. It is a right answer, not the right answer.
Want to dive deeper? Keep reading, but you have been warned. 😉
The paper I have included here (the footnotes didn’t import so if you want to know what any of them are just ask) is old so there are things I would change today, there are a couple of scholarly errors but I will again leave the errors because – hey – I’m human and make mistakes and will let those mistakes stand, and it could have read tighter at times – but then, that is true of EVERYTHING I write… so I would probably only make it worse. 🙂
Rev. Andrew Kukla
In the nearly two thousand years since the last canonical book of the Bible was written much of Christian writing has been spent in apologetics. Particularly it has been spent in the area of Christians attempting to convince non-Christians of the existence of God and the “rightness” of Christian faith. Strangely this apparently captivating agenda is not a predominate agenda of the Bible. It is almost non-existent with a few minor Pauline exceptions. Jews did not attempt to convert Pharaoh, or the Assyrians, or even their Canaanite neighbors in the “promised land”. The New Testament is perhaps more complex in establishing such agendas. We know at least that Jesus struggles to even comprehend an agenda outside of those already “of the faith”. Outside of Paul and Barnabas, the vast majority of the first Christians are equally interested in staying inside the faith tradition. Paul’s own mission to the Gentiles may have stayed on the borders of those who were already believers, rather than moving to Christian apologetics to those completely outside the tradition. We do of course have stories of Paul like that of the unknown God, and so I do not entirely discount such Christian apologetics within canonical scripture. However, I believe that much of our time and energy has been spent in a direction in which biblical writers were just not interested. Regardless of the truth of that claim what is equally convicting to me is that one of the main agendas of scripture goes largely ignored, or greatly reduced, in our own conversations: that of examining our own faithfulness and our Christian discipleship.
There are always exceptions, prophet voices that continue to call our attention to God and our neglect of keeping our lives turned toward God. One such person who did not ignore the task, and was largely ridiculed, mocked, and ignored for it, was Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard boldly said of himself that he endeavored to convince the cultural Christians of nineteenth century Denmark that they were not in fact Christian. Only having recognized that their assumed Christianity was not in fact true Christianity would they be able to engage life-transforming faith with greater intentionality and, in fact, follow Christ. Other voices over the centuries have also continued the long established prophetic tradition of calling us to faithfulness. As the audience of such prophetic voices who are interested in learning and following the ways of God revealed in Jesus Christ we become disciples: those who place ourselves at the feet of truth to learn how to live in accordance with that truth. Amidst the multitude of biblical voices of discipling prophets one that goes largely ignored is that of Daniel. Daniel sits in the confused mix of wisdom tradition, prophet, and early apocalyptic. As a historical apocalypse, the book provides stories one can resonate with, but then moves to grand visions rich with mythological imagery that confuse and leave the reader curious as to what is being said or intended on our behalf. Skeptical of the apocalyptic, and with a wealth of other places to go, mainline Christianity largely turns a deaf ear to the wisdom of Daniel.
This trend in our reading, study, and preaching is, unfortunately, a big loss. Daniel has much to say to our own practice of discipleship and much in common with our contemporary ministry context. Written in the midst of Hellenization, post-exilic Diaspora, and empire, the book of Daniel is a call to identity awareness and assurance of the sovereignty of God, as well as a call to faithfulness in the “way” – God’s way. Thus Daniel, in story, vision, and prayer, serves as a call to faithfulness and a rich foundation for Christian discipleship two centuries later. The community of Daniel shapes the theological groundwork for first-century Jewish-Christians whose major struggle will also be counter-cultural identity formation and assurance of the presence and power of God in their lives. Daniel’s call to second century B.C.E. Jews is a fertile ground for understanding Christ’s call to Peter and Andrew, James and John, you and me. I intend to develop this foundation of discipleship in the book of Daniel by looking at three features within the book: the figure of the “one like a son of man” in the vision of Daniel 7, the role of the hasidim and maskilim, and the central and grounding function of Daniel’s prayer of confession in Daniel 9.
The One like a Son of Man
“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.” (Dan 7:13, NRSV)
Daniel 7 is the first, most important and influential of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions. It also provides us with one of the most used (and abused?) phrases in the entire book. The appearance of the “one like a human being”, or more often referred to as the “one like a son of man”, is open to varied interpretation and is quickly grabbed up by some Christian readers and interpreters to be a prophecy of Jesus Christ. In the vision of Dan 7 following the introduction of the four beasts representing four kingdoms we have a heavenly court scene and the “Ancient of Days” pronounces judgment and removes dominion from the beasts. While not of prime importance for this study it should be noted that there is never a need for actual battle in this judgment scene. Simply sitting on the thrown and pronouncing judgment ends the reign of the beasts. As well the “one like a son of man” who shall shortly make an appearance is not here shown as the savior. This figure didn’t win or even fight a battle against the beasts. Rather the figure appears to sit in judgment before the “Ancient of Days” just as the beasts did, only this one will be reckoned righteous and given dominion over an eternal kingdom of God. The fallen “beastly” kingdoms replaced by eternal “human” kingdom. This is still God’s kingdom, but that kingdom has also been given over to “human” stewardship.
There are many better places to trace the various interpretations of this particular line and the continued use of it in the remainder of Dan 7, particularly the references to the “holy ones” in Dan 7:18, 22, 25 and the “people of the holy ones” in Dan 7:27. J.J. Collins provides a good analysis in his article, The Son of Man and the Saints of the Most High in the Book of Daniel. There he argues that the best interpretation is, “that the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel 7 symbolizes primarily the angelic host and its leader but also the faithful Jews in so far as they are associated with the heavenly host in the eschatological era”. Such an interpretation fits with reading “one like a son of man” as one who stands as a single figure representing a larger corporate identity. This figure thus understood is less a single messianic figure as it is the host of faithful ones who will inherit dominion from the “Ancient of Days”. While Collins stresses that it seems to make sense that the “holy ones” are angelic beings, he also allows that they are identified through Dan 7:27 with the faithful remnant of Israel. I push further than Collins and say that rather than angelic hosts it is primarily faithful Israel as led by the wise, the remnant, that Daniel understands to be represented by the “one like a son of man”. Even Collins notes that the language of Dan 12 pushes us to a fair reading in this direction because, “we have seen in Dan 12 that the just would be elevated to join the stars after the final judgment, either interpretation may appear appropriate. In either case, the people share in the kingdom of the angels, and so the interpretation in Dan 7:27 is merely a spelling out of the human dimension of the more complete reality mentioned in the vision in verse 22 and in the interpretation in verse 18.”
Furthermore, as I will continue to develop, I think Daniel is intending a prophetic call to faithfulness. As the “one like a son of man” stands before God’s throne, Israel stands in judgment before God. As this figure is given dominion, reckoned righteous before God, so will Israel, or her faithful remnant, be given dominion. Here the very language of Genesis is repeated as humanity, mixed in with a fair bit of Danielic heavenly host, again becomes steward of God’s kingdom. Of prime importance, however, is that this text reads as a call to make sure that the reader is on the path of righteousness. In a world of beasts: be human. In fact, the very humanized imagery of angels throughout Daniel seems to be a glorification of humanity, in so far as humanity aspires to truly be human. One is reminded of Nebuchadnezzar.
While the words were still in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven: “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: The kingdom has departed from you! You shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the animals of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, and seven times shall pass over you, until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he will. (Dan 4:31-32)
Nebuchadnezzar aspires to be more than human and so is struck down and becomes less than human. To take this argument a step further for those who stress the angelic nature of this “one like a son of man” I would note that if this is in fact the intended reading this figure is a rather plain angelic figure for Daniel. Contrast the descriptive language of angelic visitor in Dan 10, “I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.” (Dan 10:5-6)
On this point Eugene E. Lemcio notes that in the old Greek language of Daniel a proper translation gives us more a sense of “frail human” then simply human being. “Rather, it is an idiom of choice for conveying the specialized meaning of ‘frail human’ or ‘vulnerable human’. Although some have argued that ‘son of man’ in 7:13 refers to an angel, this is definitely not the case in 8:17. However, even if the former is an angelic figure, the question remains, what kind of human features did he have?” Lemcio’s argument has a flavor of authenticity in that it is, as he notes, “the theological point that it is to people in such circumstances that God grants political power and prophetic insight.” The theological point made is that this figure does not get dominion because of person strength, but through righteousness and because “God gives”.
The “one like a son of man” comes into the court, stands before the throne on behalf of Israel, and as Israel inherits God’s kingdom. This one is now the one to whom God gives, only now it is eternal kingdom. Daniel calls out to his people to not simply take heart that God is Most High and Sovereign God of all creation, but also to take heart and live accordingly so that they worthy of representation in the “one like a son of man”. Compare for instance the language of Zechariah and the high priest Joshua coming before the throne for judgment and being cleansed of his “dirty clothes” and reckoned righteous in the eyes of God. He is then told, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here”. (Zech 3:7 NRSV) Daniel’s scene takes a similar role but now the call to “walk in my ways” is for the whole remnant of Israel who shall share in the dominion of the “one like a son of man”. Daniel speaks out to his people amidst a succession of human empires and now with social, financial, and political pressure to conform to pluralistic Hellenized society Daniel offers a different testimony. He offers a figure of righteousness that advocates for, and represents, Israel. As such Daniel encourages his fellow Jews not to turn away from their essential identity as people of God – “people of the holy ones of the Most High”.
Hasidim and Maskilim
“He shall seduce with intrigue those who violate the covenant; but the people who are loyal to their God shall stand firm and take action. The wise among the people shall give understanding to many.” (Dan 11:32-33a)
If Daniel is speaking most directly to the Jews under the Seleucid Empire under the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, than he is not only speaking to a context of Hellenization. He also speaks to Hellenizing efforts that involve violent attempts to convert the Jews away from their Jewish identity. Daniel speaks to outright contest of faith, to a people witnessing yet another desecration of the temple, and some of the first religious persecution as Antiochus seems to desire to get Jews to stop being Jewish. In response to this dilemma C.L. Seow notes that two particular responses emerged for faithful Jews were practiced. One is that of the hasidim. This group of people are linked to a group within the Maccabean revolt and are likely the referent of Daniel 11:32 as those who “stand firm and take action.” The hasidim are mentioned three time in 1 and 2 Maccabees and were likely “a party of scribes (1 Macc 7:12-42) whose motivation was strict fidelity to the law (1 Macc 2:42). They were prepared to fight for the law, when necessary and when permitted by the law itself… they were prepared to lay down arms at the prospect of a legitimate high-priest who could remove the religious abuses of the Hellenizers.” Thus the hasidim, while a part of the Maccabean revolt, are a party that seems to take up arms only in the face of true identity crisis and were quick to lay down arms when identity was no longer at stake.
An alternate approach, and the group for which Daniel likely speaks, is the maskilim, the “wise among the people”. This group appears to offer counsel for fidelity to God, and takes strength in God’s sovereign presence, but stops short of violent response. This is noted by Seow who concludes “insufficient evidence is available to conclude that these people were strictly pacifists, but they did seem to respond to the crisis not with force but with quiet manifestations of faithfulness.” And of them Collins notes:
The mythological symbolism of the visions of Daniel is designed to inspire active but non-militant resistance. The maskilim are not said to fight. The warfare is left to Michael and to God. The maskilim play their part by their suffering and teaching. In ch. 7 the entire conflict is resolved by judgment. The symbolism of the visions does not encourage zealotry. Rather, it provides a framework within which the wise man does not need to fight, but can express his resistance to the power of the king by non-compliance with his orders, and endurance of whatever suffering results. The mythic patterns assure the wise man that there is a meaning in life even in the darkest crisis.
Thus the hasidim and the maskilim prove to be two groups whose focus is on fidelity to God and God’s way – the way of wisdom. They differ in that the hasidim appear willing, in moments permitted by the law, to take up arms. The idea of the wise as faithful Jewish remnant figures prominently throughout the book of Daniel. The first six chapters of historical court stories serve almost as a prelude to establish the wisdom of Daniel. In Daniel is found one who is the epitome of the wise. In Dan 1 he stays true to his Jewish identity. In Dan 2 he is wiser than wise, through the power of the Most High, as he reveals both dream and interpretation. In Dan 3 his friends show willingness to die for their faithfulness. In Dan 4 Nebuchadnezzar relates his own experience and while we see Daniel as agent of wisdom here Nebuchadnezzar is also offered as counter-point to wisdom – the folly of hubris. In Dan 5 again Daniel is praised for wisdom but even more to our point Daniel is not only able to interpret but willing to give damning interpretation in the very court of the King whose demise he reveals. In Dan 6 it is now Daniel who is willing to put life and limb on the line for his fidelity to God.
Wisdom is the key attribute for Daniel. The emerging character trait of wisdom is a recognition that in God alone should trust and faith be placed. This is true even, and especially, in a world in which such trust leads at best to ridicule in the courts and at worst to a sentence of death. Furthermore in a world of competing voices, of temptations from the Emperor himself, the wise give understanding and point the way to turn to, and back to, God. And so in the culminating eschatological event of Dan 12 it is the wise that again get mention as, “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Dan 12:3) The wise are prized for their role in leading others to wisdom and righteousness. However the dilemma remains, do the wise actually risk faithfulness?
On this point the best work I have encountered and find as an essential insight to reading Daniel is Richard Horsley’s book Revolt of the Scribes. Horsley’s approach and thesis is that “apocalyptic” is a scribal resistance to imperial power complicated by their status as “in the middle” between a priestly aristocracy and the masses to whom the scribes bear responsibility as holders of the traditions and covenantal faithfulness. “Prominent priestly aristocrats had not only acquired a desire to participate in the broader Hellenistic imperial culture, but they had learned how to maneuver in imperial politics for position and power.” In this system a middle class of scribes found themselves financially dependent to the priestly aristocrats. These scribes were very learned “wise men” of the Jews, but torn between their responsibility for covenantal faithfulness and the well being of their lives and status of living. Horsley contends that in such an environment a way of faithfulness became the development and use of apocalyptic voice. That apocalyptic literature is in fact these scribes speaking to one another, and their fellow Jews, in texts like the book of Daniel exhorting each other to faithfulness. There are many convincing ways to understand Daniel as operating in this way. I will digress for a moment to note an example of how such a reading works with the book of Daniel.
In the history section of Dan 1-6 a reading in line with Horsley’s thesis appears to be very authentic to the voice of the text in these continuing court dramas. While kings play roles in the six encounters experienced by Daniel and his three friends, equally prominent is the consistent antagonistic presence of the Babylonian wise men: the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans. The audience of Daniel is not one of Babylonian exiles, and the court intrigue of those exilic times is not what is at stake. If we read this with Horsley’s thesis in mind – that these are stories to promote faithfulness in the tension of covenant identity in opposition to prosperous imperial life – it would be an easy jump to imagine that a scribal reader could see in these court contests illusions to their own situation and tensions. This seems clear in Dan 1 and his resistance to eating the food of the Babylonian court. Daniel is willing to undergo Babylonian education, receives a Babylonian name, and yet says that there is a line that he and his friends, out of faithfulness, cannot cross. I immediately read this and imagine the scribes of second century Jerusalem being asked to consider where that line is. Furthermore later court intrigue stories will offer encouragement that standing one’s ground on the “right” side of the line offers support from God and even triumph over the opposition.
As well if we look at Dan 5 and the interpretation of the writing on the wall we can ask the question do the wise men of Babylon know the meaning of the writing or not? There is nothing particularly cryptic to the translation as presented in the vision. The jump from the meaning of the words and Daniel’s resulting interpretation is large, but not I would imagine insurmountable for this collection of Imperial wise men. If we take the opinion that they may have known the meaning, why does no one but Daniel speak? Again the reality of personal well being rears its head. Speaking means telling the king that he is unjust and his kingdom is about to come to an end. Speaking likely means losing favor with the king and quite possibly worse. However, Daniel is rewarded as was promised, despite his protest earlier not to receive reward. Daniel the humble, the wise, and the faithful wins yet another court contest. The message is delivered to the wise – seek not your own well being but the well being of Israel and covenantal faithfulness to our God.
Read thus we can see that a strong and constant agenda for Daniel is calling the very teachers of wisdom to faithfulness. The lifting up of the wise and their righteousness is as much a point of rhetoric saying in almost Pauline fashion, “if we will stay true to God and give faithful voice to God in our counsel and the day-to-day living of our lives then we shall lead others to righteousness with us, and we will inherit God’s kingdom being raised up even from death as angel’s in God’s eschatological kingdom.” In such a reading the ambivalence of Daniel to the way of the hasidim versus the way of the maskilim makes sense. Both ways are ways of wisdom and we are not in an argument about non-violence, but an argument and exhortation to faithfulness. It is as if Daniel speaks to the other wise men of the Babylonian court (and as such I mean his fellow Jews) saying, ‘when you see the writing on the wall you have to interpret its meaning for the world, even when such an act leads to suffering or death.’
Prayer and Confession in Daniel 9
“We did not entreat the favor of the LORD our God, turning from our iniquities and reflecting on God’s fidelity.” (Daniel 9:13b, NRSV)
In Dan 9 the prayer sits at the heart of the book, and Dan 9:13 sits at the heart of the prayer. This prayer is our window into what truly troubles Daniel. However scholars have long debated the authenticity of the prayer. Daniel’s prayer is found in Dan 9 in the second half of the book which is commonly understood to be the apocalyptic half following the court stories. This half contains visions and dreams and now Daniel, the interpreter of such events in the first half, requires heavenly interpreters for his own visionary and dream encounters. The ninth chapter sits between the first two revelations and the final revelation unit contained in Dan 10-12. Within Dan 9 the prayer sits bookmarked between two events. Prior to the prayer is a recounting of Daniel reading of Jeremiah’s prophesy for the restoration of Israel in the seventieth year while he is himself located in the reign of Darius (more likely Cyrus of Persia) the Mede. Following the prayer is a visitation with the angel Gabriel who brings a word of interpretation about the seventy years. This locates Daniel still in exile for while it is no longer the oppressive exile of Babylon it is nevertheless not home, and in the court of a foreign power and it was at a time that would have been either near, or passed, the date of the predicted restoration of the temple.
Many scholars have long said that this is prayer is a departure of form within the larger book. We have no vision, dream, or heavenly journey as would be expected of apocalyptic literature but rather we have a lengthy prayer of confession followed by a revelatory interpretation. The style of the Hebrew is more regular and pure than that of the surrounding material in Daniel, the Hebrew of Daniel has many “aramaisms” that denote either an author equally conversant in both languages whose Hebrew has adopted Aramaic ways, or that the material might even be Aramaic originals translated back into Hebrew.
Without going into too many details C. L. Seow makes some excellent arguments that while the quality of the Hebrew is different the wording and thematic movement of the prayer, Dan 9:3-19/20, are consistent with the material of Dan 9 surrounding it Dan 9:1-2, 21-27 in ways that are unique to this chapter of Daniel. The actual naming of Jerusalem, the use of the words for supplication, desolation, the admissions of iniquities and promised atonement, and finally the oath and decree of being “poured out” all exists in both the prayer and non-prayer sections of Dan 9, but not in other places in Daniel. This suggests either originality of a whole, or that the prayer was clearly in the mind of the author while writing Dan 9.
In a separate way of addressing the issue, and even more convicting in my opinion W. Sibley Towner says of the debate on the prayer’s originality.
This, in fact, a number of scholars have done. (Made the case that the prayer is not original to the text.) Von Gall was the first to argue the case against the authenticity of the prayer, and he has been followed by, among others, Baumgartner, Heaton, Bentzen, Charles, and Ginsberg. Although I tend to agree with the formal arguments of Plöger and the rhetorical and stylistic observations of B. W. Jones on behalf of the originality of the prayer, it is not necessary that I take a position on the question because I am interested primarily in the internal dynamics of the canonical biblical text as it now stands. The fact is that someone (whether the writer of Dan. 7-12 himself or a later editor) saw a significant relationship between the penitential prayer of Daniel and the eschatological midrash on Jer. 25:1 which occupies the rest of ch. 9.
Lastly, the whole coherence of the book of Daniel as one literary unit is under question. Since it is not determinable that any of these chapters are original to each other the whole idea that Dan 9 would be an addition, and that this would be a unique problem, is of strange concern to an informed reader of Daniel.
With questions of authenticity aside it becomes even more important to address the complaint that this is the wrong prayer. That if Daniel is confused or dismayed by what he has read in the first part of the chapter he ought to pray for illumination, not a prayer of confession. I always find it interesting when we decide biblical writers, or even redactors, did something wrong. Do we presume to know God better, them better, or their context better than they did? Sitting in Daniel myself I am struck that in a book entirely about the sovereignty of God juxtaposed to the false pride of empires and kings confession is the natural and right environment not only of every prayer, but of every act and state of being.
Elaborating on this trajectory it has been noted that the prayer is largely ignored by the angel and the theology of the prayer denied both by the response in the later part of nine and throughout the book of Daniel. The idea that the prayer is ignored seems unfounded. If Daniel was formulaically apocalyptic it would be imagined that it would be ignored as irrelevant to a fixed course of history. However I do not find that this is what the text suggests,
He (Gabriel) came and said to me, “Daniel, I have now come out to give you wisdom and understanding. 23 At the beginning of your supplications a word went out, and I have come to declare it, for you are greatly beloved. So consider the word and understand the vision: 24 “Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city: to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. (Dan 9:22-24)
The angel has heard the prayer, and while the response predates the hearing, Daniel’s penitence is noted and loved, and God is clearly addressing transgression, sin, and righteousness as well as the turning of God’s face to the temple. Elsewhere in Daniel while the focus is on God, the faithfulness of the “people of the Holy Ones of Israel” is, as I have already noted, not a forgotten element. Particularly looking back to the vision of Dan 7 with its vision of the heavenly court and the figures of the beasts, the “one like a son of man”, the “Holy Ones of the Most High”, and the “people of the Holy Ones of the Most High” all of whom either directly (or by association) stand in judgment before the “Ancient of Days”. As well, faithfulness is relevant in the vision of Dan 11:32-35 with its talk of those who are seduced to iniquity in contrast to the hasidim and maskilim. And lastly in Dan 12:1-3 we get a sense of judgment with an evaluation of the “righteousness” of humanity which would seem then to greatly encourage, not just Daniel to pray confession before the Most High, but all peoples.
In Dan 7 we spoke of the “one like a son of man” as representational for the faithful of Israel. In this prayer it seems it is now Daniel that serves as exemplary figure. Daniel demonstrates the position of the wise and the righteous. Rodney Werline notes that the prayer is not in fact very clear about what sins have been committed, with one particular exception. “In the confession in v. 13, the author lists a specific failure: the people do not “ponder” God’s truth… “to ponder” is a key term in Daniel. Other passages in Daniel employ the noun form of this word in order to identify the Danielic apocalyptic circle; the member function in the role of maskilim.” At prayer Daniel models faithful response to contested sovereignty, turning to God and pondering God’s truth. And just as the “one like a son of man” stood in place for all of Israel in Daniel’s prayer it is Daniel who stands in our place. Here is what we are to be, and are to do. In open and honest reflection Daniel bears his heart before God, he bears the heart of Israel before God. “Incline your ear, O my God, and hear. Open your eyes and look at our desolation and the city that bears your name. We do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies.” (Dan 9:18)
Walter Brueggemann makes two additional and important claims of the text. The first is that the prayer turns in the second half to ask God’s mercy since we will always fail to keep covenant. Thus even in the prayer of confession there is not the sense that we make ourselves right through confession but an entreaty to a sovereign God to make it right for us, since we cannot. So rather than wait for us to turn back to God, God is asked to turn back to us. And it is done so in bold hope. “Thus the prayer proposes that for Israel to have a future, YHWH must be willing to relinquish the past that is such an affront to YHWH. Daniel prayed in daring faith, but of course he did not know of the divine response he would receive, because YHWH is not an automaton. YWHW is a free agent, and so Israel prays always in hope.”
In a book of grand cosmic vision the prayer brings us back to the ground, and in it we cannot help but be placed “in the thick of things”. This is not simply cosmic battle, but people’s lives. This is not simply priestly theological dilemma but the stuff of the lives of everyone from king to priest to merchant to farmer to slave. Placed “on the ground” apocalyptic fervor doesn’t simply become about “the kingdom that is coming” but the “kingdom that is here”. As Sibley Towner puts it:
focused not on judgment but upon the nearness of the Kingdom of God. My treatment of the status of the concept of divine retribution in Dan. 7-12 suggests the possible existence in first century Judaism of a line of thought which, though full of eschatological enthusiasm, rejoiced less in the judgmental aspect of the eschaton than in the conviction of its (God’s Kingdom’s) nearness and greatness.
I have growing conviction that when you read this text in light of the passages mentioned earlier (the court scene of Dan 7, and Dan 11; 12 with its talk of the workings of the hasidim and maskilim) this prayer sits very naturally in an agenda of Daniel to exhort his people to faithfulness. If the “one like a son of man” stands in judgment as representative of the people of Israel to be judged as fitting or not to have a dominion without end then the people, “people of the Holy Ones of the Most High”, must “turn back” to their God. This is the call of the prayer, it is the answer of the purpose of the 70 years (weeks of years) that Gabriel brings to Daniel, and it is the exhortation of Daniel over and over, through court stories, kingly humiliations, and final declarations of Israel’s patron angel Michael, “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Dan 12:3)
“I heard but could not understand; so I said, “My lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be purified, cleansed, and refined, but the wicked shall continue to act wickedly. None of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand.” (Dan 12:8-10)
The book of Daniel’s later half gives us grand and confusing images, impossible and yet intriguing numbers, and dire portents and predictions. Daniel, the utmost of the wise, is left unable to understand what he has seen. Daniel, the figure of faithful strength is sent not simply to his knees but lying face to the ground. “Then I heard the sound of his words, I fell into a trance, face to the ground. But then a hand touched me and roused me to my hands and knees.” (Dan 10:9-10) God picks Daniel up, God gives Daniel strength and vision and interpretation. God gives. This is the two fold window into the world the book of Daniel offers. That God gives and God is sovereign over all creation. But also that God’s gift is received by those who are attending to the presence of God in their lives, to those like Daniel who “ponder God’s truth”. From the heart of the prayer in Dan 9 and moving out in revelatory circles we see the wisdom of God’s way, of God’s Kingdom, come to the forefront of a book that is not ultimately about eschatological kingdom, but the faithfulness of God’s people for their stewardship (dominion) of God’s Kingdom.
The way of the wise then becomes the way of discipleship, forever pondering God’s truth and God’s presence. When the angel responds to Daniel’s question by saying, “Go your way”, the angel is saying forget all these numbers. Forget everything. Remember only that God is in control and the end of evil and human brokenness is set in God’s time just as the fully revealed establishment of God’s Kingdom is not in doubt. But for Daniel, this is too much. For Daniel the angel simply says, “Go your way.” And we know Daniel’s way. Daniel’s way is a way of penitential prayer. Daniel’s way is the way of wisdom, of standing true to God when the world around seeks to entice you to turn away. Daniel’s way is way of Israel as God’s people, God’s holy ones who have been set apart as a witness and testimony of God’s power and might, and God’s mercy and love. So it is no surprise that Luke and other Gospel’s will follow Qumran traditions and begin to read the “one like a son of man” as a messianic figure, and for their own confessions and proclamations, as Jesus Christ. I hardly have to note the dominant trend in current scholarship that now understands that what Daniel meant generically to say “human being” in this line “one like a son of man” was used in later apocalyptic and near-apocalyptic texts as title for a role, Son of Man. This title becomes picked up by the Gospel writers. In the Gospels the savior, the messiah, is the Son of Man. But this savior is also one who represents true humanity; one who neither attempts to ascend to heaven in God’s place nor descend to the “animal” as less than God has created us to be.
Maurice Casey provides us work that would make it quite reasonable to claim that even as the Son of Man has become messianic title, there is still a working understanding of the corporate identify of the “one like a son of man” in Jewish circles at the time of Jesus. So even as we note the way Jesus will inherit a title of the Son of Man that has altered the Daniel phrase from its original intent, it also still makes sense to think that early Christians could draw on the idea of Jesus as standing in judgment as representative man on behalf of all humanity, or at the least faithful believers. So the move then to understanding the faithful as the Body of Christ has theological foundations available to it in Daniel’s vision, just as the concept of dominion in God’s eternal kingdom in the book of Daniel provides ground for Jesus sayings about the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. Israel is represented in “the one like a son of man” and so too are Christians represented in Jesus. And just as God is known by those who “bear your name” and God’s kingdom is ruled by “people of the holy ones of the Most High” so is Christ known by those who make up his body, who bear his name: Christians. I do not here make a claim that Daniel serves as predictive prophesy. I do not think it is, and I do not read Dan 7:13 as talking about Christ. It does however provide fertile soil for understanding Christ in the faith tradition of the first Jewish-Christians. It also provides us an important resource for understanding our own discipleship to Christ.
Daniel has pointed us to the way of faithfulness in exile. And the similarities of our own contemporary context of discipleship and Daniel’s day are many. Kierkegaard believed that his fellow Danish Christians, and all of Christendom, were living a lie. He believed that their lie need to be unveiled and revealed from within in order that they might be able to see their lack of faith and turn back to God. Kierkegaard follows, in his own way, the footsteps of Daniel. He ponders God’s word, he reveals our “empires” for the fallen kingdoms that they are, and removes the masks from our own lives. Then like Daniel, in his own way, he endeavors to similarly unveil God’s kingdom, God’s way, that we might faithfully turn and follow it. Like Daniel, and Kierkegaard, and the progression of prophets whose tradition they belong to, we also have some unveiling to do.
We too are exiles, not from Jerusalem but from God’s kingdom. We are those who long to be at home in God. In Daniel we are offered a way to just such a home. God’s kingdom which isn’t only eschatological but exists in contested ways even now is available to those who ponder it, follow it, dare to live it. And while it is without a doubt that doing actually doing this is beyond our ability, it is also true that for those who endeavor to faithfully attempt it, God gives.
We too live in a time of empire. Here our situation is reversed, for the vast majority of us are not mere participants in Empire, but we are the Empire. This presents us with a challenge. There is nothing necessarily anything inherently evil with empires. The Bible never says all kingdoms are bad. In fact in Daniel we are given witness to a kingdom that is good – God’s kingdom. The problem is that all our current empires, time after time in the biblical narrative, end up that being oppressive and turning from God’s way. Empire’s end up being less than human as they take away from human dignity and covenantal faithfulness. This is even true of the kingdom of Israel. However, Daniel does not invite us to cast down empires. He participates in Babylonian empire. He follows in the advice of Jeremiah, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer 29:7) But he also reminds us that we must take care not to do this in ways that comprise our identity as God’s people. In our lives social, economic, and political advancement places us “in the middle” in just the same way as second temple scribes. On a daily, even hourly, basis we are tested with choices of identity – shall we eat the food of the Babylonian court? We are tested with fidelity – shall we trust in God rather than our own strength to secure tomorrow? We are tested with truth – are we willing to proclaim the writing on the wall? Not at church, mind you, but at home, at work, at school, on the football field, at the city council, in foreign policy, and at play with our friends in the backyard. Pondering God’s truth is hard enough; living by it is beyond us. And once again we are reminded, God gives.
We too are subject to forces beyond our control. Human sin, evil, broken creation, all of these rain down suffering and pain on our lives. We know what it is to be reduced to lying prostate face to the ground before the horrors of this world. We know the struggle of proclaiming good news, God’s sovereignty and God’s love when the overwhelming testimony of the world is to darkness and despair. In such times affirming that God is in control, pondering God’s truth, feels hollow, dangerous, and hurtful. It is beyond us. And yet, we are reminded, God gives.
This is the message of Daniel. God is in control. God is loving and powerful. And God has called us to faithfulness; God has called us to inherit stewardship and dominion of God’s kingdom. We, like Daniel before, must answer that call. We must ponder God’s truth. In very practical ways this means we must sit at the feet of truth, sit at the feet of God’s word, sit at the feet of Christ. In pondering these things, in living in the text, in deep conversation with God, in following in ways of Christ, being Christ we live into our identity as God’s good creations and God’s holy children. When we live in, and out of, our true identify in this way many of the hard choices of our lives disappear. The way forward becomes clear. We have no choice but to say no to the food of our own Babylonian courts. We have no choice but to speak truth with Daniel to the powers that be. We have no choice but to stop with the Samaritan and love our neighbor – even when our neighbor looks conspicuously like those we have chosen as enemies. For this reason Daniel sits, at the heart of his message, in fasting and sackcloth and having pondered God’s words and perceived a truth, moves to deep conversation with God. And it is in these deep conversations with God that Daniel discovers, time and again, that God gives. And as Daniel has done before us, we must turn to God, ponder God’s truth, attend to God presence and power, discover God’s gifts, and then “go your way”, God’s way, the way of the wise, the way of Danielic discipleship.
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