Skeptical Bible Study: Daniel Chapter 2

First post in this series can be found here.
This article is not my own, but was originally posted by Darwin’s Beagle. The author has given permission for the article to be reposted here.

2.1 Summary of Chapter 2
Daniel’s first amazing feat comes when Nebuchadrezzar has a dream that disturbs him. Nebuchadrezzar calls all the magicians, astrologers, sorcerers, and Chaldeans to interpret the dream. He makes the task even more difficult by refusing to tell them what the dream was. To ensure they are telling the truth, they must tell him what his dream was as well as its meaning, and if they don’t they will be killed. They protest saying that it is impossible. Daniel prays to God and is shown the dream and its meaning.

Daniel tells Nebuchadrezzar that he saw in his dream a “great image”. The head of the image was gold, the breast and the arms were silver, the belly and thighs were brass, and the legs and the feet were part iron and part clay. Then, a stone that came not from human hands hits the image on the legs and feet causing it to be broken up and blown away as dust. The rock then grows in size, eventually filling the whole earth.

The interpretation of the dream is as follows:

  1. Nebuchadrezzar is the head of gold.
  2. The breast and arms of silver are a lesser kingdom that is to come after Nebuchadrezzar.
  3. The belly and thighs of brass are a kingdom that will succeed that one and rule over the whole world.
  4. The legs and feet made partly of iron and partly of clay would be a very strong kingdom that would become split.
  5. The stone represents God coming to break up all the kingdoms that came before and establishing His kingdom which will be everlasting.

After hearing Daniel recount the dream and its analysis, Nebuchadrezzar is impressed and makes Daniel “chief of the governors over all wise men”.

2.2 Analysis
2.2.1 Minor problems
Again there are some minor mistakes here that make us skeptical of the story. First, the story takes place in the second year of Nebuchadrezzar’s reign. Daniel should not have been out of his training period by then. The book of Daniel uses the term “Chaldeans” to mean a priestly class. Originally, “Chaldeans” referred to a sect within Babylonia. That sect produced Nabopolassar (the father of Nebuchadrezzar) and became dominant. At the time of Nebuchadrezzar, the term “Chaldean” was synonymous to the term “Babylonian” and meant anyone of the Babylonian empire. It was not until well into the Persian rule that “Chaldean” came to mean a Babylonian priest.

A more serious problem is that according to this story Daniel became a high ranking official of Babylon. The Babylonians kept good records, and we still have them. These records mention many officials, both major and minor. There is no mention of a Daniel (or Belteshazzar, his supposed Babylonian name) in any of them. In fact, there is no mention of a Daniel (or Belteshazzar) who was an official in the Babylonian court in ANY writing before the second century BCE.

Bible-believers are quick to point out that Daniel is mentioned in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 14:14,20 and 28:3). Ezekiel was a contemporary of Daniel (actually a decade or two older than Daniel) and, thus, provides important evidence of the historicity of Daniel… or so they say. However, Ezekiel only mentions the name and no details that link that Daniel to the Daniel from the book of Daniel. In fact, there is good reason to believe that Ezekiel is actually referring to someone else.

The Hebrew spelling of the Daniel in Ezekiel is different from that of Daniel in the book of Daniel. The one in Ezekiel is more properly rendered Dan’el. Furthermore, this Dan’el is mentioned alongside the legendary Jewish heroes Noah and Job. The actual phraseology is “…Noah, Dan’el, and Job…” Placing a contemporary between two legends is awkward phraseology. It would be like referring to three strong people as “…Achilles, Schwarzenegger, and Hercules…” It would be much more natural to place them in chronological order instead: “…Achilles, Hercules, and Schwarzenegger…”

There is another candidate for the Dan’el that Ezekiel refers to. The Ras Shamrah tablets from Ugarit in North Syria tell of the story of Dan’el (spelled exactly like that in Ezekiel). He was a divine Canaanite hero who sat at the gate of the city and judged the causes of widows and established rights for orphans. He was known for his wisdom (Ezekiel 28:3). The dating of the tablets suggests this is a story Ezekiel would likely be familiar with. In fact the consensus among scholars who are not extreme bible-believers is that this is the Dan’el Ezekiel was referring to.

2.2.2 Problems in the interpretation of the prophecy
The bible-believer’s interpretation of this prophecy is that the head of gold refers to the Babylonian empire (indeed the prophecy explicitly states this), the breast and arms of silver refer to a Medo-Persian empire, the belly and thighs of brass refer to Alexander the Great, and the legs and feet made partly of iron and partly of clay refer to the Roman Empire. However, this scenario does not hold up under scrutiny. The biggest problem is that THERE WAS NO MEDO-PERSIAN EMPIRE. There was a Median empire that was conquered by the Persians. Thus, a much more likely scenario is that the head of gold refers to Babylon, the breasts and arms of silver refer to the Median empire, the belly and thighs of brass refer to the Persian empire, and the legs and feet made partly of iron and partly of clay refers to Alexander. This is the argument I will set forth here.

If one reads the book of Daniel, there is a clear picture that is presented. Daniel comes to the court of Nebuchadrezzar, serves under his son Belshazzar who is violently deposed by Darius the Mede (son of Ahasuerus [also known as Xerxes]) whom Daniel also serves, and is alive into the reign of Cyrus the Persian. The clear implication is that Babylon falls to the Median Empire which is replaced by a Persian Empire. This is not what really happened (as we will see later), but it is the clear picture presented by the author of Daniel. Thus, the simplest conclusion to draw from this is that the author of Daniel THOUGHT that is what happened.

With that in mind, let’s examine the prophecy. The controversy lies on the interpretation of the second empire (the breast and arms of silver). Is it a combined Medo-Persian empire, or is it just the Median empire? The pertinent history of the time was that Babylon and Media were the two biggest empires in the region. Persia was a vassal state of Media. Cyrus the Great came to power in Persia and rebelled against the Medes five years later in 550 BCE. He defeated the Median king Astyages. In doing this Cyrus acquired all the Median territory. Thereafter he referred to his kingdom simply as the Persian kingdom.

Another problem with relating the second kingdom to a combined “Medo-Persian” kingdom is that the prophecy clearly states that the kingdom will be inferior to that of Nebuchadrezzar’s. The Persian empire lasted twice as long as the Babylonian empire and at its height controlled three times the land area. That sounds more like ruling over the whole world (the third empire) rather than being inferior (like the second empire). The Median empire, on the other hand, was indeed inferior to Babylonian empire. It did not last as long nor did it control the area of the Babylonians.

The question then is “does the fourth kingdom fit that of Alexander?” The answer is a resounding “YES”. Alexander was the strongest king in history up to his time. He conquered all of Egypt, Persia, and extended his kingdom into India. This was pretty much all the known world at his time. In fact, legend has it that Alexander wept because he had no more land to conquer. However, at the height of his power and at a very young age, he unexpectedly died leaving no heir. His kingdom was split 4 ways and given to his top generals: Cassander, Lysimachus, Ptolemy, and Antigonus.

2.2.3 Problems with the bible-believer version of the prophecy
As we have seen, the bible-believer version of the prophecy in which the fourth kingdom is associated with Rome instead of Alexander, is most likely not the one intended by the author. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume the extreme bible-believers are correct and it is. Then they still have the problem of the arrival of God’s everlasting kingdom. Rome has fallen (in either 485 CE with the Visigoth sacking of Rome, or in 1465 CE with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman empire, depending on how you want to define it). The question is, “why does the prophecy stop here?” Why doesn’t it mention the other great kingdom that dominated the area, the Ottoman empire? Even if we were to accept the extreme bible-believer version of the prophecy, looking at the results since then would force us to conclude that Daniel was still a false prophet.

Links to the other articles

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11 thoughts on “Skeptical Bible Study: Daniel Chapter 2”

  1. Why cant you believe the BIble for what it means and take it by faith. You obviously are a pretty faithless Christian, and need to grow a LOT in your personal walk with the Lord Jesus Christ. Take the Bible by faith and believe his word with all your heart., and stop trying to make sense of things you don’t understand.

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  2. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m actually not a Christian at all anymore.

    Do you believe the Bible should be without error, or do you think it can still be inspired by God even if it has mistakes in it? I think that’s the main question you should consider, because the fact is, the Bible contains many problems that go way beyond what we find in the Book of Daniel. That’s not something I realized when I was a Christian. But once I began to see the inconsistencies and failed prophecies, I just reached a point where I no longer found any of it believable.

    And if you believe that the Bible can be divine without being perfect, how do you know other religious texts aren’t also divine? What standard helps you decide which religion to follow, or is that ultimately a by-product of your upbringing? And I don’t mean any offense by suggesting that — most people fit into that category.

    Anyway, I hope that helps explain my perspective a little more. Thanks again for your comment. Take care.

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  3. After an up bringing of catholism. And using my God given brain. I now question the Bible.s validity and seek out other options to leading a really good life
    thanks for a good review!

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  4. Could the Medo-Persian Empire portion be reviewed again? (And maybe you have, I may not have read through everything yet. If so, my apologies) There could be a strong argument made that the empire(s) could be linked together more closely. Herodotus states that the King of the Medes, Astyages, was the grandfather of the Persian King Cyrus the Great (who you state rebelled against his grandfather and conquered the Medes). The imagery used in Daniel, could illustrate two powers joining together (two arms, Medes and Persians, connecting to the chest, The Medo-Persian connection). They may not be so easily discounted as two distinct empires as described in your article. The Medes would actually join into and form this amalgamated entity where they held high ranking positions and satraps. Good arguments overall, just this one seems weak.

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  5. Chad, could be I guess, except I cant find anything outside of the bible to agree with that. I’m open to suggestions for sources of course. this something that I look back into from time to time.

    everything in secular history that I find indicates that the perisans eventually overthrew the medes and became the persian empire. I wouldnt say that nate’s article is weak… do you have a source you can provide?

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  6. Sorry if this double posts.

    Herodotus (digital) – http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.html

    Herodotus (book) – Herodotus, The Histories, p. 93.

    Secondary Source – ^ Briant, Pierre (2006). From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Eisenbrauns. p. 31

    I was not trying to to say the entire article is weak but that this particular aspect could be reexamined. Hop This helps.

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  7. Hi Chad,

    Thanks for your comments! And I’ll definitely check out the sources you listed. I’m not the original author of these articles, I just reposted them. It’s also been a while since I’ve deeply studied the issues in Daniel, so I may not be able to give your question a proper response right now.

    That said, I can offer a couple of basic points.

    First, I think a lot of the reason for thinking Daniel depicted the Medes and Persians as separate empires is because the 4th fits with the Greek empire so well. Also, consider this passage (kind of lengthy) from HH Rowley’s book Darius the Mede and the Four World Empires in the Book of Daniel:

    …it is argued that it is an historical error to suppose that a Median kingdom intervened between the fall of Babylon and the reign of Cyrus, and that we have no right to father on to the author of the book of Daniel so grave an error in the interests of our theory. That it is an historical error is undoubtedly true, and the forgoing pages have amply established this, but the point at issue is whether this historical error belonged to the thought of our author, and his completely unhistorical account of Darius the Mede sufficiently proves his ignorance of the facts. It is he who states that Darius the Mede succeeded Belshazzar, and who elsewhere speaks of “Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of the seed of the Medes, which was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans.” It is he who says that Daniel prospered “in the reign of Darius, and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” It is he who represents one as coming to Daniel in a vision he saw in the third year of Cyrus, king of Persia, and speaking to him retrospectively of the first year of Darius the Mede. It is therefore he who distinguishes between the race of Darius and that of Cyrus, and who sets a Median control of Babylon between Belshazzar and the Persian rule, and the principle that the visions are to be interpreted by the view of the course of history which the author reveals elsewhere in his book leads unmistakably to the identification of the second empire with the Median.
    — p 147-148

    He then goes on to say that some object by pointing out the passages in Daniel where reference is made to the “Medes and Persians” as though they are together. And in chapter 8, one animal (the ram with 2 horns) is used to represent both Media and Persia. So Rowley responds with this:

    Against this, however, it is to be noted that in verse 28 it is said that the Babylonian kingdom shall be divided, and given to the Medes and Persians. Clearly, therefore, the author supposed that just as on the fall of Nineveh, the Assyrian dominions were divided between the Medes and the Chaldeans, so the Babylonian empire was now divided, and part of it fell to the Medes and part to the Persians, as two separate but allied powers. He was aware of some connexion [sic] between them, and so could speak of them as under a common legal code. But that does not entail the supposition that he was unable to distinguish between them. Nor does chapter viii, to which appeal is so often made. For while the ram does certainly stand for the Medo-Persian empire, a distinction is made within its history of two headships [the horns], which are by general consent identified with a Median and a Persian, and of these it is said that the one preceded the other, but was in some unspecified respect not the equal of the other. The lesser horn, whether inferior in power or in persistence, is clearly the Median. Manifestly then, our author did distinguish between the Medes and Persians, though he also recognized that there was a closer connexion [sic] between them than between the Babylonians and either, or the Greeks and either. He treats them as allied powers under a Median hegemony at the time of the fall of Babylon, changing over before long to a Persian hegemony, which lasted until the conflict with Alexander. And because he recognized a racial distinction between them, he could represent in the visions of chapters ii and vii a succession of four different races which had exercised world dominion within the world of his purview.

    … Nor did [Daniel] invent the Median empire. That belongs to well-authenticated history. For there was a Median empire of no little power, which allied itself with the Babylonian state when the latter was struggling for independence under Nabopolassar, and which attacked and conquered Nineveh and Assyria, a Median empire to which Persia belonged before Cyrus revolted against Astyages and converted it into a Persian empire. A Median empire is in no sense an invention, and the error which our author displays is not in supposing there was a Median empire before there was a Persian, but in supposing it stood between the Babylonian and the Persian, instead of being contemporary with the Babylonian, and ending somewhat before it.
    — p. 148-150

    Rowley then points out that the author of Daniel, with few reliable historical sources to choose from, did have the Old Testament at his disposal. And upon reading Jeremiah’s prophecies (51:11) that the Medes would take Babylon, assumed that they had. In addition to Jeremiah, the latter author of Isaiah prophesied that Cyrus would take Babylon (Isaiah 45). Like any good Bible believer, it’s likely that the writer of Daniel assumed both prophecies were true.

    He then sums up his argument with this paragraph:

    He knew there had been a Median empire before there was a Persian, knew that it had swept the Assyrian before it, and knew that it had been expected to sweep the Babylonian before it also. Yet he knew that Cyrus had established Persian supremacy over the Median empire, and knew that Cyrus had had some hand in the fall of Babyon. How better could he reconstruct history for his popular story from these scanty materials than by representing the establishment of Persian supremacy over the Medes as taking place a little later than the fall of Babylon, instead of a little earlier, with a brief period of Median control over Babylon preceding it? Into such a conception all the material the book of Daniel provides will fit harmoniously, and we are therefore confirmed in believing it belonged to the author.
    — p. 150-151

    Sorry to quote so much, but I thought those were interesting points worth consideration. Of course, as I mentioned before, I haven’t studied this closely in 2 or 3 years now, so I’ll take a little time looking over your comments and sources and see if there’s anything else I can add later.

    Thanks again for the comments!

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  8. The author of danial may have believed that the medes did take babylon because Jeremiah 50 and 51 say that the medes will take a destroy babylon – they didnt.

    The author didnt have google back then and was familiar with Jeremiah and, believing him to be a true prophet, assumed Jeremiah’s prophecy was right…

    But he also knew the history of persia taking babylon, so he just squeezed the two together (Jeremiah’s forecast and actual events).

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  9. you know, Daniel chapter 10:1 references “Cyrus Kind of PERSIA.” It doesnt say, “king of the medes and persians” – why? why just say “persians” if Daniel is really saying that the 2nd kingdom in his statue vision was the kingdom of the medo-persians?

    the more i look at daniel, the more it does seem to be saying that the 4th kingdom was the greek empire, which splintered into 4 pieces after Alexander the Great died. It seems to be saying that the medians and the persians were the 2nd and 3rd kingdoms respectively.

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