Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 29-31; Daniel 1-3, 6
Significant Moments in “The Story”
God promises both that the exile will be lengthy but that Israel will return – Jeremiah 29
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – Daniel 3
Daniel in the lion’s den – Daniel 6
How to live in exile
In Jeremiah 29, God tells the people of Judah to build homes and raise families in Babylon because their stay there will be lengthy. It seems that there were some prophets who were telling those who had been carried into exile that their stay in Babylon would be brief. Jeremiah, still in Jerusalem at the time, sends those already a Babylon a letter assuring them that several generations will pass before the exile ends. Now, separated both from the land that God had given to them and from the Temple where they worshiped and where they understood God’s presence to be centered, the exiles are faced with a challenging question: can we still be God’s people when everything we have associated with that identity has been taken away? The prophetic message of Jeremiah and the stories of Daniel paint a picture of what it would now mean to be God’s chosen people in exile.
Both Jeremiah and Daniel (Jeremiah 30-31, Daniel 2) see a time when the kingdom that has taken Israel captive will be no more. The people of Israel needed to know that, though their sin had led to these dire events, God had not forsaken them. The day would come when He would take them out of this foreign land and return them to their homes. Israel would not disappear from the earth. Their messages also served to put the reign of the Babylonians in perspective. Though they were a dominating force now, they would not remain so. The “big baddies” were not as big and invulnerable as they would be tempted to think.
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce” – Jeremiah 29:5
Though it might be tempting to equate the exile with life in Egypt prior to the Exodus, the picture that we see in Scripture of exilic life would defy such comparisons. The Biblical witness and historical evidence indicates that those who lived in exile in Babylon were given quite a bit of freedom, which included the freedom to build homes, make a living, and to continue to worship the God of Israel. The understanding remained, however, that the people now belonged to the Babylonian Empire and were not independent. However, we see several incidents of Israelites given responsibility and power within the Babylonian empire, including King Jehoiachin (2 Kings 25:27-30) and Daniel (Daniel 2, 6). The primary struggle of the exile was thus not necessarily forced labor or harsh punishment by taskmasters. Instead, the primary concern of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel would focus on how to maintain their unique identity as God’s people in a foreign land surrounded by an alien culture where the temptation to assimilate would be great.
“Because you have said, ‘The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon’…” – Jeremiah 29:15
The exile to Babylon took place in at least 2, if not 3, stages. The first stage took place in 597 BC, and it seems that the prophet Jeremiah was among those left behind in Judah. Word seems to have gotten to him that there were prophets in Babylon who were telling the exiles there that their stay in Babylon would be short. Jeremiah 29 contains a letter that Jeremiah sends to the exiles in Babylon to let them know that these prophets are not speaking the word of God.
A new covenant – Jeremiah 31:31-34
Our Christian Bibles are divided into two sections that we have come to call the Old Testament and the New Testament. These identifications came in part out of the interpretation of this passage from Jeremiah by Paul and other Christian authors (2 Corinthians 3, Hebrews 8). An interesting question to ask here, though, is to look at Jeremiah’s words on their own and ask the question what is “new”? As we have already seen, the concepts of grace and forgiveness have certainly been central to the relationship of God with Israel to this point. And there have been several references in the prophets to Israel’s need to understand that a right relationship with God is about more than ritual and obedience. It would seem that Jeremiah is pointing to a work of God to transform our hearts and wills to make us more obedient and receptive to God’s love, issues that we have seen as great struggles in the story of Scripture so far. What does this mean, how is this accomplished (especially as we consider the story of Christ), and how does this impact our understanding of “the old covenant”?
“The book of Daniel is arguably the most unusual book of the Hebrew Bible” (Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 7, p. 19).
To understand why this statement is true, we must first understand that there is a great amount of discussion over how to read Daniel in the first place. Is it actual history or is it a reinterpreting of other stories and events in a different time period?
The actual authorship of the book of Daniel is dated to some time around the 2nd century BC, some 400 years after the Babylonian exile. As far as the person of Daniel, Ezekiel contains two references to a Daniel or Danel (Ezekiel 14:14, 28:3). Some believe, based on these references, that Daniel was a pre-exilic figure, perhaps even dating back to before Israel’s entry into the Promised Land after the Exodus, who was known for his righteousness and wisdom. This theory speculates that the stories of this early Daniel were translated into the context of the Babylonian exile for the purpose of offering hope to later generations.
But which generations was this book to offer hope to? Though it is set in the time period of the Babylonian exile, its authorship is dated several centuries later. The book of Daniel may have been written not to a community in exile in Babylon, but instead to a Jewish community that was facing persecution under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, a successor to Alexander the Great’s rule. After Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, he began a movement to “Hellenize” the cultures of the lands he conquered, imposing Greek culture and language on the peoples, including the Jewish peoples. In the years after Alexander’s death, his empire would be divided, and the Jews in Jerusalem would face various levels of pressure to accommodate to Greek culture. Most significantly, Antiochus Epiphanes, between 167 and 164, would take drastic measures to force Greek ways onto the Jewish people. These methods included forbidding Jewish religious practices, mandating the Jews to offer pagan sacrifices, and erecting an altar to Zeus in the Temple. The stories that we read of Daniel and his friends would strike a strong chord among the Jewish people during these events.
The book of Daniel is identified as apocalyptic literature, the only such literature of its kind in the Old Testament. While we hear a term like “apocalyptic” and assume that it means the end of the world, this is not a fair understanding of apocalyptic literature. It is better to describe apocalyptic literature as writing that is intended to give hope to a community during troubled times. Using symbols and signs, apocalyptic literature is actually more concerned with interpreting current history than necessarily predicting future events, though a key component of apocalyptic literature is a message about the future as a time when the community’s tribulations and sorrows give way to victory and peace. The book of Revelation in the New Testament is another example of apocalyptic literature.
When one reads the book of Daniel, there are two very clear divisions in the book. Chapters 1-6 contain stories of Daniel and his friends, righteous and wise, remaining faithful under pressure to assimilate to the ways of Babylon. These stories paint a clear picture of the value of faithfulness. Chapters 7-12 contain a series of 4 visions in which the present and future are interpreted to assure the community that their time of struggle will not last and that God will ultimately be victorious over those who would seek to defy Him.
Though the book of Daniel may not have been written during the exile or written for an exilic community, it’s setting during the Babylonian exile is intentional and helps us to understand that the greatest threat that the exilic community faced was not necessarily bondage or persecution but the threat of losing their unique identity as a nation and as the people of God. This threat would remain for Israel long after they had returned from Babylon.
Darius the Mede – Daniel 6
Though history tells us that there were several who claimed the name of King Darius, these kings were Persian kings, not Median kings. The first foreign king to rule over the Babylonian empire was Cyrus, who allowed the Jewish people to return home. Thus, it is difficult to place the exact identity of Darius the Mede or his place in the timeline of rulers of Babylon.