Decoding Daniel - an in depth Bible study of the book of Daniel

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Introduction to Daniel

Why Study the Book of Daniel?

Purpose of Daniel

Great Conflicts Unveiled

Daniel the Prophet

Structure and Themes

Style and Interpretation

Ancient Translations

Daniel In the Critics' Den

Historical Background

The City of Babylon

Decoding Daniel

The name “Babylon” (Babel) is derived from (balal), which denotes “confusion (by mixing)” in Genesis 11:9. The city of Babylon was one of great wealth and magnificence. It was the center of a vast empire, which included all of Mesopotamia and the highlands beyond, as
well as Syria and Palestine. The city was built on the monotonous plains, along the banks of the Euphrates River.

Ancient writers describe it as a city surrounded by four walls, each fifteen miles in length. Twenty-four streets ran north and south, and the same number east and west. Each street terminated at one of the one hundred gates in the inner walls. Hence, the city was made up of more than six hundred square blocks. It is said that in the center of each square
there was a garden.

Two lines of walls protected the city. A twenty-four-foot wide roadway was between the walls. The inner walls were twelve feet thick, reinforced with towers at sixty-foot intervals. These walls ran three and one-half miles along the north, east and south sides of the city, with the Euphrates River guarding the west side. Similar walls enclosed the suburbs. The outer walls measured twenty-five feet high and eleven feet thick. They enclosed a triangular area occupied by suburbs and another royal palace. Their length was slightly over five miles. Outside the walls, a moat of 262 broad feet gave added protection. The walls were decorated with images of magical animals molded in relief in the brickwork. The animals were glazed yellow and brown against a blue background. For details, maps and pictures of Babylon see ISBE, 1:349-355; ZPEB, 1:439-448.

According to the Esagil Tablet, the city walls enclosed a huge, seven-stage ziggurat, which rose to the height of 650 feet. The city of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar’s reign reached the pinnacle of world power, displaying vulgar materialism in its political and religious systems, which were enlarged considerably through the king’s conquests.

Babylonian merchants controlled all the trade that flowed across western Asia from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Nebuchadnezzar spent the tolls of this trade, the tributes of these subjects, and the taxes of his people, in beautifying his capital and assuaging the hunger of the priests. “Is not this the great Babylon that I built?” He resisted the temptation to be merely a conqueror; he sallied forth occasionally to teach his subjects the virtues of submission, but for the most part he stayed at home, making Babylon the unrivaled capital of the Near East, the largest and most magnificent metropolis of the ancient world. Nabopolassar had laid plans for the reconstruction of the city. Nebuchadnezzar used his long reign of forty-three years to carry them to completion. Herodotus, who saw Babylon a century and a half later, described it as “standing in a spacious plain,“ and surrounded by a wall fifty-six miles in length, so broad that a four-horse chariot could be driven along the top, and enclosing an area of some two hundred square miles. Through the center of the town ran the palm-fringed Euphrates, busy with commerce and spanned by a handsome bridge. Practically all the better buildings were of brick, for stone was rare in Mesopotamia; but the bricks were often faced with enameled tiles of brilliant blue, yellow or white, adorned with animal and other figures in glazed relief, which remain to this day supreme in their kind. Nearly all the bricks so far recovered from the site of Babylon bear the proud inscription: “I am Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon” (The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, 1:224).

This grandiose assertion is echoed by Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:30:

"He said, 'Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?'"

The ruins of Babylon reveal the grounds for the king’s boast. The city contained many elaborate and expensive buildings. In addition, to relieve the homesickness of his wife for her native hills, Nebuchadnezzar constructed, at tremendous expense, the famous hanging gardens.

In 539 B.C., the city of Babylon was captured without a battle by Medo-Persia. Persia used the city as an administrative center. Desiring independence, the Babylonians revolted against Persia in 522, 521 and 482 B.C. The last revolt, during the reign of Xerxes, ended with the destruction and desolation of the magnificent city. Yahweh had executed His promise. Because of the LORD's anger she will not be inhabited but will be completely desolate. All who pass Babylon will be horrified and scoff because of all her wounds (Jeremiah 50:13).

The Religious Crisis

Daniel was taken as a captive to this magnificent city in the first deportation in 605 B.C. Some Israelites were deported elsewhere. The elderly Jeremiah, along with fellow citizens, were forced to go to Taphanhes (Daphnae), Egypt (Jeremiah 43:7). The exiles that went to Egypt fared well. They were hospitably received and apparently prospered, though they probably lived in segregation within its large cities. Interestingly, Yahweh advised the exiles to make te best of their situation.

"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

Compared to the Israelites’ poor little country of Palestine, Babylonia was a big, rich and prosperous country. Here the exiles found an advanced culture, big business and materialistic splendor. For a long time, Babylon had been a center of trade. Ezekiel referred to it as “a land of merchants” and “a city of traders” (Ezekiel 17:4). The agricultural people of Palestine were introduced to a new way of life.

Life for the Hebrew exiles was comparatively pleasant—very different from their ancestors’ life in Egypt. They maintained some of their own institutions, enjoyed freedom of movement as well as employment opportunities, and lived on fertile land. Still the captivity was intended as a punishment from God. The emotional trauma of being uprooted from their homes, and the humiliation of being forced to endure captivity, would have been felt most keenly at the beginning of the exile. At the end, relatively few Israelites desired to return to their homeland.

In spite of their comfortable life in Babylon, the Israelites questioned God’s justice (Ezekiel 18:2, 25). Through tears, they cried out for mercy (Psalm 74), but could see no end to their fate because their ears and hearts were shut to God’s prophets, especially to Jeremiah.

This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place (Jeremiah 29:10).

Wholesale loss of faith threatened the exiles. Compared to the undreamed of wealth and power around them and the magnificent temples of the pagan gods, what advantage did the worship of Yahweh have to offer? Besides, had not Yahweh failed to protect them from Nebuchadnezzar and his gods? Israel’s faith was on trial for its life!

For many, life in Babylonia was not difficult; they grew wealthy and amalgamated with society as evidenced by archeological discoveries. Excavations at Nippur (a great mercantile center) which was situated on the great canal (Kebar River) unearthed a large number of tablets containing business transactions, which included the names of many Jews.

The exile was a time, not only of humiliation and sorrow, but also of radical changes in nearly every area of life for the Israelites. Many were from the southern kingdom of Judah and they adopted the nickname “Jews.”

On the other hand, the hard core exiles remained sojourners in a strange land. They were filled with bitter hatred for those who had brought them to Babylon and longed for faraway Zion (Psalm 137). Clans and families lived together and the elders of Judah continued to be recognized. Hence, a national sense of pride was kept burning.

Daniel and his three friends illustrated what it meant to be in the world, but not of the world. They made the most of their situation, never compromising their faith in Yahweh while under the subtle and tenacious influences of Babylon. These four men were shining lights in a dark world; they were living examples that called for no compromise.

Another shining light was the prophet Ezekiel. He was God’s messenger among the captives, rebuking them for sin and comforting them with promises of deliverance. His preaching made them realize their captivity was in no way the result of any limitation in God’s power to protect them, but it was solely a punishment permitted by Him for their sin.

The seventy years of humiliation during their exile had some obviously beneficial results in the life of the Jews.

  1. They were thoroughly cured of idolatry.
  2. The synagogue came into existence.
  3. They did a great deal of collecting of their literature during this time.
  4. Religion became distinctly more spiritual and personal for them since they could not observe the elaborate ceremonies connected with the Temple.
  5. The Law of Moses took on new significance in the fire of trials.
  6. They became a people more genuinely united in ideals and purpose.
  7. They came to a new understanding and appreciation of their destiny
    as a nation.

Ironically, Yahweh’s people had been swallowed by a great fish and they found themselves in the very belly of idolatry. To cure the Israelites of idolatry, God gave them a bellyful of it! And it worked! The Israelites, who came to Babylon as idolaters, returned to their homeland as Jews,
having been cleansed of idolatry. Undoubtedly, the prophet’s great polemic (Isaiah 40-48) against apostatizing offered comfort to the sojourners.

The people would not be spit out upon the land until the Promised Land had enjoyed its Sabbath rests and the remnant had a change of heart concerning who actually rules history. That was the resounding message given by the two exilic prophets Ezekiel and Daniel, and was typified by the prophet Jonah.

Babylon was the cradle of false religion, with Satan working behind the scenes. False religion first appeared with the tower of Babel, on the plain of Shinar (Babylonia). It was man’s first attempt to establish a central, one-world government without God as its king. The Chaldean Mysteries can be traced to the days of Semiramis, the wife of Nimrod, who lived a few centuries after the Flood. By the time of the exile, these mysteries permeated most areas of life. See Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons for the extent that the Chaldean mysteries saturated the ancient world.

The Neo-Babylonian age may be properly designated as a religious age. In our culture, we cannot begin to fathom the intensity, depth, and importance that religion played in the lives of the people in the Ancient Near East. There were four-thousand gods in the Babylonian pantheon. These gods went through many changes in name, function and prominence through wars and mystical events.

The city of Babylon was a scene of idolatry. Inscriptions tell us there were 58 temples, 55 shrines dedicated to Marduk, 300 shrines for celestial divinities, 180 altars for the goddess Ishtar, 180 altars to the gods Negral and Adad, and 12 other altars to various deities (Babylon and the Bible, 53).

Entrance into the city of Babylon was through eight gates, each named for a deity. The Ishtar gate opened onto the Procession Way, which led to the great temple of Marduk. The gate’s walls were decorated with enameled bricks portraying 120 lions, representing Ishtar, and 575
dragons, representing Marduk, and numerous bulls, representing Bel or Enlil (Wycliffe Historical Geography of the Bible Lands, 31). The cover photo of a winged-lion from the Ishtar Gate is an example of the enameled bricks.

A diagram, appearing in Alan Millard’s Treasures from Bible Times (Lion Publishing Corp, 1985), shows nine gates passing through three sets of walls that open into the city. These gates are the Ishtar, Sin, Marduk, Zababa, Enlil, Urash, Shamash, Adad, and Lugalgirra. Each gate was named for a deity. Archeologists have excavated four of the gates. It should be noted that descriptions of the city sometimes disagree.

During the exile, the most important gods and goddesses in the Babylonian pantheon were:

  • Marduk, the patron deity of the city of Babylon
  • Ishtar, the goddess of fertility and battle
  • Sin, the moon god
  • Nimurta, the god of hunting and warfare
  • Shamash, the sun god
  • Adad, a storm god
  • Enlil, the god of the wind and sky.
  • Urash, the god of the city of Dilbat

The thousands of gods in the pantheon were not worshiped in the same way, nor did they possess the same power. Marduk reigned as the supreme god in the pantheon, making Babylon’s polytheism somewhat monotheistic as gods were identified as Marduk. This hypothesis is apparent from the following extract from the “Monotheist Tablet.”

  • Ninib is Marduk of the garden (or strength).
  • Nergal is Marduk of war.
  • Zagag is Marduk of battle.
  • Enlil is Marduk of lordship and dominion.
  • Nebo is Marduk of trading.
  • Sin is Marduk the illuminator of the night.
  • Shamash is Marduk of righteousness.
  • Rimmon is Marduk of rain.
    (In and Around the Book of Daniel, 96).

Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt the temple, known as Esagila, for Marduk. It was the most important building in the city. In addition, the king’s palace was a palace of heaven and earth, a palace of the lordship, a palace that was built to honor Marduk, where all deities came and paid homage.

The most important religious and political celebration in Babylon was Akitu, the New Year Festival. The chief figure in these rites was Marduk. Akitu provided an occasion for the annual re-investiture of the king as well as the symbolic reenactment of the creation of the world and the fixing of destinies for the coming year.

An excavated prayer of Nebuchadnezzar reveals the king’s faith in Marduk prior to his encountering the Most High.

To Merodach (Marduk) my lord I prayed, I lifted up my hands: ‘O lord merodach (Marduk), wisest of the gods, mighty prince, thou it was that createst me, with sovereignty over multitudes of people that didst invest me.

Like dear life I love thy exalted lodging place: in no place have I made a town more glorious than thy city of Babylon.

According as I love the fear of thy divinity, and seek after thy lordship, favourably regard the lifting up of my hands, hear my supplication!

I verily am the maintaining king, that maketh glad thine heart, the energetic servant, that maintaineth all thy town. (In and Around the Book of Daniel, 97)

Other excavated inscriptions by Nebuchadnezzar, however, show that he saw himself as totally controlling his god Marduk. He believed that he could change the mind of his god by offering sacrifices of meat, fruit and vegetables to Marduk. Hence, his own fate was self-determined. Yet, the king said he organized his armies because “he trusted in the power of Nebo and Marduk.” He neglected no opportunity to exalt Marduk above all other gods (ANET, 307). Consequently, Nebuchadnezzar should be viewed as having monotheistic tendencies when interpreting the events surrounding him in the book of Daniel.

From birth to death, the life of the Babylonian citizen was governed by religious conceptions and practices. Babylonians believed the future could be controlled and predicted. Everything that happened was a result of cause-and-effect relationships. Many things relating to life could be ascertained by observing the course of events, though the courses of events were in the hands of the gods. To the contrary, the very events and prophecies of the book of Daniel are a polemic against Babylon, the great prostitute of religion. Consequently, his book clarifies Yahweh’s sovereignty in the affairs of humanity, not the pantheon of Babylon.

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