Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Skepticism and Renown

Director David Lynch says this about U.S. President Donald Trump:

“He could go down as one of the greatest presidents in history because he has disrupted the thing so much. No one is able to counter this guy in an intelligent way.”

Lynch is not necessarily expressing approval here; note that his metric for presidential greatness is the ability to disrupt. That would not be everyone’s measure of a man, let alone a U.S. president.

What Lynch’s comment does point out, though, is that it is not the least bit outrageous for a man to mull over how a contemporary stacks up against the all-timers in his field, whether or not his verdict is a favorable one. This sort of comparison is made all the time, even when only a year or two have passed.

Daniel or Danel?

Ezekiel does something similar with a contemporary when he names Daniel along with Noah and Job as exemplars of righteousness:
“The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, if a country sins against me by being unfaithful and I stretch out my hand against it to cut off its food supply and send famine upon it and kill its people and their animals, even if these three men — Noah, Daniel[a] and Job — were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord.’ ”

(Ezekiel 14:14, NIV, with footnote)
Those of our readers who have made a study of the prophets are likely familiar with the controversy around Ezekiel 14:14. Certain scholars, thinking it unlikely that Ezekiel, a contemporary of the den-of-lions Daniel, would have ranked him alongside Noah and Job among the all-time righteous, have found themselves another similarly-named historical figure they assume Ezekiel might have been referring to instead. The translators of the NIV have dutifully noted this opinion.

Why It Matters

The reason this matters, by the way, is that many of the same critics are looking to late-date the book of Daniel; to assign it to the second century B.C. or thereabouts. They find Daniel’s spate of fulfilled prophecies about the Gentile nations so on-the-nose that they can only conclude they were written after the events they describe. But Ezekiel’s dates are less open to being contested. If he mentioned Daniel’s name, even in passing, that lends credibility to the theory that Daniel really lived when his eponymous prophecy says he did, and therefore to the truth of other, more important things said in Daniel.

For the NIV translators, the footnote is a safe way to hedge their bets; after all, they’re not going to the whole way with the higher critics, just a very short distance down the road. But for the skeptics, it’s a way to undermine the inspiration of scripture.

For you and me, it’s not nearly as big a problem as some people make out. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Daniel Ascending

Daniel, a young Judean noble, was taken captive to Babylon in the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim, to be trained for life in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. The training period was three years long, after which he stood before the king. From that point on (the sixth year of Jehoiakim), Daniel’s wisdom and character were a matter of public record, and his fame among his own people, an increasing number of whom would be brought to Babylon as the years passed, began to spread.

The sixth year of Jehoiakim was about 603 B.C. (see Table 1: Chronology of the Kings of Judah).

In the second chapter of Daniel, the prophet interprets King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, after which he is immediately promoted to one of the highest positions in the most dominant kingdom on the planet as “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men.” From this moment on — perhaps even before — Daniel’s fame would have been off the charts among his own people.

Depending on whether you go with the Hebrew/Aramaic text of Daniel or with the Septuagint, Daniel either interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams in the second year of his reign or the twelfth. Either way, the position to which Daniel was promoted was so remarkable, given his Judean background, that nobody among the exiles from Judah could possibly have missed it, and the timing makes it entirely plausible that Ezekiel would number him among the outstanding righteous men in human history, and especially among those who established their righteous character outside the enjoyment of the covenant blessings of Israel.

Ezekiel on a Mission

Ezekiel is thought to have begun his thirty years of public ministry in Babylon around 593 B.C. He dates his first vision to the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoachin. At this point, Daniel had been in Babylon a little more than 12 years.

Most of Ezekiel’s major prophecies are dated. With a single very minor exception (29:1), they are given us in chronological order (1:2, 8:1, 20:1, 24:1, 26:1, 29:1, 30:20, 31:1, 32:1, 32:17, 33:21, 40:1). Assuming chapter 14 is also in chronological order, the reference to Daniel was made in a prophecy received somewhere between Daniel’s thirteenth and fourteenth years in Babylon. Even if the Septuagint of Daniel 2 is correct, and I think that unlikely, this allows plenty of time for Daniel’s fame to have spread sufficiently that he could be ranked, at least in some categories, among the all-timers like Noah and Job. Factor in another ten years, and the matter is not even debatable. Thus, when Ezekiel prophesied, it would have been as unexceptional to mention Daniel’s name among the exiles as it is to mention Donald Trump’s name today in the American media.

And since Ezekiel also was an exile in Babylon, Daniel’s promotion and celebrity would have been almost impossible to miss. News did not even have to travel.

Uncomplicated but Hotly Contended

Calculating the dates for Ezekiel and Daniel is not a complicated process. They are right there, carefully specified, in both books. It only takes a couple of quick Google searches for a comparatively ignorant Westerner to determine Ezekiel could easily have been referring to the real Judean Daniel, not some minor literary character with which the average Israelite would be far less familiar.

And of course choosing the best-known example is the whole point, isn’t it? Why would Ezekiel (or, more importantly, God) make reference to someone the average Jew did not recognize and respect? Why would you say “Even if So-and-So ...” if you know only your most highly-educated readers have the slightest idea who the middle So-and-So is? It is the familiarity the general audience has with your much-celebrated example that makes your theological point for you in the first place.

Digging a little deeper into the question shows there are differences between the Judean and Babylonian methods of reckoning the reigns of monarchs, and other issues that might shift some of the relevant dates a year this way or that, but none that make it incredible or even unlikely that Ezekiel would reckon Daniel among the greats.

Further, for some period well in excess of 2,200 years, thousands of learned Jewish scribes, sages and students of the Old Testament, most of whom lived much closer to the events in question and all of whom understood Jewish history better than you and I, have pored over the books of Daniel and Ezekiel analyzing the same texts concerning which modern skeptics have suddenly begun to raise objections.

They have not seen fit to fill the margins of these sacred texts with their footnotes.

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