Responsibly Interpreting the Vision in Daniel 2

This will be the beginning of a number of posts dealing with the historical critical interpretation of the visions in the Book of Daniel. There is a lot of, how should I say it, speculative nonsense in the internet that the naive and untrained take in uncritically. My goal in this post and those that follow is to persuade readers to what the author of the Book of Daniel wanted his original readers to understand regarding his visions. This is my interpretive approach, and my hope is that I can avoid reading into the text popular dispensational theories of prophecy.

In Daniel chapter two the great Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar has a troubling dream that he desires to be interpreted. He summons his court of wise men and demands that they not only tell him what his dream was about but also to interpret it for him. Of course, no one can ascertain what King Neb’s dream consisted of out of thin air, so after a course of events, the young exile Daniel is given a chance to provide an explanation. Daniel reveals that the King had a vision of a large statue made up of differing metals. The head was made of gold, the breast/arms of silver, the legs of bronze, and the feet a mixture of iron and clay. Then out of the sky came a rock made without hands which struck the statue and filled the entire earth as a mountain. Here is a visual for those who like these sort of things: daniel statue

Daniel then offers an interpretation of the King’s vision. Sadly, this interpretation requires the modern reader to interpret it further, and the last 2,000+ years have yielded a plethora of readings regarding this particular vision’s meaning.

I will begin by outlining one popular reading of this vision and then demonstrate the weakness in its argument. Afterwards, I will offer up what I (and the majority of biblical scholars writing on Daniel today) have concluded is the more persuasive reading.

 

The Popular Reading: the four kingdoms are Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome

Gold kingdom: Daniel gives this one to us for free; “You are the head of gold” he declares to Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2:38).

Silver kingdom: This next one is interpreted in this scheme as the Medo-Persian Empire, combining two kingdoms into one. Media was a kingdom outright but it was eventually conquered by Cyrus the Persian, and Babylon soon fell to the Persian Empire afterwards. Regarding the silver kingdom Daniel says, “After you there will arise another kingdom inferior to you” (Dan 2:39a).

The problem with this interpretation is that it takes two kingdoms and combines it into one. Media was its own empire and Persia was its own empire. Many ancient historians note how Media was its own independent empire apart from Persia prior to being conquered (just as Babylon was an autonomous empire prior to be assimilated by Persia). The Greek historian Herodotus notes how Media was distinct from Persia in history (1:95-97, 130-132) and the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus reported the same facts (History of Rome, 1.6.6). Furthermore, the supposed Medo-Perisan Empire lasted over two hundred years, spanning from the mid sixth century until it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 333-31 BCE. How does a nation which existed for a longer duration than Babylon and covered more territory than Babylon fit the description of “another kingdom inferior to you” (Dan 2:39a)?

It doesn’t.

Bronze kingdom: In this interpretation, the Greek kingdom of Alexander the Great is suggested. The rest of Dan 2:39 says, “then another third kingdom of bronze, which will rule over all the earth” (Dan 2:39b). This is possible, since Greece conquered Persia, an empire which could also fit this description based upon its conquered territory.

The problem with this reading is that Greece being equated to the third kingdom ignores the fact that Media and Persia were formerly two separate empires, making Greece the fourth kingdom rather than the third. In other terms, one can only arrive at Greece being the third kingdom if they take the two kingdoms of Media and Persia and combine them into one kingdom, thus forcing Greece into the third slot.

This seems dishonest and misleading.

Iron/clay kingdom: The fourth kingdom (and I must stress that the text only posits four kingdoms in the statue [cf. 2:41, 42]) is therefore Rome in this prophetic scheme, since Rome is the next major empire to arise in history.

The problems with this reading are many. First of all, Rome is technically the fifth kingdom (as Media and Persia were originally two separate empires). Secondly, it is difficult to ascertain what Dan 2:42 means in regard to Rome when it says that “some of the kingdom will be strong and part of it will be brittle.” The Roman interpretation of this clue is not obvious. Thirdly, Dan 2:43 tells how this kingdom will have mixed marriages which will not result in peace (“they will combine with one another in the seed of men; but they will not adhere to one another”). This does not fit Rome and its emperors at all. However, we do have evidence in a later vision in the Book of Daniel where the Greek kings mingled in marriage (Dan 11:6, 17). These attempts to marry off daughters to a rival ruler in order to bring peace did not last, as we will observe in a later post regarding Daniel chapter 11.

Needless to say, the Popular Reading (Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome) is problematic and does not hold up to historical scrutiny.

 

The Modern Scholarly Reading: the four kingdoms are Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece

Gold kingdom: Again, this is clear. Daniel said that Babylon is “the head of gold” (Dan 2:38).

Silver kingdom: Since Media, a small and inferior kingdom, existed outright, I suggest that this is the second kingdom. No need to combine this with Persia and forcing kingdoms #3 and #4 into different slots. Media, an insignificant kingdom in regard to the Jewish people, perfectly fits the biblical description “another kingdom inferior to you” (Dan 2:39a).

Bronze kingdom: Persia is the next kingdom in line, the kingdom which conquered by Media and Babylon. Its ruling territory extended much farther than Babylon ever possessed. This fits the description of a kingdom “which will rule over all the earth” (Dan 2:39b)

Iron/clay kingdom: The fourth kingdom is now Greece. It is well known that after Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE his empire was split among his four Greek generals. Two of them become quite prominent in history: Seleucus (who ruled from Syria) and Ptolemy (who ruled from Egypt). This explains how the fourth kingdom was a, in the words of Daniel, “divided kingdom” (Dan 2:41). The other two lesser-known generals eventually did not last into history with their respective portions of the Greek kingdom while the Seleucids and the Ptolemies established lengthy dynasties. Granted, the Seleucids became the most powerful Greek dynasty among the four generals. This adequately explains Daniel’s reference to the divided kingdom with the words “some of the kingdom will be strong and part of it will be brittle” (Dan 2:42). Furthermore, we are aware that there was intermingled marriages among these surviving Greek dynasties (cf. Dan. 11:6, 17), especially Antiochus II with Berenice in 252 BCE and Ptolemy V to Cleopatra in 193 BCE.

 

In sum, I propose that the four kingdoms in the vision of Daniel 2 are Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece.

daniel-dream

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One thought on “Responsibly Interpreting the Vision in Daniel 2

  1. Thank you for sharing and for your work in studying Daniel 2. I too just read Daniel prior to coming across your thoughts. You explained yourself well.

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