This is the second post in my series where I critically examine the visions in the Book of Daniel. If you have yet to see my arguments regarding Daniel 2, you can reach that post by clicking here. Although there is a temptation to simply carry over to Daniel 7 the conclusions reached in my previous study in that there are four kingdoms in Daniel 2 and four beasts in Daniel 7, I will allow the text to speak for itself simply as a matter of objectivity.
Daniel 7 is different from the dream given to Nebuchadnezzar in that Daniel’s vision is interpreted by a mediating angel. In fact, the chapter has multiple instances where Daniel asks the angel for further clarification regarding his vision and subsequently receives additional answers. The act of angels revealing heavenly secrets to the protagonist is typical of Jewish apocalyptic works, especially within the Second Temple period. In this manner Daniel 7 differs from Daniel 2. We will continue to observe angelic revelations in the visions of Daniel 8, 9, and 10-12.
The chapter begins (7:1) with the unnamed narrator stating that Daniel had a dream with visions. Upon waking up, he wrote those down. The rest of the chapter tells what Daniel wrote. He notes how four distinct beasts were coming out of the sea. Any Jewish reader would immediately recognize the sea as a symbol for the chaotic evil, a regular portrayal in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 1:2; Psa 74:13; Isa 27:1; 57:20; Jonah 2). The first beast resembled a lion, the second looked like a bear, the third appeared as a leopard, and the fourth was dreadfully terrifying.
This fourth beast is given much more emphasis and attention than the former three. Daniel notes that this fourth beast had ten horns. ‘Horns’ were often used in the Hebrew Bible to symbolize royal power (cf. Psa 132:17; Jer 48:25; Ezek 29:21). Daniel turns his attention to the horns in particular and notes how three of the ten were plucked out by one additional horn. This “little horn” had eyes like a human and a mouth which boasted greatly. Daniel observed how this boasting little horn was eventually slain in judgment.
Then a vision of judgment appears to Daniel in which a enigmatic Son of Man figure, which appears to be a human being categorically distinct from the previous four beasts, is given dominion, glory, and kingship from the Ancient of Days. The kingdom belonging to this human figure will never pass away (7:14) – a stark contrast to the dominion of the beasts which was taken away (7:12).
Sadly, the three initial beasts are not given any further comment or elaboration within the angel’s unpacking of the dream. I will therefore take this opportunity to examine the popular reading of Daniel 7 and point out any weaknesses it might have. Then I will offer up my own critical reading of the passage.
The Popular Reading: the four beasts are Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome
Lion: The initial beast is generally accepted to refer to the nation of Babylon. In fact, Babylon is elsewhere characterized as a lion by Jeremiah (Jer 4:7; 50:17). Daniel 7:4 notes how the wings of this lion were plucked, suggesting with the divine passive that it is none other than God who took away Babylon’s sovereignty. It was humbled to the point of a worthy comparison to the prideful arrogance of Nebuchadnezzar depicted in Daniel ch. 4, which ended with his humiliation at the hands of Daniel’s God (cf. Dan 4:16).
Bear: According to this interpretation, the following nation is Medo-Persia. The imagery used to describe this bear in Dan 7:5 is cryptic and it is difficult to unearth any clues which offer persuasive pointers. With the many suggestions appearing to be inconclusive regarding the intended meaning of the ribs in the mouth of this beast, one can generally say that it appears as a ferocious animal. It is extremely common to identify the bear with Medo-Persia strictly on the grounds that the second kingdom in Daniel 2 is also popularly regarded as referring to Medo-Persia.
The problems with this reading are easy to identify. First, Media and Persia were two separate nations outright before Persia conquered Babylon and Media. There is nothing in the bear’s description that warrants the pairing of two nations together. Secondly, the bear is said to be propped up on one side (one arm and one leg pointed upwards?), which could very reasonably indicate a general lack in any meaningful historical achievement. If that is indeed the meaning then is seems unlikely that the height of the Persian Empire fits this description. Although the Media-conquered Persian Empire was known for its ferocity, Media itself demonstrated a fair amount of ‘fight’ when it attacked the much larger Babylon in the 550s BCE (Media’s king Astyages went to war with Babylon’s Nabonidus). Barring the problem of questionably combining two kingdoms into one for the bear, there is nothing in its description that persuasively demonstrates Persian characteristics.
Leopard: According the popular view, Medo-Persia is followed by the kingdom of Greece, and therefore must fit the role of Daniel’s leopard. Its four wings and four heads could be used to refer to the four Greek generals who took control of the empire after Alexander the Great’s death.
However, Greece only fits when two kingdoms are shoved into the number 2 spot above (bear). The leopard, which is known for its speed, is described with four wings, further highlighting its swiftness. However, it is difficult to pinpoint how ‘speed’ relates to the Greek kingdom. On the other hand, Isa 41:3 describes Cyrus the Persian as a swift conqueror. Therefore, the suggestion that the leopard represents Greece finds no support in the text.
Terrifying Fourth Beast: This last beast, according to the popular view, is none other than the Roman Empire. Rome naturally follows Greece in time. It had plenty of rulers to equate with the many horns, whether one wants to suggest Roman emperors or particular Popes from the Catholic Church which sprung out of Rome. Of course, this reading was popular mainly with Protestant Christians.
Unfortunately, Rome is technically the fifth kingdom (not the forth), since Media and Persia were separate nations. Furthermore, it is not altogether clear how a Roman little horn will wear down God’s holy ones for “time, times, and a half a time” – a phrase regarded as three and a half years. Even Josephus, the Jewish general who turned to the dark side of the force (i.e., over to the Roman side), interprets the fourth beast’s little horn as the Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes:
And there would arise from their number a certain king who would make war on the Jewish nation and their laws, deprive them of the form of government based on these laws, spoil the temple and prevent the sacrifices from being offered for three years. These misfortunes our nation did in fact come to experience under Antiochus Epiphanes, just as Daniel saw and wrote that they would happen. –Ant. 10.275-6, Loeb translation
Note carefully how Dan 7:25 says that this little horn “will intend to make alterations in times and in law; and they will be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a times.” So Josephus, one who knew well the might of Rome’s armies, nevertheless regarded the fourth kingdom in Daniel 7 to refer to Greece.
I suggest that equating the four beasts of Daniel 7 with Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome is not the most honest reading of the passage, failing multiple times to hold up to basic historical scrutiny.
The Modern Scholarly Reading: the four beasts are Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece
Lion: As mentioned above, the lion is generally agreed upon as referring to Babylon. Support comes from Jeremiah’s references to Babylon specifically as a lion (Jer 4:7; 50:17).
Bear: Media seems to fit the bear better than a constructed two-in-one kingdom of Medo-Persia. The bear described as being propped up on one side suggests a lack in historical achievements, while the ferocious attributes of this bear nevertheless indicate Media’s tenacity in battle observed by going to war with the Babylonian king Nabonidus.
Leopard: The next kingdom in line is Persia. The swiftness of a leopard possessing wings is also observed in Isaiah’s depiction of the Persian conqueror Cyrus as one pursuing so quickly that his feet “do not even touch the path” (Isa 41:3). The four heads could very easily refer to the four Persian kings which the Book of Daniel itself mentions in 11:2 – “Behold, three more kings are going to arise in Persia. Then a fourth will gain far more riches than all of them; as soon as he becomes strong through his riches, he will arouse the whole empire against the realm of Greece.” Furthermore, the “dominion given to” the leopard (Dan 7:6) suggest the vastness of Persia’s conquered territory, which again fits Persia’s history better than Greece’s.
Terrifying Fourth Beast: This leaves us with the fourth beast as Greece. This fits nicely based upon a variety of data. First, little horn was identified as the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes by Josephus (quoted above). Secondly, the three horns plucked up by this little horn are easily observed historically to be the Greek kings Seleucus IV, Demetrius, and the infant Antiochus, all of whom were killed by the Antiochus Epiphanes. Thirdly, the time of ‘three and a half years’ (“time, times, and half a time”) from Dan 7:25 exactly fits the period of the Jewish Maccabean Revolt against the Greek armies of Antiochus from 167-164 BCE. Fourthly, the First and Second books of Maccabees independently regard the one who made “alterations in times and in laws” (Dan 7:25) as the Greek tyrant Antiochus (1 Macc 1:45; 2 Macc 6:6). He in fact changed, momentarily, the Jewish calendar, making it difficult to keep the holy days. Fifthly, the manner of identifying individual kings with horns in iconography and on minted coins began with the Greeks (specifically with Seleucus I [see coin] and Antiochus I). Additional verification comes from 1 Enoch 90:9 which used horned animals to refer to the Maccabean Revolt against the evil Greek Empire. In regard to the ten horns used in the vision in order to bring the listener from the beginning of the Greek kingdom’s dominance (330s BCE) up to the life of the little horn Antiochus Epiphanes (170s BCE) suggests the figure of “ten” as a number of totality, often used in apocalyptic texts for designating successive periods in time (cf. especially 11Q13 2.6-8; 1 Enoch 91:15; Sib. Or. 2.15).
It is prudent to explore some of our findings at this point:
- The four beasts are not equally represented in the vision. One verse is given to explaining the lion (Dan 7:4), one verse on the bear (Dan 7:5), one verse on the leopard (Dan 7:6), and eleven given to the fourth beast. It would therefore make sense to state that the vision is primarily about about the fourth beast (and its little horn) while the former three beasts are a mere prelude to the fourth. A similar emphasis in one particular nation can be observed in the statue vision of Daniel 2 wherein the fourth nation is detailed with far more words than all of the previous three combined.
- It is not shocking that the scheme of Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece best fits both the four nations in Daniel 2 and also in Daniel 7.
- Within the emphasis given to the fourth (Greek) kingdom, there is considerable focus on the actions of the little horn which is best understood as Antiochus IV Epiphanes. One needs to ask why Daniel seems so obsessed with this particular Greek king. The answer almost surely lies in his persecuting harassment of the holy ones of God (Dan 7:21, 25) which was clearly felt during the events leading to the Maccabean Revolt in 167 BCE.
- The removal and judgment of the little horn (Antiochus IV) is not achieved by Jewish military power or warfare. Instead, God himself is the one who removes this evil figure. Therefore, the vision would encourage those suffering during the Maccabean Revolt to trust in God to deliver them rather than trusting in their weapons and zealous rebellion.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Do you find the scholarly reconstruction persuasive? Please stay tuned for further posts on Daniel’s visions.