Responsibly Interpreting the Vision in Daniel 9 (part 1)

In our fourth installment of this ongoing series on the Book of Daniel’s visions we will begin to examine the famous prophecy of the Seventy Weeks. I’ve been working at this material for some time now and even had this semester’s Hebrew students translate the significant sections in class as an experiment. Now I must admit that the final four verses of Daniel 9 are complicated, so I will try my best to simplify the data without watering down the details.

danielwriting.JPGThe chapter begins narrated in the first year of Darius the Mede. Without getting into all of the problems regarding this person’s identity, it is safe to say that the author places this event in 536 BCE, exactly seventy years from the reported beginning of Daniel’s story in Dan 1:1 (606 BCE). The protagonist notes how he observed that Jeremiah the prophet prophesied about the duration of exile in his scrolls (the length of the Book of Jeremiah would have taken up multiple Hebrew scrolls). This duration, described as pertaining to the “completion of the desolations of Jerusalem” (9:2), were to last seventy years (Jer 25:11). According to the chronology given in Daniel, the seventy year penalty has just finished up, but readers of Daniel chs. 7 and 8 know that the desolations upon Jerusalem, its people, and its holy temple certainly have not yet ceased. Furthermore, the return from exile did not restore ownership of Israel to the Jews and they were not allowed to reinstate the Davidic monarchy. In other words, if the exile is over then why aren’t the conditions restored back to their former glory?

For those Jews who returned by Babylon, this was a considerable problem in need of answers. So Daniel offers a very humbling and pious prayer to his God, focusing specifically upon the sins of “Jerusalem and your people” (9:16, 19). The petition concludes with the prayerful request for God to “let your face shine upon your desolate sanctuary” (9:17), that is, the Jerusalem temple which in 536 BCE was still destroyed.

During the prayer, an angelic messenger named Gabriel appears to Daniel so as to accomplish the apocalyptic function of the heavenly revealer of the prophecy. Just as we have observed in Daniel chs. 7 and 8, an angel will reveal the details to Daniel (one of the major differences between Daniel and the Major Prophets of the Hebrew Bible wherein they are directed by the “word of the LORD”). Daniel 9:24-27 records are all the words of Gabriel the apocalyptic insider, the one unveiling God’s will for his people. The original  readers are placed in a position of privilege.

I will now begin to take each of the four remaining verses in order, noting along the way some of the popular interpretations, pointing out their inconsistencies, and suggesting a more persuasive alternative. The renderings of the verses are my own translation from the Hebrew text. This post will cover Dan 9:24 and the subsequent posts will cover the remaining three verses.

9:24 – “Seventy sevens (weeks) have been determined upon your people and upon your holy city; to complete the cultic law violation, to seal sins, to cover iniquity, to bring in perpetual covenant faithfulness, to seal the vision and the prophet, and to anoint the holy of holies.

It appears here that Jeremiah the prophet’s prediction of seventy years has undergone a substantial revision. It has now been multiplied by seven, a number within apocalyptic schemes which denotes completion or perfection (cf. Matt 18:21-22; the Book of Revelation). Furthermore, the literary technique of dividing particular sections of history into ‘weeks’ is extremely common in contemporary apocalyptic texts. I have over the years gathered a plethora of examples (1 Enoch 10:11-12; 91:12-17; 93:1-10; 4Q181 frag. 2:1-4; 4Q390 frag. 2:4-6; Jubilees [title]; 3:15) which have persuaded me that the use of ‘weeks’ to depict sections of history is meant to be understood figuratively rather than with a scientific calculator. This point, in addition to the number seven used to multiply the original seventy weeks, caution us from concluding with a multiplied-out 490 years as a specific number to be placed on a timeline. I will have more to say on this in the exegesis of Dan 9:25-26.

Daniel 9:24 says that Jeremiah’s seventy week prediction has been modified and reinterpreted to accomplish six particular infinitive statements:

#1 “to complete the cultic law violation” – The first purpose of the seventy weeks is to complete the violation to the cultic laws. The Book of Daniel has already alerted us to the “little horn” Antiochus Epiphanes who was predicted to transgress the regular temple sacrifices and desecrate the holy temple (Dan 8:12-14), using the same noun pesha appearing here in Dan 9:24.

#2 “to seal sins” – The second infinitive is to, in a sense, ‘put a lid on the problem’ of these sins which have brought about the temple’s desecration and the people’s plight. The verb ‘to seal’ is used in 1 Kgs 21:8; Jer 32:10, 11, 44 to indicate the act of containing something inside or holding something in check. It should be noted that the Hebrew text has “to seal sins” as the ketiv reading (“that which is written) while the scribes later modified it to say “to finish sin” with the qere reading (“that which is read”). I, of course, went with the original reading and not what some later scribe altered the text to say. It is also sad that modern English translations which give both readings do not tell the reader which is the ketiv and which is the qere reading. Some Christian readers, who have not observed that there are two readings, have jumped on the “to finish sin” qere reading and interpreted it in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. While I agree that the salvific act of Jesus is of extreme importance, it is puzzling to me how it deals with the problem of the historical Babylonian exile and desolated Jerusalem temple.

#3 “to cover iniquity” – This third infinitive addresses the specific iniquities (Hebrew avon) spoken by Daniel in his prayer (Dan 9:13, 16). In other words, the seventy weeks will cover the specific iniquities confessed by Daniel in this chapter’s petition.

#4 “to bring in perpetual covenant faithfulness” – With the Jerusalem temple out of commission during the Babylonian exile and the initial years of the Persian period there would be no sacrifices taking place. Furthermore, if Antiochus and his armies are ae4.JPGgoing to profane the temple in 167 BCE as predicted in Daniel chs. 7 and 8, then the Jewish covenantal act of faithfulness and obedience would need to be restored. The Jerusalem temple needs to be thoroughly cleansed (from being spoiled by the Greeks in the 160s) before perpetual covenant faithfulness can be established. Some Christian readers have read this infinitive to refer to the establishment of the new covenant in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but this does not make any sense as a historical answer to Daniel’s prayer and requires the reader to read into the text the new covenant (about which Daniel 9 says absolutely nothing).

#5 “to seal up the vision and the prophet” – This fifth infinitive sets out to seal/complete the vision (presumably the vision which Gabriel formerly gave back in Daniel 8 regarding the desolations upon the temple and the Jewish people). The “prophet” is easily identified as Jeremiah the prophet already mentioned in this chapter (9:2), the one who uttered the into seventy year prophecy. In other words, the seventy weeks will accomplish all that Jeremiah originally hoped to achieve with his seventy year prediction.

#6 “to anoint the holy of holies” – Both in 536 BCE and during the events of the Maccabean Revolt was the Jerusalem temple in great disarray, either in pieces or profaned by corrupt priests and Greek influences. The seventy weeks prophecy will end with the temple being holyofholiesanointed, thus restoring the holy of holies. Christian readings of this which point to the death and resurrection of Jesus are unable to offer a persuasive answer for how Good Friday brought an anointing upon the temple’s holy of holies, something which the four Gospel writers never mention). However, the Jewish people, after forcing Antiochus’ troops out of Jerusalem in 164 BCE, did in fact cleanse and restore the Jerusalem temple, free from Greek contamination.

 

As I look at my word count I think it is best to take a break at this point in the exegesis, leaving the remaining three verses for future posts. I will make one small observation at this point and note how it is not a coincidence that the events surrounding the Maccabean Revolt seem to be saturated in Dan 9:24, similar to what we observed with the “little horn” in both Daniel 7 and Daniel 8.

Stay tuned for further updates on the rest of Daniel 9.

 

 

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