The stories in the first six chapters are similar in kind to historical novels—they mention historical names and places but are, nevertheless, fictional. At several points they contradict what we know from other sources about the history of the times. For instance, Belshazzar is presented as a king of Babylon and son of Nebuchadnezzar. Ancient Babylonian inscriptions show that he was son of Nabonidus (a slightly later king), and that he served as deputy ruler in Babylon but was never king. Darius the Mede is not attested independently of the book of Daniel, but Darius was the name of an early Persian king.
In each of these cases the book of Daniel has a smattering of history, but it is not ultimately concerned with historical accuracy. The stories are means of conveying a religious message, like the parables of Jesus, and so the occasional historical characters and places are not the main point. Daniel, like Noah and Job (with whom he is mentioned in Ez 14, 14 ), may never have existed, but the religious value of the stories is none the less for that.
The stories paint a picture of the life of Jewish exiles in Babylon. It is an ideal rather than a realistic picture, but it expresses hopes and defines acceptable behavior. There is a certain analogy between the situation of the Jews in a pagan world and the modern situation of Christians in a secular world, which makes the message of the tales still relevant today. This message has two facets: it affirms the possibility of life in a Gentile environment, and insists on the importance of fidelity to the essentials of the Jewish tradition.
Affirmation of the Gentile Environment
Daniel and his companions are taken into the service of the Babylonian king and are trained in “the language and literature of the Chaldeans.” They express no reservations about this training. Indeed they outshine the Babylonians at their own skills ( 1, 20 ). The point of chapter 2 is that Daniel can interpret the king's dream when the Babylonian wise men fail, because of the assistance of his God. His superior ability to interpret mysteries is again in evidence in chapters 4 and 5 .
King Nebuchadnezzar's dream in chapter 2 provides an interesting case study in Daniel's attitude to Gentile kingship. The dream concerns the famous statue of four metals symbolizing four kingdoms, which will all be destroyed by a stone and which symbolizes the kingdom of God. This dream foretells that ultimately all Gentile kingdoms will be destroyed. There is no urgency about this prophecy, however. God has allotted a lengthy period of time for Gentile rule, and during that period Jews can find fulfillment in the service of a pagan king. The spirit of the passage is similar to that of Jeremiah 27, 6–8 , which affirms that all nations must serve Babylon until its time too shall come.
Chapters 4 and 5 present two case studies of pagan rule in action. In chapter 4 , Nebuchadnezzar becomes proud because of his great kingdom. For this he is punished by being reduced to the condition of a beast. After a time his reason is restored, and he gives praise to God. He is then restored to his kingdom. In chapter 5 , Belshazzar behaves arrogantly at a feast and profanes the sacred vessels of the Jews. Mysterious writing appears on the wall, which only Daniel can read. It pronounces judgment on the king. Because Belshazzar did not learn from the experience of Nebuchadnezzar, he is weighed in the balance and found wanting, and his kingdom is given to the Medes and the Persians. In short, Gentile kings must be subject to God in the fundamental sense that they must temper their arrogance and behave with restraint. If they do this, Daniel has no objection to their rule, and indeed he shows sympathetic concern for Nebuchadnezzar. Only when the kings exceed their limits do they incur the judgment of God.
The Importance of Fidelity
Despite their success at the pagan court, Daniel and his companions remain faithful to their Jewish religion. In chapter 1 , they refuse to eat the king's food, because it is not kosher. (See the laws concerning clean and unclean food in chapter 11 of the book of Leviticus.) In chapter 3 the three youths refuse to worship the king's statue at the risk of death, and in chapter 6 Daniel likewise refuses to depart from his custom of daily prayer even at the cost of being thrown into the lions' den. In each case the Jews ultimately win the respect of their rulers and emerge more successful than before. The stories of the fiery furnace and the lions' den, like all miracle stories, are meant to arouse a sense of wonder. They are not realistic stories. The long history of Christian martyrdoms and of the persecution of Jews (down to the lethal furnaces of Auschwitz) shows that God does not usually intervene to rescue the innocent. Christian tradition appropriately understood the stories of the furnace and lions' den as representing resurrection from the dead. The essential point in Daniel's stories, however, is that God has the power to save, or to do whatever is for the best. Daniel and his companions have trust in God, and this liberates them to do whatever they ought to do regardless of the immediate consequences. The attitude of the tales is well expressed in the words of the three youths ( 3, 17f ): “If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white‐hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up.” Their fidelity is not conditional. It is a matter of integrity, and this integrity is the key to their success.
The tales in Daniel 1 through 6 have a very optimistic view of the Gentile world. The Jews have enemies at the royal court, largely for reasons of envy, but the kings are well disposed and repeatedly praise and acknowledge the God of Daniel. In chapter 6 , King Darius is dismayed when he is tricked into throwing Daniel to the lions. He is delighted when Daniel survives and readily confesses “the living God, enduring forever.” The stories stop short of having the king convert to Judaism. In a sense it is even more gratifying to have a pagan king acknowledge the power of the God of the Jews. These tales express confidence that the truth of Jewish religion is powerful enough to impress any person of goodwill. Judaism has nothing to fear from the Gentile or secular world.
Daniel 1 through 6 conveys a sense that God is in control and that all will work out for the best. The kingdom of God can be exercised through the rule of pagan kings. True religion does not require any particular political system. This optimistic view of the world arose from the experience of Jews in foreign lands in much of the ancient world. It is similar to the liberal theology that has flourished in modern times wherever Christians or Jews have lived under tolerant political regimes. It is an attractive view of the world, which emphasizes the good in human nature, and is a viable theology in normal times. Unfortunately, times are not always normal, and there are occasions when we have to give more recognition to the forces of evil in the world. One such occasion in antiquity was the persecution of the Jews in the Maccabean period (see “Bible History and Archaeology,” RG 52 ), and it was in this situation that the apocalyptic visions of Daniel ( 7–12 ) were written.