Wisdom Actors, part 2

Copyright. Permission to reprint required.

In the controversial biblical book of Daniel, mischievous exegesis has limited our view to “Daniel the prophet and apocalpytist,” ignoring “Daniel the statesman” and what we can learn from him about the wisdom tradition. It’s fascinatingly instructive. Daniel the statesman exhibits many ideas and norms of the wisdom tradition lived maturely in political life during his long and distinguished political career as a devote Yahwist in pagan Babylonia. (See the summary review of the wisdom literature for an introduction to these ideas and norms.) The features covered in this article explore Daniel’s education in wisdom, his religious belief, his attitude toward his Chaldean colleagues, his sticking points, and his style of communication to kings and top government officials.

Caveat: I use the words “the state” and “politics” in this article in a general and loose sense, simply as a shorthand for the organizing and governing that must take place among a large group of people, even in ancient times, if there is to be domestic order not chaos. In other words, I do not mean the modern inventions of the state and politics that have been with us in the West since fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe.

This article is meant to be used with The Wisdom Tradition – See With New Eyes and Wisdom Actors, part 1, as well as Wisdom Words.

Daniel the Statesman and Anticipatory Witness
His education, religion, politics, sticking points, and style

by Charles Strohmer

First things first: placement of the book. Scholars usually place the Book of Daniel among a class of writings known as apocalyptic literature (from the Greek apokalypsis: to uncover; to disclose; bring revelation). This literature is believed by many Christians and Jews to convey revelations about the kingdom of God and the end of the world. The literature abounds with bizarre visions, puzzling symbolism, and supernatural creatures and events, and it includes the New Testament’s Book of Revelation as well as long passages in the Old Testament such as Isaiah 24-27. Daniel, the main political actor in the book that bears his name, has therefore typically been identified as an apocalyptist.

In the Christian faith Daniel is also considered a prophet and the book is always found in a section of the Christian Bible called The Prophets, probably because Daniel had insight from God into the apocalyptic revelations. In the Jewish Scriptures, however, the book is placed with The Writings, which include books of wisdom literature, such as Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, and books such as Ruth, Esther, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, which include, but are not limited to, many political narratives whose actors were trained in the wisdom tradition.

Neither Daniel the apocalyptist nor Daniel the prophet will be our focus, here. But Daniel the political actor and statesman. When we plumb the depths of this often ignored aspect of his life through the lens of wisdom we can gain much insight about the way of wisdom in the halls of power.

Daniel’s political career

Daniel, a Jewish youth taken into exile to Babylon, eventually rose to a highly distinguished political career among elite officials in Babylon, where he served at the highest levels of government throughout a long tenure (successive administrations) and was known as the wisest of the wise. The secret of his renown can be traced to what the text calls his penetrating gifts of wisdom and insight, which were recognized early on by his tutors at the king’s college in Babylon, gifts that were recognized by the king himself when Daniel sat finals before the king.

The graduate was proclaimed to be “ten times better” than the other king’s counselors in “every matter of wisdom and understanding {hokma bina} about which the king questioned them” (Daniel 1:20). (Bina in 1:20 and elsewhere in the book can be translated “insight.” I prefer the couplet “wisdom and insight” because “insight” seems to me to bring out from bina what our contemporary ears need to get a feel for when thinking about the quality of Daniel’s wisdom, which is a feature of his political counsel runs through the entire book. For some basic help with Hebrew words, see Wisdom Words on this site. For some help with the relation of wisdom to insight and several other key ideas in the literature, see The Historic Wisdom Tradition and Its Literature: A Summary Review, under the subhead “defining wisdom.”) [Editor’s note: All Hebrew words in this article, such as hokma, bina, and maskil are spelled with their diacritical marks.]

Daniel’s wisdom stands out

Daniel stands out to his tutors, to the kings, and to the royal court because he seems to them to possess the quality of something other than even a heightened intuitive capacity for wisdom, such as is implied in Ahithophel’s esa, council (2 Samuel 16:23; see Wisdom Actors, part 1). And in fact the narrative itself attributes Daniel’s wisdom as being from God (1:17), which even the kings, and at least one of their consorts, acknowledge, albeit through their own religious lens. For instance, during an sudden and unexpected political muddle that gets the best of King Belshazzar and his inner circle of wise councilors, the Queen of Babylon suggests to they ought to consider sending for Daniel, for, she says, he is a maskil whose wisdom (hokma) derives from the “spirit of the holy gods” (5:11). Her understanding is similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s, who recognizes in Daniel “the spirt of the holy gods” (4:8).Daniel seems to be a political actor in a special elite of maskil (or hakamim) in the Babylonian government.

Use of the word maskil is significant. It is a somewhat technical term to describe a special class of advisors within a larger group. Its meaning in Daniel is a bit cloudy but with a little effort it may be seen. During his Babylonian education Daniel showed “aptitude for every kind of learning (1:4; “learning” is hokma: “wisdom”), and by the time he was graduated he had gained “knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning ” (1:17; “learning” = hokma). The words translated “aptitude” and “understanding” in these verses come from the Hebrew root word skl, for: understand, see, make wise, act with (or have) insight. The word is similarly word found in 5:11-12 and 14, on the lips of Babylonian queen just mentioned, and in 9:22, it is used by the angel Gabriel: “Daniel, I have come to give you insight (skl).” The word is also translated as “wise” in 11:33: “those who are wise will instruct many.” Old Testament scholar William McKane therefore concludes, that “Daniel” is a maskil “who can give insight” (McKane, Prophets and Wise Men, p. 100).

I will have more to say about Daniel as a maskil. But first I want to point out the significance of several other key words in the text, especially in 1:4, 17, and 20, for it would leave a big gap in understanding Daniel as a political actor in the wisdom tradition if I were to ignore them completely. These additional words, along with the others already noted (previous paragraph) actually play quite an important role beyond their individual meanings. To show that, here are those words as translated in the King James Bible (KJB), which for this exercise I find a bit more revealing than some of the more recent translations, such as the NIV. So here are those terms from the KJB, including the ones just quoted in the previous paragraph, but which the NIV translates differently. Verse 4: skillful, wisdom, gifted, knowledge, understanding, science, learning, tongue. Verse 17: knowledge, skill, learning, wisdom, understanding. Verse 20: wisdom, understanding.

Now, you can breathe easy. I’m not going to explicate these terms, here. That is not necessary for our purposes. What does need saying, however, is that their consociation in Daniel reminds us that the wisdom literature reveals the close, perhaps essential, affinity of wisdom to other core human concerns. What I wrote in the two-part summary review, that perhaps you can’t have one without the others, bears repeating here: “Like love, faith, and other ultimate human concerns, always there seems to be something more going with wisdom than any one or two meanings can denote. This seems clear from the literature, where words for ‘wisdom’ are in many passages intertwined with the words for ‘insight,’ ‘knowledge,’ ‘understanding,’ and ‘skill.’ Evidently, it takes a family. As anyone who has played around with the meanings and uses of those words in the Hebrew knows, there is a many-sidedness to wisdom, a multi-dimensionality, the precludes arriving at a neat definition.”

Long story short, and I think this will become clear as we move through this article, from what I understand, Daniel’s classification as maskil is but another way of explaining that his wisdom-based training and service in government places him squarely in the class of officials and advisors that other books of the Bible call the hakamim. Further, from the narrative Daniel seems to be a political actor in a special elite of maskil (or hakamim) in the Babylonian government. A religious reason for this is given in the text, for his insight, as everyone admits, even Daniel himself, is attributed to God (e.g., 2:28). But there is also a political reason given, which begins with his education and training.

Education and training

After the king of Babylon had captured Jerusalem, Daniel and three of his friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all Israelite youth of noble lineage, were exiled to Babylon to be tutored in the “language and literature of the Babylonians” (1:3-5). Evidently they showed clear promise, being chosen because they showed “aptitude for every kind of learning [hokmâ], [were] well informed, [and] quick to understand” (1:4). As the KJB puts it, they were “skillful in all wisdom, gifted in knowledge, and understanding science.” I have written briefly elsewhere about educational aspects of wisdom, but in Daniel 1:3-5, 17, and 20, some information about the curriculum of the four Israelite youth is provided. Of this, McKane writes that it “illustrates well the close connections of old wisdom with the educational discipline prescribed for those who would aspire to positions of responsibility in the state” (Prophets and Wise Men, p. 40).

Why the four seemed to have shown promise is not mentioned, but it is worth noting, given the proliferation of temple schools, both in Israel and the surrounding nations, that Daniel and his friends may have excelled as students in Jerusalem before Ashpenaz, their head tutor in Babylon, singled them out. As members of the Jewish aristocracy, the four youth had probably been well educated in Jerusalem, and many temple schools trained students not only in their nation’s cultic tradition but also in what we call subjects of the liberal arts. It probably included the kind of broad-based studies (“aptitude for every kind of learning”) that Ashpenaz (a sar who is the king of Babylon’s chief court official) recognized as qualifying them for the privileged tutoring requisite for holding high-level positions of political power in the Babylonian royal court.

It is not clear from the text if the four friends carried “college degrees” from Jerusalem or if they their education in Babylon began with “college” or “post-grad” studies. It does seem clear that they first had to test for entrance requirements into the program in order “to serve in the king’s palace” (1:4). (As far as I know, there is no scholarship that affirms what I am speculating about their training in a Jerusalem temple school, but based upon what I have learned from my research about such schools, it gives us a somewhat believable scenario, rather than, say, the more unlikely one that these four friends were randomly chosen by Ashpenaz.)Ashpenaz has marked Daniel and his three friends as standout scholars, perhaps from “Jerusalem College,” and admits them to a specialized course of tutored studies at “King’s University” in Babylon.

Wherever they began scholastically in Babylon, and whatever their path to it in Israel, the language of the text suggests broad-based studies. Which entailed, what, exactly? The text is unspecific, but the phrase “the language and literature of the Babylonians,” which is Ashpenaz’s commission for them from the king himself, provides some clues. Here, again, the KJB is helpful, using the term “Chaldeans” rather than “Babylonians” to translate Daniel 1:4, and elsewhere in the book. Louis Hartman, former professor of Semitics at Catholic University of America, notes that “the Chaldeans” of Daniel 1:4 qualifies the phrase “the language and literature” and therefore does not mean the Babylonian population in general, as it does in Daniel 5:30 and 9:1, with its mixed and conquered peoples. Rather, it is a reference to those who were skilled in what Hartman calls “the well-known omen literature of ancient Mesopotamia (Louis F. Hartman, “Daniel,” The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1968, p. 449). Old Testament scholars Keil and Delitzsch weigh in with this. The “Chaldeans” in this context is not being used synonymously for the inhabitants of the kingdom of Babylon. It is being used “in a more restricted sense” to describe a class of “Babylonish priests and learned men or magi,” and “frequently [for] the whole body of the wise men in Babylon” (Keil and Delitzsch, “Daniel,” Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 9, p. 74).

The use of “Chaldean,” then, in Daniel 1:4, apparently depicts a special class of officials within Babylonian governance and may help to explain the use of maskil to denote Daniel as among a privileged elite within that class, though on this latter point I am speculating. Whatever the case may be, Ashpenaz has marked Daniel and his three friends as standout scholars, perhaps from “Jerusalem College,” and admits them to a specialized course of tutored studies at “King’s University” in Babylon. It took three years to complete, included the higher education necessary for holding government office, they were graduated with honors, and the text indicates that the four had divine favor upon their studies (1:17).

Chaldean curriculum

Of the specific course work assigned to Daniel for his education into the wisdom and political ranks of the Chaldeans, we may only approximate. Certainly he studied the Chaldean equivalent to today’s political science and international relations, though it would not have been “secular,” as it is today, but steeped in Babylonian religious myth. This would have meant going through a course of higher education that no card-carrying Evangelical today would entertain! Daniel would have been required to study what today is frequently called esoteric, irrational, or occult fields. This is a controversial subject and we cannot spend a lot of time on it, here. But a few words seem appropriate.

It has been argued by some Christians that Daniel, a devout believe in Yahweh, would never have engaged in such studies because Yahweh, in no uncertain terms through Moses and the prophets, had condemned participation in occult practices. On the other hand, it is a fact of that ancient history that astrology, divination, magical customs, and the telling of the future through dream interpretation were professions integral to the functioning of royal courts and kings’ governments. Training in the irrational sciences, then, would have been as essential for anyone wishing to qualify for high-level government posts in Babylon as courses in political science and international relations are necessary today for securing university teaching positions.

The sarcastic polemic against the religious aspect of the “Chaldean” government of Babylon in Isaiah 47 (KJB), indicates, at the very least, just how crucial the irrational sciences were to the shaping of policies by the central government. What today we call astrologers were in particular key government functionaries in many old-world nations. Their opinions (readings of the stars and then planets) were turned in to their kings as commonly and normally as reports today are received by a President or a Prime Minister from a cabinet secretary. It therefore seems to me that the argument that Daniel never would have participated in such studies cannot be supported, for it is precisely within this context that he rises to a “high position” (2:48), most probably to what today we would call a cabinet post, which may have enabled him to find appointments for his three friends.

There is an crucial difference, however, between learning the literature and adopting the religious elements and practices mingled with it. From the steadfast Jewish faith of the four friends, which at times put them in jeopardy of the lives (see below), it is clear that they stood aloof from the Babylonian religious practices of their peers and that Daniel’s guidance, in particular, came from his deep reliance on “the God in heaven who revels mysteries” (2:28). Keil and Delitzsch frame this in the language of wisdom. Daniel, the conclude, “needed to be deeply versed in the Chaldean wisdom, as formerly Moses was in the wisdom of Egypt (Acts vii. 22), so as to be able to put to shame the wisdom of this world with the hidden wisdom of God” (K & D, “Daniel,” p. 83).

So as we explore Daniel’s political career more comprehensively, we need to begin by being candid about his education and training for public office. Next, we have a number of instructive clues in the text to assist in understanding his attitude and how it was that he was able to serve in this government, and with such along and distinguished career.


« 1 2 3 4 View All»