The Book of Daniel and Apocalyptic Literature

Written by Jeremy Sexton | July 25, 2010 | Daniel 1 - 4

As we begin the book of Daniel, I felt we needed to go over some basic principles that are going to give us a hand with making it through this book. It’s a complicated book, so this is a complicated post, but trust me it’s worth knowing as we approach Daniel. Try to stick with me here!

One of the most important questions when you step to the text of Scripture is that of genre. It is no different than any other work of literature in this regard. When you see on the front page of the newspaper, “Dozens massacred in Detroit,” you are rightfully appalled by this notion. However, when you turn to the sports page and see the headline, “Tar Heels slaughter the Blue Devils,” you do not think that North Carolina’s basketball team has literally murdered Duke’s. The difference is genre.

We understand many of the genres within the Bible because we have similar ones that exist in our culture. The Psalms are much like music and poetry which we identify with, Proverbs are not much different from other axioms, the epistles are similar to letters and email that we read and write daily, and narratives within the text are structured much like any other story you would read.

There is one genre, however, which we have absolutely nothing comparable for and that is the genre of much of Daniel and Revelation, apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic literature sprang out of an interesting time in Israel’s history. In the time between Malachi and Matthew, the “intertestimental” period, it was generally accepted that God was no longer speaking. If someone felt that God had given them something to say, they were not free to express it because God was not speaking anymore. Their solution to this problem was, what we now call apocalyptic literature.

The jist of apocalyptic literature is the following: because God is no longer speaking, they would assume the identity of a long past historical figure and write a series of visions. This would either be a dream that they were recording or a trip into heaven that they were lead on by an angel. They would see visions along the way of different animals, colors, numbers, all chock-full of symbolism that the author is placing into these visions, encoding different messages. I once tried to write a blog like this in college, it’s a fascinating exercise.

A popular form of apocalypse is the “historical apocalypse” in which these visions seem to predict precisely every event that has happened between the life of the pseudonym the true author has assumed and the modern day. For instance, there is a famous apocalyptic book known as the Animal Apocalypse. In it, the author assumes the identity of Enoch and through a story about different animals, he tells of the exodus, the judges, the rise of David, the exile, and hits all of these events with extreme precision. He then writes to his own day and tries his hand at real prophecy. Needless to say, things go awry and he is no longer accurate. It’s like Animal Farm meets the book of Revelation.

This sounds incredibly dishonest to us today. They’re claiming to be someone they are not and are trying to pass off history as prophecy with the goal of communicating their message. The fact that this bothers us is precisely why we don’t see anything like this in our time; it violates our post-modern, western sensibilities.

Consider you are living in this intertestimental period and legitimately have something to say from God. Your only recourse is to write in this style. Your readers expect visions, you must give them visions. They expect secrecy, you must add in secrecy. (You can see this in Daniel when he needlessly describes the Ptolemy and Seleucid dynasties as “the king of the south” and “the king of the north” in chapter 11.) They expect catastrophe, you must provide the same. Much like Stephanie Meyer’s readers expect vivid descriptions of “Edward’s perfect chin,” they are beholden to the genre expectations of their day.

Note, that at no point have I said that apocalyptic literature must deal with what we today call “the apocalypse.” It is not specifically end times that are being described in these books, though that sometimes is the case. We’ll tackle Revelation when we get there; for Daniel, it’s much more likely that he is describing the first coming of Jesus than His second.

We absolutely at NCC, across the board, every member of the staff believe the book of Daniel to be every bit as inspired as the rest of Scripture. It’s my firm belief that in the midst of the genre, God speaks a message of hope through Daniel that though evil empires have risen up around him, the Messiah is on His way and soon. That as this emperor that thought himself to be “god manifest” reigned and terrorized Israel, hope was on its way. We have record of that hope and we call it the book of Daniel.