Daniel: Historical Background


Recently I finished reading a textbook with the title An Introduction to the Old Testament written by Longman lll and Dillard. In this book, the authors go into every book of the Old Testament and address: The Bibliographies (such as Commentaries that they recommend), The Genre, The Historical Background, The Literary Analysis, The Theological Message and finally Approaching the New Testament.

When I read the historical background of the book of Daniel, I thought that it was outstanding. I came to the conclusion that this is a valuable resource that I should read repeatedly in the future, so I decided to include it in this blog. Names such as Cyrus, Darius and Daniel's dreams will make more sense after reading this historical background that covers very briefly the historical period from the exile in Babylon to the time of Christ. 

"Much of the book of Daniel finds its setting during the reign of Nabonidus, who is not mentioned in the text because he had left his royal duties in Babylon to his son and co-regent Belshazzar. Nabonidus’s  angered many in Babylon, particularly the powerful Marduk priesthood. They were upset that the king favored the cult of the moon god Sin...

While internal tensions were fomenting in Babylon, a new star was rising in the east. Cyrus, a Persian vassal, rebelled against his Median overlord Astyages and deposed him by the year 550. From this base, he expanded his kingdom by defeating Lydia and taking Upper Mesopotamia and Syria from the control of Babylon. He even apparently expanded his kingdom to the east into what is today Afghanistan. It was not until 539, however, that Babylon became the object of his attention. By that time, the former great empire was a fig to be plucked. No buffer zone was left, and its own inhabitants were dissatisfied with Nabonidus.

Before Cyrus’s general Gobryas reached Babylon, the army had collapsed in a battle at a location called Opis on the Tigris River. Gobryas apparently took Babylon without a struggle, and Cyrus himself entered the city a few weeks later to be greeted by enthusiastic crowds. The head of gold was replaced by the chest and arms of silver (Dan. 2: 31– 32). Cyrus set up a vassal kingship in Babylon, appointing Darius the Mede as ruler. His vassalship lasted only a short time, and then Cyrus exerted his rule directly. The latest dating in the book of Daniel is the third year of Cyrus’s reign (10: 1).
It seems that Daniel’s ministry was coming to a close around this time. However, Daniel’s vision extended into the near and far future, and it is instructive to examine the history of the Near East in general outline at least up to the second century BC. Since Daniel’s prophecy focuses on the succession of dominant kingdoms, that will be our concentration here rather than reporting on events in Palestine.
Cyrus built an empire that would last for approximately two centuries. His son Cambyses enlarged the empire to include even Egypt. After Cambyses’s suicide, many vassals revolted. Although Darius Hystaspes was a brilliant ruler and administrator, the empire had stopped its rapid expansion. While his son and successor, Xerxes, had temporary successes in Greece, he was decisively defeated in an important naval battle near Salamis (479). Persian power did not disappear overnight though, and for the next century and a half its fortunes waxed and waned.

However, by the time Darius III became ruler in 336, Greek rule came to Alexander, whose father Philip had built up Greek power from his Macedonian base. The bear was about to face the leopard for supremacy in the Aegean world (Dan. 7: 5– 6). Alexander’s brief life left a deep mark on the history of the world and earned him the epithet “ the Great.” In 333 he encountered the Persian army under the leadership of Darius III in the battle of Issus in Asia Minor. The Persians were no match for Alexander’s army, and Darius fled. Alexander continued his march and took all of Asia Minor. He then turned south and proceeded to take the Levant, including the provinces of Judah and Samaria. Egypt did not resist and was included in his empire. At this point Alexander turned toward the heart of the Persian Empire, encountering a Persian army under Darius III, this time at Gaugamela. Once again, the Greek forces overran the Persians, and Darius himself was assassinated soon after the battle. The Persian Empire was Alexander’s, and he continued his campaign east until he reached the Indus in 327. At the age of 30 Alexander had established an empire of unprecedented proportions. However, Alexander did not live to enjoy the fruits of his conquests.

He died in Babylon in 323 at the age of thirty-three. He had not consolidated his empire so that there would be a clear-cut transition of power, and as a result, his four most powerful generals grabbed as much as they could for themselves. The resulting four kingdoms were Thrace, Macedonia, Ptolemaia, and Seleucia. The “ four wings” and the “ four heads” of Daniel 7: 6 may refer to this fourfold split of the kingdom. The Ptolemies and the Seleucid rulers fought for centuries over Palestine. After a period of intense struggle, the Ptolemies were able to control Palestine for a period ( 301– 200). Finally, at the battle of Paneion in 200 BC, Antiochus III defeated the Ptolemaic general Scopus and inherited Palestine...

The beginning of Seleucid rule was favorable for Judah. Antiochus allowed them to be ruled by “ ancestral laws,” which in this case meant the Torah. However, he seriously offended Jewish cultural and religious sensibilities. For instance, at the beginning of his reign, Antiochus IV, as a result of a bribe, manipulated the high priesthood by inserting Jason in that office, replacing the legitimate occupant Onias. This cavalier attitude toward the native culture was just the beginning. Allied with the powerful Tobiad family, Antiochus IV aggressively promoted Hellenistic culture in the city. The gymnasium, not the temple, was to be the social and even religious heart of the city. Even Jason turned out to be too traditional for the Tobiads and Antiochus, and Jason was finally replaced as high priest by one Menelaus, who was an ardent Hellenist.

In 170 BC, though, Jason returned with an army of a thousand men while Antiochus was concluding a successful war against the Ptolemies in Egypt. When he returned in 169, Antiochus devastated Jerusalem and the temple. He then systematically tried to purge native religious customs out of Judah. The worst was that in 167 he put an altar dedicated to Zeus in the temple— an act that was known in Daniel 11: 31 as the “ abomination that causes desolation.”

The book of Daniel, born of the exile and the political oppression of the Babylonian conquerors, was especially meaningful to those who lived during the time of the Seleucid oppression and persecution. However, the forward vision of the book of Daniel does not halt with Antiochus, but looks beyond the Seleucids to the Romans (the beast with the large iron teeth) and even further to the time when God would directly intervene and bring all oppressive human governments to an end, a day when the people of God will receive the power of the kingdoms of the earth (Dan. 7: 23– 25). That day, obviously, is still to come."

Longman III, Tremper (2009-05-26). An Introduction to the Old Testament: Second Edition (Kindle Locations 8954-9011). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Dr. Nabeel Jabbour