Novak (novak) wrote,
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Theological Notebook--Apocalyptic Literature

This last week's topic was the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. Daniel is distinct for being the only apocalyptic work in the Hebrew Bible. What really got me thinking with regard to it was the implications of Daniel--as just one very clear example--for our ideas of revelation, or even more specifically, for the aspect of revelation we mean when we talk about the Bible being "inspired."

Daniel is a very late book. It seems to consist of two halves that were composed by different people in different times. It's also a book written in two or three languages, depending on the version of the book you use, and--confusingly--these don't line up with the two halves that I just mentioned. You have the adventures of a figure named Daniel (pretty legendary and not historical), a Jewish wise man, living in the midst of Babylon during the exile, showing how you can accomodate yourself to these Gentiles by being a faithful Jew. The second part is instead entirely hostile to Gentiles, and instead of a wise Daniel who interprets the king's dreams, Daniel is now the dreamer, dreaming prophetic dreams that outline the course of history. The dream prophecies are largely written after-the-fact, outlining the previous regimes the Jews have lived through, except where he leaps beyond history to look at an apocalyptic end to history, and gives a real prophecy of a time and place where the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man are revealed and rule.

These motifs of the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man, who later Christian readers will read as God the Father and Jesus the Son, also seem to clearly depend on motifs we find in the sacred literature of the cultures around the Jews hundreds of years earlier, of El, the father of the gods, and Baal his kingly son. This is all out of memory by the time Daniel is composed and edited together, and has now become Jewish by being "baptised," as it were, and adapted to Jewish perspective. The writer of Daniel doesn't see himself as using pagan stories--we do, centuries later, by lining up our archaeologial discoveries--he knows he is using Jewish stories.

For someone who would want to see the revelation of God as something totally distinct and removed from everything else in the world, particularly from other religions, this would be a lot of difficult information to swallow, and indeed you can find lots of people who will go to great lengths to make the problems go away. But instead, we can see a process of revelation that is human, contextualized, and progressive. While you do indeed have dynamic moments of God "breaking through" in the lives of people, what is more normal--and probably, in the long run, more effective--is a long period of the Spirit messing with our concepts, suggesting to us the truths of God in our poetry, our mythology, our songs, stories, and laws. Even a motif shared by several of the religions surrounding the Jews--against whom the Jews still needed to be distinct, however long it took them to become so--can become a fertile piece of revelation once it has entered into the common mind of the people and now provides a context for God to do something more direct and dynamic. That's what I meant when I said that the slow, broad, "general" revelation was, in a sense, more effective: it really brings an entire culture to a common point. It is usually really only then and there that God can do the more shocking and provocative actions in history that we remember so well. People ask why Jesus, if he is God in history, appeared when and where he did--why not now, for example? Or to the Chinese or someone else? But that's exactly why God needed the Jews and needed the processes of human culture: for it was only in a Jewish context that the event of Christ could be understood. Anywhere and anywhen else, it would have been strange magic or myth, a dynamic instance of power, but it could not have been understood. And it was imperative for this event to have any lasting impact in the history of the world that it immediately begin to be understood. Here, by being found on the long messy path of revelation in history and culture, the real revelation had a "vocabulary" and "grammar" by which it could be understood.
Tags: apocalyptic literature, jewish mysticism, theological notebook
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