Stories in Daniel: More than a Life-Style for Diaspora

The stories of Daniel have inspired great works of art and music as well. The stories are staples in many church school curricula that they represent as models of courageous faith. In his article, W. Lee Humphreys (“A Life-Style for Diaspora: A Study of the Tales of Esterh and Daniel,” JBL 92 [1973]: 211-23) describes a reason why the stories have inspired: The stories in Daniel and Esther project a life-style for diaspora that affirms the possiblity of participating fully in the life of a foreign nation. His arguement has influenced many scholars who study the function of the stories. However, one would argue that the stories of Daniel present something more than a “life-style for diaspora.” For example, John J. Collins accepts Humphreys’ argument basically but understands differently:

The life-style proposed for the diaspora, then, was one of active participation in gentile life but without compromising the distinctive requirements of Jewish tradition (Collins 1992, 51).

I ask the following questions for understading the purpose of the stories: What is meant by “a life-style for diaspora?” What is the function of the stories? Do the stories really present “a life-style of diaspora?”

The stories in Daniel (1-6) are called “diaspora novellas” or “court stories” becuase the stories are assumed to have derived from the life of the Jewish eastern diaspora after the time of the exile in 586 B.C.E.: Daniel 1 describes Daniel and his three friends’ trial by diet; Daniel 2 accounts for Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream; Daniel 3 tells us Daniel’s three friends’ faith in the Jewish faith; Daniel 4 describes Daniel’s another interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream; Daniel 5 narratates Daniel’s interpretation of the mystic writing; and Daniel 6 accounts for Daniel’s faith in the Jewish practice.

It is very clear that setting of the stories is the foreign court. Indeed, Daniel and his three friends are diaspora. But the purpose of these stories is not to state the participation of the Jews in the life of a foreign nation. Rather, the stories show how the Jews kept their identify and struggled with the succeeding empires (the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, and the Greek Empire). Indeed, what we see in the stories is that the attitude of Daniel and his three friends toward the empire is not positive at all. For example, the empires are represented by beasts in Daniel 2. Moreover, we see the idea that the empires will be destroyed by God because God is only the one who establishes and deposes the kings. Daniel and his three friends resist against the political and religious values of the empire. Daniel Smith-Christopher views the stories as hostility to the empire as follows:

It will be the perpective of this commentary, however, that the athors of Daniel 1-6 did not aspire actually to work for the foreign emperor. Rather, the emperor’s court served as an ideal setting for a political and religious folklore that speaks of surviving and flourishing (Smith-Christopher 1996, 20).

As Smith-Christopher insists, the stories of Daniel do not simply represent a “life-style for diaspora.” Daniel and his three friends do not aspire to work for the foreign emperor. Rather, they resist against the social-political value of the empire.

Reference List

Collins, John J. The Court-Tales in Daniel and the Development of Apocalyptic. JBL 94 (1975): 218-34.

Collins, 1993. Daniel. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 

Humphreys, W. L. A Life-Style for Diaspora: A Study of the Tales of Esther and Daniel. JBL 92 (1973): 211-23.

Smith-Christopher, Daniel. 1996. Daniel. NIB VII. Abingdon Press. 

Towner, W. S. The Poetic Passages of Daniel 1-6. CBQ 31 (1969): 317-26.


One Response

  1. I agree completely. The court tales are not nice anecdotes about how to adjust to life under foreign rule. Rather, they are subversive tales that ridicule the foreign king, predict his downfall, and speak of resistance to the point of death. As such, they make perfect sense as underground literature in the time of Antiochus IV and, indeed, at any time when ruthless tyranny and oppression thrives.

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