I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about death and my dissertation. (Sometimes I’ve thought I would experience death by dissertation, but I am beginning to believe I might come out of the process alive after all.) Death has been on my mind because, if I lived closer to the land of my birth (America’s Dairyland), I’d be attending three funerals this week. My dissertation has been on my mind because I had a major dead(-no-pun-intended-)line this week.
Somehow in the middle of this, Daniel came to mind. You might think the association a bit far afield, but maybe it’s not quite as bizarre as it first sounds. The prophet Daniel, for whom the book of Daniel is named, may just have done the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of a dissertation, and he was not unacquainted with death.
The backdrop for the book is the Babylonian exile of the Jews. Between 605 B.C. and 587 B.C., the nation of Judah (the southern kingdom after the 922 B.C. split of Israel) died a slow, painful death at the hands of the reigning champion of the day—Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. In his successful quest to conquer the ancient Near East, Nebuchadnezzar was smart enough not to forfeit the prize to be had in the intelligentsia of a conquered nation: before he leveled the city of Jerusalem in 587, he had already skimmed off whatever human capital he could—the educated class of citizens were hauled off to Babylon, where they were promptly enrolled in the king’s college for three years of what can only be called reprogramming.
Their education included learning the language and literature of Babylon (Dan 1:4)—that is, the Semitic language of Akkadian and a voluminous collection of Babylonian lore. (My PhD work is in “Hebrew & Semitic Studies,” and my program didn’t even include Akkadian because it’s too intensive.) Nebuchadnezzar’s goal was to train loyal civil servants, so he had to immerse the captives up to their noses in Babylonian culture. (A great resource on this enculturation process is David Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart.) Being immersed up to your nose in something as academic as all that for three years sure sounds like a dissertation to me.
As for death, I’m thinking less of the many people Daniel must have known who didn’t survive the destruction of their country than I am of the death of the nation. You will miss the deep significance of the book if you miss what this death meant. Israel’s existence and identity were rooted in several fundamental promises that came from covenants Yahweh had made first with their ancestor Abraham, then with them, and finally with King David. Yahweh promised them a land; he promised to dwell among them; and he promised a perpetual Davidic dynasty. In some of the loveliest of biblical language, Yahweh made an irrevocable covenant with Israel: “I will be your God, you will be my people, and I will dwell among you.”
The Babylonian exile sent the Israelites into a theological crisis of epic proportions: they lost their land; Yahweh’s temple was destroyed; there was no longer a nation over which to have a king. Instead, “I will be your God” stood back and let a foreign king reduce “you will be my people” to a half-displaced people group and turn the temple where “I will dwell among you” into an ash heap. Nearly everything they believed about themselves and their God had come to nothing after all. Now what?
Death and a dissertation. After all his Babylonian larnin’, what will Daniel even be able to say to a people in despair?