Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Homotextuality v. Intertextuality, Part 2

I am going to offer my view of some of the texts that often come into play in Left Behind Theology. Here's my warning: I'm just going to throw my views out here, without the usual burden of copious annotations and arguments. It's not that I disrespect scholarly writings- on the contrary, I'm a geek in every respect of the term- but sometimes scholarly texts become so specific and attentive to such minutiae that they end up being members of the guild speaking only to one another. That's great for members of the guild, but it leaves the other 99.9% of humanity out of the picture, doesn't it? So, here are my general views when it comes to that curious book of Daniel.

Daniel is a hybrid book of many sorts. The first six chapters are the types of narratives that seem more fitting to belong in the first section of the Hebrew Bible, which I call the 'cultic history' section- that is, the history of the people of Israel as a minority religious groups in the ancient near east. When I teach Confirmation, I ask the students to brainstorm all of the great stories that they can remember concerning the People of Israel. They do a great job and all of the stories they name come from the books of Genesis - Esther, except for 3: Jonah and the 'Whale'; Daniel and the Lion's Den; and the three Hebrew boys and the fiery furnace. Leaving Jonah aside for now, their insight is that the stories in the first half of Daniel (chapters 1-6) seem much more like "David and Goliath" types narratives than the usual stuff one finds in the books of the Prophets (Isaiah - Malachi). (Here's a shout out to all the Confirmands I've had over the last 12 years! Woohoo!)

Yes, the first half of Daniel seems more like story-telling than prophetic pronouncements.

But, then there's the second half of Daniel (chapters 7-12), which must be prophetic because it is so weird. "Weird" in this instance is not a pejorative term; it simply means that if you try to map these chapters out literally, you become someone psychotic. Okay, maybe that is pejorative, but the point is this: there is an enormous amount of symbolism in Daniel, chapters 7-12, some of which is explained with literal referents; some of which is explained with more symbolism, some of which is left unexplained, assuming that the reader knows good and well what the symbols are all about.

My guess is that most people who read the second half of Daniel- if they get through it- end up saying something like, "What the...?"

Frankly, I think that's a better, more genuine, and more intellectually honest response than those who act as though they understand perfectly what these chapters are saying, but more on that later.

So, here's my take on Daniel generally: (Biblical literalists, please prepare your prayer closets for some serious intervention for my soul.) I'll start with the person of Daniel.

Once upon a time there was a man named Daniel who did something tremendously heroic. It was an awful time of chaos and despair for the people of Israel, because their nation had been routed in warfare by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon; their mighty warriors were defeated; their 'best and brightest' were exiled into slavery; and others were left to clean up the mess as a vassal state to the Nebuchadnezzar's empire. Worst of all- absolutely worst- was the notion that God had failed to protect them. It was their assumption that the covenant they had with God would keep them protected, even when they pushed God to the limits by being unfaithful themselves. But, now, that assumption seemed wrong and they were left with questions like, "Has God forsaken the covenant?" "Is God punishing us?" "How are we to live faithfully under these circumstances?" Hard questions, all.

The story about Daniel, in my view, goes a little beyond the actual person of Daniel. It is the story of a man who demonstrated faithfulness in times of trouble. He maintained his piety, even when it seemed that the gods and the king-worship of Babylon were more reliable than his practice of praying to YHWH. Still, he maintained his faith and, in the end, God rescued him in times of trouble. It is a VERY inspiring story of faith.

As a story, it makes little difference whether the literal Daniel of history did, thought, and said exactly what the Daniel of the story does, thinks, and says. It is a story of faith that- my opinion- is probably grounded in a real-life hero, was probably told orally for centuries, probably grew with the telling and re-telling of the story, and probably made the 'story Daniel' a little larger than the 'historical Daniel.' Of course I don't KNOW whether this is true, but that's what tends to happen with moral stories about real people. Just think of stories about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln- real people whose real virtues are told through stories that are probably not entirely factual. It's okay! The stories are true, even if they are not entirely factual.

A couple of other stories seem to interface with the Daniel in the Lion's Den story. Daniel seems to be a lot like Joseph: Both were dream interpreters, both ended up in the service of the leader of the empire (Egypt, Babylon), and both were models of faithfulness in trying times. The words in the Joseph story, "What you intended for evil, God intended for good" speak powerfully to those who are in a terrible situation and look for hope by pointing to a larger story behind the pain of our momentary story and insisting that God is still in control, working all things out for our good. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (the famed Rack, Shack, and Bennie of Veggie Tales) in the fiery furnace is also very much like the Daniel story, isn't it? Same plot, basically.

What I'm suggesting is that the story of Daniel (and all of chapters 1-6 in Daniel) is a moral tale, which might have happened factually, but its relevance lies beyond its factuality.

Now, if you haven't consigned me to the pits of the netherworld yet, tune in tomorrow for a bit more.

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