Thursday, October 9, 2008

Daniel and Mark: Son of Man

One of the influences of the 2 BCE portion of Daniel (chapters 7-12) was its reinterpretation of the phrase 'Son of Man.' As I said before, Hebrew Bible scholars are somewhat divided on what, exactly, the phrase Son of Man meant when it was used in the Hebrew Bible, but it looks to me like most of the references are to actual humans. Psalm 8:4, for example, seems to be speaking of one generation and the next generation of humans (the words are literally 'man' and 'son of man', although the NRSV translates them as 'human beings' and 'mortals' respectively).

In Daniel, the Son of Man is depicted as 'coming with the clouds of heaven', which would not be something that most humans are capable of doing. I can't, even on a really cloudy day. The Son of Man (Daniel 7:9-14) comes before The Ancient One on the throne and is given an everlasting dominion, which is not something that I would hope The Ancient One would grant to any human that I've ever met! If 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,' then even Gandhi or Mother Teresa would turn ito a tyrant with a coronation of this sort. I'm glad that Daniel is using 'Son of Man' to refer to a not-quite-human person, a cloud-rider, instead of a dirt-walker like most persons I know. No, Daniel's "Son of Man" is no ordinary human.

However, the phrase "Son of Man" is, by its very nature, not a brand name for a diety either. Within the ancient world, including foundational stories of many different religions, there were divine-human figures, who bridged the gap between things infinite and things finite; things cosmic (in heaven, for instance) and things earthly; things divine and things human. And that seems to be how Daniel is using the phrase 'Son of Man' here. It is not a strictly human term; but neither is it a strictly divine term. Again, like other religious expressions of his time, Daniel seems to be using the term as a bridging between the divine and the human, a salvific figure who will be unlike the other grotesque rulers that he is describing.

I truly think the point of these divine-human figures is not that we take them literally, but that they show the inherent connection between things on earth and things in heaven, things doing on right now in my existential existence and things that are universally and eternally significant. These folks weren't stupid and they didn't live in an age when weird things actually happened on a daily basis. The biggest difference between them and us is how they expressed themselves with symbolic language and how we tend to literalize that language.

Here's something to keep in mind about Daniel. Daniel uses 'not-quite-human; not-quite-divine' language not only to describe the Son of Man, but also to describe enemies- like the Greek rulers and their ilk. Daniel is using symbolic language throughout the book to show the Cosmic Significance of the events that are going on in his day. Remember, when Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple (169 BCE), that was THE horrendous act of their lifetime for the person writing chapters 7-12 of Daniel (the actual historical Daniel had been dead for 400 years). It was a crime of the century, a political catastrophe, a destruction of all things precious and holy, it was awful and it required both an explanation (if such henous crimes can be 'explained') and a response that could restore hope. Daniel 7-12 is a politically realistic proclamation of hope, set in fantastic language that befits its cosmic significance.

And, in the midst of this scenario, Daniel says that a Son of Man, a human-like figure, will be granted everlasting dominion, unlike the perilous but fleeting dominion of the beast-like leaders Daniel's people are suffering. THAT'S the real, essential difference between the Son of Man and the other similarly depicted divine-human symbolic figures in Daniel. The Son of Man is for real, his dominion is dependable; these other scary, real, and seemingly unconquerable rulers that are terrorizing the Hebrews in the 2nd century BCE are NOT here to stay. "Here today, but not here to stay"- that is Daniel's word of hope, which accepts the bloody realism of his day, yet looks both forward and upward (references to time and space; eternity and cosmos) to say that God will save.

My sense is that Daniel's use of "Son of Man"- a term typically depicting a human- is important so that Daniel doesn't come across as just speaking of God in terms of some nebulous plan that is going on way out there in the heavens somewhere. The bridging symbol of a divine-human Son of Man seems to be an attempt to make God's plan something real in this world, and not just a 'pie-in-the-sky' plan in the cosmos (which is what post-modern critics criticize as meaningless 'meta-narratives'). For Daniel to use a familar term in an unfamiliar way, a human term in a divine sort of way, is an attempt to be hopeful and realistic, bringing the eternal hope of heaven into the temporal realm of earth.

So, it is significant that the gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke, anyway) use the term Son of Man a lot-about 80 times. Typically, it is the way that Jesus refers to himself, to emphasize his humility. In one case it describes Jesus as a dependent, non-home-owner, "Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." In several place, it describes Jesus as one who is rejected, despised, and put to death, as well as to rise again and to come in glory. In some ways, the gospels are using this phrase in ways that deliberately contest against a popular understanding of Daniel in their day, that the Son of Man will be a military general who beats Rome at its own game. NO! say the gospels. The Son of Man will conquer Rome in ways that Rome cannot even begin to fathom- through redemptive suffering.

We have to remember, that by the time Jesus says, in Mark 13, that they will see "the Son of Man coming in the clouds," the title "Son of Man" had been thoroughly defined in that gospel as the suffering one, who would be crucified, dead, and buried; as opposed to simply a pumped up warrior. Mark is using Daniel's fantastic imagery to say that Jesus' suffering and death are not ultimate defeat, but redemptive.

Tomorrow, we'll look at Mark 13 with respect to the situation facing Mark's community, and then see how it changes when Matthew and Luke re-tell it later. On Friday, we'll do some review and definition as we try to pull the whole wad together a bit more.

1 comment:

  1. You bring up some good insight. My understanding is Jesus suffering and death is atonement dealing with repentant sinners who will receive power to become a new creature defeating Satan. The destruction of the beast (total evil or Satan)from the cosmos never to be again and a everlasting kingdom of perfection is above my pay grade and everybody else's.O YEA something about FAITH.


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