The kimgdoms in Daniel’s prophecies (Daniel 2)

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Illustration: The kingdoms in Daniel 2

Daniel 2 and 7 together present a prophetic look at four kingdoms that would dominate the world. They are represented both by an image of four metals (Daniel 2) and by a vision of four beasts (Daniel 7). One interpretation holds that these kingdoms are Babylon, Media, Persia and Greece, respectively. However, Media never attained the status of a world power. Its independent period was contemporary with that of Babylon, but it was ruled as part of Persia after Babylon’s fall in 539 B.C. In approximately 550 B.C. Cyrus, the king of Persia, defeated the last king of Media, Astyages, and merged the two kingdoms. In fact, the book of Daniel treats Media and Persia as a single power (cf. 5:28, 6:8, 12, 15, 8:20).

A more plausible interpretation holds that these kingdoms are Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece and Babylon, according well with the symbolism and factual history of the kingdoms mentioned. The first kingdom is identified as Babylon (2:38), the head of gold (2:32) and winged lion (7:4). The lion was a recognized symbol of Babylonian royalty, as demonstrated by statues and reliefs of lions excavated from Babylon’s ruins. The plucking of wings and subsequent transformation into a man perhaps represents Nebuchadnezzar’s illness and restoration.

The second, bear-like beast, “raised up on one of its sides” (7:5), corresponds to the Persian domination in the Medo-Persian empire after the defeat of Astyages by Cyrus II (the fact that the bear is raised on one side symbolizes the ascendancy of the Persians over the Medes). Similarly, the ram of Daniel 8 is described as having two horns, one longer than the other, identified as the kings of Media and Persia (8:20). Under Cyrus and his son Cambyses three kingdoms were “chewed up“, as represented by the three ribs in the bear’s mouth (7:5). These kingdoms were Lydia (546 B.C.), the Chaldean empire (539 B.C.) and Egypt (525 B.C.)

The third beast, a four-winged, four-headed leopard (7:6), represents the Greek empire. The swiftness and agility of the leopard (cf. Habakkuk 1:8 on Babylonia) symbolizes the speed of Alexander the Great, who conquered all the known world between 334 and 323 B.C. After his untimely death the kingdom was divided among four of his generals, as symbolized by the four heads of the leopard: (1) Cassander over Greece and Macedonia; (2) Lysimachus over Thrace ans Asia Minor; (3) Seleucus over Syria and Middle East, and  (4) Ptolemy over Egypt. At the same time, the number four should probably not be pressed here; the Greek kingdom were for some time quite unstable, and various dynasties rose and fell (Lysimachus, e.g., was slain in battle in 282 B.C., and no dynasty followed him). The number four is probably just representative of the several Greek kingdoms at various times controlled parts of the Near East an, in particular, the Holy Land.

The final kingdom, “different from all the former beasts” (7:7), denotes Rome. The two iron legs of the image (2:33) may reflect that the empire could generally be characterized as having two major parts, one in the east (where Greek was the principal language) and the other in the west (where Latin dominated). The ten horns may represent the various rulers and dynasties who governed the Roman empire (again, “ten” here represents plurality and should not be pressed for ten specific historical counterparts). Throughout its history the empire was ruled by the republic, by various generals who seized power during the late republic (examples include Marius, Sulla and Julius Caesar) and by various dynasties that ruled after Augustus had consolidated power under himself. Vying for power through intrigue, assassination and outright civil war was a regular feature of Roman history, and this seems to be reflected in the diversity of the image (from iron mixed with clay).

An interesting motif of the four kingdoms is that they become increasingly large, diverse, violent and unstable. Babylon is portrayed as highly unified, while Persia is in two parts (one dominant over the other). Greece had four heads and Rome has a multiplicity of divisions.


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