The Westminster Bible Companion is a series of study guides “offered to the church and more specifically to the laity.” Accordingly, the commentaries are non-technical, and have no footnotes, but they are fully informed by contemporary critical scholarship. Leong Seow, best known for his fine commentary on Qoheleth in the Anchor Bible series, sets a high standard for the series with this commentary on Daniel.
A brief introduction (pp. 1–18) sets out Seow’s positions on the scholarly issues. The hero of the book is assumed to be a transformation of the legendary Dan’el known from Ugaritic literature. Seow even posits some theological continuity, insofar as the God of Daniel is a divine king who is made known to humans by dreams and visions like the El of Ugarit. The usual arguments against a Babylonian date are presented concisely: the problematic dating of Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion in Dan 1:1; the claim that Belshazzar was son of Nebuchadnezzar, the unhistorical Darius the Mede. The actual date of the book (late 164 or early 163 bce) is shown by the mistaken claim that Antiochus Epiphanes died in the land of Israel (11:44–45). Seow compares the treatment of history here to what one finds in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or other works of historical fiction.
On the composition of the book, Seow follows most recent scholars in regarding the Aramaic tales in chapters 2–6 as pre-Maccabean, and suggests, on linguistic grounds, that the stories were known by the late 4th or early 3rd century. Chapter 7, also in Aramaic, was added in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. The Hebrew chapters 8–12 were subsequently added, taking some cues from chapter 7. While chapter 7 is cosmic and implicit, chapter 8 is nationalistic and explicit. Chapter 1 was added in Hebrew as an introduction to the whole, and the postscript in 12:5–13 was added last, to update the revelation.
The court tales in chapters 2–6 offer an anthology of various situations that the faithful may encounter under foreign domination. Different models are provided by the stories of Joseph and Esther. Chapters 7–12, in contrast, deal with a single situation of terrible oppression. They also reflect a different genre, which takes its name from the later Apocalypse of John. These chapters confront the overwhelming presence of evil in the world, and draw heavily on the language of ancient mythology. The battles are not only being fought on earth, but also in heaven. Finally the book offers the hope of deliverance by the archangel Michael, and the hope of resurrection for those who have already died. Seow notes the use of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 as a paradigm for the faithful.
The discussion of the theological perspective emphasizes the theme of the sovereignty of God. Perhaps the most distinctive note in this commentary, however, is struck in the discussion of the “one like a son of man” in chapter 7. Although Seow recognizes that the imagery of the clouds is normally used to depict a divine apparition, he contends that here the figure is “demythologized,” and “incarnated, as it were, in human form, as ‘a son of man’.” When the vision is interpreted with reference to the holy ones of the Most High, Seow argues that it has been “democratized.” Here again he recognizes that holy ones are normally celestial beings, but he argues that “the celestial holy ones and the terrestrial holy ones (the people of God) have virtually coalesced.” “The champion who comes with the clouds of heaven has first been demythologized, … Then that same figure is democratized and ‘remythologized,’ as it were, so that the one who comes is now symbolic of the people, who are being identified with the celestial host” (p. 17).
Two other points in the “theological perspective” should be noted. First, Seow argues, largely on the basis of the court tales, that “the eternal reign of the sovereign God is manifest not in the power of the world’s rulers but in the survival of faith.” Second, the introduction concludes with an allusion to “the quintessential ‘son of Man’.” Such an allusion is not inappropriate in a commentary intended for a church readership, but one suspects that the underlying theological conviction has colored the interpretation of the “one like a son of man” in chapter 7.
In any commentary, there are inevitably points with which one might quibble. Although the wise maskilim of Daniel are often identified with the militant hasidim of the Maccabean period, the identification is not well founded. The view that the “wrath” is the anger of God with Israel, as in the Deuteronomic corpus, does not fit the theology of Daniel, where the conflict is between God and the nations. More broadly there is a problem with the literary context in which Seow views the book. The commentary is rich in allusions to Canaanite mythology and biblical intertextuality, but almost devoid of references to the non-canonical apocalyptic literature contemporary with Daniel, or to the Dead Sea Scrolls. This context is important for understanding the imagery of the book. A human figure in an apocalyptic vision is scarcely ever a “mere mortal” and even in the Book of Daniel, angels regularly appear in the form of men. The idea that the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7 is demythologized, or involves an incarnation, arises from Christian theology rather than from the Jewish literary context. To be sure, this commentary is supposed to engage Christian theology, but it is better to do so by showing how the book, interpreted critically in its historical context, speaks to the life of faith. The great merit of this excellent commentary is that, apart from the treatment of the “one like a son of man,” it does precisely that.