Some old discussion questions for an Honors class at Boston College on the prophets
The Book of Daniel is set explicitly during the Babylonian Captivity, that 400-year period when the Israelites were forcibly removed from the Promised Land to the powerful city of Babylon. The Book of Job reflects the Jewish sense of despair during this period; you should look at Psalm 137 for another powerful if more succinct statement of hopelessness. (Some of you may perhaps know a reggae version of this psalm called “The Rivers of Babylon.” Many blacks of the Caribbean have a strong affinity for the Jewish experience in the Babylonian Captivity). In fact, Daniel was probably written under the regime of a later king, Antiochus Epiphanes, a brutal tyrant and patron of the arts.
- Although he will serve the king faithfully, Daniel refuses to eat the food of Nebuchadnezzar (1:8). Why? Compare Proverbs 23:3, “Do not desire the ruler’s delicacies, for they are deceptive food.” Is this applicable? What do we make of Daniel’s service to the Babylonian kings generally? Joseph is certainly in the background. What does this tell us about the chosen people?
- Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: bookmark this page for later reference in Dante’s (The metals of this giant strongly recall the Myth of the Five Ages, recorded in Hesiod’s Works and Days, lines 106-201: see below). Where else have we seen a giant felled by a stone? Can we connect this to other Old Testament statues and stones?
- Daniel’s relationship with the Babylonians is intriguing. Consider his remark, “Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon” (2: 24). Why is this detail here? Along these lines, do you feel sympathy for the “strong guards” who are burned up at the fiery furnace (3:22)?
- Concerning the punishment of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (3:19-30), evaluate the following statement made by one scholar, Robert Anderson:
The ‘fiery furnace’ may be a literary invention and may have had no exact equivalent, but it is too uncomfortably close to the maniacal expressions of ethnic hatred of our own day to be passed over lightly. The cadences of Greek poetry could be heard not far from the dungeons of Antiochus Epiphanes, and the strains of the Bach motet were carried on the same breeze as the smoke from Auschwitz. There is little distance between the Fiery Furnace and the Holocaust. These two monstrous events– the one literary fiction, the other unbelievable fact– are both expressions of a demonic attempt to silence the spirit of faith and, with it, the voice of God.
- The vision of Nebuchadnezzar in Chapter 4 involves a tree: what other trees might be alluded to here? What is the significance of the king’s loss of human reason and subsequent animal behavior? (Perhaps you recall Odysseus’ men turned into pigs by Circe- why did that happen?)
- One of the most powerful images in the Old Testament is Daniel’s interpreting of the writing on the wall (5:24-28). What does he mean when he says (in essence), “Your days are numbered”? (What connection can we make to Simon and Garfunkel’s verse inspired by this image: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls”?)
- Daniel in the lion’s den is a very famous motif (6:16 ff.). The image of the holy man refusing to renounce his faith in the face of political torture, however, is complicated by the obvious reluctance of Darius to punish Daniel. Without referring to Pontius Pilate, consider Darius’ situation, perhaps of greater interest to us than Daniel’s.
- The second half of Daniel (chapters 7-12) is comprised of apocalyptic visions. I personally don’t find these interesting, but would be happy to hear whatever thoughts you have on them.
Hesiod’s Works and Days, lines 106-201 (The Five Ages)
(ll. 106-108) Or if you will, I will sum you up another tale well
and skilfully — and do you lay it up in your heart, — how the
gods and mortal men sprang from one source.
(ll. 109-120) First of all the deathless gods who dwell on
Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of
Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods
without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief:
miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never
failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all
evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with
sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth
unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They
dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things,
rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.
(ll. 121-139) But after earth had covered this generation — they
are called pure spirits dwelling on the earth, and are kindly,
delivering from harm, and guardians of mortal men; for they roam
everywhere over the earth, clothed in mist and keep watch on
judgements and cruel deeds, givers of wealth; for this royal
right also they received; — then they who dwell on Olympus made
a second generation which was of silver and less noble by far.
It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit. A
child was brought up at his good mother’s side an hundred years,
an utter simpleton, playing childishly in his own home. But when
they were full grown and were come to the full measure of their
prime, they lived only a little time in sorrow because of their
foolishness, for they could not keep from sinning and from
wronging one another, nor would they serve the immortals, nor
sacrifice on the holy altars of the blessed ones as it is right
for men to do wherever they dwell. Then Zeus the son of Cronos
was angry and put them away, because they would not give honour
to the blessed gods who live on Olympus.
(ll. 140-155) But when earth had covered this generation also —
they are called blessed spirits of the underworld by men, and,
though they are of second order, yet honour attends them also —
Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen
race, sprung from ash-trees (4); and it was in no way equal to
the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the
lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no
bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great
was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from
their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of
bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their
implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by
their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and
left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them,
and they left the bright light of the sun.
(ll. 156-169b) But when earth had covered this generation also,
Zeus the son of Cronos made yet another, the fourth, upon the
fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like
race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our
own, throughout the boundless earth. Grim war and dread battle
destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven-
gated Thebe when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some,
when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy
for rich-haired Helen’s sake: there death’s end enshrouded a part
of them. But to the others father Zeus the son of Cronos gave a
living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the
ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands
of the blessed along the shore of deep swirling Ocean, happy
heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit
flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and
Cronos rules over them (5); for the father of men and gods
released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honour
(ll. 169c-169d) And again far-seeing Zeus made yet another
generation, the fifth, of men who are upon the bounteous earth.
(ll. 170-201) Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of
the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born
afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest
from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and
the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding,
even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. And
Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to
have grey hair on the temples at their birth (6). The father
will not agree with his children, nor the children with their
father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor
will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour
their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them,
chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing
the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the
cost their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man
will sack another’s city. There will be no favour for the man
who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather
men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength
will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will
hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will
swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil,
with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all.
And then Aidos and Nemesis (7), with their sweet forms wrapped in
white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake
mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter
sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help
Amos preaches 600 years before Daniel, in very different circumstances. The kingdom of Jeroboam II is peaceful and prosperous, and the chosen people are quite comfortable. In good times, it is easy to forget about God. The theme of Amos is summed up at 6:1, “Alas for those who are at ease in Zion.”
- Amos preaches fiery words against social injustice. What is your reaction to his remarks about the neglect of the impoverished: “they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:7)? Amos also alludes to Jacob’s sons who at the feast have forgotten Joseph (6:6): how might we connect this to Daniel?
- “Prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (4:12). God has punished the iniquities of the Israelites before, but “you did not return to me,” he bitterly notes. What is the prophet’s point?
- At times, Amos is so overwrought that his grammar makes no sense. What exactly is it that the Lord is saying about the cows of Bashan (4:1-5)?
- “I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:23-24). What are the allusions here: David consoling Saul, the Flood? Others?
- Amos’ Vision (7:1-9, 8:1-end) shows him interceding against a very angry God. How should we take the Amaziah narrative which interrupts it? Amaziah seems to be accusing Amos of being “Chicken Little.” Is the curse appropriate?
- What do you make of Jonah’s reluctance to heed God’s call (1:2)?
- How might you interpret the tossing of Jonah into the sea (1:15), and his experience with the “large fish” (1:17)? What connections are to be drawn with the Flood, or the Leviathan?
- The Book of Jonah has been called “a parody of prophetic literature, or perhaps more accurately, an inversion of the prophetic experience.” In what ways does Jonah’s story turn, say, Amos (or Daniel) upside down? What is the point of such inversion?
- What do you make of the last verse of Jonah (rendered in the KJV with unintentional humor thus: “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more then sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”). Further parody, or evidence of God’s respect for all life? Something else?