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Risky Business: the call of the prophet

June 7th, 2013 No comments

Recently, I had an opportunity to present a paper to the Students of Religious Studies conference at the Mid-Western Regional meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (that’s a mouth-full!).  My paper examined a word used frequently in the book of Daniel, בהל (bahal).  Traditionally, this word is translated as something akin to “alarm,” “distressed,” or “disturbed.”

This word is used as Daniel goes before King Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his visions.  My paper argued for an alternative rendering of the word, focusing on linguistic evidence, as well as literary themes found in the book, to support a translation that is something much stronger than mere distress or alarm–I argued that bahal is a word denoting fear, or perhaps even stronger than that, terror.

The book of Daniel is an example of apocalyptic literature.  Strange visions are common (and indeed, characteristic) to this type of literature.

Daniel’s visions are, indeed, quite strange.

Everyone remotely familiar with the book of Daniel knows that God gifted Daniel with the ability to detangle and interpret these strange visions.  He is  so sought after that his career spans across the reigns of three kings (and probably more, depending on whether or not there are time gaps in between these kings).

A frequently recurring word in the Daniel stories (particularly through chapter 11) is the word behal.  The same root appears all across Hebrew scripture, and frequently is translated as “to hasten” or “to hurry.”  In Daniel, though, the word seems to have a different nuance.  Many translators render behal as “to be distressed”, “distraught”, “disturbed”, or even “anxious”.

Is this translation good enough?  Does any of these words properly carry the force intended by behal?

I argue that it doesn’t.

While it is true that the word does mean “to hasten”, every single time the word occurs in the book of Daniel, the person who is behal’d is undergoing some sort of crisis.  For instance, Nebuchadnezzar finds out that his kingdom under attack, so he behals to go out and subdue the threat, utterly destroying his aggressors. In another event, his face grows pale and he is behal‘d.  In another case, the object of the verb shakes and trembles.

Is this mere “hastening?”

And now we come to Daniel.

While Daniel as a book is located in the Writings of the Hebrew scriptures (as opposed to the Prophets, as it is in English), Daniel as a person was clearly a prophet.  In the Ancient Near East, a prophet who goes before a king with bad news usually did not fare well.  Many times, bad news resulted in his death.   Daniel was likely very much aware of this.  Moreover, Daniel had just witnessed what happened to his friends Shadrach, Meshak and Abednego as a result of their disobedience–they were thrown into a fiery furnace. Daniel’s messages to the respective kings definitely were not full of good news.   King Nebuchadnezzar’s great power would be lost, and he would go nuts.  Belshazzar would see the very hand of God write on the wall of his own destruction.  And Daniel himself would be behal‘d of the visions in his own head.

Is Daniel merely “alarmed” or “disturbed?”  The context of the various passages seem to suggest that there is a lot more than mere worry going on here.

As I examined, translated, and studied these passages, I began to think.  These passages are so strange, so vague. Why even include them in our Bible? What is the point of Daniel?

Aside from the would-be messianic passages, I think Daniel has a singularly unique purpose for Christians:

Daniel shows us the potential catastrophe of what it means to be a prophet of God.

The theological take-away of these passages where behal occurs is that Daniel, like all of us who are called to the ministry, was simply a man delivering God’s word.  While Daniel is not included among the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures, Daniel is such because he declares what God is going to do.  I believe that when Daniel went before these authority figures, knowing that his very life was at risk,  he was frightened out of his wits.  He was terrified, scared to death to do what God had appointed him to do.

And yet, Daniel did it anyway.

As preachers and teachers of God’s word, our calling is to communicate God’s message of salvation to a world that desperately needs it.  Many brothers and sisters in foreign countries do so at the risk of their own lives.  They, like Daniel, are no doubt terrified.

And yet, they do it anyway.

How far are we willing to go for the sake of God’s message?  Will we go as far as Daniel did, willing to proclaim the Gospel, no matter what the cost?

 

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