Frightening words from the book of Daniel will be read this next Saturday and Sunday: “There shall be a time of anguish such as never occurred since nations first came into existence” (Daniel 12:1).
The year was 165 BCE when the prophet Daniel’s words were first heard describing end times. The author imagines himself a noble Jew exiled in Babylon in 322 BCE foretelling anguish to come. Jerusalem had come under Greek rule after the armies of Alexander the Great took the city in 332 BCE. In 175 BCE, ten years before the book of Daniel is written, Antiochus IV Epiphanes usurped the throne following the assassination of his older brother Seleucus IV Philopator.
In an effort to quell the Maccabean Revolt begun in 167 BCE, Antiochus dispatched 22,000 soldiers under the lead of his chief tax collector to attack Jerusalem. Most of the men were killed, women and children were enslaved. The city walls were demolished. Jewish rites were prohibited. A monthly check was made on those who survived the attack and anyone found with a copy of the Book of the Law or a child who had been circumcised was put to death immediately. Pagan sacrifices were performed on the altar of Zeus that had been erected over where once stood the altar in the Jewish temple.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a tyrant of unpredictable character, at one time generous to a fault, another fiercely tyrannical. Polybius gave him the nickname Epimanes, meaning “utterly mad.” His instability verging on insanity had led to excessively harsh treatment of Jewish people. (Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol 1 p. 276)
These were frightening times for Israel. The people were living in what anthropologist Victor Turner called “liminal space” or “in-between time.” Israel’s identity appeared to be lost and Israel was on the threshold between what was and next. Israel was in a time of transition.
Such times were in need of hope offered by Daniel. To the surviving Jews, the remnant, Daniel promises the heavenly angel (or prince) Michael who will arise and protect Israel. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth,” Daniel promises, “shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2). The unrighteous, Daniel promises, will not get away with their evil ways forever. And “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (12:3).
The Bible describes many transitions, many wanderings. The Israelite people were a wandering people after Moses led them out of Egypt. Jesus wandered in a wilderness of temptation before he began his ministry. St. Paul wandered from one place to another.
Daniel’s words of hope are offered to any who find themselves in “liminal space” or “in-between time.” It may be the space between adolescence and adulthood, between middle school and high school, between education and a career, between dating and marriage, between marriage and divorce, between a career and retirement, between one governor and the next, between one Congress and the next.
There is stress and danger when standing at the threshold. There is also opportunity for growth. The 40 years of wilderness shaped Israel, the 40 days of wilderness shaped Jesus, the wanderings of Paul shaped his writings, writings that shaped the church. The three days in the tomb shaped the world.
The Book of Daniel, like other apocalyptic literature makes the same promise found in the Psalm appointed for Sunday: “Those who choose another god multiply their sorrow…(but) you show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16).
If you find yourself living in the worst of times, in a time of transition, in “an in-between” time, hear Daniel’s call to faithfulness. Heed the call to be the star, the wise one shining like the brightness of the sky and/or follow those who lead to righteousness (Daniel 12:3).