Book Review: Daniel: A Commentary
Title: Daniel: A Commentary
Series: The Old Testament Library
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I was in no way compensated or asked to write a positive review of the commentary. I'm not even allowed to keep the book after I have finished reviewing it.]
My interest in reading and review this book is from not purely personal enjoyment of reading commentaries. Soon I will teaching the book of Daniel to undergraduates at a small Bible College near where I live. In a sense, it was somewhat providential that I came across this book at NetGalley and was offered the opportunity to read and review it.
But this is a different sort of review than I normally do here at the blog where I normally review made for the masses books printed quickly and on cheap paper. This is the kind of book that requires a slow reading and deep thinking–and there is no doubt that this was not an easy book to read. The author digs deeply into the text and draws conclusions about the text of Daniel based on this deep reading, based on historical evidence, and based on a plethora of critical commentaries that have been available throughout the years. Newsom also gives us a detailed account of recent archaeological evidence which she depends upon greatly for her interpretive framework. I wondered, often, about her interaction with this evidence because I have read other commentaries on Daniel, by notably 'conservative' scholars, who seem to interpret some of this evidence quite differently. And where those conservative scholars have made a habit of 'explaining away' evidence from extra-biblical texts that might appear contradictory to Daniel's text or thinking about different ways this evidence might be interpreted, Newsom takes them, and their contradictions, more or less at face-value. In other words, for Newsom there is very little Daniel has to offer in the way of historical accuracy. It is the extra-biblical writings which hold the key to interpreting the history of the time periods Daniel purports to be writing about not the Book of Daniel itself.
Thus the commentary does not engender any trust or confidence in the book of Daniel as an historical document even if the book might inspire some courage to readers who are looking for a stand your ground theodicy. Newsom interprets Daniel from a looking backward point of view and not from a looking forward point of view. That is, there is no predictive prophecy in Daniel only a state of the moment, retroactive courage builder for those undergoing persecution at the hands of people like Antiochus Epiphanes. Of course, there is a sense in which all of us are looking back now, but Newsom's allegiance to a late date for the writing of Daniel significantly affects her interpretation of the book as a whole (there are plenty of reputable scholars who adhere to an early date for Daniel and come away with similar ideas as Newsom; not all, but some.) This, to me, was the most disappointing aspect of the book. In my mind, I cannot see how fictional stories, with fictional characters, in fictional situations will ever do anything to inspire faithfulness and courage in real, living, and breathing people. I'm sure someone could challenge this idea, so I'm not staking my life on it.
On the other hand, this is the sort of book that challenges my belief that, to an extent (and although I hold to a traditionally 'conservative' point of view when it comes to Scripture), it doesn't really matter how a book came together or who wrote it but that what really matters is that we have a book and we interpret that book we have as a whole. There were times when Newsom blew my mind and I believed, for just the smallest of moments, that she and I were going to click and hit it off theologically. For example, when Newsom was writing about the first chapter of Daniel, I confess that I was nearly in whole-hearted agreement. Her point that the early narratives of Daniel (1-4) focus more on the 'Gentile king' (i.e., Nebudchadnezzar) is, I think, dead on the mark. She rightly sees this as an 'encounter between the power of the Most High and of the Gentile kings' that will eventually 'establish that it is the God of the Jews who is in control of history and who delegates and eventually takes back sovereignty over the earth' (p. 33). Putting this chapter (and most of the book) into a firmly theological position is a brilliant move on her part and, in my opinion, is the best way to interpret the chapter. When I read the book of Daniel, this is how I see the whole book and it seems to me that Newsom does a fine job, over and over again, of bringing this point to the surface. This is unlike much of what we hear preached from Daniel in the pulpit.
There are small features within each chapter that some will find disturbing if they approach the book from a wholly 'conservative' point of view (not that Newsom is writing from a wholly 'liberal' point of view; although, perhaps a case can be made for that too.) What I mean is this: there will be disagreements over interpretive matters, dating matters, and authorship. This commentary is written with a massive amount of source criticism at its disposal and the author never blinks at this. I have noted above that this is a challenge for me personally. There is, to be sure, some value to source criticism, but I am of the school of thought that believes we should interpret the book we have without being too terribly concerned about how it was cobbled together. I think some readers will have a difficult time with some of the conclusions Newsom arrives at given this interpretive framework and will dismiss the work quickly.
I like the format of the book. There is a lengthy introduction to the book of Daniel outlining important points one would typically find in a commentary–authorship, historical setting, genre, etc. Each chapter of Daniel then receives a treatment–brief introductory remarks, translation and textual notes, overview and outline, comments. Each chapter then concludes with a review of the 'History of Reception' by Brennan W. Breed. I found Breed's contribution to the book both unique and exciting. Often we readers, preachers, and teachers forget about the lengthy history of reception of the books of the Bible–especially the Old Testament books. We tend to forget that we are not interpreting in a vacuum, as isolated individuals who are encountering these books for the first time. Rather, as Breed's contributions make clear, we are a part of a long history of historians, preachers, and teachers who belong to a wider circle–a wider circle of saints and sinners, Jews and Gentiles, alike who have taken these books into themselves and used and abused them. Breed's contributions show the beauty and ugliness of how the Biblical books have been used throughout history and it is a welcome, refreshing contribution to the world of Biblical commentary.
The commentary also made use of plenty of graphics–pictures of historically significant archaeological evidence, charts, and paintings. These are helpful contributions and, in my opinion, do not unnecessarily disrupt the flow of the text. There is no want for depth of scholarship: there are six full pages of abbreviations of the various sources (journals, etc.) Newsom has consulted in one way or another in preparing to write the commentary. There is also a lengthy bibliography at the front of the book. Interestingly, the most recent commentary referenced is Beckwith's 2012 commentary from IVP Academic Press. Beyond that, many of the commentaries are from the 1900's and a few are from the 1800's. She also lists many, many significant monographs and articles related to the book of Daniel (if I counted correctly, 32 pages worth).
What is unfortunate, is that this is not a book designed for mass appeal. It is a sad reality that many preachers and teachers in our local churches simply have no use for the sort of commentary that Newsom has given us–and this is probably due to her overwhelming reliance on source criticism (as opposed to this being a book written by a prophet guided by the Holy Spirit) and Newsom's flat out denial of anything historically 'true' about the book of Daniel. This will cause many to ignore the work and what it has to offer. I prefer to mine books for anything that is useful; there is much useful in the book despite what some will label as flaws. The presence of such things leads more 'conservative' preachers to dismiss out of hand books like this. Or maybe it is due to a certain lackadaisical attitude that local preachers have towards doing the hard work of theology and preaching. (If you want to verify my point, go to any sermon clearinghouse on the internet and read what many preachers have written. Or get a book like The Daniel Plan to see how Scripture is misused on a frequent basis.) For example, it's much easier to look at Daniel 1 and think it is all about how Daniel and friends made a stand against the king by becoming vegetarians. It is much more difficult to follow Newsom's point that chapter one is merely the introduction to a long confrontation between the God of Israel and the gods of Babylon–what Newsom later calls 'the Eschatological Class of Sovereignties' (211). This really gets me worked up because, frankly, so many people spend so much time trying to figure out all the times and dates and identities in Daniel 7-12 that they miss the bigger picture of a great God prevailing while all the kings of earth continue rising and falling. It's a trees and forest kind of thing. I think Daniel is best viewed as a forest.
My objections noted, this is a carefully written commentary. It takes into consideration a wide range of evidence, sources, and interacts enough with the story arc of the Bible that we are wise to pay attention. And because Newsom is willing and able to cut out and through all the baby-talk about Daniel, I think she has given us a brilliantly written commentary that has dug deep enough to get to the main theological points of Daniel. We may disagree about dating and composition and her considerable disregard for Jesus in the book is troubling (given the nature and length of the book, Jesus is scarcely mentioned, let alone is he the lens of her hermeneutical framework), but at the end of the book, I found myself more in agreement with her at select points of interpretation than in disagreement. That Daniel is not just a book of courage stories, or Sunday School myths ('Dare to be a Daniel' kind of stuff) but is a deeply theological book discussing the nature of God's sovereignty and the destiny of the righteous is evident throughout.There is a lot to consider and I am hopeful more folks will interact with her work (I am sure someone else will interact with her interpretation of the archaeological evidence. I never cease to be amazed at how one person sees such evidence and comes away with distrust of the Biblical books and someone else sees the same evidence and comes away with more trust.)
The book needs an afterward because Breed's conclusion is utterly disappointing.
This is a book I think more preachers ought to read. If anything, it demonstrates there is no widespread consensus on how to interpret Daniel, but that there is room for different ideas within the circle of those who read, preach, interpret, and teach it. And that at the end of the day, God is sovereign and his plans will not be thwarted by the kings of this earth.