Book Review: Circle of Sovereignty
I came across this book quite by accident. I don't even remember what other resource I was reading when I saw a reference or a quote to Fewell's book. I do remember being immediately drawn to the book because I had my suspicions that it was not mere commentary on the book but true exegesis. I was not disappointed. This book is a whirlwind of wonderful understanding and exegesis and application of the Book of Daniel.
If a book's worth can be judged based on the amount of underlines and margin notes a reader makes, then this book is worth a lot. I scratched and scribbled and underlined and underscored something on nearly every page of the book. The most important thing for me about this book is simple: I found the author was in agreement with a lot of the things that I was already seeing during the course of my own study of Daniel. For example, many people read the book of Daniel and see nothing but monsters and maniacal masters and mayhem–i.e., apocalypse. And that is then the hermeneutical lens through which the book is interpreted.
I don't deny there are elements of apocalypse in the book, but I take issue with anyone who says that is the only way to read the book. Fewell notes this too: "Despite the appeal of the apocalyptic to subsequent generations and the propensity of scholars in recent days to classify the entire book as an apocalypse, the book of Daniel introduces itself as a narrative. An extended story comprised of six episodes about Daniel and his friends provides the literary context of the visions that follow" (11). Right. And Fewell's scheme follows this observation: the bulk of her work focuses on chapters 1-6 of Daniel while only chapter is devoted to an exegesis of chapters 7-12. In some ways this is frustrating and disappointing. In other ways it is wonderful because so many authors want to focus on chapters 7-12 and figuring out who is who and what is what that the beauty and depth of 1-6 is often left behind.
That said, she digs deep in the few pages she devotes to chapters 7-12 and helps the reader understand their relationship to 1-6. The time stamps given at the beginning of chapters 7, 8, 9, and 10 show us where to place the chapters historically with respect to chapters 1-6. This aids in understanding both the narrative and vision cycles. So Fewell, "The temporal settings of the visions mark them as expansion of the plot. Some visions take us back in Daniel's career, some move us forward; but they all continue to reveal character and to sustain political themes" (119). I agree. I didn't always agree with Fewell's final analysis of a text (e.g., I wholly disagree with her that Daniel 4 is a triumph of 'the human imagination…able to overpower human history' or that Daniel 3 is mere metaphor.) but I certainly agree that it makes much better sense to interpret these visions based on their historical position than their canonical position.
Fewell pays very careful attention to the details of the text–something I appreciate very much in those who dare write books about the Scripture. She consistently makes observations about the text of Daniel and brings out details of the story that might otherwise be overlooked or underplayed. It is too easy for scholars and preachers to overlook simple narrative techniques whereby the author tells us what a story is about simply forming a chiasm and narrowing the reader's focus, or tirelessly repeating some aspect of the story (note how in Daniel 3 the list of people and instruments are repeated numerous times), duplicating vocabulary from chapter to chapter, or by connecting a later story with images from an earlier story.Fewell does an outstanding work of drawing our attention to the intentions of the author of Daniel by noting the subtleties in the text and redirecting our attention to plot devices and character development (e.g., noting for the reader that in chapter 1 the reader is privy to information that the characters in the story are not, especially the king, 14).
It was somewhat difficult to tell where Fewell comes down as far as Daniel's authorship is concerned. I finished reading with the idea that she sees the book as a unified piece of literature based on her literary reading of the book. She does not delve into authorship, redaction, or dates, but reads the book as a whole piece and interprets it thus. At this juncture in all our lives, debates about times and dates seems a bit pointless and, to be sure, those things are not the focus of her exegesis of the Daniel text.
Fewell tells us at the beginning of her book what the point of Daniel is, and for her the point is decidedly political: "The central political issue in Daniel is that of sovereignty. Who is sovereign in the human world? The question is, of course, also a theological one because the principal conflict in the book is between God and human monarchs over the very question: Who rules?" (12) I absolutely agree with Fewell's point here. Over and over in the book of Daniel we see this point being made to one person after another as one king rises and another falls. By the time we get to Daniel 7-12 our minds are hardwired to see God's sovereignty so much at work in the seemingly mundane details of local and world politics that God is scarcely mentioned. We have come to expect it because we have been conditioned to see it by the way we see God interacting with Nebuchadnezzer, Belshazzar, and Darius. Perhaps we would do well to ask ourselves, even now, if God is not more involved in the political world we live in, bringing about his own ends, than we truly consider.
One final note about the book. It seemed somewhat incomplete. I fully appreciate when a book of the Bible is allowed to stand on its own and be read for its own sake without feeling the need or compulsion to automatically attach or derive meaning from elsewhere. With that said, I note that Fewell not once talks about the church, Jesus, or the New Testament. Not once. I understand the need to interpret Daniel as it stands and in its own context–and I respect that–but it seems to be somewhat of a loss that when Jesus himself quotes from Daniel or adopts key imagery (i.e., 'son of man') or when an entire book adopts key language and imagery for its own construction and narrative (i.e., the Revelation) that it is not taken into consideration how this might affect our understanding of the book. In this regard, Circle of Sovereignty was a bit of a disappointment and an otherwise complete book was left incomplete, the circle was a bit broken.
Overall, I think the book is excellent. Fewell's attention to narrative detail is outstanding and her interpretation of the book as a complete book is excellent too. My only misgiving is that there is no attention paid to the New Testament or to Jesus. For all the care and attention given to the book in situ, it seems to me that even an appendix might have been warranted to broach the subject of its place in the entire corpus of Scripture. Nevertheless, the well read reader will have ample opportunity to forge his own connections with the New Testament and even though this neglect of the New Testament was a disappointment for me, it doesn't detract from the quality of Fewell's exegesis of Daniel.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Circle of Sovereignty Amazon (Paperback $20.63); Abingdon Press (Paperback $21.99)
- Author: Danna Nolan Fewell
- Publisher: Abingdon Press
- Pages: 136 (+notes, bibliography, indexes)
- Year: 1991
- Audience: preachers, scholars, students of OT, well read general audience
- Reading Level: College
- Disclaimer: Purchased