How to Read Daniel
Tremper Longman III, How to Read Daniel. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2020. pp. 189. ISBN: 978-0-8308-5320-5, $20.00.
Years ago the book of Daniel played a larger-than-life role in fundamentalist and evangelical studies of eschatology. While those days are now long gone, Daniel continues to be of great interest to many contemporary biblical scholars. One of most prolific of those is Tremper Longman III, Distinguished Scholar of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. In addition to publishing a highly regarded commentary on Daniel, Longman has produced various other monographs on the Old Testament including three prior volumes in the popular How to Read Series (Genesis, Psalms and Proverbs), all published by IVP Academic. In this volume on Daniel, Longman makes a strong contribution to our understanding of one of the most enigmatic and fascinating books of the Old Testament.
Longman lays out this book in three main sections: Reading Daniel in Its Original Setting, Reading Daniel as Six Stories and Four Visions and Reading Daniel as a Twenty-First-Century Christian. This approach allows him to explicate all the narratives and apocalyptic elements of Daniel in some detail and then leverage those to make some helpful application to the contemporary reader. Moreover, Longman handles the text of Daniel with obvious familiarity and argues throughout that its main theme is that in spite of present difficulties, God is in control and He will have the final victory. He sees the book as a tool of encouragement to God’s people living in oppressive circumstances rather than as a guide to discerning the end of human history. Along the way Longman does a commendable job of examining the various literary genres of Daniel, its historical background and the major emphases of each narrative and prophetic text.
There is much to admire in this small volume. Not only does it reflect the best of recent scholarship on Daniel but it makes the book accessible to the novice as well. Longman is crystal clear at each step of the way, even when he’s describing the strange visions of Daniel 7-12. In fact, I found his description and explanation of the vision from Daniel 10 – 12 to be one of the best analyses of these strange chapters that I have ever come across. In addition, the historical background he provides greatly illuminates how the original readers would have understood the book while also providing teachers and preachers some much needed help in communicating the more challenging elements of Daniel.
While this book possesses numerous strengths and is of obvious value to both scholars and lay readers, I want to push back against the author on a couple of issues. First, while I agree with the main theme that Longman ascribes to Daniel (see above) not every narrative or prophecy fits so easily into that framework. For example, the two narratives that compose the fourth and fifth chapters of the book revolve around God’s work with two pagan kings, Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. These two stories function as foils, the former showing God’s redemptive work in the lives of those who humble themselves before Him and the latter revealing His judgment on those who stubbornly refuse to bow in submission to their Creator. They provide both hope and warning, not only to powerful pagan rulers but also to those among God’s people who traffic in power, pride and prominence.
A second objection concern Longman’s stated desire to help contemporary Christians live well in the midst of what he labels ‘toxic societies’. He attempts to project objectivity in this regard, arguing against the tendency of the religious left to compromise with the culture and the tendency of the religious right to co-opt the power of the state to force unbelievers to live by biblical values. Per the latter, Longman says…
While there is nothing wrong with trying to persuade the broader culture towards Christian values, there is everything wrong with trying to use the power of the state to make non-Christians act like Christians. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong, indeed it is admirable, for Christians to become politicians and then work towards moving our society thru persuasion toward biblical values. But the temptation will be strong on those who do achieve political power to use typical strong-arm tactics and to adopt voter-pleasing…policies rather than thinking through the issues based on biblical principles (p. 166).
Without going into a wholesale dissection of this paragraph, I would simply say that someone or some group will decide what values a particular society will abide by. Given that we live in a representative democracy why is it wrong for Christians to use laws (the power of the state) to implement biblical values? In our current cultural context, it is clear that laws were written years ago to discriminate against people of color buying houses in specific areas. Wouldn’t Dr. Longman approve of some Christians leveraging the power of the state to change these in order to promote a more just society? And, if that were true, why would it be wrong for Christians to seek the overturn of Roe v. Wade by political means in order to save the lives of the most vulnerable? Finally, is it possible that the ‘voter-pleasing’ that Dr. Longman objects to simply reflects the desire of many citizens, both Christian and non-Christian, to promote policies for the common good such as providing laws against drunk driving or texting while driving? Like all the rest of us, Dr. Longman has strong opinions on these issues and others as well. While I certainly don’t mind him stating those, I do object to him using the text of Daniel to inhibit those in positions of influence from leveraging their power to promote biblical morality in the public square.
Despite these criticisms, How to Read Daniel is a book worth our time. I suspect that you will learn something new about Daniel and come out on the other side better informed and more motivated to live for God regardless of your context.
Scott Wenig, Ph.D.
Professor of Applied Theology
Haddon Robinson Chair of Biblical Preaching