The book of Daniel was written during the Maccabaean revolt, a rebellion against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had started a persecution of orthodox Jews. The hero of the book, Daniel, is a courtier of the Babylonian ruler Belshazzar, the son of king Nabonidus and regent during his father's absence.
In the seventh chapter, Daniel describes future events, which are in fact events that took place when Daniel was composed (more...). This chapter is one of the oldest Jewish apocalyptic texts; only the Book of Watchers (a part of the First book of Enoch) is older.
The four beasts stand for the great eastern monarchies.
- The lion with eagle's wings: the Babylonian empire (which existed until 539 BCE). The image is well chosen, because animals like these are sometimes depicted in Babylonian art.
- The bear: the Median empire (which existed until 550).
- The four-headed leopard with fowl's wings: the Achaemenid Empire (539-330).
- The ten-horned beast with iron teeth: the empire of Alexander the Great (336-323). Alexander was often depicted with the ram's horns of his divine father Ammon.
The ten horns represent Alexander's successors; the eleventh is Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who persecuted the Jews and blasphemed against their God. Therefore, this horn is said to be speaking "boastful words".
He is punished by God, who is presented to us as an ancient of days. (The image of God as an ancient man can also be found in texts like Job 36.26 and Psalm 102.25.) The author of Daniel believes that God will hand over power to a mighty ruler who will bring peace to mankind (the "one like a son of man" who comes "with the clouds of heaven"). This Son of Man cannot be identified, but from "Book of Similitudes" (first half first century CE) on, authors have interpreted him as the Messiah.
The translation below is the Revised Standard Version.
The Four Beasts
[7.2] I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea.
[7.3] And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.
[7.4] The first was like a lion and had eagles' wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand upon two feet like a man; and the mind of a man was given to it.
[7.5] And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side; it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, "Arise, devour much flesh."
[7.6] After this I looked, and lo, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back; and the beast had four heads; and dominion was given to it.
[7.7] After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrible and dreadful and exceedingly strong; and it had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns.
[7.8] I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots; and behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking boastful things.
The last Judgment
[7.9] As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire.
[7.10] A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
[7.11] I looked then because of the sound of the boastful words which the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was slain, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire.
[7.12] As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.
The Son of Man
[7.13] I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the ancient of days and was presented before him.
[7.14] And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
[7.15] As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious and the visions of my head alarmed me.
[7.16] I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me, and made known to me the interpretation of the things.
[7.17] "These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth.
[7.18] But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, for ever and ever."
[7.19] Then I desired to know the truth concerning the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrible, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze; and which devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet;
[7.20] and concerning the ten horns that were on its head, and the other horn which came up and before which three of them fell, the horn which had eyes and a mouth that spoke boastful things, and which seemed greater than its fellows.
[7.21] As I looked, this horn made war with the saints, and prevailed over them,
[7.22] until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints received the kingdom.
[7.23] Thus he said: "As for the fourth beast, there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth, which shall be different from all the kingdoms, and it shall devour the whole earth, and trample it down, and break it to pieces.
[7.24] As for the ten horns, out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise, and another shall arise after them; he shall be different from the former ones, and shall put down three kings.
[7.25] He shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times and the law; and they shall be given into his hand for a time, two times, and half a time.
[7.26] But the court shall sit in judgment, and his dominion shall be taken away, to be consumed and destroyed to the end.
[7.27] And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them."