Daniel, who wears lightly the burden of his imperial name Belteshazzar, inhabits a moment when a tyrant’s rage takes life without so much as a footnote.
Circumstances have placed the young Jewish exile in the most strategic of the pagan court’s hallways. He makes friends among the pagans, those friends face insufferable demands, needy friends reach out to Daniel. So does life roll in the space of this low-profile, precocious Jew, far from home but awake to his moment.
Kings dream, sometimes, and then require absurd explanations from hapless sages who couldn’t possibly know the king’s drunken ravings on his bed. The situation shapes itself as lose-lose.
The doomed Arioch is sent off to murder the king’s under-appreciated wise men, who were not sufficiently clairvoyant in their fateful hour to save their own skin. Daniel steps forward, an innocent lamb among the weathered machinists of the royal apparatus.
Daniel to Arioch:
Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon; bring me in before the king, and I will show the king the interpretation.
Desperate times require desperate measures.
Daniel is ushered in before the king, who without small talk requests the young man bona fides. Time’s awastin’ and the king’s maniacal fury is about to cost him his counselors.
Are you able to make known to me the dream that I have seen and its interpretation?”
The narrative pivots on an otherwise insignificant Aramaic word for ‘being’ or ‘existence’: איתי. The finest moments so often turn on the smallest of truths.
‘Are you able …‘ the king demands, ‘… to make know to my my dream?’ The italicized words represent the language’s ordinary way of asking such a question, deploying איתי as roughly akin the first two words ‘Are you …’.
Before reply asked, Daniel dares first to mark out the field of play:
Daniel answered the king and said, ‘No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked.’
There are clearer ways to insinuate that the king is a fool, but Daniel’s deference has served him well thus far and this is no moment for going rogue in the king’s face.
But Daniel has knowledge that the palace sages lack.
But there is (איתי) a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these …
The careful listener picks up the repetition of the little Hebrew word, the second of three occurrences in this lean narrative.
Daniel has now crawled far out on his limb. If this ‘God in heaven’ is not, these words will be among his last. If this ‘God in heaven’ is but does not reveal mysteries, as Daniel claims, his doom is just as near. And if this deity is and reveals, but has chosen to remain silent up in this heavens, Daniel’s end is just as sure.
We read this narrative centuries hence because Daniel knew of what he spoke. Babylonian and Persian kingdoms are largely forgotten, while Daniel’s heirs live on.
But the young Jewish exile has not finished speaking, nor has his narrator yet released his grip on the subtlety that makes exquisite sense of an almost clownish encounter.
But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that is in me (איתי) more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind.
Daniel’s crucial role, narrowly in the survival of a king’s hapless advisors and broadly in the improbable survival of his exiled Jewish people, owes little or nothing to innate qualities or ability. There is (איתי), Daniel claims, no special knowledge, no unique insight in me.
Rather there is a God in heaven—believe it or not—who reveals mysteries. The universe, we are told, is not a closed, predictable system, wherein kings simply get what they want because they are kings. On the contrary, history’s landscape is pock-marked with the evidence of a God who has spoken and acted when least expected. And, declares Daniel with shaking knees, does so still.