Daniel 2 – Part Two (Joseph 2.0)

We continue in our series in the OT book of Daniel, with a three-part study in Daniel 2. Yesterday was all about the story surrounding the dream (which you’ll need to read first), and on Monday we’ll look at the content of the dream itself. Today, however, we look at how Daniel’s story reminds us of another famous dream interpreter.*

Joseph 2.0

There are many similarities between Daniel 2 and the story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream in Genesis 41. Here’s a quick overview:

After a timeframe of two years, a ruler (Pharaoh/Nebuchadnezzar) has a dream which troubles them. They call for magicians and others to interpret, who are unable to do what the ruler asks. A “go between” character turns up in the story (the cup-bearer/the king’s guard), who knows a guy who can help – who just happens to be from the people of Israel. The potential interpreter (Joseph/Daniel) appears before the ruler, who asks whether he can interpret dreams. The answer focuses on God’s ability to interpret dreams, and downplays the human involved. The content of the dream is described, which is symbolic (cannibalistic cows/an ugly statue), and the interpreter interprets, emphasising the trustworthiness of their interpretation. The ruler is pleased, acknowledging the ability of the interpreter and the power of God, before giving the interpreter gifts and a key leadership role in the empire.

All this is quite obvious and deliberate. But there are also some differences, which paint Daniel as a “new and improved” Joseph:

Daniel is portrayed a better dream-interpreter:

  • Both rulers were troubled, but Nebuchadnezzar loses sleep.
  • Both call magicians, but Nebuchadnezzar also calls enchanters, sorcerers, and Chaldeans.
  • And, most significantly, Nebuchadnezzar also requires his interpreters to tell him the content of the dream – something Pharaoh didn’t expect. Daniel (and God) get extra points for degree-of-difficulty.
  • The consequences, too, are severe – whereas for Joseph, the consequences of failure weren’t spelled out (other than a return to prison).
  • Daniel expresses greater confidence in his God-given ability to interpret: he makes the first move, whereas Joseph has to be asked; Daniel promises to given an interpretation, whereas Joseph doesn’t give any guarantees.
  • And, of course, he gives the interpretation and the content of the dream itself.

Daniel is portrayed as being more devout:

  • Daniel explicitly prays, whereas we’re not told that Joseph does.
  • He’s also more humble in his interpretation, instantly giving God the credit. This is something Joseph needs to learn over his lifetime: God gets no mention in his first interpretation of dreams (Gen 37) and very little in the second (Gen 40).
  • When you look at the ruler’s response at the end, both acknowledge God and honour the interpreter, but with different emphases: “God’s role elevates the status of Joseph in Pharaoh’s eyes, while Daniel elevates the status of God in the eyes of Nebuchadnezzar” (Ringe, p.94).

Daniel also offers a different model of relating to a pagan empire:

  • By the end, Joseph had almost completely assimilated to Egyptian culture, taking an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife – to the point that even his own family didn’t recognise him; Daniel remains more “Jewish” in his identity.
  • When approached by his family, Joseph responds to them as an Egyptian ruler rather than as family; Daniel looks out for his fellow countrymen, getting them promoted as well (2:49).
  • Joseph’s dream warns Pharaoh how to avert a potential disaster, and therefore save his empire; Daniel’s dream foretells the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, under the sovereignty of God, and Daniel consistently reminds him of his subordinate status to God.

The list could go on, but you get the idea. In the story in chapter 2, Daniel is being compared with Joseph – and being compared favourably. Why?

For 2nd century Jews to think about

In the eyes of at least some Jews in the second century, Joseph ended up being a bit of a sell-out. (We get this from Jewish writings of the time, like The Testament of Joseph, and Joseph and Aseneth.) Joseph effectively became Egyptian – something that even Moses, raised in Pharaoh’s household, never did. And many of the upper classes in Jerusalem had started to become Greek – to enthusiastically embrace Greek culture as a sign of status, and as a way of belonging in the world of the empire.

Daniel, by contrast, gives a model of how someone can advance in a pagan world, yet retain their Jewish identity and continue to work for God’s glory. This “middle way” was important to articulate in the second century, given the alternatives were (a) selling out, or (b) violent resistance and revolution (urged by books like 1 & 2 Maccabees).

For us to think about

The story of Daniel gives us one person’s attempt to be “in the world but not of the world” in his own particular circumstance, as a way of inspiring us to do likewise.

How do we risk ending up like Joseph, being almost indistinguishable from the non-Christian culture around us?

In the story, God was at work giving Daniel wisdom and looking after him. He was quick to acknowledge this, even when speaking before a powerful ruler like Nebuchadnezzar.

How can you bring acknowledgement of God’s hand in your life into more everyday conversations, as you go about your business in a world that doesn’t know him?

How can you use your position or influence in society to commend God to the world?

*Today’s material is drawn heavily from Matthew Ringe, “Jewish identity under foreign rule: Daniel 2 as a reconfiguration of Genesis 41,” Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010): 85-104.

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