The mystery revealed/1 - To resist without killing is not an escape from history, it is generating a different future
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 03/04/2022
«The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire… According to the decree, they put to death the women… and their families… and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks... But many in Israel stood firm… they chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant».
The First Book of Maccabees 1,56-63
We hereby begin the commentary on the Book of Daniel, an important text in the economy of the Bible, which shows us the way of non-violent resistance in times of persecution by empires.
Most biblical words are far from our world, from our language, from our symbolic codes, from the description we make of the problems in our life. Yet when we begin to visit them, we sense that they are our spiritual environment as well, and we feel right at home. Because we feel that before words telling us facts and feelings, there are facts and feelings expressed and told by words. Facts and feelings of men and women like us, distant in time, of course, but also very close, certainly closer than their words. The words found in scripture are not its only protagonists. First, there are facts, experiences, there are people, and there is God. The challenge of every reader and commentator of the Bible is to try to get to the words, touch them, understand them, love them, welcome them as they are, and then let them carry them to the facts and experiences that preceded them. When, on the other hand, words become the only and final encounter, they turn from a passage or door into a wall, which instead of opening a discourse on man and God puts an end to it. This aspect of a word and words is also what makes it possible and legitimate to translate poems into very different languages from the one in which they were originally written by the poet: before words there are emotions, feelings, there is a soul that we can understand in all the languages of the world.
The words of the Gospels, for example, are the true presence of Jesus closest to the facts, but they do not exhaust the person of Jesus nor the experience of the first Church. Scripture contains the Law and the prophets, but does not exhaust them, thus it also reminds us that we are more than the sum of all our words and the words of all the Earth. The word is the home of reality. Hence, it is not reality: it is only the dwelling, not its inhabitant. In order not to meet only with the house of biblical revelation but with the revelation itself, it is necessary to get it out of the house, ask it to unveil itself, find and extract it from its hiding place, remove its chains and see it come out of the cave. A house you cannot get out of is called a prison. The word will open up if we free it from words. When we read the Gospel of Luke (13,9-1), we immediately feel that we are that barren fig tree, and we feel the anguish of the now imminent judgment. Then we enter into that parable, and we realize that the fig tree has had another year for two thousand years. The Bible, the whole Bible, is the "winemaker" who begs us for one more year every day.
The Book of Daniel is a splendid palace, full of colours, sceneries, balconies and gardens, but with very thick walls. Its complexity immediately emerges from its external and editorial elements. Latin canon inserts it among the prophets after Ezekiel, while Hebrew canon places it among the Ketuvim, that is, the hagiographic writings, such as the book of Esther. It is narratively placed in the context of the Babylonian exile (6th century BC) but was written, or at least finished, in the 2nd century BC. It is written in three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. For some, it is an apocalyptic book for others it is not, for some it is a prophetic book, for others a child of the wisdom tradition. For some it is an essential book in order to understand the entire biblical message, for others it is just a beautiful uplifting story, some think that the passages of the Gospels influenced by Daniel are the best, others that they are the worst.
The book was ideally attributed to Daniel, a name that means "The Lord is my judge", a mythical character that we find in Ezekiel, as an ancient and mysterious righteous man: «Even if these three men - Noah, Daniel and Job - were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord» (Ezekiel 14,14). If we take the (non-historical) narrative reference to Daniel in the Book of Ezekiel seriously, the proximity to Job and Noah may be able to suggest some of the first coordinates of the book – hardly a word is chosen randomly in the Bible, especially if it is a personal name. Job and Noah are called "righteous", a word that means a lot in the Bible, almost everything to morally qualify a person. Not all the protagonists in the Bible can be called righteous, not even the first protagonists (David or Jacob, for example). Daniel would also prove to be a righteous man. Noah and Job faced great danger and came out safe, out of their pit - like Daniel. Hence, encountering the name of Daniel means knowing that the story of a righteous man awaits us, a man who in a personal and collective deluge, is about to begin a story of salvation. The Book of Daniel was in fact written while the people, like Job, found themselves on a pile of garbage while trying to understand the religious meaning of that great misfortune: the terrible persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BC), narrated in the Books of the Maccabees. Thus, we find ourselves in the middle of the Hellenistic period, when the language, culture, customs and religion of the Greeks spread in the Middle East. The people of Israel had an ambivalent relationship with Hellenism. One part of the population, perhaps the majority, was fascinated by that powerful culture and its wisdom. Certainly some of the Jewish priests of Jerusalem were charmed - Jesus, a brother of Onias III the High Priest of Jerusalem, changed his name to Jason, and another took the name of Menelaus.
A book written during a terrible time for Israel and therefore set during another terrible time, the Babylonian exile. A historical context that also explains the apocalyptic and eschatological vein that runs through the book. The apocalypse, from "revelation" (of mysteries and hidden things), is an expression of the literary genre of eschatology, that is, of the interest in the end, in the last age of the history of salvation and human salvation. It has to do with the ultimate destiny, with the deciphering of signs that announce destruction first, then an end and then a novelty that will have to arrive: that of the "Son of Man" and the "day of the Lord", another Kingdom will have to begin. Apocalyptic elements were also present in the writings of the Major Prophets, especially in Isaiah (24-27) and Ezekiel (38-39), and in many of the so-called Minor Prophets. The second century, however, saw a very rich and original apocalyptic season that would flow mainly into the apocryphal literature of the Old Testament, of which the Books of Enoch are the best known. The Book of Daniel has common elements with this literature, but it also had something new and different.
Apocalypse has something in common with persecution, the attempt to protect oneself from the invasion of Greek culture, the need not to lose one's soul and therefore faith in one's own different God, YHWH, and to still believe in the Covenant and the promise. The people were threatened by persecution and, above all, by cultural imperialism that was making them forget a different history and a different God. In fact, these texts were born from eschatological and messianic communities that sought refuge in protected places, which while fleeing persecution sought a new foundation of their faith. While yet another empire occupied the Promised Land, the temple of Jerusalem filled with new gods and among them the altar of Zeus, those oppressed communities of faithful felt the duty to seek new tales, a new narrative, and a new-ancient faith. During the Babylonian exile, the Jewish scribes began to write the books of the history of salvation (Genesis, Exodus...) and some extraordinary prophets wrote their books (Ezekiel and Second Isaiah). Four centuries later, during the Hellenistic occupation and the persecution by Antiochus, other scribes wrote other books and in a time, which was now without prophets, they "created" their own prophet so that he could speak words that were similar to those that had saved them along the rivers of Babylon to the people. Furthermore, the Book of Daniel was born, a book of civil resistance, similar in this respect to the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. This is why «only the survivors of the Shoah, the survivors of Hiroshima, the veterans of Biafra, the victims of the many tragedies in the Middle East could receive Daniele's testimony» (W.S. Towner, "Daniel"). Today, the displaced people of Ukraine, and all those who are looking for a different, better, future in a terrible present, fleeing with "their infants hanging from their necks".
The apocalyptic aspect was also a response to religious and political disappointment, it was the elaboration of the mourning of a people who did not see the great promise fulfilled, the possibility of being able to continue to hope, to seek a meaning to the great evil, in themselves and in the world, while evoking the names of the prophets, writing about visions, heaven and dreams, angels and demons. It was also controversy towards a Jewish religion that had returned to priesthood, centred on sacrifices and liturgies without prophecy. You can change this world by dreaming of a different one. A few decades later, those small communities of resistant, fragile and vulnerable individuals, perhaps groups of Hassidim (the pious) gave life to the communities of Essenes, Pharisees, the Baptist movement, and that of Jesus – a great number of copies of the Book of Daniel were found in the Qumran caves.
Finally, there is a wonderful element. The community that wrote the Book of Daniel, unlike that of the Books of the Maccabees, was nonviolent. They did not take up arms against the foreign kings. They embraced the pen and the soul: they prayed and wrote during this persecution. The collective prayer that flourishes in writing has always been a high form of nonviolent resistance, very different but no less effective than that of taking up arms. The Book of Daniel tells us that visions, angels, dreams, numbers, dragons and stories of ravaged girls (Susanna) can become different tools to chase away foreign dictators and to defend a nation’s history and identity. Antiochus IV and his colleagues, and their wickedness, eventually passed, along with the weapons of the Maccabees. The prayers and words of those nonviolent communities of resistance, however, remained. They were passed on to us and for over two millennia they have been sentinels of a dawn that will come because it cannot fail to arrive. Which must arrive soon, which must arrive today. The resistance of the soul is not an escape from history; it is rather a question of generating a better future than the present, in a different way because it was born from the powerful meekness of peaceful resistance. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Who knows how many are generating a new land today, in the shelters, in the fields, in the bunkers on the Ukrainian-Russian front, with their soul and with the pen: «But in my heart no cross is missing. My heart is the most torn country» (Giuseppe Ungaretti).