Therefore Daniel went to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to destroy the wise men of Babylon, and said to him, ‘Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon; bring me in before the king, and I will give the king the interpretation.’
Then Arioch quickly brought Daniel before the king and said to him: ‘I have found among the exiles from Judah a man who can tell the king the interpretation.’ The king said to Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, ‘Are you able to tell me the dream that I have seen and its interpretation?’ Daniel answered the king, ‘No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed were these: To you, O king, as you lay in bed, came thoughts of what would be hereafter, and the revealer of mysteries disclosed to you what is to be. But as for me, this mystery has not been revealed to me because of any wisdom that I have more than any other living being, but in order that the interpretation may be known to the king and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind.
‘You were looking, O king, and lo! there was a great statue. This statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked on, a stone was cut out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, were all broken in pieces and became like the chaff of the summer threshing-floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
‘This was the dream; now we will tell the king its interpretation. You, O king, the king of kings—to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the might, and the glory, into whose hand he has given human beings, wherever they live, the wild animals of the field, and the birds of the air, and whom he has established as ruler over them all—you are the head of gold. After you shall arise another kingdom inferior to yours, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over the whole earth. And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron; just as iron crushes and smashes everything, it shall crush and shatter all these. As you saw the feet and toes partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom; but some of the strength of iron shall be in it, as you saw the iron mixed with the clay. As the toes of the feet were part iron and part clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. As you saw the iron mixed with clay, so will they mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand for ever; just as you saw that a stone was cut from the mountain not by hands, and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. The great God has informed the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation trustworthy.’
Someone prominent and otherwise revered has “feet of clay” when they have a fundamental flaw or weakness. Like a top heavy metal statue built on unstable foundations. This passage from Daniel may read like the tale of an exile in Babylon getting the better of the troubled despot Nebuchadnezzer, but to its first readers in about 165 BCE, perhaps passing copies from hand to hand, it spoke of the current despot Antiochus Epiphanes and contemporary events. At a time when the latest invaders of Palestine had made possession of the Torah a capital offence, the elaborated legend of Daniel was a cover for sedition. Looking back over the previous 400 years it is unsurprising that the unknown author got some historical details wrong, with memories of the Babylonian, Median, Persian and Greek rulers blurred by time and distortion. The feet of iron and clay, ready to split under pressure, were the current regime installed by Syria and Egypt, and the stone cut without hands which smashed the whole idolatrous construction was God’s Kingdom, centred on Jerusalem, which would endure for ever.
Every earthly empire crumbles in the end. There is a familiar pattern of an aging dynasty gradually dissipating itself through luxurious use of accumulated wealth and over-reaching to take in more territory. A rebellion at the far side of the empire turns into an unstoppable military campaign, and the old order is swept away, to be replaced with an empire which claims that it will be eternal. After a few generations the whole cycle is repeated.
The Book of Daniel is history told backwards, as an encrypted message of encouragement to a subjugated people, reminding them of who is ultimately in charge and that whatever befalls them they are called to remain faithful to their God.
Enduring God, you know that we too have feet of clay. Save us from our own imperial thoughts, our desire to control, our tendency to follow the loudest voice. Release us from the fear that keeps our heads down, whispering sedition rather than speaking truth clearly. We ask this in the name of the one who lives in our heart, our mind, our soul. Amen.
The Rev’d Fiona Thomas, Secretary for Education and Learning, member of Christ Church, Bellingham.