The mystery revealed/14 - We cannot appropriate the words that are whispered into our souls if we do not say them.
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 03/07/2022
"And the desire to leave the paternal home to walk towards the edge. On that edge an angel had laid the egg of divine knowledge."
Alda Merini, Voice of flesh and soul (Voce di carne e di anima)
Daniel's visions of beasts and angels tell us new things about God and the task of the prophets, of the angels who are their heavenly cousins, and of the interpreters of dreams.
The deep and radical crisis of religions is the crisis of the word God. Before the "word of God" it was "word God" that founded faiths and cultures. It has been the brightest word on earth for millennia. In fact the Bible, it was so bright that it could hardly be pronounced, so that the ineffability of the brightest word would preserve the light of all other words. However, even in other religions, where the word in question was often associated with the tremendum, there was no word more brilliant and amazing than, God. In the Christian Western hemisphere, this splendour was able to move people and communities until the second half of the twentieth century, when a new season of collective and youthful enthusiasm blossomed around the word God. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of men and women have spent their lives to get to know Who that splendour was, and then to be close to him. We leave home for many reasons - the departure of young people is always plural - but above all we went to become intimate with God, to become the people of his home. We remain within a vocation until that first splendour is extinguished, or we continue to desire it in its absence.
Today, the word God is losing its splendour. And if religions are in fact the custodians and managers of the effects generated by pronouncing the word God, when this word no longer serves to illuminate, faith begin to fade, the hours that pass become less dazzling. No prayer or liturgy will enrapture and enchant us if everything around us does not light up when we say "God". There are people who have prayed reaching the heights of humanity, whispering one single word their whole life: "Jesus".
The author of the Book of Daniel lived in a time when visions were scarce. The Bible is well aware of these half-light seasons of faith (1 Samuel 3,1). People struggled to perceive the presence of YHWH in their history; God was increasingly veiled by his transcendence in a time of great persecution. Daniel responds to this feeling of God being distant with two novelties. The first was the vision-dreams: visions are found in many books in the Bible, but they are the most vital part in the Book of Daniel. If the people do not feel that God is near them, men and women can try to dream of him. We can give our dreams to God, and therein go back to talking to him directly, until one day, at the end of a long night, that dialogue will continue with our eyes open - poets and artists for instance also begin to dream of God during times when he seems to have disappeared. The second novelty was the angels. We know, as did Daniel, that angels are not God. And they are not even those figures that are so well-loved loved today, created somewhere between fiction and new-age, which our capitalism and its dazzling lights like so much because they are in fact artificial. In the Bible, angels are the heavenly cousins of the earthly prophets, so they are a serious matter. As serious as the presence of angels is in art - what would the Renaissance be without angels? - and in the prayers of those who, without knowing anything about theology or the Bible, loved and continue to love angels, especially the idea of the guardian angel. Angels have been able to make sense of perhaps the greatest pain on earth, namely that of a child dying – Ridiculing the pain of people in the name of rationalist faiths or calling it "the faith of the simple minded" with contempt is shameful. The more I study the Bible and its exegetes, the more I respect popular faith and piety. If we manage to find a new splendour to God, it will not come from the academics and professors: it will come once more from the people, the poets, the children and the poor. Some angels have a name in the Book of Daniel. Among these, there is one with a truly wonderful name, co-star of one of the most beautiful earthly-heavenly dialogues of all time: his name is Gabriel.
«In the third year of King Belshazzar’s reign, I, Daniel, had a vision, after the one that had already appeared to me. In my vision I saw myself in the citadel of Susa» (Daniel 8,1-2). In chapter 8 we leave the Aramaic language behind and go back to Hebrew. Daniel, like his teacher Ezekiel, is transported in a vision to a city in today's Iran. There a ram appears before him «there before me was a ram with two horns (...) No animal could stand against it» (Daniel 8,3-4). The vision continues with «a goat with a prominent horn between its eyes came from the west… It came toward the two-horned ram I had seen standing beside the canal and charged at it in great rage… the goat knocked it to the ground and trampled on it, and none could rescue the ram from its power» (Daniel 8,5-7). However, even here, when the goat-unicorn arrived «at the height of its power the large horn was broken off, and in its place four prominent horns grew up…» (Daniel 8,8). «Out of one of them came another horn… It grew until it reached the host of the heavens, and it threw some of the starry host down to the earth and trampled on them» (Daniel 8,9-11). The ram is Darius III, king «of Media and Persia» (Daniel 8,20), defeated in 331 BC by the «goat», that is Alexander the Great Macedonian, «the king of Greece» (Daniel 8,21), who reached the apex of his immense empire (from Egypt to the Himalayas) suddenly died in Babylon (at 33 years of age) and the his kingdom was divided among his four generals. The tremendous Antiochus IV Epiphanes would emerge from one of these horns, the "small horn". A sovereign, who reigned while the author was writing the Book of Daniel, and who in fact challenged the heavens and trampled on them (desecrating the temple of YHWH).
Once again, as in chapter 7, Daniel needs an angel-interpreter to explain the vision to him, and for the first time in the Bible an angel with an actual name appears. From the centre of the vision a voice, perhaps the voice of God, orders: «Gabriel, tell this man the meaning of the vision» (Daniel 8,16). At the end of the explanation, Gabriel says that the small horn will also «… be destroyed, but not by human power» (Daniel 8,25). A note on the literary genres in the Bible. The author of the Book of Daniel writes during the second century BC, and from there he asks himself: «“How long will it take for the vision to be fulfilled - the vision concerning the daily sacrifice, the rebellion that causes desolation, the surrender of the sanctuary and the trampling underfoot of the Lord’s people?” He said to me, “It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated”» (Daniel 8,13-14). The angel Gabriel finally confirms to Daniel that «The vision of the evenings and mornings that has been given you is true» (Daniel 8,26). That confirmation of the vision's truthfulness was necessary for the readers of the book who were under terrible persecution and did not know if and when it would end – how long will it take?
That ancient scribe wrote to confirm his oppressed and exhausted compatriots’ faith and hope. And then Gabriele says to Daniel: «… seal up the vision, for it concerns the distant future» (Daniel 8,26). The Book of Daniel is set during the time of the Babylonian exile, about four centuries before the events of which the author of the book is a spectator. The angel must therefore say “keep the vision a secret“, because these things will not happen soon, that is, they will happen in the future for Daniel the protagonist but in present time for the author of the Book of Daniel. In other cases, however, when the prophets are the historical characters and the authors of their books, we find ourselves in a radically different situation. The prophets denounce the sins of their historical time, but those who hear the prophets, refute them and do not listen to the true prophets (but instead follow false ones) used to say to Ezekiel, for example: «… the Israelites are saying, "The vision he sees is for many years from now, and he prophesies about the distant future"» (Ezekiel 12,27). Hence, they used the future to negate the present. A prophecy always concerns the present, even when, due to its literary genre, it speaks of the future, because a prophet always addresses his actual people; however, both back then as well as today, we tend to postpone the words we do not like to the future. In the Bible, the future is generally good, it is the place where promises are fulfilled, but even in this case, it is the good words (not the bad ones) that are the subject of the worst manipulations from false prophets.
Finally, a further anthropological note on prophecy and on those who find themselves carrying out the role of mediator of dreams. At the end of the vision, «I, Daniel, was worn out. I lay exhausted for several days. Then I got up and went about the king’s business. I was appalled by the vision; it was beyond understanding» (Daniel 8,27). It was beyond understanding: Daniel had had the help of Gabriel who had explained the vision to him, yet he still did not understand it. Sometimes the prophets understand their own visions, sometimes they do not. Telling us, perhaps, at least two things. First: a prophet is not the last recipient of his own visions, because his dreams are meant for others, for his people - they are meant for us. He, or she, is the place where the vision takes place, the body and the voice of the words and images that he or she receives as a gift, but the prophet is not the consumer of his or her own dreams. Hence, understanding them is not necessary. Because, and this is the second crucial message, there is a special form of chastity of the prophets and their brothers: a chastity from their own visions and dreams. When a prophet interprets the dreams of others, the chastity that is required of him concerns others, because he does not need to master their dreams. However, when he or she is unable to understand his own dreams, despite having an angel-interpreter, it is the right moment to learn the art of detaching oneself from the understanding of one's own dreams. The prophet speaks words that are not his own, in his own words, speaking words that are dictated into his soul with his mouth – herein, in this awareness, lies the difference between a true and a false prophet. Thus, this tension also applies to the dreams of the prophets: God is the one dreaming within them, so that his dreams may reach us through the prophets. And if the prophet appropriates these dreams, he or she will prevent God from dreaming on earth and us from knowing his dreams.
This second chastity is so dear to the Bible that it sometimes renders its prophets unable to understand their own dreams that they tell us, not understanding the explanation they receive from the angels. Thus, the Bible teaches something very precious even to us who are not prophets. Sometimes, you may have a great dream that you do not understand: go ahead and tell it anyway, because maybe it is not meant for you, but a dream from God that someone is waiting for in order to continue living.