This is the second post of a four-part series connected to the new book "Interpreting Daniel for Preaching and Teaching" authored by Talbot School of Theology professors Brandon Cash and Tom Finley. 

It is commonly known that the canonical book of Daniel was written in two languages — Hebrew and Aramaic. Chapters 1 to 2:4a are in Hebrew; 2:4b to chapter 7 is in Aramaic; and chapters 8 to 12 are in Hebrew. Both languages are closely related in the Semitic family of languages, but the Aramaic of the Bible has some important differences from biblical Hebrew, especially in the way that verbs are used and in certain noun patterns. The Aramaic of Daniel can be classified as Standard Literary Aramaic (SLA), differing from earlier Old Aramaic and later Middle Aramaic, which includes the Aramaic of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran Aramaic). Daniel’s Aramaic is like the Aramaic portions of the book of Ezra, which is also SLA. Daniel’s Aramaic also includes loanwords from Babylonian and Old Persian. The Hebrew of Daniel has numerous Aramaisms (i.e., vocabulary or other features borrowed from Aramaic).

Why would Daniel, an Israelite from Judah, write in Aramaic rather than Hebrew? And why would his book have a combination of both languages? Aramaic began to be used for some administrative and literary purposes in the Ancient Near East (ANE) even prior to Daniel, during the Assyrian empire in the seventh century BC. Then in the time of the Neo-Babylonian empire (late 7th century to 539 BC), Aramaic became increasingly used alongside Babylonian. When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BC, Aramaic became an official language alongside Old Persian and Babylonian. Since Daniel was educated in the king’s court, Aramaic would have been his most natural language once he assimilated into Babylonian culture, but it would also have been a natural way to communicate with his contemporary Judeans who had settled in Babylonia. Even in the homeland of Judah Aramaic was well on the way to becoming a major language alongside Hebrew. In Galilee Aramaic eventually overtook Hebrew as a spoken language.

Hebrew was not widely known in the ANE, especially the Judean dialect. Aramaic, on the other hand, quickly spread throughout the ANE and became a common language for international communication and commerce. Even in Judah prior to the Babylonian conquest, Aramaic was used as a diplomatic language.[1] When Nebuchadnezzar took the Judeans captive to Babylon, they increasingly adopted Aramaic as a common means of communication. Daniel was educated in the language and literature of the “Chaldeans” (Dan 1:4). The Chaldeans were an Aramaic-speaking group of tribes that managed to gain political ascendancy with the rise of the Babylonians over the Assyrians. Both in the Bible and in extra-biblical texts, the terms “Chaldean” and “Babylonian” became virtually synonymous, although “Chaldean” does not mean Aramaic.[2]

The way that Daniel is divided by language highlights three distinct sections of the book. The introduction in Hebrew provides the historical setting and brings Daniel and his three companions onto the scene, at the same time explaining how these four Judean exiles received important positions in the Babylonian court. The Aramaic section details their activities in the court, and it also includes the first of Daniel’s personal visions. Like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream found in chapter 2 of the Aramaic section, Daniel’s vision of chapter 7 uses the same scheme of four successive kingdoms or empires to outline the remaining history of the world. Daniel’s additional visions recorded in Hebrew give more detailed prophecies concerning the third or Greek kingdom as well as concerning the fourth and final kingdom. Daniel’s prophecy of the “seventy weeks” in chapter 9 deals with the Jewish people from Cyrus to the crucifixion of Christ, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and the tribulations that the Jewish people suffer until Christ will return and establish the kingdom that will endure forever.

There is a rhetorical purpose for the change in languages. The introduction in Hebrew details how the Jews lost the possession that God had given them through Joshua and the conquest of the land. The four Hebrew men held captive in a foreign country, assigned foreign names, and educated in foreign culture point decisively to the new reality that God had established for the Jews. Their king was deposed, and their land was changed. The only remnants of their Jewish identity were their refusal to defile themselves with royal Babylonian food and their refusal to bow to any God other than the God of Israel. Even to this day the Jews are marked by their kosher diet and their strict monotheism.

Chapter 2 moves Daniel and his friends into their participation in Babylonian life, and the language of the book changes to Aramaic. The first three verses set up the general scene: Nebuchadnezzar has a troubling dream and summons his wise men to interpret it. For the first time a dialog is portrayed between Nebuchadnezzar and “the Chaldeans.” The term “Chaldeans” can refer to an ethnic group, but in verse four it serves as a cover term for all the Babylonian wise men. The dialog sets up an expectation that the language will not be Hebrew. It was likely Babylonian, but that was a language that the recipients of the book of Daniel would not be able to either read or understand. Nevertheless, the change from Hebrew to Aramaic alerts the reader that not only are the Jews in a situation where the language is foreign, but even more, it now places Daniel and his friends among the wise men of Babylon. The rest of the Aramaic section reflects the new reality. The rule of God among his people has shifted from a king in the line of David to foreign rulers, to life in exile. Yet even in exile it is possible for Jews to assume important positions.

Chapter 7 is a pivotal point between an old and a new reality. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the four metals and Daniel’s dream of the four beasts represented the history of the world from different perspectives. Nebuchadnezzar viewed the world from a human point of view, but Daniel saw reality from a divine point of view. When Babylon exited the stage of history and was replaced by the Medo-Persians and then the Greeks, only to culminate in an extraordinary leader who thought himself divine,[3] the change of language once again signaled something new. Daniel still has visions, but they reveal details about clashes between kingdoms. And the Jews are caught in the middle between these warring nations. Chapter 9 gave hope for the reinstatement of the Jews on their land, but the tragedy of the death of the Messiah and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem dashed hopes for the promised restoration. The Hebrew language of this part of the book, however, held hope for the ultimate kingdom of God on earth that Daniel envisioned in chapters 7 to 12. In the final chapter there is promise not only of resurrection, but also of the people of God receiving their inheritance that had been taken from them by force.

The two languages of the book of Daniel, then, mirror the clash of cultures that the Jews felt when they were exiled from their land. They were forced to adopt the new language of Aramaic, but their hopes for ultimate deliverance were reinforced by the continuation of their Hebrew language.

*To read more about the Hebrew and Aramaic of Daniel, and how it contributes to the structure and message of the book, check out our new commentary on Daniel.


[1] See 2 Kings 18:26.

[2] See Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:886–87.

[3] See Daniel 11:36–38.