Daniel 2 and the Empires

Typically Nebuchadnezzar’s dream image of the statue in Daniel 2 has been looked at in a four kingdom framework, beginning with the neo-Babylonian, followed by the Median, the Persian, and then the Greek empires (see John Collins’ excursus on The Four Kingdoms in his Hermeneia commentary, pp 166-170). The problem with this interpretation is that it is based not upon the understanding of history held by the author of Daniel, but on that of Greek sources, in which the schema is the Assyrian empire followed by the Median, followed by the Persian, followed by the Greek. The Greek evidence is interesting, but irrelevant. We have examples of the historical understanding of the author of Daniel from other parts of the book, namely chapters 7 and 11, which in conjunction with chapter 2, indicate a different solution to the interpretation of the procession of empire as depicted by the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.

Firstly, in chapter 7, we have a creature with ten horns, three of which are plucked out and replaced by another horn. Here are the historical characters involved here:
          1.) Seleucus I Nicator 305-281
          2.) Antiochus I Soter 281-261
          3.) Antiochus II Theos 261-246
          4.) Seleucus II Callinicus 246-226
          5.) Seleucus III Soter Ceraunos 226-223
          6.) Antiochus III the Great 223-187
          7.) Seleucus IV Philopator 187-175
1/      8.) Antiochus, younger son of Sel.IV
                 (killed by Antiochus IV)
2/     9.) Demetrius I, prisoner in Rome, displaced by Ant.IV
3/    10.) Heliodorus killed Sel.IV and thought to rule through
                his son Antiochus (8, above); H. was killed by Ant.IV
          Little horn: Antiochus IV Epiphanes 175-164
Notice that the three horns (indicated by 1/, 2/, 3/) represented three persons, two of whom were killed and one of whom was kept from the throne for a time, by the “little horn” Antiochus IV Epiphanes. We see here that the author is quite well informed not only of the regicide and attempted usurpation by Heliodorus at the Seleucid court, but quite succinctly summarized the intrigues at this point in Seleucid history with his uprooted horns metaphor.

Daniel 11 presents us with quite a nice summary of relations between the Seleucids and Ptolemids. The below identifies the various personages:
11.1: First year of Darius the Mede=first year of Cyrus the Great
11.2: Three more kings: Cambyses (530-522), Bardiya (522), Darius I (521-486); fourth king: Xerxes (486-465) [the rest of the Achaemenids are ignored, as they are irrelevant]
11.3: Mighty king: Alexander (336-323); split to the four winds: the Diadochoi
11.5-6a: King of the South: Ptolemy I Soter (323-282); Commander: Seleucus I Nicator (312-281) [Notice that Antiochus I Soter is passed over here]
11.6b: King of South: Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246); King of North: Antiochus II Theos (261-246)
11.7: Woman’s offspring: Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221); King of North: Seleucus II Callinicus (246-225)
11.10: Sons: Seleucus III Soter (225-223) and Antiochus III
11.11: King of North: Antiochus III the Great(223-187); King of South: Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-204)
11.14: King of South: Ptolemy V Epiphanes (204-180)
11.17: Woman: Cleopatra
11.18: Commander: Lucius Cornelius Scipio
11.20: One to arise: Seleucus IV Philopator (187-175); official: Heliodorus
11.21: contemptible person: Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164)
11.30: ships of Kittim: under the command of the Roman Popilius Laenas
Following the flow of chapter 11 and focusing on those who are depicted explicitly as ruling, we end up with twelve rulers total depicted here, six from the Seleucids and six from the Ptolemids, interestingly enough, which are depicted as either strong or weak.

Taking the information above, I suggest the following interpretation of the Nebuchadnezzar dream statue in Daniel 2:
Head of gold: Nebuchadnezzar [the rest of the neo-Babylonians are ignored]
Chest/arms of Silver: The Medes and Persians, as there are two arms
Belly/thighs of bronze: Alexander the Great, who strode across west and east
Iron legs: Ptolemy I Soter and Seleucus I Nicator, one per leg
Feet of mixed clay and iron: Specifically I think the imagery is related to the ten toes, some of which are intended to be iron and some clay:
One foot, Kings of the South:
     Ptolemy II Philadelphus: clay
     Ptolemy III Euergetes: iron
     Ptolemy IV Philopator: iron
     Ptolemy V Epiphanes: clay
     Ptolemy VI Philometor: clay
The other foot, Kings of the North:
     Antiochus II Theos: clay
     Seleucus II Callinicus: clay
     Antiochus III the Great: iron
     Seleucus IV Philopator: clay
     Antiochus IV Epiphanes: iron

There are several implications here. Firstly, this interpretation, which fits so well with the evidence, would indicate that the materials in Daniel chapter 2 and chapter 11 are obviously related and belong to the same time period. Secondly, we find important evidence concerning the different mindset regarding history held by the author of these depictions: when one or another ruler is omitted, this shows us that the historical information is being selectively utilized in order to fit the particular prophetic structure being depicted. Thirdly, and I think most interestingly, the depiction of sometimes kings and sometimes empires in the image (see 2.38) shows that the consistency which we expect as moderns (which has previously always led us to read all the elements as empires) was not something shared by the ancients. Lastly, the sophistication of detail in combining the utilization of the various metals and clay with the various body parts of the image as a presentation of unfolding history and the quality of kings is, so far as I know, unique. It is certainly quite striking.


  1. Wow! Kevin, just a quick reply as I just read your article in a spare moment before going out, and I am quite blown away by it. My husband and I have been attending the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and we had a huge problem with their interpretation of Daniel 8 in particular, and their failure to examine the historical evidence for the Seleucids etc in chapter 11. After much study of this period of history over the previous 6 weeks, I am very excited to look more carefully into your findings. Congratulations for thinking outside the box! Many thanks for sharing this information. May God bless you.

  2. You’re very welcome, Jenny! I’m glad you enjoyed it. You might also find another page of mine interesting, on Jerusalem’s history. There’s no splitting up that history into ten nice little periods that’ll fit with some scheme such as that of the Adventists and others. Well, I suppose you could, but it would be just as arbitrary as the systems they use now. Let me know if you have any other questions. I’m happy to help.

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