Yeshua the Anointed: Supplemental note on Daniel 3:25

Overview and Interpretation

Daniel 3:25 is noteworthy as the only occurrence in the Old Testament of the expression “son of God”; the plural appears numerous times (in several forms) in the Hebrew, in reference to divine/heavenly beings, and, less frequently, to human beings (cf. the first section of Part 12). However, the singular occurs only here in Daniel, at the climactic moment of chapter 3, as the three young Israelite/Jewish men (Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah) are inside the blazing furnace, and the king (Nebuchadnezzar) declares in amazement:

“See! I behold four young men loosed (from their bonds and) walking in the middle of the fire, and there is no damage to them! and the appearance of the fourth is like that of a son of God!”

While it is not specified in this verse, the clear implication is that this fourth “young man” (rb^G+) is a divine/heavenly being. The expression in Aramaic is /yh!l*a$ rB^ (bar-°§l¹hîn), the equivalent of Hebrew <yh!ýa$ /B# (ben-°§lœhîm), which is typically used in the plural for heavenly beings (i.e. Angels). The text states this explicitly in verse 28, in the subsequent public declaration by Nebuchadnezzar:

“Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who sent his Messenger and brought release/deliverance for his servants…”

The Hebrew/Aramaic ialm, like the Greek word a&ggelo$, can refer to either a human or heavenly “messenger”, depending on the context; here, it certainly means a heavenly Messenger. At the historical level, a (pagan, polytheistic) king such as Nebuchadnezzar, in using an expression like /yh!l*a$ rB^, would have meant simply a divine being, “son of (the) gods” (cf. Hebrew <yl!a@ yn}B=), according to the conventional understanding of the time. The text does not indicate just what it was about the appearance of this fourth person that led Nebuchadnezzar to believe it was a divine being of some sort. From the standpoint of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, the “gods” (<yl!a@) or “sons of God” of course were understood to be created heavenly beings or “Angels”.

The earliest interpretation of this heavenly/angelic being in Dan 3:25 is found in the Additions to the Greek version of Daniel, LXX Dan 3:49 (verse 26 of the addition), where it is stated that “the Messenger of the Lord stepped down into the furnace with the ones around Azariah and shook the flame of the fire out of the furnace”. This is a reference to the Messenger (Angel) of YHWH in ancient Israelite and Old Testament tradition. Originally, this was not so much a particular Angelic person or being, but rather a concrete expression and embodiment of God’s power and protection on behalf of his people, which may acted out by His Messenger(s), but can also be taken to represent the presence or manifestation (theophany) of God Himself. The Messenger of YHWH is especially depicted as one who protects Israel (Gen 16:7-11; Exod 14:19; 23:20, 23; 32:34; 33:2; Num 20:16; 22:22-35; Judg 2:1-4; 2 Kings 19:35; Ps 34:7; 35:5-6; Zech 3:1-6; 12:8, etc). Later Rabbinic tradition identified the Angel of Dan 3:25 as Gabriel (b. Pesach. 118ab). For the Christian interpretation of the passage as a Christophany, or as prefiguring Jesus in some way, cf. below.

Daniel 3:25 and 7:13-14

There are some interesting parallels between these two passages. To begin with, the references, taken on their own, are similar, though the expressions use different vocabulary:

“See! [ah*] … (he) is like [hm@D*] a son of God
“See! [Wra&] … one like [K=] a son of man

Probably both are referring to a heavenly being, a Messenger (Angel) of God, and both seemingly in the context of the protection and deliverance of God’s people (the righteous ones) on earth. If we step back and look at the overall setting of chapters 2-3 and 7, in relation to the thematic development and structure of the book, the parallelism is enhanced:

First, we have the visions of chapters 2 and 7, which are related in the following ways:

    • Each involves a succession of four kingdoms, the last of which is the most savage and violent, with ten toes/horns representing ten kings. Following these is the everlasting kingdom of God, which will be established following the defeat/judgment of the other kingdoms.
    • Each has the general structure of: (1) occurrence of the vision, (2) hymn/vision of God’s glory, (3) interpretation of the vision.
    • Each is set at the beginning of one half of the book—(1) the vision in chapter 2 introduces the stories of chs. 3-6, set during the Babylonian, Median, and Persian (i.e. the first three) kingdoms; (2) that in chapter 7 introduces the visions of chs. 8-11, involving the rise and history of the Greek empire (the fourth kingdom).

Note also the following parallels between chaps. 3 and 7:

    • The episode in chapter 3 is, in some ways, a narrative dramatization of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream—now it is a real statue, representing the glory and power of earthly kingdoms on a grandiose scale (everyone in the kingdom is to bow down before it and worship). This, then, is a story narrating the beginning of the four-kingdom vision—i.e. the first kingdom, of Babylon. The fourth beast of chapter 7 (and the following visions of chs. 8-11), is part of a vision depicting the end of the four-kingdom scenario (cf. vv. 11, 26, where the final beast is judged and slain).
    • In chapter 3, Nebuchadnezzar persecutes the people of God (arrest and execution of the three young men), just as the fourth beast (and his last horn) in the vision will make war against the (people of the) holy ones (7:21, 25).
    • At the central point of the ch. 3 story, the one like a “son of God” appears in the middle of the fiery furnace; in the central scene of the ch. 7 vision, the one like a “son of man” comes into the fiery presence of God (the “Ancient of Days”) in Heaven.
    • In chapter 3, the one like a “son of God”, it may be said, comes to rescue/deliver his people (the three young men); in the chapter 7 vision, it is said that the “Ancient of Days” comes to bring judgment (v. 22). It is not said how the “(people of) the holy ones” are delivered, but based on Dan 12:1ff (cf. also 10:13-21), this takes place by way of a heavenly Messenger (Michael), whom many commentators identify as the one “like a son of man” in 7:13-14.
    • Following the appearance of the one like a “son of God” in chap. 3, the Babylonians realize they have no power over God’s people (vv. 27-28), who are given special privilege and promoted within the kingdom (vv. 29-30). In the chapter 7 vision, the scene involving the one like a “son of man” coincides with the judgment of the beasts and the removal of their kingdoms; instead, an everlasting Kingdom is given to “the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (vv. 22, 27).

If a heavenly Messenger (Angel) is being described in both passages, then we are seeing this from two perspectives:

    • On earth, among humans, he is marked (in some way) as a divine being (“son of God”)
    • In heaven, among the divine/celestial entities, he resembles a human being (“son of man”)

However, the parallelism in chapter 3 & 7 could also be interpreted differently:

    • In chapter 3, a divine being (“son of God”) appears among humans
    • In chapter 7, a human being (“son of man”) appears among the divine/heavenly beings

In this case, the human being could either (a) be symbolic of the righteous (people of God) on earth, or (b) indicate the elevation of a human being (or humankind) to a heavenly status and position before God. Of these options, the first is more plausible, given the references in 7:22, 27; however, already at the end of Daniel (12:2-3) we find the righteous being exalted to a heavenly, celestial position. We have also seen the idea of a human being specifically elevated to divine/heavenly status in the Enoch traditions (1 En 70-71, etc), and, of course, with the person of Jesus in early Christian belief; several of the texts from Qumran (4Q427, 4Q491, etc) suggest something similar.

Christophany and Christological Interpretation

It has been popular among Christians to view this heavenly Messenger of Daniel 3:25 as an Old Testament appearance or manifestation of Jesus—that is, a “Christophany” of the pre-existant Christ (Son of God). There are a number of writings of the early Church Fathers which indicate such a belief, though it is not attested before the end of the 2nd century A.D. Here the most notable passages which survive:

  • Irenaeus [late 2nd century], Against Heresies I.5.2—identifies the one resembling a “son of God” with “the Son of God”, though he does not specifically say that this was Jesus in a pre-incarnate form.
  • Tertullian [early 3rd century], Against Marcion 4:10—conflates Dan 3:25 and 7:13, reading “Son of Man” in both passages, but clearly with the idea that “Son of Man” indicates Jesus’ deity. In chapter 21 of the same book, he states that it was Jesus (as Son of Man) who saved the lives of the three young men.
  • Hippolytus [early-mid 3rd century], Commentary (Scholia) on Daniel, understands the “son of God” to be Christ, but wonders how Nebuchadnezzar could have recognized this—it prefigures the acceptance of Christ by the Gentiles.
  • Jerome, Commentary on Daniel (commenting on the text with the Additions [cf. above], vv. 49, 92 [25], 95 [28])—accepts the plain meaning of the text as referring to an Angel, and interprets this typologically as relating to Christ: “this angel or son of God foreshadows our Lord Jesus Christ, who descended into the furnace of hell… in order that he might without suffering any scorching by fire or injury to his person deliver those who were held imprisoned by chains of death” [English translation by Gleason Archer]. Cf. also Letter 130.10.
  • Athanasius, in his Fourth Discourse Against the Arians §24, accepts Dan 3:25 as a Christophany without comment; Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith 1.13.80, offers a brief interpretation similar to that of Hippolytus.

Along similar lines, a fair number of commentators throughout the centuries have identified Jesus with the “Messenger of YHWH” in the Old Testament, and that Dan 3:25, 28 (vv. 49, 92, 95 in the Greek version) indicates one such appearance of the pre-existent Christ as the Angel of the Lord. It must be said that there is really nothing in the Old Testament to warrant this interpretation. Nor is there much in the New Testament to support it. While Jesus was identified with the “one like a son of man” in Mark 13:26; 14:61 par; Rev 1:7, 13; 14:14ff, there is no comparable identification with the one “resembling a son of God”. I find only two passages which could conceivably be cited in support of Old Testament Christophany and/or recognizing Jesus as the Angel of YHWH:

  • In 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul draws upon Old Testament (and Jewish) tradition regarding the rock of Kadesh and well of Beer (Numbers 20-21), giving it a spiritual and Christological interpretation, declaring that the life-giving rock which followed the Israelites “was the Anointed (One) {Christ}”. While we cannot be absolutely certain, this seems to indicate a belief that the pre-existent Christ appeared in a miraculous form among the ancient Israelites. If so, Paul likely would have recognized a similar presence of Jesus in other episodes from Israelite history; however, he makes no mention of this elsewhere in his letters.
  • The identification of Jesus with the Messenger of God in Malachi 3:1. I have discussed this passage in an earlier note. While early Christian tradition, based on the explanation provided in Mal 4:5-6, settled on the interpretation of this Messenger as a human being—John the Baptist, fulfilling the end-time role of “Elijah”—elsewhere in Gospel tradition, it is Jesus himself who appears to be the “Messenger of the Covenant” and the “Lord” who comes to the Temple (in the original context of Mal 3:1ff). The basic Synoptic narrative, with the centrality and climactic setting of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (and into the Temple), supports such an interpretation.

Once early Christians came to understand the earthly (historical) Jesus as the incarnation of pre-existent Deity (Son of God, Word/Wisdom of God), it was easy enough to identify him with the Messenger of YHWH, since this figure often represents the presence and power of God Himself made manifest to humankind. However, this Christological application has not yet been made explicit in the New Testament.

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