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Questioning the Scriptures

Daniel 2 starts off with a statement that is fodder for biblical skeptics: “In the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar…” (Dan 2:1 ESV). The difficulty with this seemingly simple statement locating the events of the chapter in time hinge on its relationship with what had been said in chapter 1 about the length of Daniel’s training period. E.J. Young summarizes the problem:

This date is thought by some to constitute a contradiction with what is said in chapter 1 about a three year period of training. If, so the argument runs, Daniel was brought to Babylon in the first year of Nebuchadnezzar, and then entered upon a period of training which lasted three years, how could the events described in chapter 2 possibly have occurred during the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign?[1]

Given the possibility of accusations about the credibility of the biblical text that this apparent contradiction occasions, I thought that it would be worth addressing it specifically in this reflection. However, there is a larger point that I want to make: everyone should question the Scriptures, but how you question them makes a big difference in what you get out of them.

Now, regarding this particular apparent contradiction, at first glance it seems to be a difficult question even beyond the mathematical matter. After all, how could Daniel have had access to the court of Nebuchadnezzar, as he clearly does in v16? Chapter 1 seems to be clear enough that Daniel and his companions were to stand before the king at the end of the three-year training period. Given the importance of court etiquette, of which we have a reasonable parallel in the story of Esther, it would be unlikely that a trainee would have much access to the king. Thus, there is a potential problem that biblical skeptics seize as an opportunity to question the credibility of the Scriptures.

But there are equally weighty questions that ought to unsettle anyone who comes to a quick conclusion that our text is corrupt. In the first place, it is surprising that Daniel doesn’t find out about the king’s troubled heart until the executioner knocks on his door. If Daniel and his companions were said in chapter 1 to be ten times better “in every matter of wisdom and understanding” (v20) and if the king appears to have summoned everybody in chapter 2 to help him with his dream, then how could Daniel be so in the dark unless his training period was still in effect? If he’s still in his training period, then the opening statement is no issue.

Even if that line of argument isn’t convincing, many commentators also point out that the Babylonians began counting a king’s reign after his accession year. That is to say, the first year of Nebuchadnezzar is the second calendar year of his reign. This is similar to the difference in numbering the floors of a building between America and some European countries. In most buildings in America, if you hit the “1” on the elevator, you’ll end up on the first floor. But in some European countries, if you hit “1” you’ll end up on the second floor because the first floor is labelled “ground floor.” Thus, the second year of Nebuchadnezzar would be the third year of Daniel’s training regimen. Moreover, it’s unreasonable to require that the three-year period be exactly three periods of 365 days. Thus, it’s also unreasonable to say that Daniel’s training could not have been concluded at some point in Nebuchadnezzar’s second year.

This whole exercise, however, raises the larger issue of the propriety of questioning Scripture. As I said upfront, everyone should question Scripture, but how you question it makes a big difference in what you get out of it. If you question Scripture assuming that it’s corrupt, you’ll likely come away from it with nothing more than a confirmation of your assumption. But if you question Scripture assuming that it is ultimately the product of your all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful Lord and God, then you’ll likely be greatly rewarded by seeking to engage with his revelation to you.

Another way of thinking about it would be this: curiosity didn’t kill the cat; unbridled curiosity killed the cat. Be curious about questions like these—because they indicate you’re paying attention—but let your curiosity be constrained by your commitment to the goodness and perfection of the God who breathed out the Scriptures.

[1] Young, Daniel, 55

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