Daniel is the story of the People of Israel in exile, longing to return to the land of Israel. Much of the book is even written in Aramaic, the language that was spoken in Babylonia during the seventy years of exile following the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash.
The book opens with the exile of Daniel and his contemporaries from the Holy Land to Babylonia. There, he and his contemporaries are chosen to serve in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. When Daniel succeeds at interpreting the king’s dream, he is promoted to a high position. Daniel serves in the royal court throughout the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, until the downfall of Babylonia in the days of Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, and retains a position of power even when Darius of Media ascends the throne.
Daniel is an extremely righteous and talented leader. When Darius’s officials try to incriminate him, “they could find neither fault nor corruption, inasmuch as he was trustworthy, and no negligence or corruption was to be found in him” (Daniel 6:5). Throughout the second half of the book, Daniel mourns the destruction of the Temple and all the exiles that the Jews are to experience, and grieves over all the suffering they bring with them.
Sefer Daniel tells of the dangers, both physical and spiritual, encountered in the exile in foreign lands. Throughout the book, various attempts are made to sever the Jews’ connection with their God and their land. Chananya, Mishael and Azarya are thrown into a furnace when they refuse to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. Daniel is thrown into a lions’ den when he continues to pray to Hashem in violation of the king’s decree. These righteous leaders are saved miraculously each time, showing the Jews that God has not abandoned them. This reassures the Jewish people that they are still connected to Hashem despite the exile, and that they will one day return to Eretz Yisrael as He promised.
The book is full of visions regarding the first exile, Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, and all subsequent exiles until the arrival of the Mashiach. The Jews in exile are encouraged when they see that Nebuchadnezzar receives divine retribution for having destroyed Yerushalayim and the Beit Hamikdash. They see that the words of the prophets are indeed fulfilled when Babylon’s rule is terminated suddenly after seventy years, just as Yirmiyahu had predicted before they left the land of Israel (Jeremiah 29:10). In the middle of a feast celebrating the fact that Hashem has forsaken the Jews in this foreign land, Belshazzar sees the “writing on the wall,” showing that God has indeed calculated the seventy years, and that Babylon will be overrun by the Persian and Median empires.
The second half of the book is made up of the prophetic visions that Daniel received during this period. The visions are graphic and often ominous, foretelling the future exiles and suffering that the Jewish people will endure. At the same time, they are vague and obscure, allowing for various interpretations.
The medieval scholar Rabbi Yehuda Halevi writes in his philosophical work The Kuzari that as a general rule, prophecy can only be received in Eretz Yisrael. Daniel, however, was able to receive prophetic visions in Babylonia because they were about, and for the sake of, Eretz Yisrael. They foretold the return of the children of Israel to their homeland in the time of the second Beit Hamikdash, as well as their ultimate return at the end of days. These prophecies encouraged Daniel and the Jews of his generation, and they continue to serve as an encouragement that the God of Israel is a keeper of promises.
Throughout history, the people of Israel have been persecuted in foreign lands. Sefer Daniel is a study of Jewish survival in exile and the ultimate redemption.