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Answering an Aramaic Enigma: Part Three

Thus shall you say to them:
“The gods who did not make the heavens and the earth
shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens.”
Jeremiah 10:11

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.
Daniel 2:44–45

Daniel 2–7: An Aramaic Enigma

A little over a century ago, Biblical scholarship witnessed a linguistic “gold rush.” Emboldened by a growing consensus that the Old Testament was neither holy nor historical, men staked their claim on heaps of words, claiming proof for their unbelief. Studies followed in rapid succession, presenting a growing list of Aramaic words in Old Testament Scripture—“true tender” that the books must have been written later than traditionally believed1 .

Above: A clay tablet featuring a Babylonian scribal exercise. The Aramaic alphabet is written in cuneiform in two columns, C. 500 BC.

Scholars argued that an abundance of Aramaic words in Old Testament passages indicated that books such as Genesis, Ruth, and Job must have been written during the Babylonian exile or the post-exilic period, times when the Aramaic language significantly influenced the Jews. But the language boom turned to bust as it became apparent that most of these words weren’t all that Aramaic after all. The situation was summed up in 1927 by the well- respected Hebraist M.H. Segal:

“It has been the fashion among writers on the subject to brand as an Aramaism any infrequent Hebrew word which happens to be found more or less frequently in Aramaic dialects. Most of these Aramaisms are as native in Hebrew as they are in Aramaic. Many of them are also found in other Semitic languages.”2 

This reassessment of biblical Aramaic has not only vindicated the historicity of the Old Testament but also revived the mystery surrounding the Aramaic composition of Daniel. Daniel’s Aramaic chapters stand out as a distinct literary segment written in an “unauthorized” language. Why would the author of this book suddenly shift languages midsentence to compose only part of Daniel in a language that had never been used to compose Hebrew Scripture? To answer this question, we will need to return to the only Aramaic Scripture that appeared before Daniel’s ministry: Jeremiah 10:11.

From Heinous to Hostage

As we noted before, Aramaic became a foreign language to the nation of Israel. Yet this language appeared without warning from the lips of the prophet Jeremiah. Why?

At this time Aramaic was the language of Israel’s conquerors; first the Assyrians (2Ki. 17:6; 722 BC) and then the Babylonians (2 Ki. 23:36–24:1; 604 BC). Remarkably, God not only identified both of these nations as the executors of His judgment but even presented them as the speakers of His word to a people who were no longer listening:

For by people of strange lips ​​​​​​​and with a foreign tongue ​​​​​​​the LORD will speak to this people, ​​​ ​​​​​​to whom he has said, ​​​​​​​“This is rest; ​​​​​​​give rest to the weary; ​​​​​​​and this is repose”; ​​​​​​​yet they would not hear. ​​​

Isaiah 28:11–12

Daniel and his peers were the very first of thousands of Israelites carried into the land of Babylon, and for them, the entire journey would have been experienced in Aramaic, the language of their captors and of the land where they were forcibly resettled. The strange speech was not only a fulfillment of the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah (Jer. 5:15) but harkened back to warnings that God had given to Israel as they prepared to enter the land of Canaan:

The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand … They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land. And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the LORD your God has given you … And the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known.

Deuteronomy 28:49, 52, 64

The words of the Law and of prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah would have a special significance to the Jews of the Babylonian exile, giving them the means to understand their circumstances as well as interpret the words and actions of the two prophets living among them: Ezekiel and Daniel. Ezekiel’s ministry was one of continuity, oracles of traditional prophecy given in Hebrew by a Hebrew priest. But Daniel’s ministry would be something completely new: an (un)prophet interpreting God’s revelation to gentile overlords.

We have already considered the radical shift that takes place in Daniel 2 (see the series Three Unknowns). But the watershed changes that characterized Daniel’s ministry did not come without warning. In fact, the message Daniel would bring to his gentile monarchs was powerfully announced in a single sentence—Jeremiah’s Aramaic declaration (Jer. 10:11). We will explore how this verse prepared the world for Daniel in our next post; but in the meantime, let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below.


1.  Zdravko Stefanovic, The Aramaic of Daniel in the Light of Old Aramaic (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992), 17–18.

2.  Gleason Archer, A Survey of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 2007), 119.

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Photo by Zunkir is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license and was modified for this article.

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