What is Going On Here???By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
This chapter occurs before chapter 6. Back in the day when Belshazzar was still king, Daniel had a dream in which he saw visions. He woke up and wrote down the main points, so he wouldn’t forget anything. From here, the Book is in the first person, since it is what Daniel wrote after his dream. (We’ll tell it in the third person, mostly.)
In his vision, Daniel saw four winds come from Heaven and churn the sea. Four huge beasts, each different, rose up out of the water. The first was a lion with wings like an eagle. Daniel watched as the wings were plucked and it stood like a human being, with a human heart. The second was like a bear. It had three ribs between its teeth and it was told to eat much flesh. The third beast was like a leopard with four wings and four heads. The leopard-thing was given authority to rule. The fourth beast was a terrifying creature with iron teeth, that trampled everything in its path. It had ten horns and was completely unlike any other that Daniel had seen. While Daniel was examining the horns, a new one sprouted, while three of the old ones fell out. There were eyes like a human’s on this horn and a mouth speaking arrogantly.
Daniel watched as thrones were brought and G-d was seated. (G-d is here called “Atik Yomin,” which is Aramaic for “The One of Ancient Days.”) In Daniel’s vision, G-d was clothed in white, His “hair” (whatever that means) was like wool, and His throne was of flame, with flaming wheels. There were a million angels attending Him and a billion more on call. G-d sat in judgment and the record books were opened before Him.
As Daniel watched, the horn on the fourth beast continued to mouth off, so it was declared in contempt of court. The beast was killed and its body destroyed, given to the fire. The rest of the beasts lost their authority, but their lives were spared, at least for the time being.
Daniel continued to watch as a man (or something that looked like a man) was brought before G-d. G-d gave this person dominion over all the world, never to cease.
This vision made Daniel feel anxious (as well it might!) and it perplexed him (as it does us!). In his dream, Daniel asked one of the angels to explain what exactly was going on. The angel told him that the four beasts are four empires that will rule the world. Then the holy ones (Israel) will inherit that role.
Daniel wanted to understand what made the fourth beast, who had been slain, so different from the others, with its iron teeth, copper claws (not mentioned earlier), and ten horns. Daniel had seen the fourth beast antagonize G-d until it was destroyed. The angel replied that the fourth beast represented a different kind of kingdom, one that would trample the entire world. The ten horns represent ten kings that would rule it. A new king would arise, who would be different from the others, and he would topple three other kings. However, this new king would speak against G-d and trouble the Jews, planning to change the times and the law. The Jews would be under his thumb until some future time, when the tables will be turned. Then, in the Messianic era, the Jews would have dominion that would not cease.
This is as much of the vision as Daniel chose to reveal. He wrote down the main points, but he kept the details to himself.
So… who, exactly, are these four beasts meant to represent? As with the earlier vision of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the first is Babylonia, which is compared to a lion. The plucking of its wings represents its downfall. The second is Persia, compared to a ravenous bear, eating everything in sight. The third beast represents Alexander the great, who conquered everything in one fell swoop, like a swift leopard. The fourth beast is Rome and the iron teeth are analogous to the iron legs in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. (Space does not permit us to detail every aspect of the descriptions of the four beasts.) It should be noted that, as before, Ibn Ezra considers the third beast to include both Greece and Rome, while the fourth stands for the Arabic empire.