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March 2012 > Spirituality: Daniel, Isaiah, Israel and the Church
The Word On Fire Blog

Spirituality: Daniel, Isaiah, Israel and the Church



The Scriptures for Lent provoked Father Steve to explore the relationship of Israel to the Church and consider how the faithful Israelite’s practice of repentance is meant to be embodied and experienced in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The Book of Daniel is a creative mixture of storytelling and prophecy, of history and legend. It details the adventures of Daniel, an Israelite, and his friends in pagan Babylon. But it is also a harsh criticism of the enemies of Israel, particularly the Babylonians. These enemies had utterly destroyed the last remnant of the Kingdom of David, burned the Temple of Jerusalem to the ground, scattered the people of Israel to the four corners of the earth and enslaved and humiliated thousands more.

Daniel and his friends were among those who were enslaved and humiliated. Through the strange workings of God’s Providence, they found themselves positioned as servants in the court of Babylon’s king.

The Book of Daniel was written as a way of making sense of Israel’s experience after they lost their king, lands and temple. Had God abandoned his people? Or worse—had the God of Israel been defeated by Israel’s enemies? What did it mean to be an Israelite now that those things that had served to identify Israel seemed to be lost forever? How was Israel to understand their place in history given that they always seemed to be hemmed in by their enemies? Would God act to set things right— and when? The Book of Daniel explores these kinds of questions in its stories and vivid prophecies.

The Book of Daniel makes a bold and startling claim that the misfortunes Israel had suffered had happened as a consequence of their own actions and decisions. There had been nothing capricious or undeserved in their losses. In fact, the Book of Daniel asserts that God had delivered Israel into the hands of their enemies, but this served the higher purpose of their own renewal and transformation. Eventually, Israel would emerge from the crucible of their distress while their enemies would fall away and fade from history. There is a “theology of history” operative here which insists that the God of Israel is the Lord of all times and circumstances. Israel’s covenant with this Lord means that in the end. as the kingdoms and powers of this world pass away, Israel remains. This might not appear to be the case on the surface of things, but it will prove itself to be true in the long run. Israel’s sojourn in Babylon is but for a moment. The Lord’s covenant with Israel endures forever.

Daniel is the great symbol of what the renewal and transformation of Israel looks like. He is a shining example of how an Israelite who is faithful to God and uncompromising in his dedication to the Law of the Lord grows in righteousness through acceptance of adversity as a means of purification and renewal. The prayer detailed in the ninth chapter of the Book of Daniel, an excerpt of which is featured in the scripture readings for Mass for the second week of Lent, is an articulation of the interior disposition proper to a faithful Israelite- the faithful Israelite is willing to admit their sins and make amends.

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah shares much in common with the Book of Daniel. Granted, the genre is different. Isaiah lacks the narrative element that the author of the Book of Daniel has so creatively produced, but the questions explored and answered by the Book of Daniel are also addressed with profound eloquence by the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

In the Book of Daniel, prophecy becomes a story. In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, prophecy is poetry.

The history into which Israel is immersed by both Daniel and Isaiah is broader than the circumstances immediate to the experience of the authors. Concrete events and circumstances are explored. In fact, the meaning of both texts is unintelligible without understanding these details, but the message of both Daniel and Isaiah is for Israel throughout all time. Both know that in the grand sweep of Israel’s history, even though the Kingdom of David will fall, this kind of catastrophe will not be God’s last word to his people. And even if Babylon is destroyed and the Kingdom of David rises again, Israel may find itself struggling again with enemies both internal and external. The covenant is not an exemption that lifts Israel out of real world circumstances. Instead, it gives them an identity and mission within the world that is meant to be unique and to endure until history is finally brought to its fulfillment.

Isaiah concurs with Daniel that the proper disposition of the faithful Israelite is one that is willing to admit one’s sins and make amends. This is accomplished within the context of an act of faith, believing that the God of Israel is the great giver of second chances- not only for Israel, but also for Israel’s enemies. Inherent in this spiritual vision is a greater vision of Israel, itself. It contains all the nations and invites them to know the God of Israel and to share in the covenant He gave to His chosen people. Repentance, the forgiveness of sins, the willingness to make amends- these are meant to be characteristics that, while always unique to the people who belong to God, will one day be expressed universally among the nations. What Israel has been given and practices as its own culture is meant by the Lord to be a practice and culture for all peoples.

The extension of Israel’s identity and practice of life to all the nations is the stuff of Messianic expectation. Who could accomplish this but the God of Israel acting through a particular agent? The anticipation of the Messiah is itself an extension of the theology of history articulated by both Daniel and Isaiah, and the Church understands this anticipation to have been realized in the revelation of Christ. The narratives of the Gospel show how this all works- how the God of Israel’s lordship over history finally manifests itself in the person and work of Christ. It is this revelation of Christ as Messiah that transforms Israel and offers to all the nations the practice of life that is characteristic of the faithful Israelite.

All this means that the Church reads and understands the story of Israel as her own story. The Church is Israel transformed in Christ and thus, when the Book of Daniel or Isaiah (or any of the Old Testament) is proclaimed and interpreted, the story of the Church is revealed. These Scriptures are meant to provide not just a glimpse of the past, but a presentation of the Church’s identity and mission in the present.

Unfortunately, for many, the mention of Israel in the scriptures evokes not the Church, but either a people from long ago or a modern nation state located in the Middle East. This perception can keep the full impact of the Bible at a distance, its message for someone else, its revelation something that happened long ago. Some, out of fear of supercessionism, keep the connection of Israel and the Church far away from proclamation and teaching, warning that this association inevitably means violence or a lack of appreciation for Judaism. However noble this intention might be, it undermines the Church’s claims about Christ as Messiah, depriving him of his identity and the end result of his mission—the transformation of Israel, itself. That the Church sees itself not as the replacement of Israel, but as its continuation, is a curious thing, strange and off-putting to Jew and Gentile alike. But, that it is curious, strange and off-putting does not mean that it is something which should never be referenced or invoked (or mentioned only to be qualified by an apology).

What is lost when Israel's connection to the Church is not advanced not only has implications for Christology or ecclesiology, but also for the Christian life. At some point, the ethos of repentance, forgiveness and the act of faith that God is the great giver of another chance has to move from the level of abstraction to a concrete practice of life embedded in a particular culture. This expresses itself in the Church’s Sacrament of Reconciliation, a practice that is embedded in not only the Church’s Sacramental culture, but is meant be present in every work of mercy, every institution and every state of the Christian life. The decline of the practice of repentance that is embodied in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not only evidence of laxity or secularization, but a lack of appreciation of how Israel, in its identity and mission, relates to the identity and mission of the Church. If it has become difficult to see the faithful Israelite’s practice of repentance as something integral and connected to the Church’s own way of life, then it is evident that the relationship of Israel to the Church is a matter that should be enhanced in the Church’s proclamation and teaching.


Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.


Posted: 3/6/2012 6:00:00 AM by Word On Fire | with 3 comments
Filed under: Daniel, FatherSteve, Isaiah, Israel, Reconciliation, Spirituality


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