The Dramatic Element—
“After this I saw in the night visions, and
behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong”— Daniel 7:7
So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. —Nehemiah 8:8
Until we know the sense behind a literary reading, we cannot truly understand the reading. We read the words, but then misconstrue or completely misinterpret the message that was given to us from God. At best, we end up sounding like Polonius. At worst, we end up changing the words of God into our own words—
Some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. —2 Peter 3:16
This passage seems to depict people who do not merely misunderstand, but rather deliberately force language to say something God never said. We can be mistaken about what God may be saying without being guilty of wresting Scripture. Simply put, a bigger hammer or a louder voice is not what we need in interpreting biblical passages. What is needed is a sense of what is being said to us so that we can understand. We cannot reverence the word of God unless we also respect the genre that accompanies the discourse from God.
And yet, even caution and genre are not always enough. We may classify a book such as Daniel, or Ezekiel as examples of apocalypse, replete with exaggerated images and implausible scenes. We may do this, and then, only to turn around and misidentify, lapsing into interpreting prophetic code rather than interpreting literary genre. One article put it very succinctly—
The imagery of the genre of apocalypse has probably been subjected to more incorrect interpretation than any other aspect of Scripture. —Dict. Biblical Imagery, 36
Perhaps, our suggested approach of reading apocalypse literature as drama may be just as misguided. However, if we can understand the central elements of drama, such an approach might provide promising insight. Briefly put, if we change our approach to apocalypse literature by looking at apocalypse genre as a subset of a larger literary category— as a subset of dramatic performance — we might arrive at a very different interpretations of apocalyptic imagery such as the 144,000, or the thousand-year reign, or Armageddon. Before embarking on such an interpretative journey, let’s look more closely at drama, and whether or not apocalypse should be studied as drama.
When Ezekiel sees the throne of God, what he is seeing is unlike anything this world has ever known, and yet the depiction of what cannot be described must be described in such a way that we can understand something of what is happening beyond this world.
Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. In the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity, the word of the LORD came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was there upon him.
And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north. a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself. Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.
And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. —Ezekiel 1:1-4, 9, 19
What is especially striking is that Ezekiel is very specific as to the year and place of the vision. He was by the Chebar river or canal; it was his thirtieth year; it was the fifth day of the month. The heavenly scene which unfolds before him, however, is unlike anything he has ever seen. As he tries to depict what is there, his language fails him and when we read what he has written, we know that something fantastic has emerged, but we cannot describe the scene or draw the images that dart through the sky. And yet, even though we have only an impartial glimpse compared to Ezekiel who witnessed the vision firsthand, we know that the grandeur of what we have just read is far beyond mortal imagination. Like Ezekiel (but to a much, much, lesser degree) we have just experienced a world beyond sun, moon, stars, a world beyond time and beyond anything physical.. We have just experienced what words cannot describe. Drama has conveyed for us a glimpse of the greatness and the presence of God—
This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake. —Ezekiel 1:28
In drama, performance functions as the decisive and key element even when as in apocalypse, the images are other world, replete with dream-like qualities. In fact, the word drama itself is the Greek word meaning action. This should not surprise us, but explains why the dramtis personae in a play are called the characters or actors. Performance is central to a play and that performance must be accomplished by actors before an audience. A play must be enacted. “In a play,” says Aristotle, “the personages act the story” (Poetics, 1448).
To go even further, a performance to be effective, audience, actor and scene must all interact and blend on some level. We may read Shakespeare as literature, but the magic comes only through the performance on a stage before an audience. Such may be one reason why Shakespearean plays tend to fall flat when rendered as a movie. The immediacy of a performance before a live audience is no longer there.
Audience & Purpose
Even though the characters in the drama are from a high and noble class, the audience understands that what happens there can also happen here, on the level of ordinary and mundane life. If a good king can fall, so can any man. Disaster is blind. A person in a higher class can fall further, but even the lowest of men can fall and that fall be just as fatal to the person himself. Whether we care to admit it or not, in the last analysis, the king is a man and subject to the same frailties as any of us. In Daniel, Nebuchanezzar is not above the frailities of life or the corrupting influence of pride, wealth, or accomplishment—
The king spake, and said, Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?
While the word was in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, saying, O king Nebuchadnezzar, to thee it is spoken; The kingdom is departed from thee.And they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field: they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and seven times shall pass over thee —Daniel 4:30-32
The derangement lasted seven years with Nebuchanezzar being restored to his right mind as well as to a sense of balance as to what is important in life before God. His acknowledgement of his pride causes us to see him as a heroic and tragic character. The emergence of a heroic response imparts meaning to the experience of seeing tragedy unfolding in a play, or unfolding in our life. The heroic character in order to be rightly identified as heroic must go beyond the normal limits of life and be confronted by a disaster larger than life, but in so doing, he somehow emerges victorious having experienced life on a larger scale than those around him. The biblical story of Job is a good example of tragedy. Indeed, the book of Job has been compared by some critics to Greek drama, and admittedly, there are similarities, but in Job, the characters talk; in Aeschylus, the characters both talk and act. In Greek drama, there must be a harmatia, a tragic flaw; in Job, there is no flaw, rendering the story even more difficult to understand both for Job and for those of us who read his story. His counselor friends accuse Job of wrong in order to make some sense of cause and effect for what has happened, but Job firmly maintains his innocence. We reason the same way today when some disaster has befallen someone, and think that the person must have caused this, must have brought it on himself with God punishing him for what he has done. In dramatic tragedy—whether life or on a stage —we need the rationale of cause and effect; in biblical tragedy, however, we have no cause and effect except of the struggle of evil and good—
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places —Ephesians 6:12
Let us end with a word of caution. We should not conclude that scenes from Daniel, or Ezekiel, or Zechariah should be viewed as some form of ancient Hebrew theatre. Apocalypse genre is not Hebrew theatre. Yet, audience, scene, and actors within the spectacle seemingly emerge as common threads and sometimes with rather startling results. In a subsequent article, I would like to look further at some of those startling results and implications for interpreting apocalypse literature.
“Apocalypse, Genre of.” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. eds. Leland Ryken, James Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman. Downers Grove: InverVarsity Press, 1998. Print.