The Power of Point of View

Bilingualism in Perspective: Ideology Construed Through Language Shifting in Daniel – Part 1

Zach_Dawson_Pictureby ZACHARY K. DAWSON   To this day, a fully satisfactory answer for why the book of Daniel contains both Hebrew and Aramaic portions has eluded biblical scholarship. However, Bill Arnold charted new ground for this question when he argued that the bilingualism in the book of Daniel is due to the narrator’s point of view, (see Arnold, 1-16). Much to his merit, Arnold acknowledged the author’s subjective disposition in the book’s composition, which indicates that the author’s linguistic decisions correlate with his ideology. Taking this approach, Arnold’s analysis attempted to correct a contemporary position that the composer wanted to simply maintain a sense of authenticity by incorporating Aramaic into the narrative, (see Snell, 32). However, though his work was an important step forward, Arnold’s article was limited by the explanatory potential of the particular point-of-view analysis he employed—a point he admits himself, (see p.13). Since study in point of view has continued to develop, it is appropriate to explore new insights that such an approach can offer for the question concerning the bilingualism in the book of Daniel.

Recently, Gary Yamasaki has extended point-of-view analysis to explore a new area of its untapped potential; this is evaluative guidance, whereby an author, through the medium of narrator, is understood to craft points of view in various ways to steer the audience in how they evaluate characters and the actions and events they take part. Yamasaki explains that evaluative steering becomes realized through point-of-view crafting—“the end toward which the various components of point-of-view manipulation work,” (Yamasaki, 10). This orientation was not one explored by Arnold’s previous study as he assumed the text-centered approach from Boris Uspensky’s Poetics of Composition. Thus, the distinguishing feature between Uspensky’s model and Yamasaki’s is one of orientation; whereas Uspensky’s model focuses on how point of view is realized in a text as encoded through various planes, Yamasaki orients his model to explain how these same resources contribute to positioning an audience to ultimately adopt the author’s ideological stances.

This post employs Yamasaki’s model with the intent of extending Arnold’s point-of-view analysis by taking into account how point-of-view crafting positions an audience to adopt certain values and beliefs, which in turn unearths “social positions at risk in the current social context,” (White, 71-72).

An audience’s linguistic experience is vital if a language user is to be effectual in his or her attempt to elicit some form of social change; this statement presupposes a well-known concept concerning discourse—a text arises to mediate some form of social or political conflict, (Fairclough, 62-100; Davies, 352). Bilingualism pertains to this notion as it factors prominently into the experience the audience would have with the book of Daniel, and thereby can be assumed to be intentionally employed by the author to negotiate certain social positions. Thus, this post will address two main questions: (1) how does bilingualism contribute to bringing about what the composer of the book of Daniel wants to accomplish in his projected audience? And (2) what sorts of social/political distinctions does employing two different languages create? It will be helpful to first consider the difference between Hebrew and Aramaic against their historical socio-cultural backdrop.

To gain insight into how Hebrew and Aramaic contrast socially/politically, one could begin with the evidence that prompted the invention of Hebrew as a written language. Royal conquest inscriptions from the ninth century B.C.E. represent the process of nations being formed, and it was in this century that distinct vernaculars emerged, which served to unify languages along political lines, (Sanders, 117). Concerning this, Seth Sanders states, “Seeing the invention of Hebrew as a historical event…opens up the question of how the deliberate choice to create written Hebrew connects to the sense of political and theological difference, of being called to membership in a distinctive order, which pervades the Hebrew Bible,” (p.2). Sanders goes on to explain that the rise and continued use of Hebrew as a national language provided Israel with a form of political communication by which they could be addressed, their history could be narrated, and their distinct sense of identity could be solidified, (p.38). Since Hebrew continued to be the language of Jewish literature in the post-exilic era, when another language appears alongside Hebrew in a text, especially that which corresponds to Israel’s captors, there can be invoked a sense of contrast—contrasts emphasizing the theological and political differences that distinguished Israel from other groups. A language user can exploit such a feature in an attempt to craft point of view, and it is this strategy that the present post seeks to show at work in the book of Daniel.

Because of the size of the book of Daniel the following analysis will necessarily be selective in the portions chosen for analysis. In an attempt to map how the audience would be (re)positioned at the narrative junctures where language shifts—specifically how their relationship to characters and the ideological constructs associated with/attributed to them are affected—the following analysis will consider the point-of-view techniques at work in chapters 12:11 and 78 where the shifts between Hebrew and Aramaic occur. This first post will focus on the initial language shift; the latter shift will be addressed in a subsequent post followed by a conclusion to this short study’s findings.

The beginning of the book begins in third person narrative summarizing the fall of Judah to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (vv. 1-2). Following this summary is the king’s command for young Israelite males to go to the king’s palace where they would serve and be educated (vv. 3-5). Among these men were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, who were given the Babylonian names Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, respectively (vv. 6-7). These first seven verses of introductory material, establishing the setting, are reported by the narrator in an objective manner, not contributing to establishing any point-of-view character thus far; King Nebuchadnezzar, the only one who acts in these verses, is identified by name in the narrative’s opening, but when the narrator reports his actions Nebuchadnezzar is twice referred to generally as המלך, “the king” (vv. 3, 5) rather than נבוכדנאצר, “Nebuchadnezzar.” However, though no clear point-of-view crafting techniques are invoked in the opening, this does not mean that vv. 1-7 bear no constraints on point of view. First, the narrator is cast as one who can speak on behalf of Yahweh (v.2), which orients the narrator to make definitive value judgments, (cf. Alter, 193-97; Sternberg, 84-99). Also, there occurs an event resulting in a social change that necessarily clashes with a Jewish ideology—that is, the fall of Jerusalem and the integration of young Israelite males into a foreign king’s court, which is further accented by the giving of Babylonian names that reassign identity to Daniel and his companions.

Point-of-view manipulation occurs first in 1:8 by the invoking of the psychological and spatial planes. Though a verb of “thinking” or “reasoning” is not employed, the functional equivalent is linguistically accomplished by the phrase לבו־על דניאל וישם, rendered as “And Daniel made up his mind/set on his heart”—construing the mental process of determining not to defile himself, which would necessarily be positively evaluated by the audience. The spatial plane is invoked by the narrator’s focus on Daniel; prior, in vv. 6 and 7, Daniel is accompanied by three others, but starting here and following the “camera” zooms in on him alone. Next, the temporal plane is invoked briefly contributing to convergence with Daniel; direct discourse ensues between Daniel and the palace master in vv. 10-13. Daniel tells the palace master all that he wishes for him to do, who then complies. The omniscient narrator explains that it was God who allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the (initially hesitant) palace master (v. 9), a technique that invokes the ideological plane and contributes to the audience’s sympathy toward Daniel.

The remainder of chapter 1 falls under the category of summary material wherein the narrator reports the success of Daniel’s request to remain undefiled (vv. 14-16). Important for the conflicting points of view of characters to be introduced in chapter 2, the narrator reports in 1:17 that God gifted Daniel with knowledge, skill in literature and wisdom, and the ability to understand visions and dreams. Expecting purposeful information to develop Daniel’s characterization, the audience would expect the narrator to be “up to something” by developing Daniel’s character in a way that only an omniscient entity could; indeed, the narrator here reveals to the audience that it is specifically God who is “up to something” in which Daniel will play an integral role, thus contributing to the audience being aligned with Daniel’s actions—a strategy invoking the ideological plane.

Verses 18-20 summarize the integration of Daniel and his three companions into the king’s court. In like manner as the beginning of chapter 1, Nebuchadnezzar when acting is referred to as המלך, “the king,” who evaluates Daniel and his companions positively, an action the audience is positioned to view as accurate based on God’s actions previously reported by the narrator. Chapter 1 ends, along with this scene, following Daniel, showing the continued use of the spatial plane since verse 8; thus, at least one point-of-view technique is understood to be consistently operating to keep the audience in proximity to Daniel throughout the chapter.

Chapter 2 marks a shift in point of view. The first clause reintroduces Nebuchadnezzar within the time frame of his second year as king (v.1). In contrast to chapter 1, Nebuchadnezzar is named explicitly for the action he does. This invokes the spatial plane, bringing the audience into proximity to Nebuchadnezzar. However, though the narrative begins to follow Nebuchadnezzar here, at least two factors contribute to the audience not coming to empathize with Nebuchadnezzar in his troubled state that the narrator reports him to be in. The first factor is linguistic: with the shift in point of view, Nebuchadnezzar’s name, the clause’s subject, does not appear in a syntactical prominent position. The construction of the clause follows the default V-S construction (נְבֻכַדְנֶצַּר חָלַם). Being a material way of positioning an audience to empathize with a character, it is noteworthy for a point-of-view analysis that the narrator does not invoke the spatial plane to its fullest extent here. Jean-Marc Heimerdinger adds to the understanding of syntactical foregrounding in terms of word order; he explains that when a character is reintroduced, as Nebuchadnezzar is here, while that character becomes the new subject, it does not necessarily follow that the character becomes the topic. In fact, when a character is reintroduced in a new scene accompanied by a qatal verb form, the clause is categorized as an event-reporting clause, making the topic here Nebuchadnezzar’s dreaming, (Heimerdinger, 155, 157). Thus, prominence is given to the event, which functionally backgrounds Nebuchadnezzar’s point of view.

The second factor that prevents the audience from empathizing with Nebuchadnezzar is ideological; from the position already held by a Jewish audience, the actions of Nebuchadnezzar reported in chapter 1, and knowledge prior to the narrative about who he was, predisposes the audience to remain distanced from this character. It is my own contention that the narrator intentionally exploits his projected audience’s predisposition for his own purposes in evaluative guidance. Thus, on the ideological plane, the audience can only be successfully guided to evaluate Nebuchadnezzar’s actions positively when they explicitly coincide with the narrator’s (and God’s) value position.

The verses that follow support the conclusion of how the audience is positioned in relation to Nebuchadnezzar; returning to the generalized identifier המלך, “the king,” Nebuchadnezzar remains out of focus when he summons the magicians, sorcerers, enchanters, and Chaldeans to interpret his dream, which will prove helpful for determining the evaluative cues in the extended discourse in 2:3-11.

After the king explains to those summoned why he has a troubled spirit, their reply follows in Aramaic (v.4), which marks the first language shift in the book. The use of Aramaic invokes the phraseological plane; the narrator assumes certain speech characteristics that redound with different features within the social context of the book. First, the use of Aramaic allows the narrator to situate the audience more completely in relation to a social domain entirely different from theirs—the foreign domain of Babylon. Second, Aramaic functions to create a sense of distance from the characters and events that belong to this foreign context, which steers the audience into having a more negative stance toward the ideology brought into view, namely the dominant ideology that comes down from King Nebuchadnezzar. Thus, the shift in language brings about a clash in perspectives. From an ideological perspective, the audience is positioned in chapter 1 to empathize with Daniel and evaluate him positively, but the invoking of the phraseological plane to highlight the foreign-ness of the next scene produces nonconcurrence on the point-of-view planes. Accounting for this phenomenon, Yamasaki writes, “It is important to consider the possibility of nonconcurrence of planes as well, that is, point-of-view dynamics on one plane working toward merging, but dynamics on another working toward distancing,” (Yamasaki, 112). It is important to note that when Yamasaki discusses nonconcurrence he is referencing simultaneous planes at work that seem to accomplish different, often opposing goals. At this particular juncture in the book of Daniel where the scene changes, there does not appear an instance of nonconcurrence like that which Yamasaki discusses, though this will happen once Daniel reenters the scene. However, since the ideological groundwork has been laid at the beginning of the book, the ideological plane can be viewed as operating over the whole book at a broader level of abstraction. Nevertheless, the main point to be made here is that the invoking of the phraseological plane functions to distance the audience from the foreign context, and more immediately those whom the king has summoned to interpret his dream.

The narrator later works in an artistic use of irony, which is accomplished by means of invoking the informational plane. After the king makes his impossible demands on his interpreters, the Chaldeans respond in 2:11, מלכא מלת די תאיבשׁ־על שׁנא יתיא־לא, “There is not a man on the earth who can answer the king.” But the audience knows that there is someone who can interpret the king’s dream—Daniel, who has been empowered by God to do so (1:17). Thus, the Chaldeans are situated on a different point on the “information-axis” than where the audience is located, which contributes to divergence from these agents. Further, the narrator capitalizes on this opportunity to reinforce the sense of difference between social domains in the narrative; the Chaldeans express that the king’s demands are too difficult, and no one can perform a blind interpretation except the gods who do not dwell with men. The audience here is positioned in relation to these agents to respond, “No, this blind interpretation is not too difficult, but yes, it can only be done with the help of our God, who, in fact, does dwell and interact with his people.”

The point-of-view techniques observed before and after the shift from Hebrew to Aramaic support the notion that bilingualism contributes to evaluative steering in the narrative. The audience is positioned alongside Daniel and distanced from Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldeans, and more holistically from the foreign component that sits over the whole Aramaic shift.


Works Cited

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

Arnold, Bill T. “The Use of Aramaic in the Hebrew Bible: Another Look at Bilingualism in Ezra and Daniel.” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 22/2 (1996): 1-16.

Davies, Philip R. “Reading Daniel Sociologically.” In The Book of Daniel in the Light of New Findings. Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium 56. Edited by A. S. van der Woude. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1993.

Fairclough, Norman. Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity, 1992.

Heimerdinger, Jean-Marc. Topic, Focus and Foreground in Ancient Hebrew Narratives. Edited by David J. A. Clines and Philip R. Davies. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 295. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.

Sanders, Seth L. The Invention of Hebrew. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Snell, Daniel C. “Why Is There Aramaic in the Bible?” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 18 (1980): 32-51.

Sternberg, Meir. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Uspensky, Boris. A Poetics of Composition: The Structure of the Artistic Text and Typology of a Compositional Form. Translated by Valentina Zavarin and Susan Wittig. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

White, P. R. R., “Dialogue and Inter-Subjectivity: Reinterpreting the Semantics of Modality and Hedging.” In Dialogue Analysis VII: Working with Dialogue: Selected Papers from the 7th IADA Conference Birmingham 1999. Edited by Malcolm Coulthard, Janet Cotterill, and Frances Rock, 67-80. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 2000.

Yamasaki, Gary. Perspective Criticism: Point of View and Evaluative Guidance in Biblical Narrative. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012.

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