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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 60, 2012

AMY C. MERRILL WILLIS, Dissonance and the Drama of Divine Sovereignty in the Book of Daniel (New York: T & T Clark International, 2010). Pp. 219. Hardback. $70.00.

The title of the first chapter, “A Powerful and Present God? Sovereignty, History and Ideology in the Visions of Daniel,” provides a clear indication of the theme that Willis pursues. While it may seem that the sovereignty of God has always been part of scholarly depictions of the book of Daniel, Willis, whose work began as a doctoral dissertation under the guidance of Carol Newsom, indicates that the topic requires a fresh assessment because of new theoretical approaches. Paramount here are Diana Fewell’s observation (Circle of Sovereignty: Plotting Politics in the Book of Daniel [Nashville: Abingdon, 1991] 132) that God’s power is not always visible in Daniel and Jon Levenson’s notion of dissonance in the way that divine power is portrayed in Daniel 7, particularly in God’s apparent absence in the chaoskampf motif. As Fewell’s observation was not fully articulated in the case of all the visions in Daniel and Levenson’s notion (Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Sovereignty [New York: Harper Collins, 1988]) was limited to Daniel 7, Willis undertakes an investigation of Daniel 7–12 as well as of the dream vision of Daniel 2. In this endeavour she consciously rejects the approach to cognitive dissonance put forward by Robert Carroll (When Prophecy Failed: Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testament [New York: Seabury, 1979]) and Michael Fishbane (Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel [Oxford: Clarendon, 1985]) in which they see a hermeneutic within the text which involves a reinterpretation of older oracles. Instead, Willis asserts that, “Daniel uses mantic historiography and its strategies as a way of adjudicating the conflicts and tensions emergent in divine sovereignty” (29). Further, she claims that historical conditions were such that they clashed with earlier understandings and these were played out in Daniel through narratives whose endings provided coherence. Willis asks how one knows whether dissonance is present in “the apocalyptic résumé” and posits that “One discerns these contradictions through extrinsic means, by paying attention to the social and cultural setting of the text’s producers, as well as the events and cultural conceptions in which they lived” (33). This statement provides cause for concern, as the methodology it advocates is flawed from the start. The text, not external events or circumstances, must be the focal point for any investigation of what the text says or implies. Despite a certain amount of scholarly consensus about the time to which the visions apply, there is enough debate about the matter to indicate that reliance upon extrinsic means to interpret Daniel is unwise. Each of the following chapters of Willis’s work—The Shape of Sovereignty in Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream (Daniel 2:31–45); Visible Tensions: Divine Power and Presence in Daniel 7; Daniel 8 and the Crisis of Divine Absence; Restoring the Sacred in Daniel 9; and Re-Visioning Sovereignty in Daniel 10–12—follows this flawed methodology, resulting in assumptions about dissonance and divine sovereignty which may not be warranted. There are, however, points in each chapter where there is some discussion of the implications of the vocabulary used by Daniel—e.g. “white,” and its semantic range in the Hebrew Bible in relation to the description of the Ancient of Days in Chapter 7. Furtherance of this type of investigation might have helped Willis to avoid the pitfall of aligning her reading of divine power with “historical” aspects of the chapter concerned—aspects that may or may not have been correctly identified. An aspect of the work which is helpful is the reading of each vision as part of an ongoing scribal dialogue but, unfortunately, that dialogue is marred through the use of a historical hermeneutic to interpret it.

Review by
History Program, La Trobe University,
Bundoora VIC 3086