If you are geographically challenged, I have more sympathy for you than I used to. I have always prided myself on having a good sense of direction, and I confess I have scoffed at people who don’t know their east from their west. Maps have always been my friend – I know how to read them and, for the most part, I know how to fold them back up again.
But when I moved to the Twin Cities this summer, I didn’t realize I was in for some humbling. From the very beginning here, my internal map has been disoriented, turned around, almost never going the right direction. It seems like everywhere I go, I am destined to get lost trying to get there or even trying to get home—even if I have been there and back again before.
(I know what some of you are thinking: “GPS.” Or smartphone app. Well, I don’t have a smartphone, which is a story for another time, and I haven’t ever needed a GPS…or wanted one. When you love maps and your sense of direction is good, who NEEDS one?)
But geography factors into understanding Daniel’s vision in chapter 8, so whether you are map stupid or savvy, it helps to try making sense of Daniel’s surroundings
The first vision that Daniel had took place while he was sleeping in his Babylonian bed (Dan 7:1), but this second vision (the ram and goat) occurs in Susa when he was apparently awake. You can get your bearings on ancient Near Eastern geography here. (And if you want to compare this geography to modern political states, you can compare the first map to this one.)
Susa was 220 miles east of Babylon and 150 miles north of the Persian Gulf in present-day Iranian Khuzistan. Since Daniel was a high-ranking Babylonian official, it’s possible that state business had taken him to Susa at some point, but in this vision it appears an altered state of consciousness took him there (like Ezekiel before him and John [Revelation] after him).
When Daniel had his vision, Susa was part of Elam, a Median province that had been conquered and destroyed by Assyrian Asshurbanipal in the mid-seventh century BC. The rebuilt city of Susa remained relatively insignificant until 521 BC when Persian Darius I rebuilt and fortified it as a Persian administrative capital. Daniel saw his vision from the Ulai Canal, a large, artificial canal that ran near the city.
We might wonder why Daniel’s second vision occurs in a different location (we should wonder this: it’s always wise to ask questions when we read the Bible—it means we’re paying attention). Well, the change of location from Babylon to Susa (in Media-soon-to-be-Persia) corresponds to the content of the vision. In the vision of the four beasts (Dan 7), the first beast represented the empire of Babylon. This second vision does not include Babylon, but begins with Medo-Persia. The vision looks ahead to a time when Babylon had given way to its eastern neighbors, and the vision itself takes place in that eastern neighborhood.
If you survived this geography lesson, come back in a couple weeks for a history lesson. :)