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The Aramaic Phrase Bar ’ěnoš “Son of Man” (Dan 7:13-14) Revisited

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Rev. Dr. Eugen J. Pentiuc

The Aramaic phrase Bar 'ěnoš "son of man" is a Semitic expression denoting a single member of humanity, a certain human being, hence "someone." This Aramaic phrase used by Daniel 7:13-14 to describe a quasi-divine figure riding with the clouds of the sky has become an important element of the eschatological-apocalyptic decorum in both Jewish and Christian texts; an eclectic decorum made of various elements such as, the Davidic king, the chosen servant of Deutero-Isaiah, and the "son of man" of Daniel.

In the New Testament the enigmatic figure mentioned by Daniel is almost always identified with Jesus. As one can glean from the philological analysis below, the Aramaic phrase bar 'ěnoš may connote more than a mere human being. It may define a human being in its defining characteristics vis-à-vis God, namely, weakness and mortality. Thus I would suggest rendering the phrase bar 'ěnoš as "son of weakness" or "the weak one." This semantic detail, absent in the New Testament Greek claque, huios (tou) anthrōpou "son of man," may help one better understand Jesus' references to himself as the humblest human being who came "to seek and save the lost one" (Luke 19:10) and whose eternal glory, temporarily overshadowed by incarnation, will be fully and publicly revealed at the end of time (Matthew16:27).

Dan7:13-14: "As I looked on, in the night vision, one like a Son of Man was coming with the clouds of heaven; he reached the Everlasting One and was presented to him. Dominion, glory, and kingship were given to him. All peoples and nations of every language must serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship, one that shall not be destroyed."

In its present form, the Book of Daniel dates to the time of the Jews' persecution by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the years 167-164 BC. The book was written in Hebrew and Aramaic and it contains many hints at the events that marked the political, religious, and cultural milieu in Palestine in the 2 nd century BC.

The book 1 Enoch , composed between 4 th century and the turn of the era, is one of the earliest commentaries on Daniel and one of the first evidences that Daniel 7:13-14 was read as a messianic in some Jewish circles of the pre-Christian era. What is even more interesting is that 1 Enoch raises the "Son of Man" to the same level equal to God, making him co-eternal with him, "When they see that Son of Man sitting on the throne of his glory... For from the beginning the Son of Man was hidden, and the Most High preserved him in the presence of his might, and revealed him to the elect" ( 1 Enoch, 62:5-7); or, "For the Lord of spirits has given (them) to him and has glorified him"         ( 1 Enoch, 51:5).

That Dan 7:13-14 was read as a messianic prophecy in the Jewish circles in the Talmudic period (beginning with 3 rd century) maybe seen in the excellent comparison made by one Rabbi between two messianic texts, Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 9:7, "Rabbi Alexandri said, 'Rabbi Joshua opposed two verses, 'It is written, 'And behold, one like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven [Dan 7:13] while [elsewhere] it is written, '[Behold, your king comes to you...] lowly, and riding upon an ass!' [Zech 9:7]-if they are meritorious, [Messiah will come] with the clouds of heaven; if not, lowly and riding upon an ass. King Shapur [I] said to Samuel, 'You maintain that the Messiah will come upon an ass: I will rather send him a white horse of mine'" (Sanhedrin, 98a).

Additional Jewish testimony to the messianic character of the text of Daniel 7:13 may be found in the Zohar , "And they[the Israelites] will exercise dominion both on high and here below, as it is written, 'And, behold, there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a Son of Man' (Dan 7:13) alluding to the Messiah, concerning whom it is also written, 'And in the days of those kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom' (Dan2:44). Hence Jacob desired that the blessings should be reserved for that future time, and did not take them up immediately" (1:145b).

At the first sight, the Aramaic expression bar 'ěnoš "Son of Man" seems to be a reiteration of the Hebrew phrase ben ' ā d ā m ;if this is true, it may be read to designate any human being. This phrase, ben' ā d ā m, appears 14 times in poetic parallels [1] and 93 times in the book of Ezekiel, where it points to man's humility versus God's majesty. Interestingly, it is found only once in the book of Daniel, and designates the prophet as humble receptacle of divine messages (Dan 8:17). If the Hebrew phrase itself was known to the author of the current form of the book of Daniel, we might wonder what was his intention when he chose rather to include the Aramaic phrase bar 'ěnoš in Daniel 7:13? Perhaps the Aramaic phrase is not simply a claque of the Hebrew phrase. The Hebrew word ' ā d ā m "humanity" is connected to the word 'ád ā m ā "ground" (Genesis 2:7; 3:19) and therefore the phrase ben ' ā d ā m underscores man's earthly origin.

On the other hand the etymology of the Aramaic word 'ěnoš "human being, man" in the Aramaic phrase bar 'ěnoš, is still debated. [2] We suggest relating the Aramaic word 'ěnoš to a homonymous root' -n-š I, meaning "to be weak." [3] Relating human being, man, to weakness seems a reasonable and clear path toward solving the etymology of this word. Additionally, while the Hebrew phrase underscores human humility, the result of being taken from the earth, the Aramaic phrase underscores a novel element of this humility, namely, the weakness of the human person when meeting God. [4]

In Daniel 7:13 the Aramaic phrase bar 'ěnoš "Son of Man" connotes a very interesting character. First, the Son of Man needs to be introduced to the heavenly king. Second, he is riding on, or with, the clouds of the sky. He does not need a formal introduction to the king, but rather he reaches him [5] at the end of his journey in the sky.

Ina nutshell, God's partner, as depicted by Daniel 7, is a complex individual, rejoicing in the condition and privileges of a (semi-)divine being, while remaining human, submissive before the heavenly King. In this humble position, God's partner may be labeled "the Son of Man," or more precisely, "the son of weakness" or "the weak one."

If Daniel 7 deals with the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, as the ancient Christian interpreters argued, then we can assume that the latter has a certain propensity towards weakness, or sharing in human weakness. This is why he was designated to become one of us long before he took flesh and became man. Paul underscores Christ's willingness to share in our weakness, when he writes, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses (astheneias), but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb 4:15-16). (NRSV) We might complement this Pauline text with a short paragraph from the so-called 'eschatological discourse' of Jesus, "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see 'the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven' with power and great glory"(Matt 24:30). (NRSV) The "sign of the Son of Man" was interpreted by ancient readers as a reference to the sign of the cross, a fair interpretation, if one agrees with the etymology we have advanced above, and the rendition of the Aramaic phrase as "son of weakness." Thus, the sign of the "weak one" cannot be anything other than the cross, and God, as Paul points out, can imbue the symbol of the cross with the character of his divine power, "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18).

In the New Testament, the phrase "the Son of Man" is frequently on Jesus' lips, and in all cases, except one, it is a definite reference. Most of the time, Jesus uses this title to contrast his current state of humility and suffering with the glory and dominion he had before, and which he will reveal to the chosen ones at the end of time. The most consistent feature of the New Testament descriptions of "the Son of Man" is the judicial function of the exalted Jesus. The relevant texts speak of an exalted eschatological Son of Man (Matt 24:30; 25:31; 26:24; John 5:27; Acts7:56; Rev 14:14). Some of the New Testament texts using the phrase focus on the pre-existence in glory of the Son of Man, "No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man" (John 3:13; [NRSV] cf. 6:27, 62).

According to Daniel 7:13, the divine-human character "was coming" ( 'ātēhawā ), a vague expression which designates the appearance of Messiah as a lasting process: Messiah "was coming" before the great incarnation; and in Daniel's vision, "the Son of Man" was approaching the human observer, Daniel himself, but was unable to reach him at that point in time. On the contrary, he was approaching and "reached" ( t, ā) "the Everlasting One." The use of the verb t, ā suggests that this encounter was a surprising, unexpected, event. Since the Messiah "was coming," but was never able to reach Daniel, we can infer that he was moving at that time only within the divine realm, and had not yet descended into human history. The quest of "the Son of Man" for "the Everlasting One" will be rewarded with a substantial release of power from the latter to the former (Dan 7:14). This release of power may be a reference to Messiah's eternal glory, about which Jesus spoke before his arrest, "So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed" (John 17:5). (NRSV) However, Daniel 7:14 may also be a prophetic allusion to Christ's glorification after resurrection, "And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me'" (Matt 28:18). (NRSV)

The "Son of Man," then, is depicted as "coming with [or: upon] the clouds of the sky." In the Old Testament, the cloud is the garment or dwelling-place of deity, the symbol of its presence in the midst of the people. [6] Isaiah 19:1 lauds the "Lord riding upon a soft cloud"; at the transfiguration, the cloud was the sign of God's presence on the mountain (Matt 17:5 and parallels); and on the day of his ascension, Jesus was taken up in a cloud, "When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9). (NRSV)Similarly, at the end of time, a cloud will announce Christ's second coming, "Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory" (Luke 21:27). (NRSV) The recursive connection between this text and Daniel 7 is obvious, and reifies the specificities of Christ'srole as Son of Man and Son of God.

Turning to the second character of the passage Daniel 7:13-14, we may make a general observation. "The Ancient of Days," though very popular, is perhaps not the most accurate rendition of the Aramaic phrase attîqyômayyā'. [7] The basis of this phrase is that God the Father is the One who advances ahead of the passage of days that he will always be ahead of time. We suggest a revised translation, "the one who goes beyond the days (time)," namely, "the Everlasting One." God is beyond time.

In addition to the specific linguistic criteria, the imagery evoked by the traditional rendering ("Ancient of Days") tends to be misleading, and makes many readers think of a white-haired, gray-bearded, aged deity. We must stress that this vision of God is false. A careful reading of Scripture indicates that whenever God the Creator appears, his representation is sonic only: a sound, or a voice. [8] If the author wanted to designate an old person, a white-haired and gray-bearded elderly man, he would have used a different Hebrew term, namely zāqēn, "old man." [9] The portrait of the "Head of Days" (corresponding to ‛attîqyômayyā' in Dan 7) presented in I Enoch might seem to depict such an aged deity, "And there I saw One who had a head of days, and his head was white like wool, and with him was another being whose countenance had the appearance of a man, and his face was full of graciousness, like one of the holy angels" (1 Enoch 46:1).

Daniel speaks in ch. 7 of the brutal, chaotic rule of the earthly kings. His attention is drawn by the fourth beast and the blasphemies uttered by its eleventh horn (Dan 7:7-8). But the rule of the fourth beast, alluding to the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, comes to an end when ‛attîqyômayyā' "the Everlasting One" makes his appearance along with his celestial court in order to bring his judgment upon the earth. The beast is condemned and slain, and the "Son of Man" comes, is introduced to God, and receives his dominion on earth. The "Son of Man" is depicted here as the heavenly patron of the suffering people; the one who can and does suffer along with Israel (a true son of weakness). The "Son of Man" thus appears very similar to Michael, the patron (guardian angel) of suffering but righteous Israel (Dan 10:13, 21). This "son of weakness," who rides with the clouds in divine fashion, may be seen as the mediator, destined to build a bridge between God and humans, which has been so long awaited and longed for by the suffering Job (Job 9:33).


Due to the eschatological dimension of Daniel 7, the Aramaic expression märän Œätä "Our Lord is coming!" [10] Was used in the Apostolic Church as a refrain in the liturgical assemblies (1Cor 16:22), and a reflection of the first Christians longing for the Parousia "(second) coming" of Christ (1 Thess 5:1; Rev22:17).

[1] See Numbers 23:19, Isaiah 51:12, where the human being is compared to God, but note Psalm 8:5, where the same phrase designates a human being very close to God, a man who is crowned as king by God.

[2] The editors of HALOT connect this word to the Semitic root '-n- š II "to be intimate" (Ugaritic anš "to be intimate"; Arabic' an ī s "close friend").

[3] Akkadian en ē š u "to be weak." Unlike the root '-n- š II, the root '-n- š I is attested elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, e.g., "to be sickly" (2 Sam 12:15). The parallel use of the two phrases (Hebrew ben' ā d ā m and Aramaic bar 'ěnoš) brings support to the latter etymology. Both phrases underscore the humbleness of human condition in contrast with the majesty of God.

[4] This contrast is even stronger if we take into account that the word l "god" derives from the root '-w-l II meaning "to be in front, to be strong."

[5] The Aramaic verb t, ā (cf. Hebrew māşā') means "to reach."

[6] For example, the "pillar of cloud" ( amm û d ‛ānān ) in Exod 13:21, 14:19, 33:9; Num 12:5; the "cloud" ( ‛ānān ) in Exod 16:10, 24:16, 34:5; Lev16:2; Num 19:8; 1 Kgs 8:10-11; Job26:9; Ps 105:39.

[7] The Aramaic word ‛attîq, appears only in three places in the Old Testament, all of these are found in the Book of Daniel (7:9, 13, 22); usually translated as "ancient," it is derived from a Semitic root -t-q whose history goes back to the Akkadian verb et ē qu meaning "to pass by, advance" (cf. Ugaritic tq "to go past, to become old").

[8] For instance, the thunder on Mt. Sinai in Exodus19:19, during the covenantal Theophany, "Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder."

[9] The word zāqēn "old" is related to zāqān "beard."

[10] This expression includes the same verb as in the text under consideration, 'ātā "to come," referring to the "Son of Man" coming with/ on the clouds of the sky.



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