Monks listening to the Bible being recited.

Listening, Speaking, Knowing: The Divine Auditory in Daniel

The human life is a mediated experience: we do not encounter an unfiltered world, but rather we process every input through our senses. Among our five senses, sight often reigns supreme; this article is not one of Professor Saltzmann’s podcasts, and I assume you aren’t understanding it via tactile telepathy. However, in the Old English poem Daniel, visuality is typically portrayed as an incomplete phenomenon through which one cannot fully ascertain the meaning of a particular event. In Daniel, there are several instances where the auditory plays an important role in the act of bearing witness, as well as the obfuscation or interpretation of visual witnessing.

The Prophet Daniel reads the text that appears to the Babylonians.

“The Prophet Daniel” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Even in the opening lines of the poem, the auditory is evoked through the Old English word “gefrægn,” meaning “I have heard,” stemming from the word “gefrignan” which is to learn about something through asking. The poem is referring to the author, who has heard the stories of the Israelites, rather than seeing or experiencing them himself, as gefrægn implies the transmission of knowledge through an auditory medium, rather than it being shown to someone visually. This aspect of the word calls back to the practice of oral storytelling, during an age in which information was passed down exclusively from listener to speaker, i.e through testimony. The original Old English of the poem communicates the crucial role that the auditory plays in cultural memory and the continued transmission of knowledge, both in secular history, and the sacred.  

It is clear, however, that the auditory witnessing in Daniel is not viewed as hearsay, and is seen as just as true as visual testimony, or seeing something for ones’ self. This aspect of spoken testimony is featured prominently when the Three Noble Youths are sent to burn in the oven by Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to denounce God. When in need of the Lord’s protection, the poem states that one of the youths, Azariah “spoke from his innermost thoughts,” imploring the Lord to save them. Instead of straightforwardly asking God for assistance, Azariah begins a long testimony to God’s glory, with strong emphasis in the poem being on Azariah’s voice and the spoken nature of this testimony. Because Azariah is a “man without crimes,” his words are known to be true, and are interpreted as the unequivocal testimony to God’s glory. Spoken testimony as a bearing true witness to God’s glory shows the power and importance of the auditory, divine knowledge as obtained through listening as well as the act of righteous speech, in the overall story of Daniel. It is through the auditory that the wisdom and power of the Israelites is contrasted with the ignorance of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, who are not privy to these aspects of the auditory and cannot understand God.

Noise doesn’t always play an illuminating role, but has the dual ability to confuse and reveal, as seen in Nebuchadnezzar’s response to his first dream. Specifically, in line 218, what spurs the confusion and anguish is the “noise” of the dream. This sound is characterized primarily in a destructive manner, leading to no memory of the images. What sticks with him is the sound. Further, the vision and sounds he saw were from a God he does not recognize, leading to the transfer of the message to be not fully comprehended in Nebuchadnezzar’s pagan mind. But how does he come to understand his vision? His translator, the one who audibly tells him, is none other than a prophet sent by God: Daniel. Daniel is the one with the closest connection to God, and thus is able to understand the dream that Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t remember, and exclaim the meaning in a form the prince could understand. The unruly “noise,” his future and punishment, come to him in a form where he only understands after another translates verbally to him.

This is not a one off coincidence, as sound is the key to Nebuchadnezzar’s understanding of the miracle of the three Israelites in the fire. On page 275, Nebuchadnezzar sees the whole event take place. The ones he has sentenced to burn are saved miraculously. However, he doesn’t comprehend until after talking to his advisor and the three Israelites themselves. The advisor recommends they take the three men out of the furnace, putting into words that God has saved them. Nebuchadnezzar’s visual sense is expanded upon, and fully realized through his auditory. 

Not long after, on page 279, our old friend “gefrægn” pops back up. This time—on line 456—the narrator learns “through true words” about the moment of the miracle. Beforehand, it was just the narrator that learned of the miracles of David, but now Nebuchadnezzar learns in the same way. The prince seeing the visual element is special to his experience, but the core of both Nebuchadnezzar and the narrator’s understandings stem from hearing the story. What begins as a miraculous event to the eyes is turned into words and speech, eventually drifting along the oral tradition of storytelling.

While earlier the vision was understood through the sound, here the sound can stand on its own. We—the readers—need not see the miracle with our eyes to understand. This poem’s words and sounds confer the beauty and wonder in an apt manner. The best example is the final vision, of which Daniel explains: the writing on the wall. Daniel’s response is not to translate, or tell the Babylonians what it means. In fact, we never learn what those words meant. The important point is that Daniel sticks strictly to speaking to the prince about his impending doom, without relying upon the written word. 

The auditory has a profound power throughout this poem, that slowly gains its own place apart from the visual. Speech is tied to explaining what has been seen, but transforms to account solely for itself. Nebuchadnezzar, unable to understand sight and thus using his ears, and the audience, unable to see the miracle in person and thus using their ears, come to understand God’s power similarly. The stories of the Bible live on not because we visually witness God’s power, but because we verbally witness God’s power through others.


– Jonah Valverde and Spencer Scott




2 thoughts on “Listening, Speaking, Knowing: The Divine Auditory in Daniel

  1. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to see the Twilight wiki listed as a source in this class, but here we are.

    This was a really well put together post- I really liked how you analyzed the specific old English words, and the connotations they had in terms of the author/narrator’s witnessing of the text. It was great to hear about the interesting contrasts between visual and auditory forms of witnessing- I don’t think we’ve discussed yet in-depth the sensory process of witnessing itself, so this was really fascinating.

    I also think it evokes interesting temporal aspects of witnessing, particularly in the role of testimony. An event can only be witnessed (seen or heard) as it is happening, but the role of testimony (in this case poetry) is a memorializing one, to ensure that the event can be re-experienced by the listener or reader. In this way, it is equally more ambiguous (through the differend, and the need to rely on subjective testimony) and less ambiguous, because it can be experienced multiple times and truly understood.

    1. Yes — and the re-experiencing of the event through, say, poetry, or art, or a recording of some form (whether visual or sonic) can be paused, reverted, reviewed, reheard; its temporality is not necessarily continuous.

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