Daniel - his name in Hebrew is דָּנִיֵּאל Daniyyel - was a Jewish prophet who lived in the sixth century BCE during the period of the Jewish exile in Babylon. An account of his life and visionary experiences is contained in the Old Testament book of Daniel.
Daniel came from a noble Jewish family, but when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem in 586 BCE he was deported to Babylon along with other youthful members of the Jewish nobility, including his three friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. In Babylon they were given new names - Daniel was renamed Belteshazzar, his three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego - and received an education which prepared them for positions as advisers to the Babylonian king (Daniel, ch. 1). Daniel became a trusted adviser at court, particularly distinguishing himself as an interpreter of some of Nebuchadnezzar's dreams (ibid., ch. 2. & ch. 4, vv. 1-27). He also successfully interpreted the mysterious writing on the wall - writing which appeared on the wall (written by disembodied "fingers of a man's hand", or 'the moving finger') during a feast held by Nebuchadnezzar's grandson Belshazzar and which he took to foretell the imminent overthrow of the Babylonian empire by the Persians (ibid., ch. 5). (The words recorded are "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN", which Daniel interprets as [MENE:] "God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it"; [TEKEL:] "Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting"; [Upharsin, an inflection of PERES:] "Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.") After this event, which occurred in 539 BCE, Daniel's services were retained by the new Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, and he probably played a part in persuading Cyrus to allow the Jews to return from exile to their native land of Judah.
Daniel and other Jewish exiles who occupied positions of authority in Babylon were vulnerable to attack from those who objected to their continuing to practise the Jewish religion and resented their influence with the king. Daniel's three friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were condemned to death for refusing to worship a huge golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar: they were thrown into a furnace, but miraculously survived the ordeal (ibid., ch. 3). Later, during the period of Persian rule, Daniel himself was falsely accused of disloyalty to the king on the grounds of his [Jewish] faith and as a punishment was thrown into a den of lions to be eaten alive. Like his three friends earlier, however, Daniel emerged unscathed from this ordeal and was restored to the king's favour, while his accusers were condemned to be eaten by the lions (ibid., ch. 6).
When and how Daniel died is not known, but in his later years he had a number of visionary experiences and became a prophet.
The book of Daniel in the Old Testament was probably written several centuries after Daniel's death in the period 167-164 BCE to give encouragement to the Jewish resistance movement against the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (?215-164), who was persecuting the Jews. Chapters 1-6 of the book recount events from Daniel's life, while chapters 7-12 describe his prophetic visions.
The phrase 'Daniel in the lions' den' has come to symbolise the situation of someone who finds himself surrounded by hostile individuals. For example, if at a committee meeting I make a proposal that is fiercely opposed by all the other members of the committee I might say, rather jocularly, that I felt like Daniel in the lions' den.
The expression a Daniel may be used to refer to an individual who is honourable, courageous, and wise. The origin of this expression, however, is probably not the prophet Daniel, who is the subject of this page, but another Daniel, who figures in the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders.
Several of the events in Daniel's life have inspired well-known paintings, e.g., Belshazzar's Feast by Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn) (1606-1669), Daniel in the Lions' Den by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), and Shedrak, Meshak, and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace, by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Belshazzar's Feast is the subject of an English language oratorio of the same title by George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) and a cantata, also entitled Belshazzar's Feast, (1931) by William Walton (1902-1983).