A Short Note on Daniel 5 and the “Finger of God” Imagery in Luke 11:20

In: Novum Testamentum
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  • 1 Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, UK
  • | 2 Trinity College, University of Cambridge, UK
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The “finger of God” allusion in Luke 11:20 is usually recognized to draw from explicit ot occurrences of the phrase, particularly those in Exod 8:15 mt and Deut 9:10. While not denying the influence of those passages, this article aims to explore and elucidate the unique, but oft-neglected contribution of Dan 5 to Luke 11 by way of “finger of God” imagery.


The “finger of God” allusion in Luke 11:20 is usually recognized to draw from explicit ot occurrences of the phrase, particularly those in Exod 8:15 mt and Deut 9:10. While not denying the influence of those passages, this article aims to explore and elucidate the unique, but oft-neglected contribution of Dan 5 to Luke 11 by way of “finger of God” imagery.

This short study explores the contribution of Dan 5:5, 23b-28 to Luke 11:20 through shared “finger of God” imagery. While other passages with more exactly-stated “finger of God” phraseology have been popularly acknowledged for their contribution to meaning in Luke 11, that of Dan 5 has been relatively ignored. As shall be seen in this article, an examination of the relationship between the finger theophany in Dan 5 and the “finger of God” reference in Luke 11 yields a nuanced appreciation of literary dynamics between the two passages in addition to a deeper and fuller understanding of Luke 11:20 in particular.

To begin, we agree with the majority of biblical scholars that Luke’s inclusion of the phrase “finger of God” (δακτύλῳ θεοῦ) primarily refers to Exod 8:15 mt (8:19, Eng.; אצבע אלהים) and the recognition by Pharaoh’s pagan wonder-workers that a miraculous work has been accomplished by the agency of God himself.1 We also agree with several others that the motif of the liberating and redemptive work of God through these miracles is included in the “finger of God” connection between Exod 8:15 mt and Luke 11:20.2 Where nt scholarship tends to curiously divide regards a possible allusion to Deut 9:10 that was proposed by Evans and elaborated upon by Wall.3 We are in agreement with Woods that the presence of allusions in Luke 11:20’s “finger of God” need not—and indeed, is not—limited to simply one text.4 Within the rich corpus of the ot alone, imagery, words, and motifs often develop and build upon themselves, creating concepts, distinctive phrases, and types of which various individual elements can be emphasized through context, direct allusion, and other literary means. If we take an approach to “finger of God” that allows the possibility of a similar dynamic to carry over from the ot and Jewish traditions to the nt,5 then not only is Woods’ basic thesis sustainable that significant allusions to both Exod 8:15 mt and Deut 9:10 co-exist in Luke 11:20, but it is more likely than not that other ot occurrences of “the finger of God” phrase and imagery (namely, Exod 31:18; Ps 8:4 mt [8:3, Eng.]; and Dan 5:5) are referenced in Luke 11:20. Relative to the emphasis on Exod 8:15 mt and Deut 9:10, the contribution of these other referents has been given balanced attention by few Lukan scholars.6 However, quite interestingly, Daniel specialists have regularly observed the development of meaning for the “finger of God” imagery through the ot and have occasionally observed this even in Luke 11:20.7 That said, the discussion has not been extensive among Daniel experts regarding the particular contribution of the “finger of God” imagery in Dan 5 (v. 5: literally, “fingers of a hand of a man,” אצבען די יד אנש; cf. v. 24) to Luke 11:20, but it is rightly assumed by these scholars to be a natural extension of the ot development of phrases and motifs. Furthermore, a literally exact use of phrase is not a preclusive necessity in such developments in the ot. The fluidity required over genres, time, languages, situations, and cultures for sustained communication often renders a range of expressions, not just a single, immutable idiom, for distinctive concepts in the Bible.8

It is this understanding to which we appeal in supporting that Dan 5 makes a vital contribution to Luke 11:20 and its immediate pericope. Though the exact phrase “finger of God” is not used in Dan 5, the concept is present and a relation between Dan 5:5, 23b-28 and Luke 11:20 may be legitimately considered. The emphasis therein is not on strict phraseology, but rather on distinctive imagery. Again, this is not to the exclusion of meanings contributed by Exod 8:15 mt; 31:18; Deut 9:10; and Ps 8:4 mt, but it is to draw attention to this relatively neglected association with Dan 5. Williams and Carroll briefly recognize a connection with Dan 5 and interpret its function to be that of emphasizing judgment, in contrast to the liberation that Jesus delivers by the “finger of God” in Luke 11.9 Caragounis makes the rarely-cited, but worthwhile suggestion that Dan 5 “at a deeper level … actually sustains some interesting associations of context and content” with Luke 11:20.10 Specifically, he indicates that an allusion to Dan 5 underscores the themes of the ending of “one epoch of human history … in order to prepare the way finally for the establishment of the fifth kingdom, his Kingdom,” and of the role of the Son of Man regarding the arrival of the Kingdom of God and in dealing with evil powers.11 While Caragounis’ asserted associations may be a stretch, we agree that the basic theme of the supersession of one kingdom by another is significant to the “finger of God” linkage, while the role of the Son of Man is too oblique12 in Dan 5 to indicate a consequential connection with Luke 11 in that respect.

We propose that the contribution of specifically Dan 5:5, 23b-28 to Luke 11:20 by way of the imagery of the “finger of God” includes: 1) the reinforcement of a judgment warning for one’s failure to recognize and honor God; and 2) the striking example of the imminent overthrow of one kingdom by a stronger one. Regarding the first contribution, the motif of a powerful, foreign king’s hardening of heart and pride leading to the downfall of him and his great kingdom in Dan 5:20: i) recalls the introduction of these elements in Exod 8:15 mt, adds a father-son factor (Dan 5:22-23), and carries over to Luke 11:19-20, 29-32 a warning against pride, which refuses to recognize God; ii) emphasizes an implicit exhortation to learn from the other generation and those who knew less; and iii) highlights an alert to expect the eventual downfall of not only oneself, but possibly an entire generation and nation if these cautions are not heeded. In addition to this, Dan 5:5, 24-28 relays from Exod 31:18 and Deut 9:10 the motif of the finger(s) of God inscribing an epoch-making, nation-altering decree upholding obedience to God and his word, and conveys to Luke 11:20 the implication that an epoch-making, world-changing revelation and work has occurred through Jesus’ exorcism in Luke 11:14 that calls for obedience to Jesus and the word of God (Luke 11:28, 31-32).13

The second major contribution, that of communicating a profound example of the imminent supersession of one kingdom by a more powerful one, is easily seen in the God-decreed supernatural revelation (the fingers in Dan 5:5; Jesus’ exorcism in Luke 11:14) that a strong and seemingly secure kingdom (Babylonia in Dan 5; evil powers in Luke 11:14-26) is effectively already divided, overthrown, and soon enough will be manifestly seen as such (Dan 5:26, 28, 30-31; Luke 11:20b-22), having been conquered by a stronger person bringing in a greater kingdom (Darius the Mede and Media-Persia in Dan 5:28, 30-31; Jesus and the kingdom of God in Luke 11:20b-23). The particularly vital contribution of Dan 5 to Luke 11 through the “finger of God” imagery is this powerful account of an unexpected, sudden, and supernaturally God-decreed arrival of a superior kingdom. The rhetorical-literary effect is to drive home the fact of the already-not yet nature of the kingdom of God in Luke 11:20 with an impact reflective of the immediacy of the kingdom that it describes.14

Thus we have seen that, in addition to the contributions of “finger of God” imagery in Exod 8:15 mt; 31:18; and Deut 9:10, the oft-neglected role of Dan 5:5, 23b-28 has much to appreciate in enriching and clarifying our understanding of the phrase in Luke 11:20. Not only are associated motifs and elements from previous occurrences reinforced and relayed through Dan 5:5, 23b-28, but Dan 5 also imparts its own distinct nuances—most notably, that of a strong kingdom being immediately overthrown by a stronger one—to the powerful message of Jesus in the midst of a remarkable miracle and a growing controversy.


As early as T.W. Manson, The Teachings of Jesus: Studies of its Form and Content (2nd ed.; Cambridge: University Press, 1935) 82-83. See also James D.G. Dunn, “Matthew 12:28 / Luke 11:20—A Word of Jesus?” in Eschatology and the New Testament: Essays in Honor of George Raymond Beasley-Murray (ed. W. Hulitt Gloer; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1988) 29-49, see esp. 39-40; Chrys C. Caragounis, “Kingdom of God, Son of Man and Jesus’ Self-Understanding,” TynBul 40 (1989) 3-23, at 9; John Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34 (wbc 35B; Dallas: Word, 1993) 639-640; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (4 vols.; abrl; New York: Doubleday, 1994) 2:411, 416; Darrell L. Bock, Luke; Volume 2: 9:51-24:53 (becnt; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996) 1079; Joel Green, Luke (nicnt; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 457; Pieter W. van der Horst, “‘The Finger of God’: Miscellaneous Notes on Luke 11:20 and its Umwelt,” in Sayings of Jesus: Canonical and Non-Canonical Essays in Honour of Tjitze Baaarda (eds. William L. Petersen, Johan S. Vos, and Henk J. de Jonge; NovTSup 89; Leiden: Brill, 1997) 89-103, see 91; David T. Williams, “Why the Finger,” ExpT 115/2 (2003) 45-49; Larry Perkins, “Why the ‘Finger of God’ in Luke 11:20,” ExpT 115/8 (2004) 261-262; Costantino Antonio Ziccardi, The Relationship of Jesus and the Kingdom of God According to Luke-Acts (Tesi Gregoriana Serie Teologia 165; Rome: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2008) 435; John T. Carroll, Luke: A Commentary (ntl; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) 256; James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke (pntc; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015) 345. Cf. the end of Ex. R. §10, translation in S. M. Lehrman, Midrash Rabbah: Translated into English with Notes, Glossary and Indices (London: Soncino Press, 1939) 3:136: “Then the magicians said unto Pharaoh: This is the finger of God. As soon as the magicians realised that they were not able to produce gnats, they recognised that the deeds were those of a God and not witchcraft (literally, ‘and not the work of demons’). They no longer claimed to compare themselves with Moses in producing the plagues.” A slight caution on overdependence on the tradition in Exodus Rabbah is voiced in Meier, Marginal Jew, 2:412.


E.g., Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, 640; Bock, Luke; Volume 2, 1079; Van der Horst, “ ‘The Finger of God,’ ” 91; Ziccardi, Relationship of Jesus and the Kingdom, 435.


C.F. Evans, “The Central Section of St. Luke’s Gospel,” in Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R. H. Lightfoot (ed. D.E. Nineham; Oxford: Blackwell, 1955) 37-53, esp. 44; Robert W. Wall, “ ‘The Finger of God’: Deuteronomy 9.10 and Luke 11.20,” nts 33 (1987) 144-150; Craig A. Evans, Luke (nibc; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1990) 186; Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, 639; Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, 1079 n. 22; Van der Horst, “ ‘The Finger of God,’ ” 91 n. 8; Green, Gospel of Luke, 457 n. 20; Edward J. Woods, The ‘Finger of God’ and Pneumatology in Luke-Acts (JSNTSup 205; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2001) 61-62.


E.g., see Woods, ‘Finger of God’ and Pneumatology, 245-246.


Bear in mind that the expression “is practically non-existent” in pagan Greek and Roman literature, such that “we may thus safely conclude that pagan traditions about the finger of a god can hardly have played a role in the mind of Luke (or Jesus), but that it was—not surprisingly—the scriptural and Jewish traditions which form the background of this expression which is unique in the nt”; Van der Horst, “ ‘The Finger of God,’ ” 100-102. Similarly, Woods, ‘Finger of God’ and Pneumatology, 243: “There are no known convincing parallels to this expression [i.e., ‘finger of God’] in Greek or Roman literature, nor any other literature for that matter, apart from the literature of Egypt.”


Exceptions include I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text (nigtc; Exeter: Paternoster, 1978) 475; Williams, “Why the Finger?,” 46, 48; Woods, ‘Finger of God’ and Pneumatology, 61-62, though the discussions of other occurrences are minimal, apart from Woods, who quickly dismisses Ps 8:4 mt and Dan 5:5 as salient because they do not feature the exact phrase.


E.g., C.L. Seow, Daniel (wbc; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003) 79; William B. Nelson, Daniel (ubcs; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012) 147-148; Tremper Longman iii, Daniel (nivac; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999) 138; Sharon Pace, Daniel (shbc; Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 165-166.


This is contra the assumption in Woods, ‘Finger of God’ and Pneumatology, 62, 243; and Meier, Marginal Jew, 416. For those who do insist on more literary exactitude to establish significant innerbiblical allusions (although we, the authors of this article, do not discern that the ot and nt require such rigidity), it may be helpful to bear in mind that the logion of Luke 11:20 would have been originally spoken in Aramaic, in which case the original logion arguably would have borne as much resemblance to Dan 5:5 as to Exod 8:15 mt, technically-speaking.


Williams, “Why the Finger?,” 48; Carroll, Luke, 256.


Caragounis, “Kingdom of God,” 9.


Ibid., 9-10.


Literally, it is non-existent.


On a minor note, possibly the fingers theophany in Dan 5 resonates with concepts from Ps 8 of heaven, creation, humility, the proper place of humankind in relation to creatures, and the lordship of God over all, of which in turn the themes of humility and the lordship of God are reinforced in Luke 11:14-32. That said, the correspondence between Ps 8 and Dan 5 by way of the “finger of God” motif is not strong enough to press this point. Since it has not been mentioned before, it should also be noted that the theme of the younger generation succeeding the current generation may be reinforced directly from Ps 8:3 mt to Luke 11:19, 29-32 by way of the “finger of God” connection.


The already—not yet nature of the kingdom of God in Luke 11:20 is often noted by scholars, though the appreciable contribution of Dan 5 to this theme has not been addressed, apart from Caragounis, who slightly stretched the correlation. E.g., see Dunn, “Matthew 12:28/Luke 11:20,” 38-39; Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, 1080-1081; Ziccardi, Relationship of Jesus, 489, 490, 502; Edwards, Gospel according to Luke, 345; Amanda Witmer, Jesus, the Galilean Exorcist: His Exorcisms in Social and Political Context (lnts 459; New York: T&T Clark, 2012) 128.

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