As a child my second favorite Bible story (after the saga of Samson, the Hebrew forerunner of Superman) was Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. My third favorite, in the same book of Daniel, was Daniel in the lions' den. Bad guys putting young heroes into such predicaments was much like the exciting serials of the late 1940s and early '50s that I watched as a kid every Saturday at the movies. Each installment ended with the hero in some kind of terrible fix, facing imminent death or injury, and you had to wait a whole week to see "how he gets out of it." But that was the whole point. Making you come back to see how the good guys get out of it was central to the success of those Saturday serials. Today, as an adult and more serious student of the Bible, I know that the question of how Daniel and the others get out of it is central to what we as readers should get out of the book of Daniel.
Daniel may have been a legendary hero in Canaan even before the Hebrews arrived. The story of Aqhat in the Canaanite clay tablets from Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) in Syria, dating from the 15th century B.C., speaks of "the hero" Danel the Rephaite, who "judged the cause of the widow and tried the case of the orphan." (The Bible refers to giants who once lived east of the Jordan as the Rephaim [Deuteronomy 2:10,19-20; Joshua 12:4, 13:12].) The prophet Ezekiel refers to three wise men, "Noah, Daniel, and Job" (14:14), and he sarcastically tells the prince of Tyre, "Behold, thou art wiser than Daniel" (28:3). Daniel also appears as a young Hebrew hero in two apocryphal books, Susanna and Bel and the Dragon.
Based on its content, the book of Daniel was written in the second century B.C., by an unknown author who attributes it to the legendary sage. It was written partly in the third person and partly in the first, partly in Hebrew and partly in Aramaic, and contains (as will be noted) some historical inaccuracies.
The book begins with Nebuchadnezzar (biblical form of Nebuchadrezzar), the king of Babylon, besieging Jerusalem in 597 B.C. and carrying away captives and some of the temple's golden and silver vessels to Babylon. (Nebuchadnezzar would return in 586 B.C., to put down a rebellion; he devastates Jerusalem and carries away even more captives, leaving only "the poor of the land" in Judah [II Kings 25:1-12].)
In Babylon Nebuchadnezzar tells his chief eunuch Ashpenaz to take from among the captive Jewish royal family and nobility youths who have "no blemish" and are "well favoured, and skilful in all wisdom," and educate them for three years, after which they are "to stand before the king." Among these youths to be trained are Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Daniel is given the Babylonian name Belteshazzar, and his three companions are renamed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (1:3-7).
In the second story (2:1-49), King Nebuchadnezzar demands that his wise men not only interpret a troubling dream he has had, but tell him the dream itself, without him giving them a hint of what it was. When they tell him that only the gods could do such a thing, the king angrily decrees that all the wise men of Babylon be slain. This includes Daniel and his three vegetarian friends. Daniel goes to the king and asks him for time to interpret the dream. Daniel then tells his companions to pray for God's mercy about this secret dream, lest they perish. The secret is then revealed to Daniel "in a night vision," for which Daniel praises God. When Daniel goes to the king and tells him both the dream and its interpretation, Nebuchadnezzar honors him, saying truly "your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets." The king makes Daniel the ruler of the province of Babylon, but then, at Daniel's request, appoints Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as rulers instead, with Daniel remaining at the king's court.
With the third story (3:1-30) comes the fiery furnace. Nebuchadnezzar sets up a great image of gold, all are required to fall down and worship it, and those who refuse to do so shall be "cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace." When told that the provincial rulers Shadrach, Meschah, and Abednego do not worship the image, the king angrily has them brought before him and asks if this is true. He gives them a chance to fall down and worship the image, and if they do not, they will be immediately cast into the fiery furnace, and "who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?" The three reply that God is able to deliver them, but whether God does or not, they will not serve the king's gods or worship the golden image.
The king, "full of fury," then orders that the furnace be heated seven times more than usual. He has "the most mighty men of his army" bind the three and cast them "into the midst of the burning fiery furnace." The furnace is so hot that the flames kill the men who throw in the three bound youths.
What happens next is wonderfully surreal. Watching, the king becomes astonished and rises from his seat. He asks his counselors, "Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?" They answer affirmatively, and the king says, "But I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the form of the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods" (3:24-25 RSV).
In the fourth story (4:1-37), Nebuchadnezzar has another troubling dream, about a tree cut down, leaving a stump, and an angel saying "let a beast's mind be given to him" (RSV). Daniel interprets the dream as meaning that the king shall be driven from among men and be like a beast of the field, eating grass, "till you know that the Most High God rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will" (RSV). Twelve months later, the king is indeed driven from among men, eats grass like an ox, his hair growing as long as eagles' feathers and his nails like birds' claws. The king's reason returns to him as he lifts his eyes to heaven and praises the Most High God, who acts according to his will and whose "dominion is an everlasting dominion." (This story may actually reflect an episode attributed elsewhere to the life of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon.)
In the fifth story (5:1-30), King Belshazzar of Babylon holds a feast for a thousand of his lords, they drink wine from the golden and silver vessels that had been taken from the house of the Lord, and they praise idols. Immediately the fingers of a man's hand appear and write on the wall: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This so alarms the king that his knees knock together. His wise men are unable to read or interpret the writing, but his queen tells him of Daniel: "There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods," and he can interpret the writing. Daniel is summoned, and tells the king that because he has not humbled his heart as did Nebuchadnezzar, but "hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven," and drank wine from the vessels from God's house and praised idols, the hand was sent from God, and the writing means that his days as king have been numbered by God and brought to an end, he has been weighed in the scales and found wanting, and his kingdom is divided by the Medes and Persians. Belshazzar has Daniel clothed in purple, gives him a gold chain for his neck, and proclaims him "the third ruler in the kingdom." But Belshazzar is slain that very night, succeeded by Darius the Mede. (Historically Belshazzar, the son of Nabonidus, was never a king, and "Darius the Mede" is unknown to history.)
Only one completely apocalyptic book found its way into the New Testament canon--the book of Revelation--but the apocalyptic influence is strong in many parts of the canonical works. It can also be traced in the late books of the Old Testament, and most notably in the second half of Daniel. In the first of four visions (7:1-28), Daniel as prophet (speaking in the first person) describes "four great beasts" that come up out of the sea (representing in succession the Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and Greeks). He then foresees the final judgment. The "Ancient of days," whose garment is "white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool," sits on a throne that is "like the fiery flame," with "wheels as burning fire." Before him the court sits in judgment, and the books are opened. "And behold, one like a Son of man" comes "with the clouds of heaven," and comes to the Ancient of days. This passage is echoed many times in later apocalypses, as the idiom "son of man," originally denoting any human being (Ezekiel often addresses himself as "Son of man"), becomes, as in Daniel, an epithet for the coming Messiah. The Son of man (used in the New Testament as a title of Jesus) will be given dominion over all peoples and nations, "an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away" (7:14). The last chapter of Daniel includes a reference to resurrection of the dead to face judgment: "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (12:2).
Being set in the time of the exile, the book's visions of beasts, horns, and kings ostensibly foretell future events. But there is a scholarly consensus that the book in its final form was composed centuries after the exile, when the empire of Alexander the Great ("the great horn" [8:5-12] and "mighty king" [11:2]) has been divided among Seleucus (in Syria) and three other leaders (the four horns of 8:8). The Seleucid Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes ("the little horn" [8:9-13] and "vile person" [11:21]) conquers Palestine in 167 B.C. and desecrates the Jerusalem temple, ending the continual burnt offering and erecting a heathen altar (referred to by Daniel [11:31] as "the abomination that makes desolate" (RSV). A Jewish revolt led by Judas Maccabeus ("a little help" [11:34]) in 164 B.C. leads to a cleansing of the temple (an event celebrated as Hanukkah) and a period of Jewish autonomy until the coming of the Romans.
Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998, pp. 558-573.
Collins, John J. "The Book of Daniel" in Harper's Bible Dictionary, ed. by Paul J. Achtemeier. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985, pp. 205-206.
Hirsch, Emil G., and Konig, Eduard. "The Book of Daniel" in the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906 (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com).
Metzger, Bruce M., and Murphy, Roland E., eds. "The Book of Daniel" in The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 1126-1147.
Milne, Pamela J. "Daniel" in The HarperCollins Study Bible, ed. by Wayne A. Meeks. New York: HarperCollins, 1993, pp. 1302-1303.
Towner, W. Sibley. "The Book of Daniel" in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 149-152.
Copyright 2007 by Ronald L. Ecker
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