It’s not hard to see why young Jane Eyre (see sidebar quote) likes the book of Daniel. It has stories! Narrative tales! And although there are plenty of those in the early going, Genesis, Exodus, and on up through the tales of King David, it has been a long time now since the Bible was quite so accessible.
The Prophet Daniel
Daniel is one of four young Hebrew men in the Babylonian exile who are picked out for their brains and good looks and sent to school to train for the civil service. It’s only a three-year course, but seems to be the equivalent of a modern MPA. It was a simpler time. Either because of dietary restrictions or to preserve their independence, they refuse to eat the court food and go on a vegetarian diet instead; the text seems mildly surprised that this doesn’t kill ‘em. They can get away with being a little eccentric because they are the stars of their class, and in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. (1:20)
Nebuchadnezzar – the king – has a disturbing dream, and tells his magical staff that they must give him a proper interpretation or die. Now interpreting dreams is like shooting fish in a barrel, of course, but Nebuchadnezzar throws in a twist: he doesn’t say what the dream was. Everyone in the wisdom industry is sweating bullets, but God tells Daniel what the dream was and how to interpret it. After this coup, Daniel and his friends get a big promotion.
The Fiery Furnace
Did I mention that Daniel’s friends are named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Once you know that, you probably know what’s coming. I did, anyway, partly because it’s such a well-known story that it penetrated even my lack of religious consciousness, and partly because – you will not hear this next phrase uttered very often – I am quite fond of George Dyson's 1935 oratorio Nebuchadnezzar. What happens is, the king commissions a huge golden idol and requires all of the movers and shakers to worship it. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego try to quietly avoid the issue, but there are tattletales about and Nebuchadnezzar pushes the point. If they won’t worship his idol, he says, he will throw them into the furnace.
|Nebuchadnezzar living as a beast, as imagined by William Blake|
Their response: O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. (3:16-17) That’s exactly the kind of response calculated to piss a king off, so after ordering the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual (a preparation you would expect to be as unnecessary as it is impossible) he tosses them in. They survive, walking around the furnace with a fourth person whom Nebuchadnezzar takes to be an angel. (From images of the event online, many people clearly take the fourth guy to be Jesus Christ, which seems like it might be more theologically innovative then they realize. But maybe not.) The king is so impressed by all this that he writes Daniel 4 in (mostly) first person, telling how he lost his mind and lived as an animal for seven years, but then his sanity was restored and he became a committed… how to say it… worshiper of the God of Abraham, is perhaps the best way to put it. Which is kind of surprising.
Also surprising, when you think about it, is the confidence of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that God will save their physical selves, and also that they are right. Obviously, we ought not to expect that God will do the same for us, even if we are quite devout, as witness the sufferings of all the thousands and thousands of saints.
The Handwriting on the Wall
Anyway, Daniel 5 is the famous story of the writing on the wall. I’ve always been a little confused by this one; now, after reading the text, I am confused in a slightly more informed sort of way. In a nutshell: Nebuchadnezzar has a real Edgar Alan Poe moment and sees a hand writing “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Peres” on his wall. According to the footnotes, this might mean something along the lines of “numbered, numbered, weighed, divided,” but Daniel the interpreter says it means that God is angry with Nebuchadnezzar for still paying attention to idols, and so his time is up. Nebuchadnezzar, surprisingly, rewards Daniel richly for his interpretation, and is promptly killed and replaced with Darius the Mede.
In the Babylonian record, as I understand it, Nubuchadnezzar did not have any period of madness, and was followed by his son Amel-Marduk after his death. Six years and two additional kings later, Nabonidus would be the last King of Babylon. He spent an extended period away from the capital, and was replaced with Cyrus the Persian, so may have been blended in with the Biblical Nebuchadnezzar a little. Bottom line: although “seeing the writing on the wall” is a good way of saying “the jig is up,” and although the image of a king aghast at the nightmare image of a hand writing on his walls is a good ‘un, it is really hard to figure out what’s going on in this story.