Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Book of Joel: What the locust swarm has left... Other locusts have eaten.

The Prophet Joel, in the Sistine Chapel
The book of Joel is, according to Chapter 1 Verse 1, The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethual.  It is only three chapters long, and it stands out as a pretty good read. If you squint, it’s something like a horror story.  It even starts by telling us what an extreme a prophecy it’s going to be. The elders are asked if they’ve ever heard about something like this happening in the past.  Everyone is assured that they’ll be telling the grandchildren about this amazing and horrifying event that's going to happen (or is perhaps already happening).

The amazing and horrifying event is a swarm of locusts. Now, when I was a kid and liked chasing grasshoppers, I always wondered why the Bible takes such a hard line on locusts, but the problem is of course that they come in great numbers and, although each little bug doesn’t eat too much by itself, in the aggregate they eat, well, everything. So, if you are a desert agricultural society without much in the way of a surplus, watching the locusts go through comes with a sinking realization that your family may well be starving to death pretty soon. It’s pretty grim.
What the locust swarm has left
The great locusts have eaten
What the great locusts have left
The young locusts have eaten;
What the young locusts have left
Other locusts have eaten. (1:4)
Not much fun.

Amid the scenes of environmental devastation in the first chapter and a half, there is this imagery:
 They charge like warriors;
they scale walls like soldiers.
They all march in line,
not swerving from their course.
 They do not jostle each other;
each marches straight ahead.
They plunge through defenses
without breaking ranks.
 They rush upon the city;
they run along the wall.
They climb into the houses;
like thieves they enter through the windows. (2:7-9)
These are some really spooky locusts, sweeping  across the land with a remorseless implacability. Ultimately, though, this is a prophecy with a relatively happy ending, for in the second half of Chapter 2 Joel offers a way out:
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity. (13)
If the people “rend their hearts,” God will turn away troubles and restore prosperity:
 I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
the great locust and the young locust,
the other locusts and the locust swarm —
my great army that I sent among you.
 You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
and you will praise the name of the LORD your God,
who has worked wonders for you. (25-26)
And indeed, Chapter 2 ends, after a brief return to apocalyptic visions of the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord, on a singularly triumphant note:
And everyone who calls
on the name of the LORD will be saved;
for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
there will be deliverance,
as the LORD has said,
even among the survivors
whom the LORD calls.
OK. So, one question here is: are we really talking about locusts? As we have been seeing, much of Biblical prophecy is couched in political-cartoon metaphor, and for all I know Joel may well be making references to invading armies of Moabites or Babylonians or Egyptians that would have been perfectly transparent to a contemporary audience. It could be a story about how the destruction and disruption of war is bad for farming – which it really, really is.

Then too, if it’s a story about locusts, is it a reference to an actual locust swarm that was really happening? Or is it a locust storm of the imagination, a kind of bronze age dystopian piece, a concrete metaphor to represent the many more subtle possible manifestations of God’s wrath? Who knows!

And finally, unfortunately in a way, it’s always interesting to check the footnotes. For just as you have formed your vision of the vast wave of locusts – the great locusts, the young locusts, the locusts beyond number – you will see that “the precise meaning of the four Hebrew words used here for locusts is uncertain.” So, not only might the locusts be metaphorical, they might not be locusts. This could be a vision of an unstoppable wave of alligators, seagulls, trout, and walking trees, and we'd be none the wiser. I imagine that the Biblical scholars have made a pretty good guess with locusts, but you can’t rule out the possibility that there is a truly bizarre prophecy hidden right here in plain sight, if only we knew those words.

Chapter 3 is a little different. Labelled “The Nations Judged,” it is a promise of revenge against Tyre and Sidon and all you regions of Philistia, all of the peoples who have opposed Judah and the Israelites. All of the nations are told to get ready for war, to beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears, and to come to the Valley of Jehoshaphat, which might be the gully just to the east of Jerusalem, or might be a mythic location. There, they will get their comeuppance, and subsequently (17-21) God will bless and protect Jerusalem and Judah eternally.

Let’s take a look at the “comeuppance” verses:
“Let the nations be roused;
let them advance into the Valley of Jehoshaphat,
for there I will sit
to judge all the nations on every side.
 Swing the sickle,
for the harvest is ripe.
Come, trample the grapes,
for the winepress is full
and the vats overflow—
so great is their wickedness!”
 Multitudes, multitudes
in the valley of decision!
For the day of the LORD is near
in the valley of decision.
 The sun and moon will be darkened,
and the stars no longer shine.
 The LORD will roar from Zion
and thunder from Jerusalem;
the earth and the heavens will tremble.
But the LORD will be a refuge for his people,
a stronghold for the people of Israel. (12-16)
I read this as a rather florid account of a military ambush. The people of Tyre and so on, overconfident with their recently repurposed weapons, all flood in to attack Jerusalem and are caught in a classic low-ground trap. The Israelites will be able to cut them down like ripe grain, to trample them like grapes, and generally put them to rout, God will preside over the day with supernatural gravitas.

But not everybody reads it that way. When I looked up “Valley of Jehosaphat,” I learned that many people read this passage as a prediction of an actual final-judgement event to be held at the end of the world, or at least at the end of this phase of the world’s existence. Some feel that God will actually sit in the little valley to the east of Jerusalem, issuing judgements. This is, of course, the literal meaning of the words in Verse 12, but it hardly needs pointing out that cherry-picking this passage for literal interpretation is a pretty fanciful way of approaching the text.

The end of Joel 2 can also be read as an “end times” sort of prophecy, now that I go back and look at it – but only if you already expect it to read that way. As written, these passages are very much in the context of “present times.” God will help us turn back the locusts, and then Jerusalem will be OK. God will help us defeat our military enemies (which, again, may well be what the locusts are supposed to be understood as), and then Jerusalem will be OK. It’s a prediction of the future from the time frame of the prophet-narrator, but on the scale of “we will get through this bad year and be all right, as long as we keep the faith.” To regard this as a prophecy that is still “live,” that is still referring to things in our own future, the future relative to 2018, is almost to say that nothing written in the future tense can ever really happen, because it will always remain in the future.

But whatever our thoughts on end times, I think we can all agree that a vast swarm of robots advancing over the land in a relentless, unswerving synchronized mass is one heck of an apocalyptic vision.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Hosea 11-14: God’s Love for Israel/The Lord’s Anger Against Israel

Gillis van Coninxloo (1544-1606), Mountain Landscape with River Valley and the Prophet Hosea.
The Book of Hosea is 14 chapters long, so we’ll wrap up the last four of them today. They are a fairly unified set of four, and each is given a section heading in the NIV:
11: God’s Love for Israel
12: Israel’s Sin
13: The Lord’s Anger Against Israel
14: Repentance to Bring Blessing
As the titles would suggest, Chapter 11 is reassuring:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities. (8-9)
And Chapter 13 is not:
When I fed them, they were satisfied;
when they were satisfied, they became proud;
then they forgot me.
So I will be like a lion to them,
like a leopard I will lurk by the path.
Like a bear robbed of her cubs,
I will attack them and rip them open;
like a lion I will devour them—
a wild animal will tear them apart. (6-8)
The prophesy in Chapter 12 is pretty dire:
…Ephraim has aroused his bitter anger;
his Lord will leave on him the guilt of his bloodshed
and will repay him for his contempt. (14)
And the prophecy in Chapter 14 is pretty hopeful:
I will heal their waywardness
and love them freely,
for my anger has turned away from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
he will blossom like a lily.
Like a cedar of Lebanon
he will send down his roots;
his young shoots will grow. (5-6)
In short, what is the message of the prophet Hosea?  Well, clearly he is in favor of adherence to religious law and against dabbling in competing faiths. Beyond that, what does he tell us about the nature of God, or what is to happen in his future?  The answer might be that he tells us so many contradictory things as to let us decide whatever we want, or so many contradictory things as to tell us nothing, or -- reasonably -- so many contradictory things as to suggest that God is too complicated to be easily pinned down in words.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Hosea 6-10: What can I do with you, Ephraim?

Hosea the Prophet, as imagined by John Singer Sargent.
As noted last time, the Book of Hosea (which is, apparently, the first of the twelve books of "Minor Prophets") fits comfortably into what we've seen so far of the prophetic literature of the Bible, which is to say it is largely a series of complaints by God about the faithlessness of the Israelites and predictions of the punishments that will therefore be their lot. There is not much in the way of story here, so instead of giving a narrative summary I’ll just pick out some of the details this time around.

Chapter 6: There are several gentle bits in this short chapter that I find very compelling. For starters, Verses 1-3.
Come, let us return to the LORD.
He has torn us to pieces
but he will heal us;
he has injured us
but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the LORD;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.
Then there’s Verse 4, which is a tender lament for the wayward love of the Israelites:
What can I do with you, Ephraim?
What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
like the early dew that disappears.
And there is Verse 6, which presents the face of God that many people, I think, look for in scripture.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
But people who like Verses 4 and 6 might be troubled by the temperament of the verse that comes in-between:
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
I killed you with the words of my mouth—
my judgments flashed like lightning among you.
Chapter 7: And yet it is the violent and vindictive temperament, in Hosea as in the earlier prophets, that is foremost:
Woe to them,
because they have strayed from me!
Destruction to them,
because they have rebelled against me!
I long to redeem them
but they speak lies about me. (13)
Chapter 8: This chapter has a metaphor that seems very familiar, although I don’t know whether it is used elsewhere in the Bible as well:
They sow the wind
and reap the whirlwind. (7)
It sounds pretty cool, but I realized I wasn’t sure what it meant. I guess the idea is that the Israelites “sow the wind,” which is to say, plant their fields with nothing, by not adhering to the laws of God. They “reap the whirlwind,” which is to say come into a great deal of trouble, through God’s resultant wrath.

Chapter 9:
Even if they rear children,
I will bereave them of every one.
Woe to them
when I turn away from them!
I have seen Ephraim, like Tyre,
planted in a pleasant place.
But Ephraim will bring out
their children to the slayer. (12-13)
Who is this "Ephraim"? The name is used throughout Hosea, and it clearly refers to the Israelites. I don’t remember seeing this usage before, so I looked it up. Seems that Ephraim, the original Ephraim, was one of the sons of Joseph, the patriarch of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame. In some places, says Wiki, the Bible talks about the Tribe of Joseph, and in other places it’s broken down into the Tribe of Ephraim and the Tribe of another son of Joseph, Manasseh. The homelands for these groups was in the northern kingdom, which is to say Israel (as opposed to Judah). So Hosea is more or less using “Ephraim” to mean “the people of Israel.” Mind you, he occasionally throws in an aside to the effect of “You too, Judah!”

Chapter 10:
When I please, I will punish them;
nations will be gathered against them
to put them in bonds for their double sin.
Ephraim is a trained heifer
that loves to thresh;
so I will put a yoke
on her fair neck.
I will drive Ephraim,
Judah must plow,
and Jacob must break up the ground. (10-11)
It’s interesting that to punish the Israelites for straying away from orthodox worship of the God of Abraham, the God of Abraham often punishes them through defeat by neighboring powers. It’s a good punishment, but you can see how the victorious neighbors might interpret it as a gift of triumph from their own gods. Or even, although this probably wouldn’t be their first thought, they could see it as a reward from the God of Abraham for not ever believing in him in the first place.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, God has often expressed his desire that people will recognize his might by seeing his intervention in the affairs of his people. It is hard, however, to imagine an Assyrian sergeant saying something like “Geez, your God must be really angry at you guys, to let us beat you so badly!”  Wouldn't he be more likely to interpret events as showing the superiority of the Assyrian religious system, or even just the superiority of the Assyrian army?

Next Week: Wrapping Up Hosea.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Hosea 1-5: Adultery, Metaphor, and Raisin Cakes

The Prophet Hosea, detail of a working
sketch Raphael used in preparation for a fresco.

The Book of Hosea, we learn in the first verse of the first Chapter, is “The word of the LORD that came to Hosea son of Beeri during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel.”  In the rest of the first chapter, God gives Hosea a series of instructions that seem kind of bitter and cynical in tone: he is supposed to find and marry an adulterous wife (Gomer daughter of Diblaim, in one of scripture’s less flattering walk-on roles), and he is to give his children strange and unpleasant names. I mean, how much therapy did Lo-Ruhamah need to get over being named “not loved”? We are not told.

In the second Chapter, Hosea is told to tell his brothers and sisters that they should rebuke their mother, because she is an adulteress. She has “conceived them in disgrace,” and she has claimed that all of her wealth, all of her food and drink and cloth and oil, were gifts from her lover instead of being provided by her husband. From Verse 9 to Verse 13, he – God, that is, speaking to Hosea – lists various punishments he is going to inflict on the wife, but then Verses 14 to 23 are surprisingly tender promises of reconciliation to come.

Now, the family tree implied by Hosea 2 would be awfully confusing, if the whole thing were not transparently a parable for God’s relationship with the people of Israel. That relationship, here as in the entire Bible hitherto, is a rocky one.  The Israelites are constantly haring off after Baal and assorted other regional deities, and God is constantly raging at their infidelity with threats, actual dire punishments, and occasional promises of wonderful glories to come. The brothers and sisters of Hosea 2 are the Israelites, and the mother is, I guess, also the Israelites. God is the jilted husband, and the illicit lover is the other gods the Israelites go running around with.

This is not the first blog post to wonder about the metaphorical nature of the Book of Hosea.  This scrap from the Dead Sea Scrolls, from the first century BCE, "refers to the relation of God, the husband, to Israel, the unfaithful wife. In the commentary, the unfaithful ones have been led astray by 'the man of the lie.'"
It’s a little unclear how this extended metaphor fits in with Hosea’s actual marriage, but in Chapter 3 he is instructed to make up with the no-good cheatin’ Gomer. He is told to, in a delightfully quirky passage, “Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes” (1).  Raisin cakes must have been, what, sacramental food of a competing faith? Or just a luxury to turn one away from a proper ascetic habit of worship? Either way, the specificity of the phrase rings oddly today.  He seems to go out and buy her back with a bit of silver and barley, and tells her that they need to be faithful to each other... because, Israel and God need to stick together too.  So, this is a strange framing narrative, in which the narrator's troubled marriage is worked on, or possibly in which a prophet's metaphor escapes his preaching and encroaches on his actual life.  This would be an interesting idea for a Borges story. 

With the familiar theme of God's anger with his stiff-neck people established, Chapters 4 and 5 and, indeed, most of the rest of the Book of Hosea, are largely God’s invective against the faithless straying of the Israelites. There is passing attention to general bad behavior – “cursing, lying, and murder” – and occasional callbacks of the adultery metaphor, but mostly it is a general denunciation of the waywardness of the chosen people and a foretelling of the awful things that will happen to them. In this way, Hosea is quite in keeping with the prophetic literature we have seen in the half-dozen Books that precede it.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Book of Daniel: Supplemental

Did you feel like twelve chapters was not quite enough Book of Daniel for your taste?  Well, you might be in luck! 

When I was looking for images to go with my last post, I kept running across paintings of incidents I hadn't read about.  After a bit of research, I found out that this is because I happen to have a Protestant Bible.  If I had a Catholic or Orthodox Bible, there would be three additional episodes in Daniel.

One, the "Song of the Three Holy Children," is at the end of Chapter 3, and consists of prayers and songs from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three young men from the fiery furnace.

Another, "Bel and the Dragon," is Chapter 14 of the expanded Daniel.  It's the first detective story on record!  There is an idol, Bel, which is given rich offerings every night in a sealed chamber.  Every morning, the offerings are gone, so Bel must have eaten them, QED.  But Daniel scatters ash on the chamber floor one night, and in the morning there is a trail of footprints to the secret door where the priests haul out the loot.  Good story.

Then there's Chapter 13, which is the story of "Susanna and the Elders."  It might be the first courtroom drama on record!  Susanna, a nice woman bathing in her garden, is being spied on by some dirty old men.  They threaten to accuse her of consorting with a young man unless she, well, lets them screw her.  She won't do it, they follow through on their threat, and she is about to be executed for adultery when Daniel happens along and suggests that it might be a good idea to question the accusers separately about what they saw.  Since their accounts don't line up, it's clear that Susanna was falsely accused, and so the men are put to death instead of her.  It's a good tale, a victory for virtue and due process alike, and so naturally it has been a favorite subject of painters over the centuries.  Here's Artemisia Gentileschi's version.

Here's Carlo Francesco Nuvolone:

Paul Serusier:

Thomas Hart Benton:


Or, if you like, here's Alan Macdonald's 2009 The Elders Surprised by Susannah:

Anyway, Daniel stands out as a Book rich in stories -- richer, perhaps, than any since the accounts of King David, back in the day.  On strictly literary grounds, it's a shame that Susanna and Bel are missing from the Protestant Book of Daniel.  But, I suppose it's not just about the stories.  Right?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Daniel 7-12: Daniel the Prophet

After the famous stories of the first half of the Book of Daniel, the second half settles into more conventional prophecy. Daniel is, after all, a prophet. He has a dream in Chapter 7, a vision in Chapter 8, has a prayer answered by a mysterious man named Gabriel in Chapter 9, and then has a long apocalyptic vision of “End Times” in the final three chapters.

Like a lot of Biblical visions, Chapter 7’s deals with grotesque animals.

7 “After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns. 8 “While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke boastfully.
Later on, Daniel asks “one of those standing there” what the vision was about – it’s unclear whether this takes place within the vision, or afterwards – and he is given a kind of key of what the various things in the vision stood for:
23 “He gave me this explanation: ‘The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it. 24 The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. 25 He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time.
26 “‘But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. 27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’
This kind of vision is, I suppose, a little like the political cartoons that used to anchor editorial pages, where comic drawings were given little label that indicated which parties or issues they were supposed to represent. After a goat attacks a ram in the Chapter 8 vision, Gabriel explains that “the two-horned ram that you saw represents the kings of Media and Persia. The shaggy goat is the king of Greece, and the large horn between his eyes is the first king” (20-21). This pattern of symbolic dream followed by interpretation is, when you think about it, kind of a singular way for prophecy to proceed. If Daniel was to be given a message about an impending conflict between Greek and Persian forces, for instance, why did it need to be dressed up in a dream about animals? Why not something a little more straightforward? Well, it’s a mystery of course.

The culminating vision of the last three chapters is pretty apocalyptic. The dead will rise from the earth, “some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2). The smartest folks will “lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (3) This sounds kind of last-judgementish, so it’s reasonable to ask “When will this happen?”

Well, if you follow the thread from Daniel 10 on, you see that from the time of Cyrus of Persia in which Daniel said he was writing, there was to be four more Persian kings, who would then be supplanted by a particularly powerful king of uncertain nationality. When he dies, his domain would be split between Kings of the North and South, who will engage in various wars and intrigues for a few generations. Then another king will come along, a guy who worships a god of fortresses, and he’ll go to war with the King of the South and the King of the North both. The list of things that are going to happen – for it is a straight narrative prophecy this time, with no animal analogies or intermediaries – is quite specific. For instance
5“The king of the South will become strong, but one of his commanders will become even stronger than he and will rule his own kingdom with great power. 6After some years, they will become allies. The daughter of the king of the South will go to the king of the North to make an alliance, but she will not retain her power, and he and his power will not last. In those days she will be betrayed, together with her royal escort and her father and the one who supported her.
Still, it’s specific enough that you could map it out, and the long and short of it is that there is something like 8 to 12 generations between Daniel and the End Times. Since the vision is dated to the third year of the reign of Cyrus of Persia, which is, hmm, 536 B.C., the dead will rise and the end times will come no later than… say, 100 B.C. So, that’s interesting.

Now, apparently many Biblical scholars think that Daniel was written a long time after the date claimed by its author. Along with other evidence putting the composition in the neighborhood of 170 B.C., the line of events described in Chapter 11 is highly accurate up to around 167 B.C. and thereafter diverges abruptly from the historical record. This has led people to speculate that somebody, whose name wasn’t necessarily “Daniel,” wrote the Book of Daniel in 167 B.C.

To even think that way, of course, you have to start with the concession that there might not have been a guy named Daniel in the Babylonian exile who had prophetic visions of the future. Personally, I don’t find that to be much of a leap. It would not be the first time I’ve been called cynical.

Another Way of Looking at Daniel

This terrific chart of the Book of Daniel, drawn in 1916, lays out the contents and gives you a sense of how Old Testament material is often back-interpreted from a Christian perspective.  In this "vision" of Daniel's prophecies, so to speak, Chapter 10 becomes a "Vision of Christ."  Personally, I don't see anything in Daniel 10 that even remotely invites this interpretation, and it seems quite odd to me.  Mr. Larkin, who drew the diagram, would probably have a rebuttal at the ready.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Daniel 6: In the Lion's Den

This entry was written in August 2014, but I was a bit slow in getting it to press.

Daniel 6 is the chapter with the famous story of David in the lions’ den, which I shall now summarize.

After Darius annexes Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom to the Persian Empire, he sets up 120 district officers (“satraps”) who report to three cabinet-level administrators.  Daniel, whom you might have expected to be swept out with the new broom, is one of the three, and he does a great job.  The satraps are jealous of him, and look for a way to knock him down a peg.

What they do is have Darius enact a 30-day law saying that no one can pray to any god except for himself.  Daniel ignores this law, as the satraps knew he would, and they go to his house and catch him in the act.  They run off to Darius, remind him of the law he made, and tattle on Daniel.   Seeing that this distresses Darius, they pointedly remind him that according to Persian/Mede jurisprudence, an emperor’s decree can’t be changed, not even by the emperor who made it.  [These satraps!  They are pretty stupid.  Court intrigue does not, cannot work if you antagonize the king while you’re doing it.  What good is removing Daniel going to do, if the king hates them afterwards for forcing his hand?  Dummies.]

Peter Paul Ruebens, 1615ish.
Darius has Daniel thrown into the lion’s den, but is very decent about it: “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” (16)  He can’t eat, he can’t sleep, and the next morning he runs to the den before sunrise.  To his relief, Daniel is perfectly uneaten, so he’s hauled out and restored to office.  Darius decrees that “in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel,” (26) which is why the Persians have practiced Judaism from then down to the present day.  Wait, what?

Well anyway, everyone loves a happy ending, especially if there’s comeuppance, and so you have to cheer when the satraps who set Daniel up are thrown into the lion’s den, along with their wives and children, and “before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.” (24)

So, that’s a very familiar sort of story, in which a good person is put into danger by bad people but overcomes adversity, and the bad people are punished for the wrong they do.  You could make a case that it is only by telling ourselves these sorts of stories as often as we can that we preserve such civil order as we’ve got.  Also, captive lions got to eat.  I’m really trying not to be bothered by the comeuppance, here. 

The other aspect of the story that makes me think too much is the, well, the premise.  Here’s Daniel’s explanation of why he passed the night unbitten: “My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions.  They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight.  Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, O king.” (22)  And we are, I believe, supposed to assume that Daniel is right about what happened.  He’s a prophet, after all. 

Because Daniel is innocent in God’s sight, he is saved from physical harm.  Same deal, I think, as with his three buddies in the fiery furnace.  And the obvious question is, how come these four get special treatment?  Are we supposed to believe that innocent people are always protected by God?  That if we keep ourselves innocent, that God will protect us?  Surely not, as the Bible can’t suppose that we were born yesterday.  Are we supposed to assume that Daniel and his friends have a level of righteousness greater than what we can aspire to, that affords them special protection?  Or, is this an instance of God making specific one-time interventions in human affairs to advance the interests of his chosen people, or in order to (as he so often talks about) publicize his own existence? 

So this is an interesting thing about a good story: if it is compelling enough in rewarding the good and punishing the evil, and has some tension, and some animals, we can effortlessly take in the story and the moral too, even when it in discord with our experience.  The moral of the story of the lion’s den is that if we do right and show courage, like Daniel, we will fall under the material protection of God.  And yet we do see people do right and show courage, don’t we?  And we see so few miracles.  The most innocent of the satraps’ wives and children must have felt some disappointment when the lions leapt.  But at least it was quick.