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.


UnwiseOwl said...

That is a REALLY long time to sit in the unpublished drafts folder!

mrs.5000 said...

But we are to believe it was an innocent draft, and so escaped unscathed, due to the benevolence of its otherwise cruel and arbitrary Maker!

(OK, so I'm joking about the cruel, but no one can deny you excel at the arbitrary.)