The Complete Book of Daniel

Uh, That Lion's-Den Story Doesn't End How You Think It Does
What's really in the Good Book.
May 9 2007 12:54 PM

The Complete Book of Daniel

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Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

A couple of leftover bits of business from Esther. Many of you complained that I missed a key point that helps justify the Jewish slaughter of Haman's supporters. For reasons having to do with absolute royal authority, Ahasuerus can't simply revoke his first order authorizing the massacre of the Jews. Instead, he must issue a second order allowing Jews to defend themselves. The first order stands, authorizing the attack on the Jews. So, the murder of the 75,000 Hamanites is, at least legally, in self-defense.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Also, many of you wonder why I say that Haman and his sons were "impaled." Most Bibles translate this as "hanged." My trusty JPS version says they were impaled, so that's what I used.

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The Book of Daniel

Daniel is not the book I expected it to be. There are only a few lions, and they're bit players. Instead, Daniel is a reworking of the story of Joseph: A holy man is held against his will in a hostile land, keeps his faith, loves God, and rises to power by interpreting dreams. Like Joseph, Daniel is about how people of faith are supposed to survive, and even prosper, in an alien land. It's about how Jews maintain their Jewish identity when society wants to erase it. And it's about how Jews must find strength in small groups. In short, Daniel is a manual for surviving a Diaspora, which must be why it has remained so popular for so long. It also helps that it's a cranking good story!

Chapter 1
Having conquered Jerusalem and exiled the Jews, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon decides to adopt a few of the best young Jewish men. They will live in his court and learn Babylonian ways, and then presumably serve as his ambassadors to the Jews, helping him co-opt and integrate them. This tactic is straight out of Conquering 101: It's what all smart imperial powers do. The English dispatched Indian rajas to their boarding schools; America encouraged young Native Americans to leave tribal lands and learn the "white man's way" at government academies. King Neb's first class of young Hebrews includes Daniel and three of his friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. (They're all assigned Babylonian names, notably "Shadrach" for Hananiah.)

Daniel, who's one tough cookie, resolves not to contaminate himself with Babylon. He won't assimilate or betray God. He refuses to eat the trayf Babylonian food, and persuades their supervisor to let him and his three pals subsist on beans, while all the other boys gorge on the king's bacon cheeseburgers and lobster rolls. But God loves their kosher diet, and they prove healthier, stronger, and wiser than the others. Daniel gains special favor for his ability to interpret dreams and visions, which turns out to be useful because …

Chapter 2
Nebuchadnezzar has a dream that disturbs him. He orders his magicians to explain it to him—or be torn limb from limb. The problem: He refuses to tell them what happened in the dream. So, they have to somehow guess what his dream was, then interpret it. Impossible! (Well, not so hard in my household, because I have the most literal dreams in the world. My wife could do this guessing/interpreting thing in a snap. When our car was having problems and needed to go to the shop, my wife would say to me: "I bet you dreamed last night that the car was having problems and needed to go to the shop. And what that dream means, sweetie, is that you think the car is having problems and needs to go to the shop." But I digress.)

The magicians fail, naturally—those pagan sorcerers always do. So, Neb flies into a rage and orders all the wise men in the whole kingdom killed. Before Daniel gets the ax, however, he visits the king and tells him he can interpret the dream. Indeed, God reveals it to him. Daniel tells the king that he dreamed of a great statue of gold, silver, and bronze that is crushed by stone from a mountain. Then he tells the king that the dream means his empire will be destroyed, and eventually another kingdom will rise to rule the earth. Daniel concludes with this wonderful bit of bureaucratic certitude: "The dream is sure and its interpretation reliable." Neb is so impressed that he appoints Daniel and his friends as top aides.

Chapter 3
Nebuchadnezzar, who appears to be painfully literal-minded, takes the whole statue thing very seriously. He commissions a 90-foot-high statue out of gold, then orders his subjects to worship it. Anyone who doesn't bow down will get tossed into a fiery furnace. (The band "the Fiery Furnaces" is just one of several pop-culture icons inspired by Daniel. See also: The Book of DanielTV show and The Book of Danielnovel, by E.L. Doctorow, and my personal favorite, The Lions Den, a famous Ultimate Fighting gym.) A few Babylonian anti-Semites tell the king that the Jews won't worship the statue. (Note the echoes of Esther—Mordecai's refusal to bow to Haman—in Daniel, or, perhaps more accurate to say, note the echoes of Daniel in Esther, since Daniel seems to have been written first.) Daniel's three friends are singled out for their refusal to bow down. Neb orders them tossed into the furnace. They scoff that God will protect them. Neb orders the furnace turned up to extra-crispy—it's so hot that even the friends' guards are incinerated by the radiant heat. The friends are tossed in and relax in the blaze as though in the steam room. When they emerge from the fire unscathed, Nebuchadnezzar is astonished, promotes the three survivors, and makes it a death-penalty crime to blaspheme the Lord.

Chapter 4
A weird chapter: All of a sudden, Nebuchadnezzar himself is narrating the book. He has another dream, about a tree that's chopped down. Daniel is summoned. Anxious, he tells the king he wishes the dream were about someone else. But it isn't. The dream means that Neb himself will be chopped down by God. Sure enough, a year later the king is walking on the palace roof, congratulating himself on his power, when a voice from heaven rings out, "The kingdom has passed out of your hands."

At this point, Nebuchadnezzar goes cuckoo crazy, completely nutso. He becomes a homeless loon, eating grass like a cow, growing hair like feathers. After seven years, poof, his sanity returns, as suddenly as it was taken away. Why does he get his marbles back? Because he embraces the Lord. Yes, you heard it right: His Majesty Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the sacker of Jerusalem, the scourge of the Jews, the villain of the Book of Kings and Psalms, has suddenly become a God-worshipper! It's like Hitler coming to Seder! Or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad donning a yarmulke!

Chapter 5 and Chapter 6
Fast-forward several years. Nebuchadnezzar's son, King Belshazzar, holds a swanky banquet for 1,000 nobles, gets rip-snorting drunk, and tells his servants to bring out the good china—the gold and silver vessels looted from the temple in Jerusalem. Bad idea. As the Babylonians toast their idols using God's cups, a ghostly hand appears in the room and scrawls a message on the wall of the palace. It's very Stephen King, not least for the king, who is so scared that "his knees knocked together." (Question: Is this the origin of that phrase?)

None of Belshazzar's magicians and scribes can read the message. Finally the queen, who has more common sense than the whole court put together, tells the king to call Daniel. The prophet shows up. The king promises him power and glory if he can read the inscription. Daniel first rebukes Belshazzar for rejecting God, reminding him of Nebuchadnezzar's godless insanity. Then Daniel reads the mysterious words, which are: "God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end. … [Y]ou have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. … [Y]our kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and the Persians." (Pause for yet another pop culture excavation from Daniel: In A Knight's Tale, a wonderful good-bad movie, the villain is always belittling our hero by declaring, "You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.") Strangely, the king isn't perturbed by Daniel's dire prophecy. He even makes good on his promise and promotes Daniel to one of his top ministers.

But Belshazzar is killed that very night, and Darius the Mede (of Persia) takes the kingdom. Darius retains Daniel as his adviser. Daniel is at least the third such biblical hero to rise to prime minister in a foreign land. (Joseph and Mordecai are the others.) It's a curious role. I wonder if there is something in the nature of Judaism that makes this ministerial position so suitable. Is it that Jews, when they're a minority, must always balance power and modesty? Their learning (or, in this case, divine inspiration) prepares them for positions of authority, but their outsider status bars them from the top job. So, they settle into behind-the-throne power. Maybe I am making too much of a few examples.

In yet another Haman-like attempt to "entrap the Jew," envious Persian ministers scheme to oust Daniel from Darius' court. They have Darius issue a decree barring his subjects from addressing petitions or prayers to anyone except Darius himself. The penalty: a night in the lion's den! Daniel, though aware of the law, prays to God anyway. His rivals catch him and bring him to the king, who is dismayed that his favorite is in trouble. But the king can't undo his own law and has Daniel sentenced to the lion's den. (The king actually seals the mouth of the den himself, with a stone!) Darius can't sleep, and when morning comes, he races to the den and rolls back the stone—um, does this remind you of another Bible story?—and finds Daniel, fit as a fiddle. Daniel says that God sent an angel to shut the lions' mouths.

That's where I always thought the story ended, with Daniel's rescue and Darius' turn toward God. But, like many of the Bible stories I thought I knew but didn't, the lion's den has a gruesome coda. As soon as Daniel is rescued, Darius orders the arrest of the "men who slandered Daniel." (This, of course, is an unfair characterization of them. They did not slander Daniel. Daniel broke the law about prayer. It was a stupid law, but Darius signed it. They were just enforcing it.) The men—and their wives and children—are sentenced to the lion's den. "They had hardly reached the bottom of the den when the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones." Good God! Add this to the biblical roster of excessive revenge and collective punishment. Darius orders the whole kingdom to "tremble in fear before the God of Daniel."

Chapter 7 through Chapter 12
The second half of Daniel is a come-down after the soap-operatic drama of the first. It largely consists of several weird, trippy visions by Daniel of winged lions and 10-horned beasties, a huge ram attacked by a ginormous goat, a man with a body like beryl, a face like lightning, eyes like torches (not Hulk Hogan). These visions are all about geopolitics and the end of days. Long story short: Persia will collapse and be supplanted by Greece; then, that empire will split; eventually a great prince, Michael, will show up, the dead will awaken, and the righteous will triumph. Do I even need to mention that there will be "appalling abomination[s]" all along the way?

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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