Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Take My Sister... Please !"

I have long fancied that the Book of Genesis was written in part to discourage the Israelites from the practice of ancestor worship.  Although the Patriarchs of the Old Testament are certainly regarded as Heroes of Faith and great men, they had their bad days and Genesis does not always show them at their best.  It’s embarrassing enough when, as in the case of David and Bathsheba, a prophet of the Lord comes along to point out their ethical lapses; it’s even worse when they get called out by a heathen.

One such instance --- or  three, depending on your point of view – is the story of Abraham and Abimelech.  Well, actually Abimelech doesn’t come into it until later.  I just like the saying the name Abimelech.  The story starts out in Egypt.

A severe famine has hit the land of Canaan.  Abraham, still called Abram at this point, has not quite settled down into the land God has promised to him and his descendants, so he takes his family and livestock south to Egypt.  We tend to think of Egypt as all desert and pyramids, but the fertile Nile River valley was an important agricultural center of the region in ancient times.  This will not be the last time that the people of Israel will go to Egypt fleeing famine, war or political problems.  But Abram has a potential problem ahead of himself as well.

As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai [Sarah], “I know what a beautiful woman you are.  When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’  Then they will kill me but will let you live.  Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated will for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.’  (Genesis 12:11-13 NIV)

Is Abram crazy here?  Keep in mind that Sarah would have been in her mid-60s at this point.  But ancient Jewish Tradition assures us that, yes, Sarah really was That Hot; even when she was pushing 70.  She was the original Matriarch I’d Like to… um… Fool around with.

At least Abram thought so; and he wasn’t alone.  The Pharaoh’s flunkies are also impressed by her beauty.  Jewish tradition expands on the story to say that Abraham hid Sarah in a box when he entered Egypt, but she was discovered when he tried smuggling her through Customs.  The border officials were so struck by her beauty that they tried to out-bid each other for who would get her.  Pharaoh hears about her beauty and has Sarai brought to his palace to add to his collection.  After all, single chick and all, she’s fair game, right?  Oh, and Pharaoh gave favor to the Hot Babe’s brother Abe and gifted him with more livestock, but the fact remained that Abram’s wife is now stuck in the Pharaoh’s harem.  I guess he didn’t really think that part of the plan through.

Shortly afterwards, Pharoah’s household is struck by serious diseases.  Obviously this must be Divine Punishment for something, but what?  Pharaoh puts things together pretty quickly.

So Pharaoh summoned Abram.  “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?  Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to by my wife?  Now then, here is your wife.  Take her and go!”  (Genesis  12:18-19)

Abram gets booted out of Egypt.  He does get to keep all the sheep, cattle, servants and camels that the Pharaoh had given him earlier, but still it departure is not a dignified one and I can’t imagine Sarai was very happy about the whole situation.

Some years pass.  Abram has other adventures.  He receives a covenant with God and changes his name to Abraham, “father of nations;” and his wife takes the name of Sarah.  He lives for a while in the Negev, an arid region south of Canaan and at one point moves to the city of Gerar, just a few miles southeast of the city of Gaza.  And when they get to Gerar, Abraham starts worrying again about Sarah fatal beauty.

Once again he tells people that she’s his sister; and once again the local king, a guy named Abimelech, decides to take her for his own.

In this case, God comes to Abimelech in a dream and spells out the situation:  “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”  (Genesis 20:3)

Abimelech freaks.  He protests innocence; that he had no idea the chick was already taken.  “Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘His is my brother’?  I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.”  (v.5)  Well, today we would observe that he could have asked if Sarah actually wanted to become one of his wives, but she didn’t really have that option at the time.  Abraham could have refused to give her to Abimelech if he had more of a spine, but if that were the case he wouldn’t have lied about his wife in the first place.

God is unusually understanding about the whole situation.  In the dream, God tells Abimelech that he knows the king did not intend this transgression and that for that reason God saw to it that Abimelech has not yet had the opportunity to bed her.  But now God is telling him to give Sarah back.  “…return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live.  But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die.”  (v. 7)

Abimelech is pretty angry about the deal.  He summons Abraham and asks him what the hell he was thinking of.  “How have I wronged you that you have brought such a great guilt upon me and my kingdom?”  (v.9)

Abraham replies with what has to be one of the lamest excuses in all of Scripture:

Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’  Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife.  And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother,”’”.  (Genesis 20:11-13)

Oh, so technically, she really is his half-sister; so technically, he was telling the truth.  It all depends on how you define the word “Is”. And the reason Abraham employed this misleading half-truth is because he was sure that Abimelech was immoral.  Abraham, you jerk.

Abimelech turns out to have more class than expected.  He gifts Abraham with cattle and slaves and grants permission for him to stay wherever he likes on his lands.  This is pretty magnanimous of him, but perhaps Abimelech figured that since Abraham was obviously favored by the Divinities, that he ought to be nice to the guy.

Then Abimelech does something really remarkable.  He apologizes, not to Abraham, (who doesn’t deserve it), but to Sarah.

To Sarah he said, “I am giving your brother a thousand shekels of silver.  This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”  (v. 16)

It is unfortunately rare in Scriptures that we see a woman publicly acknowledged to have been wronged and publicly vindicated.  And the guy who did it was not prophet or a follower of the God of Abraham, but a heathen king, a guy who, Abraham thought, had no respect for the laws of God.  As I said, Abimelech in this story is a much classier guy than Abraham.

As a weird coda, the text mentions that Abraham does pray to God, and the Lord heals Abimelech and his household.  Apparently, the Lord had stricken Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls all with infertility because of the Sarah business, but now he fixed that all up.  Since Sarah hadn’t been in his household all that long, I’m not sure how Abimelech would have known this was a problem, but in any case, God put it all to rights.

You’d think that would be the end of it.  But no.

Many years later, Abraham and Sarah have died, and their son Isaac runs the family business.  Once again, famine strikes the land, and as before, Isaac relocates to Gerar.  The king at this time is also named Abimelech; possibly the grandson of the previous one.  The text describes him as “king of the Philistines”, who ruled the coastal regions of Palestine for much of this period.  Presumably Abimelech père was a Philistine too; the earlier story doesn’t say.

Like father, like son.  When the men on Gerar notice his wife Rebekah and ask who the cute girl is, he panics and says she is his sister.  In Isaac’s behalf, let me say that this does not seem to have been a premeditated fib, as in Abraham’s case, but something Isaac said on the spur of the moment.  And fortunately, the king does not right away say, “Hot puppies!”  And immediately drag her off to his harem as some other randy kings might.

But some time later, Abimelech happens to look outside his palace window and spot Isaac and Rebekah canoodling, and he figures out the truth.  (My NIV translation notes that the word in Hebrew, which the NIV renders as “caressing” and the KJV as “sporting” is a form of the verb “to laugh” or “to mock”, from which Isaac’s own name was derived; so the text is essentially making a pun).

As before, Abimelech rebukes Isaac for misleading him.  “One of the men might well have slept with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.”  (Genesis 26:10)

What are we to make of these three narratives?  I’ve always had the suspicion that the writer who compiled the Book of Genesis found himself with three different versions from different sources of the same story, and didn’t know which ones to throw out, so he included them all.  The fact that two of the stories include guys named Abimelech and are set in the town of Gerar, suggests that they are the same story.  And after all, you would think that after the first incident in Egypt that Abraham would have known better than to pull the same bonehead stunt a second time.

Or would he?  Remember, in the lame-o excuse he gave to Abimelech, Abraham claimed that “… when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother,”’”.  (Genesis 20:13)  This suggests that Abraham was passing his wife off as his sister all the time and that in these two instances it came back to bite him.  And if Isaac grew up in a family where Dad was always telling strangers that Mom was his sister, maybe it’s not that surprising that he would do the same.

Nevertheless, whether it’s three stories or just one told three times, the Man of God winds up looking pretty cowardly and the Foreign King with the Harem by comparison looking virtuous and moral.

Funny how that works out.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Sleazy Embezzler

There are some passages from the Gospels which are referred to as the “Hard Sayings of Jesus”; sometimes because they are hard to put into practice, as in the case of his admonition “If your eye offends you, pluck it out” or his remark about camels and needles; sometimes because they’re hard to understand and run counter to what we think we know.

The last is the case with a story Jesus told in Luke chapter 16, sometimes called The Dishonest Steward, but which I am going to call the Parable of the Sleazy Embezzler.

A certain rich man has learned that his steward, the servant hired to manage his business affairs, has been doing a crappy job of it.  The way Jesus puts it is that the guy “was accused of wasting [the Boss’s] possessions”, so he might not have actually been dipping into the till.  He might have just made some really bad decisions with the Boss’s money.  The Boss tells him that he’s going to audit the books to find out exactly what he’s been up to.
“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now?  My master is taking away my job.  I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg…” (Luke 16:3 NIV)
Fortunately, our embezzler comes up with a Cunning Plan.  One by one, he calls in everyone who owes something and restructures their debt. 
“So he called in each one of his masters debtors.  He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ “’Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’  (v.5-6) 
He hasn’t been fired yet; he still has the authority to conduct business in his master’s name; and so he uses that authority to forgive a portion of the debt each man owes his boss.  That way, he figures, when he does lose his job, he’ll have plenty of people grateful to him who will be happy to help him out.

The Boss sees exactly what he’s done.  Since the debts were restructured in his name, he can’t very well go back and demand the full payment without looking like a jerk.  The most he can do is fire the dishonest steward – which he was going to do anyway – and it will look to the manager’s new friends that he was fired because he had done each of them a favor.

Some men might be pissed at the way the steward had outwitted him.  This boss seems to have had a sense of humor.  At least he was capable of recognizing the servant’s cleverness.  Jesus says, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”  (v.8)

Commentators have puzzled over this parable for centuries.  Why is Jesus holding up this cheater, this crook, this embezzler up as an example?

Some interpreters have made excuses for him, saying that Jesus only said that the guy was accused of malfeasance, not of actually guilty of it.  Others have speculated that maybe his master had been overcharging his debtors in order to get around the Mosaic prohibition against charging interest, and that the steward was only converting the balance to what it should have been.

Both views are over-thinking things and missing the point.  If the manager had been innocent of wrongdoing, the audit would have exonerated him.  He knew it wouldn’t.  He knew he was toast.  And Jesus repeatedly calls him “dishonest.”  No, the fact that he’s a cheat who got caught and what he had to do to cover his butt is the whole point of the parable.

Another interpretation is that the steward’s reduction of what the debtors owe his master reflects him forgoing what his own commission of the transaction would be, deliberately sacrificing his own cut in order to do the right thing.  Once again, I think this is over-thinking the situation.  Jesus was telling the story to make a point, and if the point was the manager making amends for his misdeeds, Jesus would have said so.

The master does not commend his soon-to-be-ex manager for his virtue, but for his shrewdness.  In effect he’s saying, “You’re still fired, but I gotta admit, you’re a clever scoundrel!”

“For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”  (Luke 16:8)

Elsewhere Jesus tells his disciples, “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”  (Matthew 10:16)  Or putting it in D&D terms, just because you’re Lawful Good in alignment doesn’t mean you have to be Lawful Stupid.

This next part gets even more confusing, because it seems to say one thing, and then Jesus does a complete 180 turn.  Or does he?  I think this is largely a translation issue.  The King James Version renders it this way:
“And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.”  (Luke 16:9 KJV) 
This makes it sound like we’re supposed to suck up to wealthy and ungodly people in order to gain… what?  Heaven?  This is the exact opposite of what Jesus says elsewhere, and of what he says in the following  verses for that matter.  Other translations, I think, are a little more clear:
“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9 NIV)
This makes it a little more clear that the “mammon of unrighteousness” referred to in King Jim is simply our own secular, material wealth.  As a matter of simple Enlightened Self-Interest, we ought to use our wealth in such a way to “make friends”.  Another commentator goes back to the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 in which the Son of Man judges the people gathered before him based on how well they treated their neighbors, because “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”  (Matthew 25:40)

Jesus concludes this discourse on money with a more famous remark: “No servant can serve two masters …  Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Luke 16:13 KJV)  Mammon is a Semitic word for money or riches, and Jesus uses it as a personification of materialism.  In the Middle Ages the word was used as a name for a demon of greed.

And if this sounds like a bunch of anti-capitalist hippie crap, the Pharisees thought so too: 
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.  He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts.  What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.  (Luke 16:14-15)

I guess even a sleazy embezzler can be smart enough to keep an eye on the changing exchange rates.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Statue Got Me High

The prophet Daniel has a lot in common with Joseph from the book of Genesis.  Both were exiles who found success working as civil servants for a foreign king; both became important administrators in their new homes; and most importantly, both were skilled at interpreting dreams.

We last left Daniel and his friends at the end of Daniel chapter 1 studying at the University of Babylon where they are being trained to serve in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. The king was impressed by their wisdom and understanding, which greatly surpassed that of any of the magicians and enchanters in his kingdom.

Which brings up a curious side question:  What exactly was Daniel and his friends studying?  The implication I see is that they were studying Astrology and Divination, disciplines which our modern age would call superstition and which the Babylonians would call science and which many Christians would call Satanic. 

Now the text is scrupulous about always crediting Daniel’s wisdom and insights to God; but it still seems highly likely to me that if they Babylonians were going to be teaching him stuff, they would have been teaching him their cutting-edge science.  It may seem strange to call the study of horoscopes Science, but in defense of the Babylonians, the underlying premises of Astrology may be faulty, but they took it damn seriously, and the data they compiled in their study of the stars became useful and important as their system of Astrology developed into the science of Astronomy. 

(I once read an economist remark that many of our sciences started out as superstition; that Astrology became Astronomy and that Alchemy became Chemistry; and that someday we might find out what science will come out of Economics.)

But the point of this that I see is that those who fret that secular learning is dangerous because it isn’t rooted in the Bible forget that Daniel managed to emerge from a thoroughly non-Jewish course of study with his faith in God intact.  I know that my own interests in history, science and fantastic literature has given me perspectives that have, I think, deepened my understanding of my own beliefs. I dare say that gaining an understanding of Babylonian history, culture and laws, as well as Babylonian religion and science, gave him insights which enabled him to better relate to the king and to the members of his court.

But back to the story.  In the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, the king became troubled by dreams and unable to sleep.  And here we have a discrepancy.

In chapter 1, we are told that Daniel and his friends came to Babylon in the first year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and underwent three years of study, entering the king’s service after graduation.  But now this story is taking place during the king’s second year.  What’s the deal with that?  Some critics have tried to explain the discrepancy by saying that the second year mentioned here is dating from the consolidation of his empire after Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Egyptians a couple years after he ascended to the throne.  Or it could be that this story took place while Daniel was still an undergrad.  Or it could be sloppy editing of individual stories which originally came from diverse sources.

Nebuchadnezzar calls together all his magicians, enchanters, sorecerors and astrologers, (“Chaldeans” in the original text; the region of Chaldea in southern Mesopotamia was so identified with the development of astrology that the name became synonymous with “guys who study the stars”).  He commands them to explain his dream.

Then the astrologers answered the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever!  Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”  (Daniel 2:4 NIV)

Why does the text make a point of mentioning that the astrologers were speaking in Aramaic?  Well, there’s a reason.  Because at that point, the narrative switches from Hebrew to Aramaic, and continues in that language for the rest of the story and for much of the rest of the whole book.

Aramaic was a language related to both Hebrew and Phoenician, spoken in the region of present-day Syria.  Abraham lived for a time in that land, which is why it is said in the book of Deuteronomy, “My father was a wandering Aramean…” (Deut.26:5).  Aramaic was the language spoken in Assyria, which was a dominant political force through much of the Old Testament period, and the language was important even after Assyria became absorbed into the Babylonian Empire and when Babylon was in turn conquered by the Persian.  It’s generally believed that during the Babylonian Captivity, the Jewish exiles adopted Aramaic, the lingua franca of the empire, for their everyday speech, even after they returned to Judea. They continued using Hebrew in their Scriptures, but had become a language of lore and of religious ritual rather than one of every day conversation.  Although the Gospels were written in Greek, Jesus did most if not all of his teaching in Aramaic, and some of the Gospel writers quote snatches of that language in their narrative.

It is believed that the narrative portion of the Book of Daniel consists of stories written during this Post-Exilic period, and for some reason, the author of the book left them as is, rather than translating them into Hebrew.  The last half of the book, consisting of a series of prophetic visions, shifts back into Hebrew again; perhaps because Aramaic was just to mundane a tongue to do justice to the full weirdity of Daniel’s visions.  But back to the story.

The magicians and professional wonder-workers ask the king to tell him his dream so that they may interpret it, but Nebuchadnezzar isn’t having any of that.  He seems quite testy with his staff seers; perhaps he doesn’t really trust them; perhaps it has occurred to him that if his psychic friends are all that hot, he shouldn’t have to tell them what he dreamed.  Or perhaps, according to some interpretations, he can’t remember what the dream was about and it’s driving him crazy.

The king replied to the astrologers, “This is what I have firmly decided:  If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piled of rubble.  But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive form me gifts and rewards and great honor.  So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.”  (Daniel 2:5-6)

Ouch.  And I thought the James Randi Challenge was tough.  The astrologers admit that what the king asks is impossible.  “What the king asks is too difficult.  No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men.” (Daniel 2:11)

This angers Nebuchadnezzar, and he orders the execution not just of his court astrologers, but also of all the wise men of Babylon.  This includes Daniel and his friend.

Daniel has the opportunity to speak with Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, who has been tasked with the responsibility of gathering up all these wise guys.  He speaks to Arioch “with wisdom and tact” and learns the whole story.  Daniel asks for a little more time so that he can try interpreting the dream himself.

Daniel goes back to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, (better known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) and they pray asking God for mercy and enlightenment so that they can answer the king’s riddle and save their own lives as well as the lives of the other magi.

In the night, Daniel also has a dream and in it the mystery is revealed.  The ghost is actually the shady banker in disguise.  Wait.  Wrong mystery.

The narrative pauses here for a moment as Daniel utters a psalm praising God as the source of wisdom and power, who reveals deep and hidden mysteries.

Although in this story, Daniel receives the solution to a mystery by Divine Revelation, there are other stories involving Daniel, the canonicity of which are disputed, in which Daniel actually employs deductive reasoning to uncover crimes, making Daniel the only detective in the Bible.  I hope to tell some of these other stories another time.

Daniel is brought before Nebuchadnezzar to explain it all.

“No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.  He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in the days to come.”  (Daniel 2:27-28)

The king’s dream was of a tremendous statue, the head of which was made of gold, the chest and arms of silver, the belly and thighs of bronze, the legs of iron and the feet and toes of iron mixed with clay.  As the king observed the statue in his dream, a large rock was cut out, not by human hand.  The rock struck the feet of the statue, causing them to crumble and the entire statue to collapse in a ruin.  The rock then grew to the size of a mountain encompassing the whole earth.

That was the dream; but what did it mean?

The golden head of the statue, Daniel said, represented Nebuchadnezzar himself and his glorious kingdom, given to him by the God of heaven.  The silver torso represented the kingdom which would succeed him, spiffy, but not quite as impressive as his own.  Then a third kingdom, one of bronze, which would rule over the whole earth, and finally a fourth one, as strong as iron, but not wholly so; a mixture of strength and weakness which would not remain united. (And yes, this is where the expression “Feet of Clay” comes from, meaning an underlying character flaw in an otherwise admired figure).

Finally, the rock cut out of a mountain but not by human hands represented a kingdom which God would someday establish which would not be destroyed but would endure forever.

Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by Daniel’s revelation of his dream and by the interpretation of it.  “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery” (Daniel 2:47)  The king gave Daniel a high position in his court in charge of his staff magi, and appointed his friends to posts as administrators.

But looking back with historical hindsight, did Daniel’s prophecy come true?

The traditional interpretation of both Jewish and Christian scholars is that Four Kingdoms of the statue represent (1) the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar; (2) the Empire of the Medes and the Persians which conquered Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar’s death; (3) the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world, and of his successors, specifically the Seleucid Dynasty which ruled over the former Babylonian territories and which squabbled with the Ptolemies of Egypt for control of Palestine; (4) Rome, the mightiest empire of all, but one which eventually fell to internal weakness and division.

Christians like to interpret the carved by no human hand as the Christian Church, established by God and outlasting the kingdoms of men and growing to fill the whole earth.  Some later Christian groups with a more eschatological bent, interpret the mixed feet of the statue as representing a later successor to the Roman Empire and the rock as the Millennial Kingdom to be established once Christ Comes Again.

More modern scholars have been skeptical of Daniel’s prescient visions, and assume that the kingdoms described in the dream are ones the writer would have been familiar with.  Because much of Daniel is written in Aramaic, and because some of the later prophecies in the book seem to specifically refer to the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Seleucid ruler who incited the Maccabean Revolt, it’s generally thought that the Book of Daniel was written, or at least compiled in its final form, during the time of the Maccabees.  Under this interpretation, the golden head remains Babylon, but the silver torso becomes the kingdom of the Medes, and the brass belly that of the Persians.  The iron legs then become the succeeding period of Greek rulers.  Except that the Medes and the Persians did not rule one after the other; they were ethnic divisions within the same Empire.  I don’t know how this interpretation regards the rock; perhaps as a hopeful anticipation of a Messianic Age.

These two interpretations are based on the assumptions that either (A) Daniel was writing about future events revealed by Divine Revelation, or (B) Daniel was written later using 20/20 hindsight and pretending to make predictions about things that had already happened.  Another possibility occurs to me.

It doesn’t take either divine foreknowledge or historical hindsight to know that Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom wouldn’t last forever.  Eventually it would pass and be superseded by something else, and that this new kingdom too would fade away.  So how do Daniel’s predictions about these future kingdoms compare to what really happened?

In some ways, the historical record of Empire in the Middle East is the exact opposite of that predicted in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.  He dreamt of four kingdoms, each succeeding one inferior to the one before.  As it turned out, the Persian Empire was larger and lasted longer than the Babylonian; the Greek Empire, (if we count the Seleucid Dynasty) lasted even longer, and Rome longest of all.

True, the Empire of Alexander covered pretty much the entire world that Nebuchadnezzar knew about; and the Roman Empire was renowned for its strength, yet ultimately became divided, so those points match… sort of… if we squint at them in just the right light.

Or perhaps Daniel was framing his interpretation in such a way to make Nebuchadnezzar look good.  “Here are the kingdoms which will succeed your own; but none of them will be as glorious as yours.”

And what about the Rock?  I have to admit, I like the interpretation that the Rock is Christ and the kingdom which he told Pilate was “not of this world.”

In the latter part of the book, Daniel revisits this prophecy; recounting a vision of four beasts, once again symbolizing four kingdoms to come, and here he gets even more apocalyptic; but that is another vision for another time.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Daniel Diet Plan

The prophet Daniel is best known for hanging out in lion’s dens, (where, presumably, he watched Detroit football games), but there is much more to him than that.  He is similar to Joseph, in that he was an exile who rose to success working as a civil servant in the bureaucracy of a foreign king; but where the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis had a pretty unified narrative arc, the book of Daniel is episodic, a grab-bag of material, much of it weird.

Most of the book is believed to have been written in the Post-Exilic period, and a lot of it deals with the themes of maintaining your religious identity in an alien society.  For this reason the very first story in the book is sometimes used as an example to young people leaving their religious homes for the first time and going out into the Big Bad Secular World of College.  And whenever I undergo a major life change like that, one of the first questions I always ask is, “Is there anything to eat?”

Some time previously, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians and absorbed into that nation.  Now Assyria had fallen, and Babylon and Egypt were fighting to fill the power vacuum, with Judah, the Southern Kingdom, in the middle.  Judah picked the wrong side in the Battle at Megiddo between the Egyptians and the Babylonians, (That plain is where the word “Armageddon” comes from) and wound up having to pay tribute to Babylon.

As part of that tribute, King Nebuchadnezzar ordered some of the young men from the noble families of Judah brought to Babylon.  This was not an uncommon practice in ancient times.  To a certain extent, the men would serve as hostages, to ensure that their families back home would behave and not make trouble.  But these young men were not just prisoners, they were investments.  The ones chosen were not only healthy and handsome, they were also selected for their intelligence and aptitude for learning.  These men were educated in the language and laws of Babylon so that they could serve in the Babylonian court; and in doing so, would eventually serve as emissaries of the king to their own people and would also represent their own people before the king.

Among these Best and Brightest of Judah were Daniel, and his three friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.  The Babylonians changed their names to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; presumably because they found their Hebrew names too hard to remember.  Maybe they were right.  The three friends get their own story later on, and are only remembered by their Babylonian court names; but Daniel’s new handle didn’t stick, and thankfully not.  Who would want to read about Belteshazzar and the Lion’s Den?

Since these young exiles were being trained up to serve as royal courtiers, they were given the best of everything; including food from the king’s table.  And this was a problem.  Nebuchadnezzar didn’t keep a kosher kitchen.  And much of the food that would have been kosher under the Mosaic dietary laws had been ritually offered to the gods first, making it all unclean.  Daniel did not want to defile himself with the king’s unlawful victuals.

Fortunately, the court official in charge of the students liked Daniel and was sympathetic to his situation.  But he had a responsibility for the young men’s well-being.

“I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink.  Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age?  The king would then have me head because of you.”  (Daniel 1:10 NIV)

Daniel offers a reasonable test.  He suggests a ten-day trial period in which he and his friends go on a diet of vegetables and water.  At the end of those ten days, the guard can compare their health and appearance to those of the other students.

We aren’t given any details of the diet.  The King James version says “let them give us pulse to eat,” meaning beans and legumes, staple foods of the Fertile Crescent region.

Some vegetarians have used this passage to claim that the Bible endorses the vegan lifestyle.  I think that’s stretching things; but in any case, whether Daniel’s diet really was healthy or whether God blessed his obedient servants, when the ten days were up, the results were plain to see:

At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.  So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.  (Daniel 1:15-16)

Daniel’s supervisor gave him no more hassles about following the official menu.  Daniel and his friends continued their studies and, with God’s blessing, became quite adept in the laws, languages and sciences of Babylon, which included astrology and divination.  Daniel in particular showed an aptitude for understanding visions and dreams, which became useful to him later.

In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better that all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.  And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.  (Daniel 1:20-21)