Monday, February 9, 2015

A Hot Time in Babylon

Daniel is one of the more famous prophets of the Old Testament, but sometimes his buddies get overlooked.  He had three companions, named Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; but we know them better, when we remember them at all, by the names they were given in the Babylonian court:  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

Like Daniel, they were brought to Babylon to serve in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar; and like Daniel, they had to grapple with the problem of serving a pagan king while still maintaining their religious identity.  This is a conflict that runs through much of the book of Daniel.  And for a while, things got pretty hot for them.

But first, a little more about their names.  Hananiah, in Hebrew, means “Jah (short for “YHWH”, the divine Name of God) is gracious”.  His name was changed to Shadrach, which it is believed means “command of Aku”, (a Sumerian moon-god).  Mishael means “Who is like God?”; he became Meshach, “Who is what Aku is?”.  And Azariah, “Jah has helped” became Abednego, meaning “servant of Nego” (probably a corruption or a variation of the name “Nebo” or “Nabu”, the Sumerian god of wisdom; which is also a part of Nebuchadnezzar’s name.  In the comic books, Nabu created the magic helmet which gave mystical powers to Dr. Fate.  Aren’t you glad you asked?)

And just for completion’s sake, let’s not leave out Daniel.  His name means “God is my Judge”, and although the Bible usually calls him by his Hebrew name, the Babylonians called him Belteshazzar, meaning “Bel (another name for Marduk, king of the Sumerian gods) protect his life”.

Four men, whose names reference the Hebrew God, who are given new names that invoke instead the gods of Babylon.  I mentioned that theme of religious identity, didn’t I?

Because of Daniel’s success in divining the meaning of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel chapter 2, the King has placed him in charge of the capital province of the empire and of all of its wise men; and has placed Daniel’s three friends as administrators of the province.  Daniel himself remained at the King’s court, which might explain why he’s not involved in this particular story.

The King has a statue made, covered with gold and standing some 90 feet high.  Whether the statue itself was 90 feet tall, or whether it was standing on a very tall platform or whether it was just wearing funky ‘70s platform shoes, the text doesn’t specify.  The statue might have been an image of Nebuchadnezzar himself; or perhaps it was meant to represent the god Nabu; (or perhaps both, since Nebuchadnezzar was named after him).

One thing always puzzled me.  In the Picture Bibles and Illustrated Children’s Bibles I saw as a kid, the statue in this story is always identical to the one in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream from Daniel chapter 2.  This would suggest that the two stories are connected … except that they aren’t.  They just both have statues.  Perhaps the artists have this deep-seated feeling that they should be connected somehow.

Nebuchadnezzar gathers together all the satraps, prefects, governors, advisors, treasurer, judges, -- pretty much the whole Babylonian bureaucracy from middle-management on up – to the plain of Dura where the statue was erected.

Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language:  As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.  Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”  (Daniel 3:4-6 NIV)

One commentary I’ve read suggests that this was that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire was still fairly recently-established, and that this ceremony was intended to confirm the newly-appointed administrators and the existing ones in their office.  It could have been like signing a Loyalty Oath or Pledging Allegiance to the Flag or taking an Oath of Office.

I remember from reading Plutarch that the Persians, whose empire succeeded the Babylonian’s, had a practice of prostrating themselves before their rulers; and that when Alexander the Great conquered Persia and his new Persian subjects bowed in a similar way before him, Alexander’s Greek and Macedonian companions were majorly freaked, because it looked an awful lot like worship and they worried that Alex might demand the same obsequiousness from them.

Shadrach, Meshach and Adednego liked this bowing before idols jazz even less than Alex’s companions did.  So they just didn’t do it.  My old Picture Bibles show them defiantly standing while everyone else around them are kneeling with their foreheads in the dirt.  I think it might be more likely that they just arranged to be Somewhere Else when the zithers began to play.

Whether they were obvious about their civil disobedience or not, somebody noticed.  Some astrologers – and remember, Shadrach & Co. had been placed in charge of the wise men of the province, so these would have been their subordinates, finked on them.

“But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – who pay no attention to you, O king.  They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.”  (Daniel 3:12)

At this point, I can’t help but wonder, where is Daniel during all this?  Was he exempt from bowing to the golden image?  If so, why didn’t he try to intercede on behalf of his friends?  Was he out of the province on the King’s business? Or did he take the easy way out and do what all the other satraps were doing?  We aren’t told.  The text makes no mention of Daniel in the entire chapter.  But the trap his friends find themselves in here is very similar to the one Daniel later finds himself in with King Darius later on in the story about the Lion’s Den.   

Nebuchadnezzar is pretty furious about this, and brings the three before him and demands to know if these accusations are true.  He gives them one more chance to obey his command and bow down before his golden image, warning them that if they don’t, they’re going straight into the furnace.  “Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” (3:15)

Nebuchadnezzar may be hot under the collar, but the three guys play it cool.

“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.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”  (Daniel 3:16-18)

You can’t really blame Nebuchadnezzar for being sore.  After all, he had given these three foreigners positions of high honor and authority; and this is how they thank him?

He orders the furnaces used for executions be heated up seven times hotter than it oughter.  The furnace grew so hot, that the strong men he ordered to carry the bound prisoners to the furnace perished from the heat.  They were just able to shove the three men into the inferno.

At this point, there’s a lengthy passage in some versions of the text which does not appear in the older Hebrew/Aramaic texts of Daniel but was included in the Greek Septuagint translation of the 2nd Century BC.  Catholic and Orthodox Bibles include this passage following verse 23; but Protestant versions omit it, (or at most segregate it to the Aporcrypha).  It’s called the Prayer of Azariah  and the Hymn of the Three Young Men.

It starts with the three young men walking around amidst the flames of the furnace, praying and singing hymns.  Azariah, (Abednego’s Hebrew name, you’ll recall), utters this prayer, in which he praises God for his justice and acknowledges the wrongdoings of the people of Judah which had led to their current exile.  Azariah beseeches God, for the sake of their forefathers Abraham and Isaac, and for his divine covenant, to have mercy upon them and deliver the three from the wicked king.

“Do not put us to shame, but deal with us in thy forbearance and in thy abundant mercy. Deliver us in accordance with thy marvelous works, and give glory to thy name, O Lord! Let all who do harm to thy servants be put to shame; let them be disgraced and deprived of all power and dominion, and let their strength be broken. Let them know that thou art the Lord, the only God, glorious over the whole world.”(Song of the Three Young Men, vv. 19-22 RSV)

The passage then describes how and angel of the Lord comes down and drives the flames away from the young men so that they are not harmed.  The three of them break into a spontaneous hymn of praise:

“Blessed art thou, O Lord, God of our fathers, and to be praised and highly exalted for ever; And blessed is thy glorious, holy name and to be highly praised and highly exalted for ever;”(Song of the Three Young Men, vv. 29-30)

The hymn goes on for a couple dozen verses more; and the text of it is sometimes used as a canticle in the liturgy of the Anglican church.

Now all this does not go unnoticed by the King.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, O king.” He said, “Look!  I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”  (Daniel 3:24-25)

Without the explanation given in the Song of the Three, the reader is as surprised by the fourth guy as the King is.  I don’t know; I kind of like the sense of mystery we get from having the angel just be there without being told how or when he appeared.  But what is this fourth figure in the fire?

Many Christian interpreters claim that when the Old Testament speaks of The Angel of the Lord, (as opposed to, say , an angel of the Lord), that it’s a reference to the Pre-Incarnate Christ making a cameo appearance.  This is made even more explicit in the King James Version, where the King says he looks like “the Son of God” and not just like “… a son of the gods.” 

I think King Jim overstates Nebuchadnezzar’s theological perception here.  Given Nebuchadnezzar’s religious background, he wouldn’t know the Second Person of the Trinity from Utnapishtim; he’d be more likely, I think, to identify a person with a divine appearance as a son of a god, than as The Son of God.  Personally, I’m just as happy to leave the mysterious Guy #4 be an angel and not bother with the Christological ramifications.

The King calls to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and tells them to come out of the furnace.  They emerge completely untouched by the flames.  He has to admit that the trust they placed in their God was justified.

Which, come to think of it, is another recurring theme of the first half of the Book of Daniel:  every chapter concludes with the King acknowledging the power of the Hebrew God.

Of course, it doesn’t stop him from doing something stupid in the following chapter.

But for the time being, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are safe; they receive promotions from the King; and all is well.

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