One of the major themes of the book of Daniel is resistance to the demands of the empire for Jews to compromise core practices. In Daniel 1 the issue is food, in chapters 3 and 6 the issue is worship. For most Christians, These three chapters in Daniel are some of the most well-known stories in the Old Testament. Both the fiery furnace and the lion’s den are common Sunday School stories. They are re-told over and over again to teach children to stand up for their faith no matter what the consequences, even if second-graders are rarely told they might have to die for their faith.
Daniel actively resists the edit of Darius by continuing his regular practice of praying three times a day (Daniel 6:10). He opens the windows of his upstairs room toward Jerusalem and prays “just as he had always done.” Knowing the decree stipulated anyone not praying to the king would be executed, Daniel openly broke the king’s command and prayed to God. Daniel is arrested and thrown to the lions. Unlike Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in 3:17, Daniel is silent as he accepts the penalty for breaking the decree. He is willing to die rather than pray to the king.
Like the story on Daniel 3, God rescues Daniel from the lions by sending an angel to shut up their mouths (6:22). God vindicates Daniel and finds him innocent and once again a pagan king declares the God of Daniel is the living God who endures forever and his kingdom will endure forever (6:26-27).
Anathea Portier-Young draws a parallel between these two resistance stories to an earlier story of imperial arrogance in Isaiah 36-37 (Apocalypse against Empire, 259). The Assyrians have surrounded Jerusalem with an overwhelming army, so large Jerusalem cannot possibly survive. This point is made absolutely clear by the king’s representative Rabshakeh who speaks directly to the Judeans and informs them Judah’s own king Hezekiah is responsible for the disaster about to fall on them. His own God has sent the Assyrians to punish Hezekiah and Judah, and no one can deliver Jerusalem from the hand of the mighty Assyrian Empire. He says, “Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” (Isa 36:20). Hezekiah calls out to the Lord and the Lord rescues Jerusalem from certain destruction by sending an angel to destroy the Assyrian army.
This story from Judah’s history sets a pattern followed by the four Judean exiles in Daniel 3 and 6. If they are faithful and do not defile themselves, God may miraculously save them from certain death.
Jewish readers living during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes would have found this familiar. The details of Antiochus’s well-known persecutions are found in 1 and 2 Maccabees as well as Josephus. He attempted to enforce a program of Hellenization on Judeans. In 1 Maccabees 1:29-40 and 2 Maccabees 5:11-27 the Greeks plundered Jerusalem so that “Her sanctuary became desolate like a desert” (1 Macc 1:39).
There were two “paths of resistance” possible in response to the Antiochus’s demands. One could take up arms, as Matthias and his son Judas did, or one could resist passively and be martyred rather than “profane the holy covenant.”
1 Maccabees 1:62-65 But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. 63 They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. 64 Very great wrath came upon Israel.
Daniel’s style of resistance in Babylon and Persia was not the path chosen by Matthias and those who actively fought against the Greeks in 1 Maccabees 2. In Daniel 3 and 6 Jewish people resistance the empire’s demand for worship and accept the fact they will die when they resist. It is possible the writer of 1 Maccabees considered the revolt sparked Mathias’s zeal as the way God chose to rescue his people. But there is no great miracle as in Isaiah 37 to destroy the Greek army, although 1 Macc 7:41 and 2 Macc 15:22 refer to this event in a prayer asking the Lord to send a “good angel” to strike down Judah’s enemies. Nor do angels appear to rescue Jews who are resisting the worship of Greek gods. But God did work through the armed rebellion to defeat the Greek and purify the Temple.
Daniel therefore represents a different way to resist for Jews living in the Greek or Roman world. There are clear boundaries and non-negotiable practices. For Judas, it was better to rally the men of Israel to attack the enemy and drive the enemy out of the Land (Joshua style). For Daniel, it is better to resist and die the cross those lines.
Do these two paths of resistance provide a model for contemporary Christian relationship with the state? Is there any warrant for a Christian to follow the path of the Maccabeans and use violence to overthrown an oppressive government? Is the only option for the Christian to “dare to be a Daniel” and resist, suffer and perhaps die?