Daniel 6 and 1-2 Maccabees

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 in Lion's Den

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?

Daniel 6:1 – Who is Darius the Mede?

Although Daniel 6 is one of the most well-known stores in the Bible, it also has several historical details which are difficult to reconcile with history. Once problem is

The main problem is the identity of Darius the Mede. The problem is both the biblical and the extra-biblical sources identify Cyrus as the conqueror of Babylon. There is no room for the reign of another king named Darius who conquered Babylon organized the Persian Empire. Daniel 5:31 states Darius “received the kingdom” after when he was sixty-two years old. In 6:1 Darius organized the empire in 120 satrapies. The end of Daniel 6 states Cyrus the Persian ruled after Darius. In Daniel 9:1 Darius is identified as the son of Ahasuerus (not the same as Esther).

Darius the GreatThe in the Old Greek versions, the name of the king is “Artaxerxes the Mede” what was very old (rather that sixty-two years old). The second edition of the Lexham English Septuagint (2019) follows the Old Greek “full of days and glorious in old age” but retains the name Darius rather than Artaxerxes the Mede. This does not help much, but it does indicate the historical problems associated with Darius the Mede were known in antiquity.

The name Darius is common in Persian history, including Darius the Great (550–486 BC), sometimes called Darius I Hystaspes ruled over the Persian Empire and he did organize the empire into satrapies but he ruled 18 years after the fall of Babylon under Cyrus. If 6:1 refers to Darius I Hystaspes, then Daniel is very old, nearly 100. While this impossible, no mention of extraordinary age appears in the text. Daniel 6:1 Darius is reported to be sixty-two years old when he conquers Babylon, Darius I Hystaspes was in his thirties and he only organized the kingdom into twenty satrapies. Finally, Darius I Hystaspes was a Persian not a Mede.

Goldingay suggests the precise age sixty-two refers to the writing on the wall: the value of the “mena mena tekel parsin” is sixty two shekels. The years of Darius, according to Goldingay, indicate he is the one fulfilling the decree made against Belshazzar (Goldingay Daniel2, 294).

Because Darius the Mede is not found in other ancient histories, many try to explain the name on the analogy of Xerxes, who is called Ahasuerus in Esther. The most common suggestions for the identity of Darius are:

Astyages. The last king of Media (585-550 B.C.), and the king who immediately preceded Cyrus the Great. His daughter marred the Persian Cambyses, whose son was Cyrus II (“the Great”). Astyages was warned in a dream that if his grandson lived, he would overshadow him (Herodotus 1.110). Cyrus did in fact lead a Persian army against his Median grandfather, aided in part by a defection of some of Asyages’ army.

Cambyses II. Cambyses I was a Persian king of Anshan (600-559 B.C.) and was a vassal of Astyages. He married Astyages daughter Mandane, and their child was Cyrus the Great. Cyrus’ son Cambyses II (529-522). Babylonian court records describe him as overseeing affairs in Babylonia during Cyrus’ administration, although he may have been more interested in military excursions in to Egypt.

Gobryas. Gobryas or Gubaru was the Median military general in charge of the capture of Babylon described in Daniel 5. This has been the favored explanation among conservative scholars for many years, although H. H. Rowley argued strenuously against it (Darius the Mede, 21). Xenophon said Gobyras was “an Assyrian, a man well advanced in years” (Cyropaedia 4.6.1).

Several scholars have attempted to argue that Darius the Mede is another name for Cyrus the Persian, the king known from history as the conqueror of Babylon. A key argument supporting Cyrus as Darius is Wiseman’s translation of 6:29: “Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” This translation implies Darius and Cyrus are two different people. Wiseman suggests we ought to translate the waw-conjunction as “even” rather than and, on the analogy of 1 Chronicles 5:26, “Pul, even Tiglath Pilesar III was king of the Assyrians.” This solution is accepted in many conservative commentaries (Miller, Daniel, 189 for example).

Does it matter? For many interpreters of Daniel, the book was written in the Greek period and simply muddled Persian history. For conservative scholars with a faith-commitment to the truth of the Bible, there must be some explanation that preserves both the veracity of Scripture and accurate history.

It is very easy to get lost in the historical details trying to reconcile Daniel 6:1 and history and miss the point the book is actually making: The Most High God of the Judean Exiles sets up kingdoms and he brings them down. As Psalm 2:4-6 says, the one enthroned in heaven scoffs at the nations and the kings of the earth who rise up against him. This is true whether the empire is Persian, Greek, Rome, or America. Any arrogant modern empire which claims to be the greatest kingdom in the history of the world will be brought low by the One Enthroned in Heaven.

Daniel 5:5-12 – What was the Meaning of the Handwriting on the Wall?

The fingers of a “man’s hand” appear and write on the wall while the drunken party is continuing. This writing appears on A wall “near the lampstands” so the king can clearly see the hand writing the words. This writing is an inscription and is a parody of Assyrian or Babylonian official writing. Just as the King of Babylon inscribes words on statues or walls, so too the Lord is inscribing his own imperial edict for the king to read.

Belshazzar's Feast, RembrandtBelshazzar’s reaction is absolute fear, he turns pale, and his legs give way. Literally this is the “bands / knots of his legs were loosed”, he comes very near to fainting. This idiom can be translated a number of different ways, the NRSV, for example, has “his knees knocked together.” Seow suggests that the idiom could be translated “his bowels were loosed” (Daniel, 79).

Belshazzar “calls out” for his advisors. The verb here is a participle, used with a to-be verb to imply a continuous action: he “was screaming” for his advisors. Once again in the book the wise men are consulted but they cannot make anything of the writing. Even though they are educated men, these are scribes and scholars cannot read (or understand) the message.

Was the message intended to be understood? Polaski notes several examples of inscriptions that were meant to be seen but not necessarily read. Inscriptions were power-plays and intended to send a message, even to people that could not read the message (657). Often inscriptions were about more than recording an event. They were a guarantee the event happened or would happen. Thus the judgement on Babylon certain is “written in stone” quite literally.

The Queen (possible Belshazzar’s mother) tells him “Don’t look so pale,” basically “show some backbone!” Belshazzar can look no worse, his mother publicly rebuking his cowardice! (Did she stop to comb his hair and tell him to tuck his shirt in as well?) She recalls what Daniel had done and recommends that he be called in to interpret this writing. She understands that Nebuchadnezzar believed him to be very powerful, and he is summoned. There is a subtle word-play in the queen-mother’s speech. Daniel, she recalls, was able to “loosen knots” (verse 12, “solve problems”), which is ironic since the king had his “knots loosened” (verse 6, perhaps that he has soiled himself!)

Daniel is summoned and questioned by the King. The king asks him if he is Daniel, indicating his ignorance of the man. Belshazzar also promises him the same reward as offered to the wise-men, a promotion to the third highest in the kingdom, essentially riches and power. Daniel is less respectful with Belshazzar than he had been with Nebuchadnezzar. He tells Belshazzar to keep his gifts and then describes Nebuchadnezzar’s glory, implying Belshazzar nothing lie Nebuchadnezzar

The inscription consisted of four words, all monetary weights: A minah, a tekel (a shekel, 1/60 of a mina), and a parsin (a half, probably of a mina) are common coins. This is an odd message to have caused such a commotion during the wild party of Belshazzar! This interpretation was first suggested in 1886 by Clermont-Ganneau (cited by Driver, Daniel, 69) and is accepted by many scholars.

Daniel tells Belshazzar that the hand was “sent out” by God (it was not God’s hand). The sending of the hand is another element of the imperial rule of God theme in this chapter. A king would not go himself and inscribe a message on a wall, he would send someone to do it for him. So to the sovereign Lord has sent an ambassador to place an inscription on the wall of Belshazzar’s palace. Daniel does not call upon God to help him read the inscription because it is not a mystery – Daniel is simply doing his job as a royal scribe reading the inscription for the king (Polaski, 659).

Rather than nouns, Daniel takes the words as passive participles and build the meaning from a verbal form. Like Hebrew, Aramaic can be written without vowels. When the vowels are supplied, the word may be a noun or a verb (or another word altogether!) The reading of the words may have been complicated by not knowing how they were pronounced.

Daniel interpreted the handwriting on the wall:

  • Mene, mene, meaning that God has numbered Belshazzar’s days, the noun mene is taken as a verb, “to count, number.”
  • Tekel, God has weighed Belshazzar in the balance and found him wanting, he does not measure up to God’s standard. The root of the word shekel means “to weigh.”
  • (U)Parsin, literally split up or divided, meaning that the kingdom will be split between the Medes and the Persians. There is a double meaning here, the Aramaic root prs means to divide, and sounds like the name of the Persian Empire.

Belshazzar does not live out the night. The Persians capture the city that night and Belshazzar is killed. In Daniel 5:30 we there are no details, simply the statement the king was dead and Persia was in control. According to Xenophon the city of Babylon was captured without much resistance while the inhabitants were celebrating a festival (Herodotus 1.191 and Xenophon (Cyropedia VII v. 15-31).

As early as Isaiah 21:9 the prophets announced with joy “Babylon is Fallen” and the vision in Daniel 2 made declared the empire would not last long after the death of the “head of gold” Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel 5 declares those prophecies are fulfilled in a spectacular manner. On a theological level, the book of Daniel is clear God established Babylon as an empire and has replaced Babylon with Persia.

For later reader living under the Greek or Roman empires, this message provides hope for a coming Kingdom of God to replace the kingdoms of man.

Daniel 5 – The Feast of Belshazzar

This is a story from the final evening of the Babylonian empire. Nebuchadnezzar died about 562 B.C. In 556 the last of Nebuchadnezzar’s line, Labashi-Marduk, was murdered nine months into his reign by Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar. Nabonidus favored the moon god Sin rather than the Babylonian chief god, Marduk. He left his son Belshazzar in charge of Babylon for ten years of the Babylonian Empire, returning in 543 B.C.

Daniel 5 takes place in 539 B.C. when Persia had defeated Nabonidus and were threatening the city of Babylon. Rather than prepare for war, Belshazzer holds an opulent banquet for his court officials.

Even though Belshazzar is not the direct son of Nebuchadnezzar, he is as arrogant and pompous as Nebuchadnezzar. Belshazzar orders the gold items from the Temple to be brought to the party so that the officials could drink from them. The scale of the banquet is enormous, thousands of people are gathered for a feast even though the Persians are outside the walls of Babylon ready to capture the city.

Feast of Belshazzar by John Martin (1789–1854)

John Martin (1789–1854)

Why would Belshazzar choose this night for a massive banquet? Babylon was thought to be impenetrable. The walls were enormous and the city was stocked with several years of food. Since the river Euphrates flowed through the city they had a plentiful water supply. They thought could hold out against a siege for so long that no army could outlast them. Herodotus (Histories, 1.190) and Xenophon (Cyropedia 7.5.13) report Babylon had provisions for up to twenty years! A celebration this grand was intended to taunt the Persians.

William Shea suggests Belshazzar had already heard the Persians defeated Nabonidus at Sippar (fifty miles from Babylon). Belshazzar used the banquet to crown himself king and was holding a banquet to celebrate his ascension to the throne in grand style (“Nabonidus, Belshazzar, and Daniel: An Update,” 140-43).

Belshazzar was not drunk when he orders the Jewish vessels be brought to the banquet. He made a conscious decision to use items from the Temple to worship of Babylonian gods. Drinking from the Temple items is done before an audience. This is a public mocking of the God of the Judean exiles. Even Nebuchadnezzar treated the Temple items with some respect when he placed them in the house of his gods (Dan 1:1-2). Even for a Babylonian, Belshazzar has lost all sense of decency!

Why mock the God of the Jewish exiles? It has been nearly forty-seven years since the Temple was destroyed. The items from the Temple were a symbol of the victory of Nebuchadnezzar’s gods over the God of Israel. They remained in the temples of the Babylonians gods as a sign of the Judean’s continued exile in Babylon.

In the context of the canonical book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar was humbled by the God of the Judean exiles and confessed that their God was the Most High God and sovereign over all the kingdoms on earth, giving them to anyone he wished (4:17). What Belshazzar is doing is an act of propaganda, he is saying to the God of Israel, “you may have humbled Nebuchadnezzar, but you will not humble me!”

Whatever the details, the whole point of the banquet was to make a statement that Belshazzar is the supreme king of the city of Babylon which cannot fall to the Persians, despite any defeat suffered by Nabonidus. Belshazzar is certain the gods of Babylon will protect the city against the Persians.

What are some other ways the book of Daniel contrasts Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar?

Daniel 4 – Is Nebuchadnezzar’s Madness Historical?

William Blake, Nebuchadnezzar

“…enough is known of Nebuchadnezzar’s forty-three-year reign so that it is impossible to fit in such a period of insanity.” Hartman and Di Lella, Daniel, 178.

There no record of a seven month or seven year hiatus in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar nor any indication the king was insane for any period of time. Some scholars suggest the writer of Daniel confused Nebuchadnezzar with Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon (556–539 B. C.) who spend about ten years outside of the city of Babylon. This period it Teima (Tyma, Tema) is sometimes described as a self-imposed exile. The Verse Account of Nabonidus (ANET 312-313) reports Nabonidus’s “protective deity became hostile to him” so he captured Tema and built a palace and temple.

The suggestion Daniel has confused his Babylonian kings may be supported by a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Prayer of Nabonidus (4Q242). The text was published in 1956 and describes a seven year affliction and remarkable confession of faith in the God of Israel after a Jewish exorcist helps him overcome his “malignant inflammation.” Fragments 1-3 read as follows:

Words of the pr[ay]er which Nabonidus, king of [the] la[nd of Baby]lon, the [great] king, prayed [when he was afflicted]  2 by a malignant inflammation, by decree of the G[od Most Hi]gh, in Teiman. [I, Nabonidus,] was afflicted [by a malignant inflammation] 3 for seven years, and was banished far [from men, until I prayed to the God Most High] 4 and an exorcist forgave my sin. He was a Je[w] fr[om the exiles, who said to me:] 5 «Make a proclamation in writing, so that glory, exal[tation and hono]ur be given to the name of [the] G[od Most High». And I wrote as follows: «When] 6 I was afflicted by a ma[lignant] inflammation […] in Teiman, [by decree of the God Most High,] 7 [I] prayed for seven years [to all] the gods of silver and gold, [of bronze and iron,] 8 of wood, of stone and of clay, because [I thoug]ht that t[hey were] gods […] (Martı́nez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Leiden; New York: Brill, 1997–1998), 487)

There are some scholars who attempt to fill out this story with the text of Daniel 4, such as inserting the name Daniel into fragment 4. But as John Collins points out, there are real differences between this fragmentary story and Daniel 4. The king’s name is different, his affliction is different, the name of the Jewish exile is not given, etc. He concludes “It is not, of course, historically accurate. It is a Jewish story that narrates a fictitious conversion of a Babylonian king” (Daniel, Hermenia, 218).

Conservative commentaries often observe Nebuchadnezzar’s reign is well documented until his eleventh year. That year is practically silent and details of the following years are far less detailed than his early years. Stephen Langdon published fifty-two building inscriptions from Nebuchadnezzar, but only four come from the latter half of his reign. The latter period is “remarkably poor in its number of literary productions.” Langdon also notes the lack of religious references in the later inscriptions.  After 590 B.C. interests in inscriptions turn more to politics than religion.  Langdon states “we have scarcely anything but palace inscriptions with little to say about the religious interests of the king.”

However, Langdon’s book, Building Inscriptions of the Neo-Babylonian Empire was published in 1905 and until Google books, very difficult to find in a library. I originally read about Langdon in a 1994 article by Paul Ferguson, “Nebuchadnezzar, Gilgamesh, and the ‘Babylonian Job’” JETS 37 (1994): 321-33.

More recently, a few published fragment from Babylon describes Nebuchadnezzar as distracted, disoriented, and confused (A. K. Grayson, Babylonian Historical-Literary Texts, 87-89). The text ends with Nebuchadnezzar going to the “holy gate” and weeping bitterly before the gods. As exciting as this text is, it is too short and fragmented to argue that it does in fact prove Daniel 4.

Finally, the advice of Joyce Baldwin is worth noting here. It is highly unlikely that we will ever find a reference to the king’s madness in Babylonian records. This is simply not the sort of thing any king would record nor would his advisors likely bring it up after he regained his mind (Daniel, 108). Likewise Montgomery points out the royal family did not advertise their illnesses, “The alleged malady is not an impossibility” (Daniel ICC, 220-21).

I would suggest there were many stories circulating about illness or madness in the Babylonian royal family based on the fact there was madness in the royal family. These stories generated several different versions of the story, some featuring Nebuchadnezzar, some Nabonidus. There are numerous other traditions which are similar to Daniel 4 reported in Josephus and Eusebius as well as the Babylonian Ludlul Bel Nemeqi, (“I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom,” ANET 596-600). In this remarkable story, the narrator says:

I spent the night in my dung like an ox, and wallowed in my excrement like a sheep. My symptoms are beyond the exorcist, and my omens have confused the diviner (ANET 598).

This resonates with Daniel 4 and the Prayer of Nabonidus. Stories about striking down an arrogant Babylonian royal with some kind of illness were not uncommon (and undoubtedly popular).

But why does a Judean exile repeat this story as we have it in the book of Daniel? What is the theological motivation for portraying Nebuchadnezzar as humbled by God? Regardless of the early or later date of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar and his empire is long gone when the book reached its final form and began to circulate among post-exilic religious and academic communities. Someone living under Antiochus’s reign of terror would have found it comforting that God humbled the great king of Babylon.

If God did this to Nebuchadnezzar, how much more Antiochus, Nero, Vespasian, Domitian, Constantine, or any other world ruler who sought to destroy God’s people.

Daniel 3:19-27 – Who is the Fourth Man in the Fiery Furnace?

Isaiah 43:2 When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.

Nebuchadnezzar is even angrier at three Judean exiles for defying him to his face and orders the furnace be made still hotter, seven times hotter (an idiom meaning “as hot as possible”). Nebuchadnezzar has the three Jews tied up and sends his soldiers to toss them into the top of the furnace so he can watch them die at a safe distance. The flames are so hot the men who threw them into the furnace die from the heat!

Fiery Furnace

In the LXX and in Jewish tradition, the flames are stoked even hotter while they are in the furnace, trying to make it even hotter. Smoke rose 49 cubits, or 74 feet into the air. Another feature of the LXX at this point in the story is a lengthy prayer (66 verses) by Azariah. This prayer does not appear in any Aramaic texts and is not consider canonical by Protestants.

As Nebuchadnezzar watches, he is amazed to see not three, but four people in the flames. All four are walking around unharmed. This fourth person is described as like “a son of the gods” (ESV), translating the phrase לְבַר־אֱלָהִֽין. What is different about this fourth person is not stated, but Nebuchadnezzar believes he is seeing some kind of divine being in the flames.

Who is the mysterious fourth person in the fiery furnace?

In the Talmud (Pes. 118a, b) he is the angel Gabriel, as is the angel who visits Daniel in the lion’s den (6:21-22).

Expounded R. Simeon the Shilonite, “When wicked Nebuchadnezzar threw Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah into the fiery furnace, Yurqami, prince of hail, stood before the Holy One, blessed be He. He said to him, ‘Lord of the world, let me go down and cool it off and save those righteous men from the fiery furnace.’ Said to him Gabriel, ‘That is not how the power of the Holy One, blessed be He, is, for you are the prince of hail, and everybody knows that water puts out fire. Rather, I am the prince of fire. Let me go down and cool it off inside, [118B] but heat it from the outside, and so I will do a double miracle.’ Said to him the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Go on down.’ At that moment Gabriel commenced with the sentence, ‘And the truth of the Lord endures forever.’ ” (Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud. 4:547–548)

In Christian tradition, this fourth person is the Angel of the Lord, מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהֹוָ֥ה of Exodus 3:2. Many Christian commentators identify the fourth person as the Son of God, a “pre-incarnate Jesus Christ” (Miller, Daniel, 123-124).

However, Montgomery points out the Aramaic phrase “son of the gods” was a “perfectly pagan phrase” (106). Nebuchadnezzar claims to be seeing a divine figure of some kind, associating with one or more of the various gods in his own pantheon. From the perspective of the three men in the fire, this is an agent of God sent to protect them from harm.

When Nebuchadnezzar realizes what has happens, he calls them out, and calls them servants of the Most High God, again indicating that he realizes that the God of the Jews is indeed powerful. This whole sequence of events is even comical: Nebuchadnezzar boldly stated no god can save them, he made every effort to kill the three men, yet he is unable to harm them in any way because they are protected by the Most High God.

Similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction in chapter 2, the king confesses the god of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is powerful and issued an edict to protect their right to worship their own God and not to worship his gods. Did Nebuchadnezzar “convert”? Not at all, his confession still falls short of faith in the God of the Judean exiles alone. He certainly falls short of confessing his own gods do not exist.

While toleration of the Jews would have been particularly applicable during the persecution of the Jews under Antichious, there is hardly a period in Jewish history since the dispersion began when they have been entirely free from persecution. As Daniel 3:17 says, God can save us but even if he does not, the Jewish people enduring oppression from Antiochus would not compromise their traditions even if this refusal led to their death.

Daniel 3:13-18 – Confession of the Three Exiles

When the three men refuse to bow, Nebuchadnezzar is “furious with rage” and he orders the men into his presence. “Furious with rage” is a combination of two words (בִּרְגַ֣ז וַחֲמָ֔ה) to form a hendiadys (a figure of speech in which two words are cited as including everything in-between). Nebuchadnezzar asks if it was true they defied his orders and gave them a second chance to bow to the idol to demonstrate their loyalty in front of the King himself.  If this is a “test” of loyalty, then to refuse to bow is declare oneself to be traitor.

The king makes an arrogant statement in verse 15: “Once I toss you in the flames, there is no God which is able to take you out of my hands!” This is a challenge made to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Nebuchadnezzar does not think the God of Israel is powerful enough to control events in Babylon. Interpreting a dream is one thing, but no god exists who will keep people alive when thrown into the furnace.

The three Jews make a remarkable confession of faith before Nebuchadnezzar. They contradict the king boldly by stating the God they serve is able to save them from his hands. There is a problem in 3:17. The text may be translated, “if God exists, he will save us…” or “If God is able, he will save is…”  It seems unlikely the young men would say God may not exist or even that he is not powerful enough to save them. Notice the difference in several English translations:

If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. (ESV)

If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us (NRSV)

The point of their statement is that they will not bow down to the idol, whether God saves them or not!  They are not doubting either God’s existence or his power, but rather making a statement that they will never bow down to the idol even if they have to die. Daniel 3:18 is clear: “O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” They do not fear Nebuchadnezzar who can only kill them, they have some sort of hope that allows them to give their lives up in the service of God.

Shadrach Mishach and AbednegoIs there a hope of afterlife or resurrection in this passage? Some commentators think there is a hint of resurrection in Daniel 3:17, something like, “even if you kill us our God will raise us from the dead.” This seems unlikely because there is no developed understanding of the resurrection in the Old Testament. But Daniel 12:1-2 is often considered a reference to a future resurrection of the dead, so it is possible there is the barest if hints of resurrection in the statement the three young men make in Daniel 3:17.

However, resurrection is not the point of the passage. They openly and boldly confess their faith in God who he is able to save them from certain death. But even if God does not save them and they die in the furnace, they will never bow and worship the statue or the Empire which it represents. This bold faith becomes a pattern for many Jews and Christians who are unwilling to compromise and gladly give their lives in service to God.

There may other principles in the text as well. Since I frequently teach classes on Paul’s letters, I often discuss Paul’s attitude toward the government found in Romans 13. This is a passage which is badly used by alleged Christians in the government to demand loyalty to an objectively evil administration. Paul does clearly say the Christian ought to obey their government. When most people read this, they immediately try to find a way to avoid the absoluteness of the statement by adding “only if the government does not contradict the Bible.” That is not what Paul said, and he was talking about one of the emperor when he wrote this was Nero, not exactly a model of godly government. But this does not mean Paul was “pro-Empire” no matter what that government does.

If the Christian is looking for a model of resistance against an evil government (anywhere in the world at any given time in history), then the resistance of the three Jewish exiles in Daniel 3  and Daniel’s own resistance in chapter 6 are the key passages. Looking ahead to Revelation, the same pattern of resistance and submission to punishment and death is the foundation for much of the final book of the Christian Canon.


Bibliography: P. Coxon, “Daniel 3:17: A Linguistic and Theological Problem” VT 26 (1976), 400-409.