Narrative Lectionary Reflection
December 3, 2017
If you grew up in church you knew two stories from the book of Daniel: Daniel in the Lion’s Den and The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace. You know that in both cases, a king throws Daniel and his friends in different perils only to see them not the meet the fate that was intended.
As kids, such stories mezmorized us. How could three men not get burned by the fire? How could someone like Daniel not become a lion’s lunch?
This is an odd text to begin Advent. We are waiting for the Christchild and here we get a story of a crazy king that’s mad that he is not getting the proper praise from his subjects. That said, this is a story that in some ways repeats itself in the birth of Christ when another crazy king is jealous that a tiny baby might take his place. Advent is a time to not just prepare for Jesus, put to prepare for the one who is greater than any earthly ruler, even if that ruler thinks he’s all that.
We now hear a story of three young men who refuse to submit to the king, a king who sees himself as a God and a God that tells everyone including the king who is really in charge. Let’s hear the story of Shadrach, Mesach and Abendego as the face the Fiery Furnace.
Engaging the Text
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.
Daniel is written during the exile of the Southern Kingdom. Large chunks of Jewish society were taken from Judah and ended up in Babylon, ruled by King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was written the second century BCE, about 400 years after these events took place. It was written when Antiochus Epiphanes ruled Israel and had outlawed Judaism in attempt to Hellenize Israel. His rule lead to the Maccabean Revolt, which overthrew the Seleucid Empire and allowed Israel to be independent for a time.
But the story takes place in the 500s BCE. Many of the Jews started to settle down, realizing they would be in Babylon for a while. They started to take part in Babylonian society. Among them were four young Jews; Daniel and his friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. All of them took part in the Babylonian government. The Jews of that time decided for themselves how much of the alien society they would accomodate to. For example, Daniel is always referred to by his Hebrew name (he did have a Babylonian name; Belteshazzar), but his friends changed their names to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Our text opens with the king deciding to make a statue. The idea might have come from a dream that Daniel interpreted for him. Found in chapter 2, Nebachanezzar has a dream that he asks his diviners to figure out. When they couldn’t, Daniel was able to step in. The king’s dream was about a statue:
You were looking, O king, and lo! there was a great statue. This statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. 32 The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 As you looked on, a stone was cut out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, were all broken in pieces and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
Daniel explains what the dream is all about. This dream should have given the king pause, but instead it might have made him foolhardy (if he wasn’t already). Daniel tells him the head of the statue represents the king himself while the other parts represent other nations:
“This was the dream; now we will tell the king its interpretation. 37 You, O king, the king of kings—to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the might, and the glory, 38 into whose hand he has given human beings, wherever they live, the wild animals of the field, and the birds of the air, and whom he has established as ruler over them all—you are the head of gold. 39 After you shall arise another kingdom inferior to yours, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over the whole earth. 40 And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron; just as iron crushes and smashes everything, it shall crush and shatter all these. 41 As you saw the feet and toes partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom; but some of the strength of iron shall be in it, as you saw the iron mixed with the clay. 42 As the toes of the feet were part iron and part clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. 43 As you saw the iron mixed with clay, so will they mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. 44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever; 45 just as you saw that a stone was cut from the mountain not by hands, and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. The great God has informed the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation trustworthy.”
Some scholars think that Nebachanezzar only heard what he wanted to hear. He might have heard that the head of gold represented him and then stopped listening to him. This might have given the king an idea. The statue itself seems odd; it is about 90 feet tall and 9 feet wide. It’s seems like more of an obelisk than a statue of the king himself. That said, the text doesn’t really tell us anything that definitive about the statue. What we do know is probably why he built the statue. In this case, Nebuchadnezzar followed the tradition of Babylonian kings erecting statues that represented the king.
The writer of the text likes to use humor to show how absurd the whole mess is. In verse 3, the writer talks about all of the officials that are called to meet with the king and it is an inclusive list that the writer notes twice. Later the writer includes talk of the use of various instruments in calling the people to bow down to the statue. In both situations, this shows the diversity of the Babylonian empire. It is large and diverse, including a number of different cultures. But the joke is that even in all of this diversity, everyone has to be bow down to the statue. Diversity is celebrated only in the context of conformity.
As said before, we have no idea if the statue represented himself or a god. What really matters authority. It is the king’s authority that is at stake and failure to bow down at the sound of, name your musical instrument, carries with it the penalty of death. The issue at hand is who is “Lord,” Nebuchadnezzar or Israel’s God?
When people hear he sound everyone bows down- execept three people: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The Chaldean diviners see this and point this out to the king. Was this an act of xenophobia? Probably, in the book of Esther, Mordecai angers Haman, the villian of the story for not bowing down to him.
Upon hearing that three men didn’t bow to the statue, the king is enraged- something that is considered rather common with Nebuchadnezzar. The king brings the three to meet with him. Nebuchadnezzar gives the three Hebrews an ultimatum: either bow down to the statue or get thrown in a furnace. He then says something to the three that very well could be directed at God: “who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?”
Nebuchadnezzar is throwing down the gauntlet: he is the powerful one and no god can challenge him.
This is where we get to the kernel of the text: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answer the king in a way that tells the king who is in charge (and it’s not him). They answer Nebuchadnezzar by using his name, not his title as everyone else does. They tell the king that their God is able to deliver them from the fire, but even if that doesn’t happen, they will not bow to the statue which they view as an idol. They will remain faithful to God, no matter the cost. When they say that God might not save them, they are not saying that they doubt God. They believe in God no matter what is the outcome.
The three men are thrown into the furnace, which so hot that even the executioners that placed the men in the furnace died. When the king looks into see if the men are being burned up, Nebuchadnezzar sees not three, but four men in the furnace. We never know if this is God or an angel or something else. What we do know is that God is present with the three men in the fire. Indeed, fire in the Old Testament is sometimes associated with the presence of God.
The king orders the three men to come out and they do, with no smell of smoke or singed hair. Upon seeing this Nebuchadnezzar adresses the three as “servants of the most high God.” The king realizes, at least in this instance of the sovereignty of God. Nebuchadnezzar had asked what god could save Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He got his answer.
16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.
This is not the first time a king challenges God’s authority. In Matthew, we see the story where a number of Wise Men come from the East to seek the Christchild. They ask King Herod where this king might be located. This worried the king. He probably felt this challenged his power and of course it did. When the Magi learn that the baby Jesus is in Bethlehem, they go to worship him. The Magi refuse to tell the king where Jesus was and in response, he orders every boy under the age of two to be killed.
In a modern story, during the waning days of World War II, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill told Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to get the Vatican’s opinion regarding the future of Eastern Europe. To which Stalin responded: “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Stalin understood power. He had tanks and soldiers. The Pope had none of these and wasn’t important.
In 1989, millions marched peacefully accross Eastern Europe to protest Soviet domination and in favor democracy. Stalin had his answer to what divisions the Pope had.
There are always powers that seek to replace God. We are always tempted to give allegiance to something other than God. This temptation did not escape the Jews, remember the worship of the Golden Calf.
There is a saying that goes “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” Who rules in our lives? If we say God is Lord, how far are we willing to obey? Would we be able to face our own fiery furnaces?
What we do know is that when we face those trials, God is with us, through the fire.
Christmas has to give an answer to those dealing with pain and unhappiness. It has to tell everyone that God is here, with us, in the good times and in the bad times.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.