This is a book I love to teach with the older kids in Quaker Meeting. Not that I take a conventional approach.
How, for instance, does anyone in the story determine that Daniel is ten times smarter by sticking to a vegetarian diet or that the fire becomes seven times hotter? Like they had IQ tests or thermometers back then?
The text is full of sly humor, for one thing. The kids can’t help but laugh when the tormenters instead of the heroes fall into the blazing furnace. They brighten, too, when they recognize the peer pressure to worship the statue, one that measures the height of a surviving industrial smokestack in our town.
Yes, kids know what it is to be pressured, as well as often being unjustly tormented.
So far, none of them have asked if these things actually happened. Rather, they get swept up in the underlying psychological drama — the truth of the heartfelt desires for ultimate justice.
Once again, we also have the power of dreams. And what dreams!
In the big sweep, we have the angel Gabriel making his first appearance. Apparently, he has wings: he swoops in full flight (9:11).
Also, we have visions of resurrection, first mentioned in Ezekiel.
Plus, who can’t love the story of Susanna when she gets her ultimate justice?
In my straight-through reading, now with an awareness of the presence of eunuchs in the Bible, I stop cold at verses 1:3-5: “From the Israelites, the king [Nebuchadnezzar] Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring a certain number of boys or noble or royal descent; they had to be without any physical defect, of good appearance, versed in every branch of wisdom, well-informed, discerning, suitable for service in the royal court.” After three years of preparation, “they would enter the royal court.”
I hear an alarm sound. Was Daniel, along with his three loyal companions, made a eunuch? Or did the king have other designs on them? The Bible tells of no descendants from him. Once again, the conventional assumptions of macho masculinity for Jewish heroes is challenged. As performance artist Peterson Toscano contends, the sexual identities run across a spectrum rather than solid black or white.
(Only a few books back, we had Jeremiah being rescued by a court eunuch, 38:7-13.)
Such is the importance of Daniel that Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible has two essays, rather than only one.
In the first, Lynne Sharon Schwartz revisits her memories of being a child reader enchanted with the retelling in Bible Tales.
As “a child in a world of adults” and “a dreamer in post-World War II Brooklyn,” she identified with being an exile in a strange land and having overlords at home, at school, and on the street. Reading the Bible Tales lines, “The king was kind to the captive Jews, and very few of them were made to work as slaves,” to which Schwartz responded, “School was a form of slavery. What I was exiled from, I know now, was my future, which would be totally different. … But how long the waiting seemed …”
She admits the “sense of joy and validation I felt, of pure aesthetic rightness at Daniel’s words, is indescribable. … Not ‘Here I am” but ‘Here am I.’ The transposition makes all the difference.”
She also sees something that I think heightens the power of the story — with teens as well as more secular adults: “The power of God did not interest me much. Unaware of any sacrilege or poetic adjustment, I was certain it was Daniel’s own power that had saved him. Fortitude, tenacity, integrity — they could be a charm, a spell: even lions were cowed.” (I love her pun, by the way.)
As an adult, she’s aware “we are never with our hero overnight in the den.” As a novelist, she ponders ways “a modern, subjective writer would do it differently” and comes up with a range of possibilities. Her prompts would make for a great creative writing class assignment.
“I have a terrible suspicion, from what I know of the ‘God’ character, that he waited till the very last minute, exactly as he had with Abraham and Isaac — one second’s distraction (if we can imagine him distracted) and it might have been too late. I have a feeling that the lions (how many, anyway?) leaped to within an inch of Daniel, and Daniel’s heart leaped to his throat as he despaired of ever seeing his native Jerusalem again and felt the teeth piercing his skin and tearing at tissue before it ever happened, before it didn’t happen, and was made by the insatiable God to cry out his faith one more time, one last test, which he did, frantically, and then … after an eternity, the mouths were shut and the beasts sidled away.”
Whew! She could make a whole movie out of the lions den incident.
What I wasn’t aware of in my straight-through reading is that Daniel was actually written 400 years after the fall of Jerusalem and the start of the Babylonian exile. “It was written during one of the worst persecutions the Jews had ever know, at a time when Syria’s policy of forced Hellenization had gone so far that possessing a Torah was a capital offense. For the ultimate blow, Antiochus had placed an altar to Zeus and sacrificed pigs in the Temple of Jerusalem, demanding that all Jews do likewise” — and that led to the “armed guerrilla-type revolt” described in Maccabees. Unlike the other books of prophecy, Daniel was written in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew.
In short, the Book of Daniel is a call to resistance and the visions of the last six chapters “are narrated in code, a sealed book, and require step-by-step translation. … At once telescoped and cinematic, they compose a kind of special effects tour de force that might appeal to fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars.”
Mark Mirsky picks up on the struggles facing Jews under “the Greek tyrant Antiochus” and acknowledges that something other than propaganda value has driven the survival of Daniel’s heroism and visions.
He finds the story also outlining “the way of the Jew in Diaspora,” especially the reliance on tact and diplomatic indirection, found not just in Daniel but also its sister Esther. Pointedly, the Holy One does not abandon the Jews when they are exiled, but goes with them and strengthens them.
When contemporary Gentile readers like myself and the kids in our Quaker religious education class come at the book, we already assume angels are supposed to have wings or that resurrection is a given. Yet we respond, at a gut level, to the injustice and oppression. We find it hard to imagine a time or place where we don’t have the opportunity for flight, for escape, for refuge. And we are shocked when vain, bubbling, lecherous, mindless tyrants like Nebuchadnezzar pop up in our faces, in our own time, as if the sealed books keep opening endlessly.