Last week our “Heroes and Villains” story was from the Book of Daniel. Daniel is like the “Curiosity Shop” of the Old Testament and I am deeply suspicious of anyone – scholar, preacher, or writer – who pretends to have it all figured out. There are historical references in it – the stories cross the times of four different kings representing three different kingdoms. There is tragedy in it – the primary characters begin the story as captive exiles after the fall of Judah and its capital city of Jerusalem. There are political references in it – it speaks of the rise and fall of kings and others in power. And there is protest in it – we might call it “protest history” because it refuses to buy into the self-promotion that usually accompanies history written by the victors. This book speaks of history, but from the perspective of the defeated, the exiles, the ones whose God is thought to be suspect but who ends up being exalted and praised.
Unfortunately, the reason many preachers and popular writers style themselves as experts on the book of Daniel is because of the “prophecy” in the book, particularly the last half of it. Even that, though, is a curiosity. Daniel is usually placed among the twelve “minor prophets” in Christian Bibles (with “minor” just indicating the size of the book, not its significance). In the Jewish Bible, Daniel is
listed among the books of prophecy, but among the
, which would be a collection of books like the Psalms, Esther, and Job, that are
from the Torah and the Prophets. And Daniel was originally written in two different languages, which seems to indicate that it is not as old or as far-seeing into the future as those who regard it as prophecy think it is.
The book of Daniel is a curious book in so, so many ways.
However, there’s another thing about the book of Daniel – both within the book itself and in how we remember the book – that I’ve always found curious. There are four Hebrew young men whose stories are gathered in the first six chapters. The curious thing is how we remember their names. When they were in Judah their names were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. When King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace master went to Judah and sought out their best and brightest to become trained in the ways of the Babylonians, he gave them Babylonian names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. My guess is that most of us in this room are familiar with the Hebrew name Daniel, but not his Babylonian name Belteshazzar; and those of us who are familiar with the Babylonian names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, may never have heard of their Hebrew names Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. We wonder: Why don’t we just know them all by their Hebrew names, since that would be a great way of sticking one’s thumb into the Empire’s eye and resisting their power to rename? Or, if the Babylonian names are good enough for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, why didn’t we just learn Daniel’s Babylonian name of Belteshazzar as well? I don’t have the slightest answers to those questions, but I can say that the confusion or assigning the names actually belongs to the book itself. As you read the first six chapters, there is very little consistency, which suggests – among other things – that there were many hands involved in writing these stories.
So, last week I could have told the story of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah and the Fiery Furnace, using their Hebrew names to show that old palace master who’s in charge. Or, we could tell the story of Belteshazzar and the Lion’s Den, using his Babylonian name to roll with the unfortunate consequences of war. And while the book of Daniel itself initially bounces back and forth between the names, it does eventually seem to land on what we’ve come to learn – the trio’s slave names and Daniel’s given name.
In the end, despite all of the curiosities that are found there, the book of Daniel is replete with acts of heroism, as Belteshazzar/Daniel, Shadrach/Hananiah, Mishach/Mishael, and Abednego/Azariah find ways both to advance through the chambers of power in the empire and to maintain their faithfulness to God. Perhaps the best approach to this curious book would be to see it as a leadership manual.
Mark (please don’t call me Donald) of St. Mark
I believe that the second half of Daniel was written during what we often call the “intertestmental” period, so that some of the events that seem “prophesied” years before were actually accounts of what was taking place near the time of its writing. For example, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes desecrated the temple by sacrificing a pig to Zeus on the holy altar, this “abomination of desolation” that Daniel refers to was more of an account of what was happening in 168 BC than a prophecy about it from centuries before.