Exegetical Exercise (Daniel 3)

Icon showing golden image, fiery furnace, and lion's den
“They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.” Daniel 3:28

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, January 14 is Daniel 3:19-23, 26-28 – but the story being told occupies all of Daniel 3. It’s the familiar story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego in the fiery furnace, and it’s the third of four stories that concern King Nebuchadnezzar. Here are my notes on Daniel 3:

First Impressions and Questions: How big is sixty by six cubits? (Evidently, ninety by nine feet – so, a really tall, skinny statue.) Of what? (We are never told. It might have been of one of the Babylonian gods, or a person, or even “of” nothing in particular – it might have been an obelisk or stele.) Where is Dura? Why would King Nebuchadnezzar do any of this in the first place?? And why “a furnace of blazing fire” (v5)? Wouldn’t it be simpler just to run people through with a sword or something? (So, does the furnace mean something?)

There is a lot of repetition and extravagance in this story: long lists of officials, exotic ones, repeated; long lists of musical instruments, exotic ones, repeated; verbs and descriptions repeated over and over. It is almost like a fairytale or a children’s book.

Why are the enemies even needed? (vv8-12) (Can’t Nebuchadnezzar see for himself that some people aren’t “falling down”?)

The three young men are brave. Would I be that brave?

Where do they get these punishments??? (v29)

Context/Background: There is a lot of historical background condensed in the online article “The Golden Image of Nebuchadnezzar” by John F. Walvoord, including the kind of statue this might have been, and where, how characteristic it is of the period, etc. Walvoord is an early-date book of Daniel scholar.

Rashi says the statue was so tall and skinny that it kept falling down, until the Babylonians melted down some of the gold from the Temple to make a solid base for it (thus adding insult to injury). Also, that the “fiery furnace” would have been “a pit for burning rocks into lime.”

Together, the four stories about Nebuchadnezzar might tell a larger story about the king’s progressive change of consciousness, from chapter 1, where he simply recognizes the superior wisdom of the Judeans, through chapters 2 and 3, where he comes to recognize the superior abilities of their God, to chapter 4, where he ultimately says he, himself “praises and extols and honors the King of heaven” (Daniel 4:37). If so, that context adds something to the meaning of this episode. Here, Nebuchadnezzar is already aware that the God of Israel provides Daniel and the others with superior wisdom; now, he will see that the God of Israel has astonishing power over the physical world. (This power is especially surprising, since Israel had been defeated in war … which would have been read as an indication of the relative disability of the God of Israel.)

Closer Reading: Focusing on repetitions: Some seem to add to the sense of extremes in the story. The long list of officials in v2 (“the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces”) repeats once in full (v3) and once in abbreviated form (v27). As translated, we get the impression of the entire Babylonian bureaucracy. Rashi, on the other hand, identifies some of the terms as names of nations (reinforced by the reference to “peoples, nations and languages” in vv 4, 7, and 29), presumably ones subject to the king. Either way, the story creates an impression of an over-the-top large audience. The long list of musical instruments in v5 (“horn, pipe, lyre, trigon (something like a lyre or harp, only triangular), harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble” – literally, and “all the kinds of music”) repeats three times (vv 7, 10, 15). So, this dedication ceremony is shaping up to be extremely elaborate.

There is also a long list of the clothes that Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego are wearing (v21) when they are heaved into the furnace, which doesn’t exactly repeat, but which is called to mind in v27: that’s a lot of clothes not to have been scorched or to smell like smoke. And heating the fire to seven times its normal intensity (v19) – that’s a lot of blazing fire. It’s as if the Babylonians are the Texans of the ancient world.

Other repetitions seem to reinforce the notion of “setting up” vs. “falling down” and the meaning associated with those postures. Once Nebuchadnezzar sets up the golden image (v1), it’s repeatedly referred to as “the image king Nebuchadnezzar had set up” (vv2, 3 – twice, 7, 12, 14, 18). Arguably, Nebuchadnezzar can “set up” this image, since he is actually greater than the image. What Nebuchadnezzar wants people to do is to “fall down” before the statue (vv5, 7, 10, 11, 15); the “worship” that people are supposed to perform (vv5, 7, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15 – twice, 18) involves prostration. Eventually, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego do “fall down” – into the blazing furnace. But that falling down is actually an act of worship of the God of Israel. Their falling down into the furnace expresses their obedience to the God of Israel. And then, Nebuchadnezzar “rose up” (v24) – upward movement being something he likes to do, but in this case, it’s not entirely voluntary, it’s in response to a compelling manifestation of God, and it’s not an expression of superiority or control, but an expression of being overawed by an even greater power. (Possibly, God is here, in effect, setting up Nebuchadnezzar, since God is greater than Nebuchadnezzar.) So the repetition of these verbs seems to mean something about who is in charge, and about what it means to worship, and to command worship. Nebuchadnezzar starts out with one idea about this, but by the end of the story we have a different, more correct idea – which is the idea Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego have had all along.

From the standpoint of activity, Nebuchadnezzar is the main character in the story – at least, he is the one who does the most (16 verbs). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego come in a distant second (10 verbs, and 3 of those are things they are having done to them). Part of what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego do is give a speech (vv17-18) that declares their unwavering loyalty to the God of Israel. Their loyalty explicitly does not depend on God’s delivering them from death. This seems important: they are not obeying God because they are so sure God is going to save their lives. Instead, it seems, they are obeying God because that’s what’s right.

The impact of the story, though, does depend on God’s saving their lives. Verse 15 makes an ironic reference to “the god that will deliver you out of my [Nebuchadnezzar’s] hands.” Nebuchadnezzar thinks there is no such god, but by verse 29 he has changed his tune.

Possibly ironically, as well, the enormous audience for the dedication of the golden image becomes the audience for the miracle performed by the God of Israel (v27).

Nebuchadnezzar makes the moral of the story explicit: “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.” (v28)

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