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No. 48: The Apocrypha: Bel and the Dragon

OPEN BOOK, Views & Reviews, No. 48
Copyright (c) 1999 Biblical Horizons, October, 1999

Part 1:

1When King Astyages was laid with his fathers, Cyrus the Persian received his kingdom. 2And Daniel was a companion of the king, and was the most honored of his friends.

3Now the Babylonians had an idol called Bel, and every day they spent on it twelve bushels of fine flour and forty sheep and fifty gallons of wine. 4The king revered it and went every day to worship it. But Daniel worshiped his own God.

5And the king said to him, "Why do you not worship Bel?"

He answered, "Because I do not revere man-made idols, but the living God, who created heaven and earth and has dominion over all flesh."

6The king said to him, "Do you not think that Bel is a living God? Do you not see how much he eats and drinks every day?"

7Then Daniel laughed, and said, "Do not be deceived, O king; for this is but clay inside and brass outside, and it never ate or drank anything."

8Then the king was angry, and he called his priests and said to them, "If you do not tell me who is eating these provisions, you shall die. 9But if you prove that Bel is eating them, Daniel shall die, because he blasphemed against Bel."

And Daniel said to the king, "Let it be done as you have said."

10Now there were seventy priests of Bel, besides their wives and children. And the king went with Daniel into the temple of Bel. 11And the priests of Bel said, "Behold, we are going outside; you yourself, O king, shall set forth the food and mix and place the wine, and shut the door and seal it with your signet. 12And when you return in the morning, if you do not find that Bel has eaten it all, we will die; or else Daniel will, who is telling lies about us." 13They were unconcerned, for beneath the table they had made a hidden entrance, through which they used to go in regularly and consume the provisions. 14When they had gone out, the king set forth the food for Bel.

Then Daniel ordered his servants to bring ashes and they sifted them throughout the whole temple in the presence of the king alone. Then they went out, shut the door and sealed it with the king’s signet, and departed. 15In the night the priests came with their wives and children, as they were accustomed to do, and ate and drank everything.

16Early in the morning the king rose and came, and Daniel with him. 17And the king said, "Are the seals unbroken, Daniel?"

He answered, "They are unbroken, O king."

18As soon as the doors were opened, the king looked at the table, and shouted in a loud voice, "You are great, O Bel; and with you there is no deceit, none at all."

19Then Daniel laughed, and restrained the king from going in, and said, "Look at the floor, and notice whose footsteps these are."

20The king said, "I see the footsteps of men and women and children." 21Then the king was enraged, and he seized the priests and their wives and children; and they showed him the secret doors through which they were accustomed to enter and devour what was on the table. 22Therefore the king put them to death, and gave Bel over to Daniel, who destroyed it and its temple.

Part 2:

23There was also a great dragon [big snake], which the Babylonians revered. 24And the king said to Daniel, "You cannot deny that this is a living god; so worship him."

25Daniel said, "I will worship the Lord my God, for he is the living God. 26But if you, O king, will give me permission, I will slay the dragon without sword or club."

The king said, "I give you permission."

27Then Daniel took pitch, fat, and hair, and boiled them together and made cakes, which he fed to the dragon. The dragon ate them, and burst open. And Daniel said, "See what you have been worshiping!"

28When the Babylonians heard it, they were very indignant and conspired against the king, saying, "The king has become a Jew; he has destroyed Bel, and slain the dragon, and slaughtered the priests."

29Going to the king, they said, "Hand Daniel over to us, or else we will kill you and your household." 30The king saw that they were pressing him hard, and under compulsion he handed Daniel over to them.

31They threw Daniel into the lions’ den, and he was there for six days. 32There were seven lions in the den, and every day they had been given two human bodies and two sheep; but these were not given to them now, so that they might devour Daniel.

33Now the prophet Habakkuk was in Judea. He had boiled pottage and had broken bread into a bowl, and was going into the field to take it to the reapers. 34But the angel of the Lord said to Habakkuk, "Take the dinner which you have to Babylon, to Daniel, in the lions’ den."

35Habakkuk said, "Sir, I have never seen Babylon, and I know nothing about the den."

36Then the angel of the Lord took him by the crown of his head, and lifted him by his hair and set him down in Babylon, right over the den, with the rushing sound of the wind itself. 37Then Habakkuk shouted, "Daniel, Daniel! Take the dinner which God has sent you."

38And Daniel said, "You have remembered me, O God, and have not forsaken those who love thee." 39So Daniel arose and ate. And the angel of God immediately returned Habakkuk to his own place.

40On the seventh day the king came to mourn for Daniel. When he came to the den he looked in, and there sat Daniel. 41And the king shouted with a loud voice, "You are great, O Lord God of Daniel, and there is no other besides thee." 42And he pulled Daniel out, and threw into the den the men who had attempted his destruction, and they were devoured immediately before his eyes.

Some think that these two stories were originally separate, but they are so closely unified in theme that I think they were always one literary work. The first story, of the defeat of the priests of Bel, is an expos� of the workings of idolatry, and probably was written to assure Jewish readers that there are no false gods who eat food. The second story shows that a god who can be killed is not a god at all. The entire narrative is linked by the theme of food.

Evidently some in Judah were puzzled by the fact that Darius/Cyrus in Daniel 6 already knew who the true God is. They felt a need to come up with stories of the king’s conversion. These stories fill that need, though they have no basis in fact. It is likely that Cyrus was already a God-fearing Gentile when he came to the throne, having heard the Truth from the many Jewish refugees in that part of the world.

Daniel’s night in the lion’s den is expanded to a whole week. This fiction is added to the original history in order to make it necessary for Daniel to be fed.

The introduction of Habakkuk is a deliberate absurdity, for that prophet had long been dead by this time, and every Jewish reader would know it. This is a signal that these stories are not to be taken as historical verity. And of course, any Jewish reader would know that in historical fact, Daniel had only been in the lion’s den for one night. Habakkuk’s odd mode of transportation is taken from Ezekiel 8:3, where that prophet was in a vision taken by the hair from Babylon to Jerusalem.

Jewish boys could feed snakes and lizards all the pitch, hair, and fat they wanted, and they would not explode! We are supposed to understand that God miraculously caused this concoction to have the effect Daniel desired. Daniel defeated the first false god by wisdom; God defeated the second by miraculously exposing it as false, and by killing it. This was hardly a "living" god!

The overall story is thematically unified by food. The priests of Bel eating in their temple correspond to Daniel’s eating in the lion’s den. The serpent is also killed with food. In differing ways, both are killed by food. Since the serpent is killed miraculously, while Daniel is fed miraculously, the meaning is that God gives food that is appropriate to the person. When the wicked prosper, like the priests of Bel who eat good food and wine, they do so by deception and trickery. The true Trickster is God, who provides for His people by the "trick" of miracle.

Daniel’s food was brought from the "holy land" of Judah, while the idol priests ate the food offered to their false god. We can see in this a kind of "sacramental" theology. While the wicked see the need to feed their gods, our God chooses to feed us, and from His own Table.

The wicked may have their idol temples, and for a while may get food in them, but God will deal with them in time. And the righteous may be stuck in dens with fearful lions for a while, but God will take care of them.

Whatever the case, the story ridicules idolatry. Twice Daniel laughs at it in the first tale. Mockery is evident in the second as well.

In conclusion: At first glance, this narrative looks ridiculous, and it has been ridiculed. But it is really a sophisticated, thematically unified story, well told, and worthy of being a part of any Christian "literary canon."