In the Lions' Den - A Reflection on Daniel 6

Peter Paul Rubens 

            The journey through Daniel reaches its midpoint. Six stories featuring Jewish exiles, doing what Jeremiah told his fellow exiles to do:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  start;" Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

Daniel and his three friends settled in and sought the welfare of the city where they had been placed due to Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Judah and their removal from their homeland to Babylon. There’s no evidence of wives or children, but they fulfilled their calling to be a blessing, even as they remained faithful to their God. It wasn’t easy. In chapters 3 and 6, the exiles faced possible death if they didn’t bow before a Babylonian statue (chapter 3) or refrain from praying for thirty days (chapter 6).  With this chapter we have moved from the Babylonian period to the Persian period. The Persians might be a bit more lenient than the Babylonians, but they still lived under foreign rule. In addition, with this chapter we come to the end of the court tales. Moving forward we will explore the apocalyptic visions of Daniel, seeking to understand them, so perhaps we might hear a word for today.

            The story of Daniel in the Lion’s den is one of the best-known biblical stories. Like the fiery furnace, we all seem to have learned the story as children, though it is hardly a children’s story. These aren’t Aslan-like. These are, one would presume, wild animals, who might have been rather hungry. Fresh meat, human or otherwise was welcome. While we tend to focus on the lions, they are somewhat incidental to the story. This isn’t a story about lions and tigers, and snakes and things. This is a story at one level about survival, but diving deeper, this is a story of faithfulness in the face of great adversity. Whether the fiery furnace or lion’s den, this is a call to faithfulness, as is seen as we move through this final chapter in the first half of the book.

            The story is simple. We have moved from the Babylonian empire to the Median or Persian empire. Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, is now dead. In his place reigns Darius the Mede, a figure lost in time and myth. The Persian king who conquered the Babylonians was Cyrus. He gets named at the end of the chapter, but it’s Darius who is the primary foil for the story. Like Ahasuerus in Esther, this Persian king gets caught up in jealousies at court. It appears that not all are happy that Darius appointed this Jewish exile as Prime Minister, answerable only to the king. Thus, they plot to kill Daniel, but they’re stymied because Daniel is so righteous. Because they can’t find anything wrong with his service record, they decide to use his religion against him. Because they knew that Daniel was a devout follower of his religion, they decided to use that against him. Knowing that he went to his upper room, opened the window, and said his prayers, three times a day, they think they have a winning hand if they can figure out how to use this information. They got a great idea. Why not trap the king into issuing an irrevocable edict, that apparently even he couldn’t revoke? The edict demands that everyone in the empire should refrain from petitioning any human or god for thirty days besides the king. If caught doing otherwise, the culprit should be thrown into the Lion’s den (in other words, an easy death sentence). Surely this will catch Daniel in a compromising position, and they can be done with one they despise.

            What happens next? Daniel goes ahead and prays to his God, just like always does, three times a day. We even learn that he prays facing Jerusalem. It might be noted that at first Muslims also prayed toward Jerusalem, before turning toward Mecca.  So, does he fall into their trap, or does he purposely embrace it? You would think that Daniel could have continued praying without drawing notice to himself. He could have gone into an inner room where no one could see him. But no, he goes up stairs, opens the windows, and prays publicly, so everyone can see what he is doing. He could have done otherwise, but he chose not to take the safe route. As you can imagine, his opponents seized on this evidence, went to the king, told him what they discovered, and put the pressure on him to act. As we read their words to the king, we should note the way they describe the person who we might call Prime Minister, making Daniel their boss, that he is “one of the exiles from Judah.” Text can communicate the emotion inherent in their words, but I hear in them a venomous tone. This isn’t just jealousy of a superior officer. This is disdain for a foreigner, especially one who doesn’t live by their religious rules. Not only is he a foreigner, but he refuses to assimilate into the culture, by which they would mean following the religious traditions of the land.

            So, it goes. Daniel is arrested. He’s confronted. He refuses to abide by the ruling, and the king, with deep regret, is forced to have him thrown into the lion’s den. But, Darius is unlike Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3. He’s not angry with Daniel. He regrets the actions being forced upon him. He has great respect, perhaps even affection for this exile from Judah. He wants to rescue him but can’t. So, Darius says to Daniel, as the stone is being placed on the entrance to the den of lions: “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” Read flatly this might sound no different from Nebuchadnezzar’s words to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego in chapter 3, but Darius means what he says. He wants Daniel’s God to succeed. He’s rooting for Daniel and Daniel’s God. Darius can’t save Daniel, but he desperately wants God to do the rescuing.

            Well, you know how tings go from here. Daniel spends the night in the lion’s den, while Darius goes home and experiences a fitful night in which he can neither eat nor sleep. He’s worried. He’s anxious. He’s fearful. But, he knows Daniel. He’s heard the stories of survival. He may not be ready to convert, but this God of Daniel seems ready to stand by those who are faithful. So, maybe there will be good news in the morning. As for Daniel, we’re told that an angel appeared (just like in the fiery furnace). In this case the angel shut the mouths of the hungry lions, so that they couldn’t attack Daniel. So, he was about to spend the night safe and sound in the company of angels. In this version, Daniel only spends one night in the lion’s den. In the addition known as “Bel and the Dragon,” he spends seven days and nights in the lion’s den and survives despite the lions not being fed anything. In our text, however, the king can only wait one night before he runs to the lions’ den to see if Daniel’s God saved him. Sure enough, when the king called out for Daniel, he answered back, telling the king that God sent an angel to deliver him because he was found blameless before God and king. He is a righteous man.  

             This response results in two things. After Daniel is pulled out of the lion’s den safe and sound, the accusers are thrown into face the hungry lions (there are seven of them in Bel and the Dragon, all of whom are very hungry). Needless to say, they don’t survive. As for the second part. Darius offers praise to Daniel’s God, affirming the God of Daniel as being superior to himself and to his gods. This God, the God of Daniel, lives forever. Not only does Darius offer words of praise, but he writes a letter to everyone in the world, that is, the empire, telling them to tremble and fear the God of Daniel. Daniel lived happily ever after, surviving the reigns of Cyrus and Darius. Or, as C.L. Seow puts it: “Daniel, the Jewish exile, whose career began during the days of the Chaldean kings, prospers through the reigns of Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Persian. The lowly exile outlasts the kings of those empires.” [Seow, Daniel (Westminster Bible Companion), p. 96]. This was foretold by Nebuchadnezzar in his dream that Daniel long before had interpreted. Empires rise and fall, kings come and go, but the realm of God lives forever.

            So, what might we take from this story. Indeed, from all these stories? Daniel isn’t afraid to participate in the culture in which he finds himself, but he knows where to draw the line. He rises to a position of power, but he doesn’t hold on to it tightly. He’s willing to die for his beliefs. He keeps focused on God, to whom he gives total allegiance. He will do what he can to help Darius, but not at the cost of his relationship with God. Not only that, he will express his faith boldly, by praying in an upper room, with the windows open, in broad daylight, always knowing that it will likely lead to death. Daniel’s example paved the way for others to choose a similar path. As Brennan Breed notes in his study of the interpretation of the book of Daniel and this chapter in particular:
Early interpreters tended to focus on the exemplary faith of Daniel and the three youths in the fiery furnace as a model of courage under trial; at times, they emphasized the willingness to die for one’s beliefs (4 Macc 13:9; 16:3, 21; 18:12–14), and at other times they stressed that God can miraculously save those who faithfully petition (Josephus, Ant. 10.257–58). As a result of these motifs of faithful courage and miraculous survival, Daniel was a popular figure in Christian and Jewish art of late antiquity. [Newsom, Carol A. Daniel: A Commentary (The OldTestament Library) (p. 202). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.]
I can see how this might be true. Daniel exemplifies faithfulness under duress, serving as a model for those who came later. It is no wonder that these stories, fictional or not, would inspire Jews resisting Antiochus IV. Antiochus, of course, was no Darius. He cared not a wink about the God of the Jews. He believed Zeus to be superior and was willing to desecrate the second Temple to achieve his aims of wiping Judaism off the face of the earth.

            With this as a foundation for later persons to stand firm in faith and ethics, maybe I can understand why Daniel became a popular story for Sunday Schools. What I did not know, however, is that Daniel served as a model for one of the great figures of the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi. Brennan Breed brings him to our attention. I find this fascinating.
And in 1909, after being released from imprisonment in South Africa for refusing to carry official papers, Mahatma Gandhi gave a speech in which he claimed that he had “found much consolation in reading the book of the prophet Daniel” in jail. He learned that “Daniel was one of the greatest passive resisters that ever lived,” and thus the Indian people in South Africa “must follow his example. … They must sit with their doors flung wide open and tell those gentlemen [the South African authorities] that whatever laws they passed were not for them unless those laws were from God” (Gandhi 220). Gandhi interprets the verb “open” (pĕtîān) in Dan 6:10 (11) to be in the active voice, which led to Gandhi’s claim that Daniel wanted to flaunt his transgression of the immoral law. Though the verb pĕtîān is in the passive voice in MT, it is—albeit unbeknownst to Gandhi—active in the OG and Ethiopic versions (Smith-Christopher 1993, 329). And some of Gandhi’s contemporaries noted his inspiration from the book of Daniel.  [Newsom, Carol A. Daniel: A Commentary (The Old TestamentLibrary) (p. 209). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.]
If Gandhi found Daniel a worthy guide, perhaps we might also in this most difficult of times. May Daniel give us encouragement to stand firm in our faith, and do so boldly, flaunting our transgressions of immoral laws. Yes, this is a book for our times!


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