< December 11, 2011 >

Commentary on Daniel 3:1-30

 

No Other God -- that assertion is at the core of this chapter as it is in the entire book of Daniel.

Our religious culture has commonly appropriated the book of Daniel in one of two ways:

1) heroic examples of faith that we are to emulate.
2) predictions that we are to decode and align with.

Both shift the focus from God to the pivotal action(s) we must/should do. While it may be self-evident that God is at the center of the book, our actual interpretive practice is to slip into an emphasis on our conduct.

In chapter 3, Nebuchadnezzar intensifies his tyrannical demands. From a statue in a horrifying dream in the prior chapter, we move to a statue of the king's own making (3:1). He commands everyone to worship his statue (3:3-6) and thus the contest between divine pretension and God is set in motion. True, this directly challenges the faithfulness of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and they are threatened with death (3:13-15). Their faithfulness to God is exemplary, but that is not the final point of the chapter.

The deepest source of amazement is God's faithfulness to them. Nebuchadnezzar confesses, "No other god is able to deliver in this way" (3:29). Nebuchadnezzar is amazed by God, not merely by the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The latter are promoted, but not deified. Looking into the fire, Nebuchadnezzar is undone. He had sought total control. He unleashed all his destructive powers but at that very point he lost control. In addition, the officials who gathered before the king's statue (3) now gather to observe the failure of the king's fire (27). God succeeds; Nebuchadnezzar fails.

Again, this may be stating the obvious, but even a cursory review of children's books demonstrates how quickly the emphasis shifts to the exemplary conduct of the faithful. The result is less a testimony to God's fidelity and more a didactic tale about how to get good results. Be faithful and God will protect you, with an implied threat that the opposite will be the case if you are not faithful. By the end of the book of Daniel it is clear that not all of the faithful are spared from death. Our handling of Daniel 3 should not be in isolation from the end of the book. Daniel 3 does not commend a transactional relationship, a manual on how to survive in tough times. Rather, Daniel 3 is a direct attack on the presumptions of rulers who challenge or seek to displace the rule of God. Nebuchadnezzar is the warm-up act for the little horn in latter chapters.

Why Nebuchadnezzar set up the golden images is not explicitly stated and no reference is made to the name of the god his statue is to represent. What is stressed, rather, is that Nebuchadnezzar himself inspired it and set it up (3:1, 2, 3 [twice], 5, 7, 12, 14, 18). Nebuchadnezzar has placed himself beyond God. At the end of Daniel 2 he had fallen to the ground and confessed that the God of Daniel is "God of gods and Lord of kings," but that posture recedes quickly in chapter 3. In the form of a question he boasts that there is no god capable of freeing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. His power, he presumes, is beyond challenge. He can even set up gods.

Perhaps we should not be entirely surprised that Nebuchadnezzar has it all wrong. At the end of chapter 2 there was a show of humility -- he "falls on his face" -- but something is already out of joint when his worship is directed to Daniel, not to God (2:46). (Why Daniel does not object is unknown, as is Daniel's whereabouts in chapter 3.) Now, at the beginning of chapter 3 others must bow (3:5, 6, 11, 15). In addition, Nebuchadnezzar never acknowledges what the narrator asserted in the opening verses of the book: God gave him the victory over Judah and Jerusalem (1:1-2). Whatever strength he had, especially over against Judean exiles, was God-given. In contrast to being a recipient, Nebuchadnezzar places himself at the center. God disrupts Nebuchadnezzar's centering.

The narrator presents the story in chapter 3 in a style that may itself undercut Nebuchadnezzar's presumption. The repeated long lists of officials (3:2 and 3:3) and musical instruments (3:5, 7, 10, 15) mock the pomposity and hubris of the king. His actions are "over the top." His royal ambition is out of control, underscored with the twofold mention of his rage (3:13, 19) and the sevenfold increase in the temperature of the furnace. The situation remains potentially lethal for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but the king also looks foolish in his exaggerated conduct. The narrators' narration joins in God's mockery and defeat of his power.

Interpreters should not rush to conclude that the statement in 3:18 ("but if not") is an expression of doubt about God's deliverance. "If not" is a very real possibility, especially in the short term. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego surrender their future to God, not to Nebuchadnezzar. In the process they do not tie God's hands. Death does not limit or end God's capacity to create a future. The "if not" of verse 18 places the interpreter and all other readers at the same point imagined in "A Might Fortress Is Our God." "Though life be wrenched away...The Kingdom's ours forever!" We relinquish the creation of that kingdom -- its contours and content -- to God

If the three had known in advance that they would be spared from death in the furnace, they would be following a mere formula; the results would be in their control. God is not a vending machine into which we insert our faithfulness and out comes the reward we are seeking. In the midst of persecution, the persecuted don't have a formula. As with their prayer in 2:17-18, they trust God but do not presume upon God. Trusting God ought not to be reduced to a formula for success and prosperity. The latter, however, is a very tempting move to make with this chapter (and chapter 6 as well). To turn this text into formula (i.e., deliverance, promotion, etc. is all there, if only we...) is to sidestep the end of the book where clearly the faithful are martyred. The theme "God Can Deliver" moves to "Only God Can Deliver" as we move from chapter 3 through to the end of the book.

The officials had gathered before Nebuchadnezzar's statue (3:3) but by the end of the chapter they stood as witnesses to the work of the true God (3:27). Their worship of the statue had gained them nothing; they end under a new threat from Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar drops all the fury he had attached to the challenge to his power (3:13, 19), but his new decree shows he is still a violent man. He commends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego's defiance of his decree, but follows this with a new decree commanding the worship of their God. He commands others, but he does not worship. His death-threat is hardly a fitting way to bring people to worship the true God. Promoting Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would have been enough.

Throughout the chapter, the king is portrayed hyperbolically. Does this serve as a form of resistance? Anyone who attempts to be a subsequent "Nebuchadnezzar" should take a look in the mirror this chapter provides. God will not be mocked -- that is an enduring threat to the oppressor and hope for the oppressed. What status symbols in our contexts do we see in the bombast of Nebuchadnezzar? Defying hubristic status symbols is both an act of resistance against the oppressor and an act of faith that God will not abandon those whom God has chosen. Where we and our audience are on the spectrum from oppressor to oppressed will create a different engagement with this chapter and the book of Daniel as a whole. Some will be comforted: the oppressor does not have the last word and God creates a future beyond the oppression. Some will be discomforted: they don't have the last word and God ends their domination.