The Book of Daniel is an amazingly complex work.
The so-called Hebrew version of the text, which contains large sections of material written in Aramaic, contains two distinct parts: stories of Jews living in exile in Babylon and apocalyptic visions shown to the title character. The Greek version of the tales is distinctly longer than the Hebrew version.
Daniel is a prominent character throughout the book, depicted as a young, wise and pious Jew whose prophetic abilities are recognized by even the pagan Babylonians. Chapter 3, however, is the only chapter where Daniel does not appear. Instead, the story tells the tale of three other Jewish men who face dire consequences for their piety.
While the book is set during the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE), it was written down during a period of Greek colonization, some 400 years later. It is not interested in presenting an historical account of the Babylonian exile. It contains several historical inaccuracies, not the least of which is that fact that the Babylonians did not force their religion on others.
Instead it explores the vulnerability of peoples living under a religiously oppressive regime, a situation that fits the time of the Greek overlord Antiochus IV Epiphanes (167-164 BCE). The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego represents the choices faced by those who must either support an oppressive regime or face certain death.
While loss of cultural identity threatens exiled populations, those who are colonized face a different but no less serious threat. An exiled population often maintains the sense of being “Other” in their new place of residence; even if they try to assimilate, they are often treated as perennial outsiders by native populations. Those who are colonized have their status inverted. Although they are the native population, regimes that practice cultural colonization try to wipe out that native culture and replace it with a foreign one that now becomes hegemonic.
Colonized peoples face different choices than exiles. Often the choices made by a colonized individual affects whole families who still may be trying to preserve property and autonomy. Some choose to cooperate with the colonizers, others subvert it, while still others participate in active resistance. This was as true for the Judeans colonized by the Greeks as it is today.
The story of the three men gives a glimpse into those choices. They could accept the religion of the king as superior to their own. They could go through the motions of bowing to the statue while still maintaining their own belief. Or they could organize a rebellion against this oppressive religious practice. They choose none of these.
Instead, they decide to become living witnesses to what they believe in, offering their bodies as martyrs as an act of faith in their God. It is a form of peaceful resistance often associated today with people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bishop Oscar Romero.
Throughout the Christian traditions, these martyr stories ended with the death of the righteous sufferer, whose reward comes in their post-mortem sanctification. The story of the martyrdom of Perpetua preserves visions she had of the reward awaiting her in heaven. Second Maccabees 7, a text in the Old Testament Apocrypha, tells the story of a mother who watches the martyrdom of her seven sons by this same Antiochus, all the while exhorting them to be strong and face death. She and her sons trust that God, who will eventually punish wicked Antiochus, will reward these sons after death.
In contrast to these later stories, this tale of willing martyrdom in Daniel 3 ends with the miraculous rescue of the three men. In fact, the story makes visibly apparent that those who suffer are not alone. There is a heavenly being who accompanies them as they choose to meet their fate (verse 25). The text is wonderfully ambiguous about the identity of this divine figure.
In the resolution of the story, the men not only survive, but earn a job promotion as a result of their ordeal. How odd it seems that their reward is their continued service to their king; they now will work for his wellbeing. This ending calls attention to three important elements of the story that could otherwise be missed.
First, the story maintains its pacifistic attitude. Unlike the book of Esther which ends with the Jews slaughtering the Persians who attack them (Esther 9:5-10), there is no retaliation in this story. For this author, the perfect denouement is the conversion of the pagans and the peaceful co-existence of everyone.
Second, the resolution includes the further assimilation of the men into the colonized system. Shadrach and friends are not just Jews; they have a hybrid identity. Here their Babylonian Jewishness mirrors the Greek Jewishness of the book’s original audience.
Third, the fate of these three individuals is really a story about the fate of a whole people. Notice that at the beginning of the chapter, these three stand up for the rights of all those who live under this oppression. At the end of the chapter, the king declares religious protections for all Jews within his empire.
While the story is not a trickster tale, the narrative does subvert the hegemonic discourse of the colonizers. The king’s propaganda rests on his claim of complete power within his realm. All it takes to unravel this claim is the resolute refusal of these three people from the margins of that society to accept his claim as reality. Instead, they replace his claims, not with their own assertion of power, but rather with the statement that Yahweh is God.
Daniel 3 invites contemporary communities of faith to reflect on the long-lasting effects of colonization on themselves and those around them. It provides a model response to violent oppression: the stubborn refusal to be afraid. It seeks a reconciliation of both oppressor and oppressed, through which the world is reoriented to God.
God of fiery flames,Even the most raging fire could not destroy your servants when they called upon you in faith. Give us faith to withstand anything that rages to deter us from following you. Amen.
Many and great, O God ELW 837, NCH 3, UMH 148 Every time I feel the spirit (trad.) Light one candle to watch for Messiah ELW 240
My Lord, what a morning, Robert Hobby