Commentary on Daniel 3:1 [2-7] 8-30
Daniel 3 offers a glimpse into the lives of a group of young refugees whose existence is threatened in a new land.
On the surface, the lives of these three men — Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — are in jeopardy when the three are hurled into a fiery furnace because of their refusal to worship the Emperor Nebuchadnezzar. Beneath the surface, there are many other subtle ways, some quite devastating as well, in which these immigrants’ existence is threatened.
In Daniel 1, we learn that the names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had been changed from their birth names, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. This change in names is quite significant as names not only signify one’s identity and heritage, but in the case of these particular names, also one’s religious beliefs. So all three the original names of these Jewish men contain references to God such as “God is gracious” in the case of Hananiah, “Who is like God?” in the case of Mishael, and “God keeps him” in the case of Azariah.
These references to the God of Israel have now been substituted with references to the Babylonian gods, such as Nebo — Abednego means “servant of Nego.” Further evidence of these deliberate attempts from those in power to compel immigrants to change their religion is evident in the king’s order to force Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to bow down and worship the golden statue of the Emperor, and hence to submit to his authority instead of the God of Israel.
However, like their fellow Israelite Daniel in the chapters that surround this one, the three young men refuse to bow down before the king and forsake their God. Amidst very difficult circumstances, they remain faithful to their cultural and religious identity as Jews in the diaspora. Their resistance is met though with an incredible show of force when Nebuchadnezzar first repeatedly threatens them with death in Daniel 3:6, 11, 15 if they did not obey his command to bow down before the golden statue of the Emperor, and then acts on these threats by throwing them into a furnace that is so scalding that even the guards who throw the men into the fire succumb to its heat. And yet, similar to Daniel being saved from the lion’s den in chapter 6, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are miraculously saved and the scalding flames of the fire do nothing to harm them. Moreover, quite significant is the reference to a fourth figure, described by witnesses to be in the form of a god, who joins them in the fire (Daniel 3:25).
The story of Daniel 3 is set against the backdrop of the plight of the exiles during the Babylonian exile after having been forcefully removed from their home land by King Nebuchadnezzar, who is also the main perpetrator in this chapter. Scholars agree that the historical setting of Daniel 1-6 really reflects a much later time, most likely under the late Persian Empire. By transposing their current challenges to a time long ago, the narrative raises the central question: How does one survive under a foreign empire, and how does one remain a faithful Jew amidst all the threats to Jewish identity?
Daniel 3 thus details the exemplary behavior of these faithful believers who, despite the worst kinds of trials and tribulations, remain faithful to God and refuse to give up their religion. Secondly, this chapter wants to share with its readers the conviction that the reason why these immigrants survived under a hostile foreign empire is because of God’s faithfulness. The miraculous nature of the men’s survival leaves no doubt that it is only because of God’s intervention that they did not succumb to the empire’s attempts to wipe them out.
Even more miraculous than the three men being saved from a fiery furnace is the change of heart this mighty emperor exhibits at the end of the story. King Nebuchadnezzar declares in Daniel 3:29 that anyone who prohibits these immigrants from practicing their religion or who harms them in any way will be subjected to an even worse fate. With this declaration, the text implies that it is possible for the Jewish immigrants to stay true to their Jewish identity and to survive even the most vicious attacks by those in power. Moreover, instead of succumbing to imperial power, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are promoted in the province of Babylon.
This narrative encouraged its original audience, believers who found themselves under the Persian empire, to persevere. The story of the magical deliverance from the furnace promises that God is with them even in the most difficult of times — including being thrown into a furnace!
In today’s context, this story of refugees and the challenges they experience may have a different function. The threat to identity that immigrants experience on many different levels — including language, culture, and religious practices — is a very real concern in a world in which there are more than 65.3 million displaced individuals. A story that tells what Daniel and his three friends experienced as refugees in a foreign land may be helpful in encouraging us to imagine what it must feel like for immigrants who find themselves in hostile environments. This story thus may challenge communities today to respect others in their midst, which implies also respecting their freedom and agency to worship as they wish, as well as live out their cultural practices in their own way. This interpretation is especially important in this time of Advent when we remember that Jesus and his family were refugees (Matthew 2:13-23).
PRAYER OF THE DAY
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.
My Lord, what a morning, Robert Hobby