Our stories over the next few weeks,
as we begin our worship series on Daniel,
are all set in sixth century BCE Babylon.
The Jews are in exile there, Jerusalem in ruins, the temple razed.
Now the dates don’t line up quite right. The wrong king is listed.
And Babylon is identified with Shinar,
the setting for those arrogant people building the tower of Babel in Genesis 11.
And king Nebuchadnezzar sent his palace master, or captain of the guard,
Ashpenaz, to bring the best of the captives to serve in the palace—
those of the Judean royalty and nobility,
those without physical defect, handsome,
versed in wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight—
those one would expect to lead deemed competent to serve.
Now the particular word for “master of the guard” or “palace guard”
contains within it the word “eunuch”
(Sharon Pace, Daniel in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2008] 27).
So Ashpenaz stands in contrast to those without physical defect—
representative of the threat of the absolute and ruthless power of this king.
This is the true face of the threat with which you live.
Do not take it lightly.
In light of such threat—in the face of such threat,
these exemplary captives were to be taught the language of Babylon—
the literature of Babylon—the language and stories of another culture.
they were to be educated—indoctrinated—for three years,
at the end of which they could be stationed in the king’s court.
All aspects of their lives were controlled and determined by others—
down to what they would eat—
they were assigned a daily portion of the royal rations to eat and drink.
Among those Ashpenaz selected, four are mentioned in particular,
and the Hebrew word is specific. These were not adolescents
or young men, they were boys (Pace, 28).
And their Hebrew names were taken from them.
Daniel which means “El (God) is my judge”
was renamed Belteshazzar, “protect the king’s life”—
possibly a name also honoring Bel,
the biblical name for Marduk, one of the Babylonian gods.
Hananiah which means “the Lord has been gracious,”
was renamed Shadrach, “command of Aku” …
or possibly a mocking misspelling of Marduk?
Mishael, meaning “who is what God is?”
was renamed Meshach, “who is what Aku is?”
A comparative theology comment?
Or another “derisive corruption of Marduk’s name”?
Azariah which means “the Lord has helped” was renamed Abednego, “servant of Nabu”
(and this long before Star Wars!).
So names that are explicit Hebrew affirmations of God are changed
to names derived from Babylonian gods—
and, possibly—possibly, to names that contain within them
something with which to mock those Babylonian gods (Pace, 33).
Under the threat of Nebuchadnezzar and Nebuchadnezzar’s orders,
Daniel decides he won’t defile himself (strong word)—
won’t defile himself with these foods.
Now don’t forget what we have here—
a precocious kid—
a child who’s been raised on the stories of faith—
whose been taught the expectations of God
and of the community of faith.
Whether it goes back to his parents or teachers (or, as is most likely, both),
made to go to Saturday School, Vacation Torah School,
worship, youth group, to participate in family devotions,
here’s a child who resists the absolute power of the king
and chooses what he believes to be—
what he’s been taught is correct or proper or kosher—
recognizing “[t]hese attempts at assimilation [have] become tests of faith” (Pace, 5).
If I become too much like these around me,
I’m no longer set apart enough—different enough, to be like God.
And he asks Ashpenaz to allow him not to defile himself.
He’s not acting from a position of power. He’s a captive.
He’s a child. He’s asking permission—and not from the king,
but from the eunuch palace guard.
He’s not acting from a position of power,
but a position of initiating faithfulness.
Now our translation reads that God allowed Daniel
to receive hessed from the palace guard.
Hessed though is God’s gift—usually translated steadfast love,
but always having to do with God’s power to deliver.
So while Daniel has no power,
the story assures us that God’s power works on his behalf.
Ashpenaz confesses his fear of the king,
“I’m afraid for my head!”
But Daniel proposes a way in which the king’s order
can be resisted—disobeyed—without fear.
“Let me prove to you that I can disobey the king,
and yet it won’t threaten you.”
And there’s a test within the testing,
and in a classic biblical inversion of power,
the one being tested ends up testing the ones
thinking they’re doing the testing.
Now notice, none of this is known to the king.
The king is clueless as to what’s unfolding—oblivious.
This defiant resistance is not blatant, public.
All done in the shadows, as it were—
But it thoroughly undermines the king nonetheless.
Then, presumably after three years, tested by the king himself,
Daniel and his friends prove themselves to be
not just the best of the captives,
but ten times smarter than the Babylonian wise,
and the king still has no idea that they got that way
by disobeying him.
Daniel continued there (in the king’s court),
where he had gone from captive to adviser (like Joseph),
until the first year of King Cyrus, we read—
until the end of the exile, in other words—
until the power shifts, and the exiles go home.
God’s hessed at work.
Now we move on to the second story.
in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, we read,
(which is problematic as the story unfolds—
because the second year of his reign was before the conquest of Judah—
before Daniel would have ever been at his court).
In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams
wouldn’t let him sleep—they troubled him.
(It’s the same verb used to describe Pharaoh’s dreams in the Joseph story.)
But in a brilliant turn of storytelling,
we don’t know—we aren’t told what those dreams are.
Well, the king turns first to his own
advisers, magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and Chaldeans
(magicians and sorcerers resonate with both the Joseph stories
and the Moses stories—Pharaoh’s advisers).
The king explains his problem,
and his advisers, very reasonably, ask to hear the dream.
But he arbitrarily responds, “If you’re as good as you say you are,
tell me both the dream and the interpretation!”
And if you can’t, you’ll be executed
dismembered, drawn and quartered along with your entire house.”
It’s excessive, unjust and spectacularly brutal—
in the specific sense of making a spectacle of brutality.
On the other hand, if you can tell me,
you’ll be rewarded as greatly as you would be punished.
What do you think it suggests, if anything,
that traditional images and concepts of hell and heaven
correspond to the excessive, unjust evil of the wicked king?
Well, the king’s advisers ask again to be told the dream,
but the king accuses them of stalling for time
and orders them, along with all the wise of the city, to be executed.
Daniel hears about this, in conversation with the king’s executioner
because he, as one of the wise, is to be executed now too.
And it sounds like Daniel’s a little older now,
even though this story is supposedly happening earlier!
And the verbs are such that the executing could have already begun.
The verse could read: the wise were about to be executed,
or the wise were being executed.
And in the face of such a threat, Daniel initiates a visit with the king.
“Let me have some time,” he asks.
Now that’s what the king accused his advisers of asking for
that didn’t go over so well!
Daniel lives under the threat of insane power,
but he gets what they did not.
And Daniel requests the prayers of his friends—
that God would reveal the mystery
so that they, along with the rest of the wise, would not be executed.
The rest of the wise as in all the others? Or the rest of the wise as in those not yet executed?
And community and prayer are portrayed as so vitally significant
in the face of evil.
Daniel goes back to the executioner,
“Excuse me for interrupting!”
And Arioch takes Daniel to the king and introduces him
again, as if he’s never met the guy!
Before the king, Daniel disavows any personal power.
The mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night.
God reveals deep and hidden things and knows what is in the darkness,
and light dwells with God, the revealer of mysteries.
And Daniel tells the king of his dream of this great statue
with the magnificent gold head
(gold inevitably making the Jews think of all the gold stolen from the temple),
the silver chest and arms, the bronze middle and thighs,
legs of iron and feet partly of iron and partly of clay,
and of the stone that struck the foundation and toppled the statue
supplanting it with a mountain.
And Daniel interprets the dream of the statue as the decline of empire
and the establishment of the mountain of God.
Now are we talking chronologically successive kings getting weaker and weaker?
Nebuchadnezzar’s son, then his son-in-law, then his son?
Or successive empires? the Babylonian, the Medean, Persian, Greek, Roman.
And isn’t it interesting that empire in decline—at its weakest—
is imaged as foundation for the whole?
You’re only as strong as your weakest manifestation.
Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face before Daniel
(just like the statue fell!) and worshipped Daniel.
Boy did he misunderstand the whole God thing!
Promoted him, gave him many great gifts,
and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon
and chief prefect over the wise of Babylon (again, sounds so much like Joseph).
Now these two stories don’t actually make too much sense
If I, as king, have tested these guys
and discovered that they’re ten times smarter than my best,
I’m going to remember them.
And when I have a dream that needs interpreting,
I’m not going to need to be reintroduced to them all over again.
And when they come to interpret the dream need to be reintroduced again.
Almost as if these stories were never meant to form a chronology,
but a theme.
As if they were part of a great collection of stories
that really aren’t specific to this king or that one,
but ring true whether it’s this king or that one.
Stories written and collected and told around campfires
told around dining room tables—
stories to teach, encourage and inspire.
And they all have the same cast of characters—
the powerful authority, the apparently powerless faithful
figuring out how to live under the threat of dominant culture,
tested, standing before the king, taking faithful initiative,
relying not on personal power, but on God’s.
All repeating the truth that power doesn’t recognize truth and grace
as many times as they appear.
They are forgotten as soon as the power games begin again.
But are always recognized in the end.
So these are the stories of the faithful in Babylon and back in Egypt,
and during the Persian dominance, the Greek, and the Roman.
“[B]etween Alexander the Great in 333 BCE
and the Roman takeover of Palestinian affairs around 63 BCE …,
some 200 military campaigns were fought in or around Palestine”
(Daniel L. Smith-Christopher,
Daniel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes
Volume VII [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996] 26).
Did you hear the one about Daniel?
These are simply the stories of the faithful in the world.
Now let’s be honest. We don’t know what it’s like
to live under the physical threat of insane power—
which is not to say that power doesn’t shape our lives,
and that we are even complicit with it in the shaping.
And if I become too much like those around me,
I’m not set apart enough—different enough—to be like God.
So we need as much as anyone, these stories about confronting power
in the way of tricksters like Daniel, Br’er Rabbit, Fox and Coyote,
Till Eulenspiegel, Shakespeare’s fool, Robin Hood, and Jesus—
subversive stories to celebrate—
to tell around campfires and dining room tables
in worship services and Bible study—
about heroes who undermine our status quo
and remind us of the limitations of any political and social leaders,
and extend hope in and through out living.
So are we told such stories? Are you?
In Sunday School and worship? Vacation Bible School? Youth group? Family devotions?
Are we challenged to live up to such stories? Are you?
As we prepare to vote on Tuesday,
with all the integrity of our convictions,
do we mock the very idea that politics and politicians
are the appropriate place wherein to locate our deepest hopes
of redemption and transformation?
Do we acknowledge the fundamental weakness of any human institution
steeped in power and money?
Can we tell the stories in which perspective and humor, wit and grace
confront and confound power and render it speechless
and exposed as witless and graceless and myopic?
These are dangerous stories for any culture.
We tell dangerous stories here—for those with ears to hear—
mocking as they do those whose perspective is limited by national loyalty
or party loyalty—
reminding us always of a bigger story
so much more profoundly important.
Stories not about the power of leaders,
but about the power of the faithful.
And as lightly as such stories are told and heard,
they acknowledge the true face of the threat under which we live.
They do not take it lightly.
For the threat is immense and transcends any aspect of the upcoming elections.
Because the threat is precisely what won’t come up at any debate—
won’t ever come up at any debate:
the accepted role of violence in our society,
our national blindness to the consequence
of growing poverty, homelessness, and hunger,
the destructive implications of greed and gluttony, of materialism,
the selfish blindness of the two c’s of convenience and comfort,
the pace of our driven society, the short-sightedness, the unwillingness to sacrifice.
So have you heard?
Have you heard the one about that great Quaker minister, John Woolman,
who back in the eighteenth century asked us to live with care:
“May we look upon our treasures,
the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves—
and ask whether the seeds of war have any nourishment
in these our possessions or not” (Smith-Christopher, 45).
Have you heard the one about Lottie Moon?
Oh, not the one about collecting money, but the one
about her starving herself so she could feed the hungry around her?
The one that’s not only subversive within our culture,
but also within the tradition that has claimed her.
Have you heard the one about the community
of followers of God in the way of Jesus
that works toward celebrating Christmas with integrity
by buying gifts for the homeless school children of Baltimore County?
Have you heard the one about those people
who buy gifts for each other that are goats and chickens for other people?
Have you heard the one about the community
that includes and supports the dreamers
who envisioned the ministry of health care for the working poor?
Have you heard the one about those who prepare for Thanksgiving
by packing Thanksgiving bags for others to have a Thanksgiving meal?
Have you heard the one about those who pray for their community?
Have you heard the one about the ones who keep telling the stories?
In spite of how unrealistic they are? Dangerous they are? Silly they are?
Have you heard the transformative stories we teach our girls and boys,
our youth and adults, so that one day, when it counts, you might ask,
“Have you heard the one about … me?”