I’ve been rereading this week some of Bruno Bettelheim’s
wonderful book The Uses of Enchantment:
The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.
Bettelheim suggests that children (and I would say of all ages)
need literature good and deep enough
for them to find different meanings in it at different times
when reading with different needs.
He also notes that “many Biblical stories are of the same nature
as fairy tales” (Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment:
The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
[New York: Vintage Books, 1977] 13).
Bettelheim also suggests that “[i]n order not to be
at the mercy of the vagaries of life, one must develop
one’s inner resources, so that one’s emotions, imagination,
and intellect mutually support and encourage one another” (Bettelheim, 4).
He suggests fairy tales as an excellent resource
for this development. I suggest Scripture as well.
We’re back in the book of Daniel this morning
to hear another familiar tale—and another one that doesn’t make it
into the three year preaching cycle of the lectionary!
We’re still in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court
in sixth century BCE Babylon,
Jews in exile, Jerusalem in ruins, the temple razed.
And the dream of last week’s story has been made incarnate.
You remember, last week, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of that statue
with the head of gold, the silver chest and arms,
the bronze middle and thighs, the legs of iron,
and the feet partly of iron and partly of clay?
You remember the interpretation of the golden head
as Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom with the subsequent weakening
and eventual destruction of empire?
Well in today’s text, we have a king
who obviously just heard the gold part
(you’re the head of gold)
or just cared about the gold part—
absolutely unconcerned with what’s to come,
no thought given to any coming destruction,
no thought spared for anyone else.
And so, into immediate gratification,
he had made a statue of gold.
And, just so you know, that word translated “statue”
can also connote “idol”
(Sharon Pace, Daniel in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2008] 90).
Now we’re told that the statue’s ninety feet high by nine feet wide.
think about that. Even if it’s just covered in gold
(not solid gold), that’s a lot of gold!
An image of vulgar extravagance. The Trump Tower of its day.
At 90 feet, this thing was as high as the first temple was wide
and exactly twice as high as the second temple (Pace, 90).
I’m thinking that’s not coincidence but deliberate comparison.
And what we have in Babylon,
compared to what was in Jerusalem, is nothing but a skinny pole
with no strong foundation.
Remember Babylon is identified in this book as the site of the tower of Babel—
another doomed attempt to claim the authority of God
through what’s impressive—big and tall enough
to presume you might leave the world behind—
attaining transcendence by leaving imminence in the dust.
Never realizing the foundation that is God’s presence among us in the world.
Well, Nebuchadnezzar sent for a long list of authorities:
the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors,
the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates,
and all the officials of the provinces.
it’s part of the rhythm of the story—
the cadence of power. The flow chart of hierarchy ordered from above.
And the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors,
the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates,
and all the officials of the provinces came—
the flow chart of hierarchy obedient from below.
Interesting that the treasurers were included, don’t you think?
They were probably the ones who protested all the gold
being invested in the questionable skinny pyramid scheme.
And the herald pronounced
“You are commanded, o peoples, nations and languages”—
more of the rhythm and arrogance in “the rhetoric of power”
(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] 62).
Everyone identified, categorized and commanded
under the authority of empire.
And then we get what seems like the rules to a child’s game—
some bizarre combination of Musical Chairs and Simon Says.
“Okay, so when you hear the music,
you have to fall down right away and honor (worship’s a mistranslation)—
fall down and honor the statue. Got it?”
So what do we have? A little band walking around the statue
occasionally playing music and watching everyone prostrate themselves?
Anyone think the statue’s gonna come a tumblin’ down?
There is then, of course, the corresponding threat:
“Now whoever does not fall down and honor the statue,
will immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire!”
There’s just something odd—something off—
about children’s games played for the highest of stakes—
like freeze tag, and if you’re caught, into the freezer you go!
Hide and seek, but if I find you I kill you!
Like a reality show with children pitted against each other to the death.
“Most children now meet fairy tales only in prettified
and simplified versions which subdue their meaning and rob them
of all deeper significance …” warns Bettelheim (Bettelheim, 24).
The stakes are real and the stakes are high.
So therefore, all the people heard the music
and fell down and honored the statue. Of course they did!
All the people and nations and languages obeyed—no exceptions noted.
They all played the game by the king’s rules.
But then some of the Babylonian elite (the Chaldeans)
came forward to denounce the Jews.
Well, to denounce certain Jews
whom the king appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon.
Well, specifically three Jews: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego
(the Babylonian names of the three Jews
mentioned before as friends and colleagues of Daniel).
“They pay no heed to you,” claim the Chaldeans.
“They do not worship your gods (which kind of comes out of the blue
that wasn’t part of the kings decree)—
they do not honor the golden statue.”
Of course, working backwards,
if three Jews appointed to serve the king are in danger,
so are all the others appointed by the king,
and so, in truth, are all the Jews,
and, for those with eyes to see, if the least of these aren’t safe
in face of dominant power, no one is.
And so our three heroes
(and let’s call them most appropriately by their Jewish names):
Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are brought into the story
as the result of false accusations. they are betrayed—
denounced by those who are jealous—
those who are afraid—those who are racist and prejudiced.
So very childish again—ignorant tattletales—
always so much uglier in adult form.
The accusers repeat the king’s decree—word for word
and the threat of punishment—word for word—
eager to see those they don’t understand—
eager to see them receive the promised punishment—
blameless though they be.
This scene with the mob and the unfortunate scapegoat
played out on so many playgrounds—
in so many locker rooms—cafeterias—and churches.
Another comment from Bettelheim:
“There is a widespread refusal to let children know
that the source of much that goes wrong in life
is due to our very own natures …” (Bettelheim, 7).
Now do you suppose the Chaldeans included a critique of the king?
in their charge—these three that you appointed?
Seems like that would be a rather dangerous move—silly, really.
Given this king.
More likely a reminder to hearers and readers of the previous stories—
remember, these three were rewarded
at the end of another story by this same king.
The king flies into a furious rage.
There’s very little more scary than empowered petulance.
Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are brought before the king
who whines, “You aren’t playing by the rules.
I make the rules. You’re not playing by them.”
Notice they do get another chance:
“Okay, y’all ready? When you hear the band, fall down like you’re supposed to.
Honor the stick in the ground and all will be well and good.
But if you don’t, well, who is the god who can save you?
Who can then rescue you from the fires of my pit?”
And there’s the truth to which the king remains oblivious—
that they were already rescued from his power.
His power was not what drove them.
“In fairy tales, as in life, punishment or fear of it
is only a limited deterrent to crime. The conviction
that crime does not pay is a much more effective deterrent,
and that is why in fairy tales the bad person always loses out.
It is not the fact that virtue wins out in the end which promotes morality,
but that the hero is most attractive …”(Bettelheim, 9).
And our heroes don’t wait for the music; they take the initiative.
And their statement can be read as conditional:
“If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us, then let God do so,”
but it can also be read as a declarative affirmation:
“There is our God whom we serve who is able to deliver us and will.”
So the king hears the conditional he believes in,
even while the three mean the definitive assertion.
And then the verse Russ likes so much:
“But even if not—even if God does not rescue us, be it known to you,
o king, that we will not worship your gods,
and we will not honor that golden statue.”
It’s not about the fear of punishment or the anticipation
of protection or reward.
Let me repeat that: it’s not about the fear of punishment or the anticipation
of protection or reward.
The king’s response was absolute rage.
His whole world view, after all, had just—not just rejected,
but been totally turned upside down.
His face contorted—literally, “the image of his face changed,”
and that word for image—same word used for the statue (Pace, 102)—
that word with those possible connotations of idolatry.
Interesting idea, don’t you think?
He became his own idol. Always the case, don’t you think, in idolatry?
And we’re into even more obscenely excessive escalation
as the king orders the furnace to be made seven times hotter—
seven times what’s already sufficient
in arbitrary, brutal, senseless spectacle.
And the strongest guards are summoned.
Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are bound.
They have shown themselves to be so mighty,
they have to be imaged utterly defeated in the face of greater might.
And as they are dragged to the furnace, the strongest guards of Babylon
are all killed by the heat—collateral damage to the king’s moral bankruptcy.
Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah fall down in the flames.
And the verb “fall down” is one also used for falling in battle—
dying for a cause.
A different verb from the command
to fall down as in bow down.
Well, the king is astonished,
and there are some intimations of alarm, concern—fear?
Because he sees four, not three, in the furnace.
And the three who were bound by his command,
now walk amidst the flames unbound.
And the fourth has the appearance of a god.
That phrase, by the way, can be heard polytheistically
(as the king would have meant it),
but, in the Jewish tradition, can also be heard as describing an angel
“Tolkien describes the facets which are necessary in a good fairy tale
as fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation—recovery from deep despair,
escape from some great danger, but, most of all, consolation.
Speaking of the happy ending, Tolkien stresses that all complete fairy stories
must have it. It is ‘a sudden joyous “turn” (Bettelheim, 143).
The king orders them out of the furnace
and issues a public pronouncement acknowledging they disobeyed the king,
but that any people, nation or language that blasphemes against their God
shall be torn limb from limb and their houses laid in ruin,
for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.
The basic rhythm of the story continues.
Which is the ongoing cycle
of arrogant power commanding,
dire threat issued, and abject obedience, on the one hand,
in contrast to faithful resistance on the other.
There is no confession of faith by the king
who acknowledges their God (not as his)—
who does not rescind his command to honor the statue—
who’s impressed with power
and so threatens those who threaten power.
And he rewards Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.
“Fairy tales intimate that a rewarding, good life is within one’s reach
despite adversity—but only if one does not shy away
from the hazardous struggles without which
one can never achieve true identity” (Bettelheim, 24).
And we have all the same factors we noticed in the stories last week:
the true face of the threat with which we live.
Facing the insanity of the world’s power,
not acting ourselves from a position of power,
not confronting power with power, but with initiating faithfulness.
Trusting God’s power works to work on our behalf.
standing before power,
and recognized and rewarded in the end.
And, like last week, while our story might be more subtle,
it’s no less real—no less insidious—no less dangerous.
For we are a part of the culture’s power
issuing the very decrees we must resist.
Fall down and honor the almighty dollar—
in coveting it as in worrying about it—
excessively and inappropriately prioritizing it.
Worship the promise of righteous violence—redemptive violence—
in justifying it, reveling in it.
Believe in the promise of prosperity—
the security of the capitalist system. Go buy stuff.
Affirm truth in perspective.
Deny the interdependence of all creation.
Focus on wants.
Identify with us our scapegoats
and unite in condemning them and blaming them.
When you hear the music of power, turn your brains off and obey.
Fairy tales characters are easily divided into
those who are good and those who are bad.
We though, have to distinguish our own voices
amidst the rhetoric of dominant power.
The stories of Daniel each say one thing.
But together, another thing entirely.
Each story is a subversive story of the defiant triumph of faithfulness.
Each story is a wisdom tale of faithfulness rewarded
in the face of long odds and significant threat.
And yet while the consistency of the stories
underscores the affirmations of the faithful,
the stories taken together
also emphasize the constant repetition of the threat—
underscore the unreliability—
the inconsistency of rewards.
In story after story, we begin to get the idea
that even with all the happy endings,
there is no safety in the ways of the world.
No security to be found in the ending of one story
because the next one’s already begun.
No promotion to count on
because however high power raises you,
you’re never beyond its reach or its threat.
No reward promised by power worth your precious hope.
So, here it is, the sermon in three lines:
the story of the world never changes.
God changes our stories within it.
God changes us within it.
Ah, may it be so.