Keep Calm and Babylon

Daniel 1-3

The book of Daniel is a fun and strange ride, and there is kind of a lot going on. But it’s totally worth it. I’m glad you’re here. Today we are reading chapters 1-3.

Babylon has been around since its debut as the Tower of Babel, and all along has maintained its poor reputation for being the quintessential oppressive and arrogant empire. It is such a powerful symbol that it is recycled to apply to pretty much any oppressive empire in the Bible. Big, bad Egypt is not actual Babylon, but it’s Babylon. Much later in the book of Revelation, those references to Babylon are about Rome, but they are meant to point you back at all the other Babylons and trigger your imagination.

The symbol of Babylon is flexible enough it has a way of representing basically any human governed kingdom, which possess varying degrees of terribleness. I have to admit I don’t mind my Babylon much. All things considered, the U.S.A. isn’t a bad place to be. I can’t think of any place I would rather be. Sure, this place, like all other places, provides me with plenty of things to gripe about if I want to, but I’ll keep my greener grass wishes in check, because somewhere else could be truly terrible. I wish my Babylon well, and I’ll work toward making it a better place how I can. I’ll enjoy relative peace and security while it’s a reality.

As great as my Babylon is, it’s still Babylon. It’s often claimed that we live in a Christian nation, but I don’t buy that. If it was ever true, it is certainly not now. My best case scenario is if Babylon allows me to practice my faith without interfering, meddling, or controlling. My hope rests in God and in Christ, not in party politics, culture wars, economic growth, particular governmental systems, or military strength. If the state of all those other things happens to be firing on all cylinders, that is just icing on the cake, but I’m not counting on it.

In the book of Daniel, things get rolling very quickly with Babylon living up to its name by besieging Jerusalem. The temple vessels are looted and placed in a treasury of a Babylonian god, and Daniel is among the royalty and nobility carted off to Babylon. 

Daniel and his friends are integrated into the culture, receiving Babylonian names, learning the language, wearing the clothes, being trained in all the knowledge and wisdom, and eventually receiving government jobs. All of this is okay, but what they are facing is the challenge of deciding where to draw lines. How can they maintain their identity as Israelites while in many ways embracing this new Babylonian culture? 

The first place Daniel decides to draw a line is that he doesn’t want to be defiled by eating the royal rations. After Daniel voices his concern, the palace master is terrified he’ll lose his head if he doesn’t feed them the rations and they start looking unhealthy as a result. Daniel’s wise strategy is to suggest a trial period of 10 days with a diet of vegetables (or seeds) and water. The result is that their new diet has caused them to look better than the other guys who were getting the king’s rations. So they are allowed to continue with their special diet, and claim back a small part of their identity. The best part is that nobody had to lose their head in the process.

Now Daniel is set apart in another way: He has earned the reputation of being able to interpret dreams. The king calls upon his magicians and enchanters and sorcerers because he has been having terrible dreams. Being the reasonable man that he is, what he requires of them is that they tell him not only the interpretation of the dream, but also tell him what his dream was. The penalty for not being able to do this is death. They reasoned with the king that this is too hard and “no one can reveal it to the king except the gods,” but he just raged and ordered that they all be dead.

Enter Daniel, who says that he’ll be able to figure it out if he has some time. Have you ever over-promised? If I were him, I would be plotting my escape from Babylon right about now. But since Daniel is wiser than I am, he tells his friends about the problem and they all ask God to reveal the dream and interpretation to them. God reveals it to Daniel in a vision, and he prays a beautiful prayer acknowledging God as the source of all wisdom, knowledge, and power.

It’s time for Daniel to report back to Nebuchadnezzar, and the stakes are high on this one. If Nebuchadnezzar is not satisfied, a lot of people could die, including Daniel and his friends. This is another characteristic of Babylon: Human life is expendable in the hands of the powerful.

Daniel recounts the dream to Nebuchadnezzar. There is a giant statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet partly of iron and partly of clay. Then a stone is cut out, strikes the feet, and causes the whole statue to disintegrate and blow away in the wind. Then the stone becomes a mountain that fills the earth. 

The dream with the statue is revealing a pattern of the transfer of power from one king or kingdom to the next ones in line, in a degrading fashion, and lastly to the final one that lasts forever. Usually the kingdoms represented by the body parts going down are thought to be Babylonia, Media, Persia, and Greece (consisting of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties), but the specific kingdoms are less important than recognizing the big picture pattern. It can be observed in the original historical context of Daniel, but I think it is able to describe a recurring reality throughout history. It is just the way things work. Babylons get taken over by other Babylons, and earthly kingdoms are temporary. The transfer of power is presented as being more in the hands of God and less in the hands of earthly kings. 

The stone, or the last kingdom, could be said to be like the rulership of God manifested through a restored Israel. This is the hope and expectation of God’s people who are in exile. This idea of the reign of God is as central to believers now as it was in the distant past, but like other themes and patterns, it has taken up new, rich meanings as the story of God has progressed.

When Nebuchadnezzar heard the dream and its interpretation, it might have hit him like a little love letter from God, going something like this:

Dear Nebuchadnezzar,

Yeah, that terrible dream came from me, and I revealed it to Daniel. By the wisdom I gave him, he interpreted it. No need to kill your wise men or anyone. They were right, nobody can do what you asked.

The only reason you were able to take over my people and destroy my temple is because I let you. Yes, you are powerful, but the power you have really comes from me. There will be a day when others will come along and all your power will be given to them. And they will also have their day when their power will be taken from them. You see, I am the one who has power over the patterns of history, not you. And from me will come a kingdom that will crush all other kingdoms. It will never end and will never be taken over. It would be best if you accept this. I will contend with you for as long as it takes for it to sink in. There are things worse than bad dreams.

Best Wishes,

Revealer of Mysteries

It was never really a showdown between Daniel and the king. The real fun is watching the shoving match God and Nebuchadnezzar are having behind the scenes. Make no mistake about who is schooling who. God is trying to give Nebuchadnezzar a chance to understand the big picture. For now, the tyrannical Nebuchadnezzar is truly amazed and at least acknowledging God as “the God of gods and Lord of kings and revealer of mysteries,“ but don’t hold your breath. He still doesn’t get it.

The next thing we know, Nebuchadnezzar has built a giant golden statue as an image of his god and has commanded everyone to worship it. Really? Just a second ago you were calling Daniel’s God the “God of gods.” Worshiping Nebuchadnezzar’s god isn’t something our old pals, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are willing to do. Being Jews, they will not worship a Babylonian god, or any other god, but only YHWH. 

But there is a smear. We’re not sure if the giant statue is an image facilitating worship of a Babylonian god, Nebuchadnezzar, or Babylon itself. They seem to be blended together in some ambiguous combination. So there may be another kind of idolatry in play that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are not on board with: nationalism. This isn’t simply respecting your country or deriving part of your identity from it, it is a level above where the country or leaders are gods. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. The kingdoms of this world will come and go. It’s important to tie our identity to the one that lasts forever.

They knowingly risk their lives to draw a line and remain faithful to and hopeful in God rather than Babylon. I love what they say to the king:

“If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)

Whether God could or would save them is irrelevant to them. It would be easy to always do the right thing if we knew God would always protect us, but that just isn’t how it works. For every story of amazing deliverance like this one, it seems like there are several others of pain or martyrdom. Our hope doesn’t hinge on safety! God be praised when he delivers us, and when he doesn’t.

Luckily for our friends in this story, God does deliver them in a mindblowingly impossible way. And now Nebuchadnezzar is convinced not just that God reveals mysteries, but also that he delivers in ways no god can. He is convinced of this so powerfully that he declares that anyone who blasphemes against this God will be torn to pieces.

It’s at least a step. Maybe there is hope for this king after all… we’ll see what happens.

-Jay Laurent

Today’s Bible reading passage can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – Daniel 1-3

Tomorrow let’s read Daniel 4-6 as we continue Daniel’s story and our