Bible Overview is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Bible study. Each month we feature a book of the Bible (in order) by Bible scholar and lecturer, Mary Jane Chaignot.
This month we will look at the last of three additions to the book of Daniel. This one is called, “Daniel and Bel and the Dragon.” In Greek and Latin texts, these verses are added on to the last chapter of the book of Daniel. There are some narrative similarities to chapters 3 and 6 of the canonical Daniel, but most scholars see these as separate incidents. This third addition is comprised of two distinct stories loosely connected by the theme of idolatry. If you want to read some of the history previous to this selection, you can find the earlier books in our archives.
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Daniel and Bel and the Dragon
At the heart of these stories is the issue of idolatry. What makes a god worthy of being worshipped? Cyrus, the Persian King, thought a god should be worshipped if it was a “living god.” The Jews would undoubtedly agree with this since they often referred to Yahweh as the “Living God.” Yet the king noticed that Daniel did not worship the Babylonian god, Bel, which is a shortened form of Baal or Bel-Marduk. (That would make Bel the main Babylonian god.) Daniel pointed out that Bel was made up of clay covered by bronze. It definitely was not a living god. The King completely disagreed and argued that of course Bel was alive because every day they gave him enormous amounts of food and every morning the food was always gone.
Maybe it was the way Daniel chuckled upon hearing that, or maybe the king simply didn’t like being challenged. In any case, the king became very angry and called all the priests together. He proposed a test. Either they would show that Bel was eating all the food or they would die. If Bel was eating the food, then Daniel would die! Suddenly, a random conversation with the king turned into life and death stakes for the participants.
Daniel, however, was undeterred. He and the king met inside Bel’s temple. All the priests stepped outside. The king laid out all the food and wine, and then came out and sealed the door shut with his signet ring. The priests understood that if the food wasn’t gone by morning, their lives were on the line. What they didn’t know is that before the king and Daniel left the temple, Daniel had his servants sprinkle ashes all over the floor.
When the king and Daniel got to the temple the next morning, it was plain that the doors had not been tampered with – yet the food inside was gone! The king was ecstatic since that proved Bel was, indeed, a living god. His joy quickly turned to dismay, however, when Daniel restrained him from going in while he pointed out all the footprints in the ashes. The king flew into a rage, and the priests confessed that they had built a trap door under the altar and had gained access to the food on a nightly basis. The king immediately ordered them all put to death. He gave Bel over to Daniel, who destroyed the idol and the temple.
But that hadn’t totally settled the issue. The Babylonians also worshipped a large dragon (or snake). Obviously this creature was alive; therefore, he must be a god. Again, Daniel took issue with the king’s reasoning. He told the king the snake was not a living god because he could kill it without using a sword or even a stick. Once again, the king took the challenge.
Daniel prepared a mixture of pitch, fat, and hair. He fed it to the snake and shortly thereafter the snake burst open. Daniel again mocked the false idol that the king had been worshipping. This time, however, the king had to also deal with a rebellious population. They had just seen two idols discredited and destroyed. So they rallied themselves against the king, wanting him to hand Daniel over to them or else they would go after the king’s family. Finally, the king relented and handed Daniel over. Without further ado, the people threw him into the lions’ den where there were seven hungry lions. Each day these lions were fed two humans and two sheep. But now, the lions were fed nothing but Daniel – for seven days!
Of course, Daniel didn’t have any sustenance either, which is why there is an unusual interlude involving the prophet, Habakkuk. Habakkuk had made a stew in Palestine where he had been working, when an angel told him that that stew would be given to Daniel. Immediately, the angel grabbed Habakkuk by the hair and whisked him over to the pit in Babylon where Daniel sat with the lions. Needless to say, Daniel was filled with gratitude because he knew that he had not been forgotten by the God he loved. He partook of the stew, and Habakkuk found himself back in Palestine.
After seven days, the king approached the pit expecting to mourn the loss of Daniel. To his great surprise, there sat Daniel among the lions. The king rejoiced, praised Daniel’s God, and threw his accusers into the pit. The lions wasted no time in devouring them.
So what is to be made of these two stories? Scholars do not give much weight to the historical aspects of them. They point out that the temple of Bel was not destroyed during the time of Daniel, nor were the Babylonians believed to be snake worshippers. But these stories still had value for people who were struggling with idolatry. The first story illustrates how silly it is to worship something that man has created with his own hands. And the second story concurs that it is just as foolish to worship one of the creatures God had created. Jews should simply stay with the source, the one God, who created all and was all. So this probably wasn’t just an attack on heathen worship; it also may have had some edifying aspects for idolatrous Jews. In the extreme, the stories show that there is no point in worshiping anyone or anything other than “the living God.” For Jews who were living in the Diaspora, there was a great temptation to worship along with their gentile neighbors. When they didn’t, they oftentimes suffered both religiously and economically. It would have been highly edifying to hear this story where Daniel stood up against the idolatrous cults and was protected by God for his stance.
The addition of all of these stories shows that there was a great interest in the figure of Daniel. In fact, scholars have discovered several other “Daniel” compositions at Qumran. It seems that these stories were both edifying and entertaining. Though the details cannot be verified, these stories suggest there was a very close relationship between Daniel and the king. Daniel chuckles, restrains him from entering the temple – and lives to tell about it! This would indicate their relationship was both intimate and long-standing.
Like the other two additions to the Daniel stories, scholars think these were written between the third and first centuries BCE.
These verses can be divided into four sections: 1:1-2 – Introduction; 1:3-22 – The Story of Bel; 1:23-28 – The Story of the Dragon/Snake; 1:29-42 – Daniel in the Lions’ Den