Daniel and Bel and the Dragon

By Mary Jane Chaignot

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

I -- 1:1-2 – Introduction

  • 1:1-2
    • After King Astyages died, Cyrus of Persia succeeded him
    • King Astyages was the king of the Medes
    • According to Babylonian documents his people rebelled against him and delivered him to the Persians, roughly 549 BCE
    • Cyrus of Persia was thought to be the Messiah because he delivered the Jews from the Babylonians
    • Daniel was the most trusted confidant of Cyrus
    • "Confidant" is literally "one who lives with the king"

II -- 1:3-22 -- The Story of Bel

  • 1:3-7
    • Conversation between Daniel and the King
    • Bel is the Babylonian version of Baal
    • It was a generic term for the gods; the main god was Marduk
    • The Babylonians believed that Marduk was the creator of the universe
    • This was no minor deity
    • Everyday the Babylonians provided the statue of Bel with twelve bushels of fine flour, forty sheep, and fifty gallons of wine
    • Everyday the king went to worship the idol at the temple
    • Cyrus believed the statue to be divine
    • He also believed that the gods had delivered the Babylonians over to him and he was careful to worship their gods
    • Scholars think he was a very devout man
    • He invited Daniel to worship (to prostrate himself before it) with him
    • Daniel refused, saying he only worshipped "the living God"
    • Cyrus pointed out that Bel ate an enormous amount of food everyday so he was obviously a living god
    • aniel laughed – ridiculing heathen worship
    • Obviously, Daniel had a very unique relationship with the king
    • People generally did not "laugh" at the king
  • 1:8-13
    • The Wager
    • The king was very angry with Daniel's contempt for Bel
    • He called the priests together demanding to know who was eating the food
    • The priests knew they had a secret entrance to the temple
    • They suggested the king leave the food and seal the door shut with his signet ring, knowing all along they could get back in to eat the food
    • The priests said if the food wasn't gone by morning, the king could kill them all
    • If it was gone, then the king would have to kill Daniel
  • 1:14-22
    • The destruction of Bel
    • After the priests went out, the king placed the food and wine before Bel
    • Unbeknownst to anyone other than the king, Daniel had his servants sprinkle ashes on the floor
    • During the night, the priests and their families went in as usual and ate everything
    • The next morning, when the door was opened, the king saw that the food was gone
    • Daniel quickly pointed out the footprints in the ashes
    • When confronted, the priests admitted they had had access to the temple and had eaten the food
    • The king put them all to death
    • The king handed Bel over to Daniel, who destroyed the idol as well as the temple

III -- 1:23-28 – The Story of the Dragon/Snake

  • 1:23-28
    • The Babylonians also had a huge snake that they thought was divine
    • The king pointed out to Daniel that surely this was "a living god" and again invited him to worship it
    • Daniel again laughed at the king's naiveté
    • Daniel said he could kill the snake without using a sword or stick
    • The king agreed to this wager
    • Daniel made cakes of pitch, hair, and fat
    • Upon eating them, the snake burst open
    • (Scholars think Daniel either added something to the concoction that caused the snake to burst open, or the words are incorrectly translated)
    • Daniel mocked the king – See what you have been worshiping!

IV -- 1:29-42 – Daniel in the Lions' Den

  • 1:29-32
    • The response of the people
    • The people were furious with the king for allowing Daniel to destroy two idols
    • They insisted the king hand Daniel over to them or they would kill the king's family
    • Faced with no alternatives, the king capitulated to the crowd
    • The crowd threw Daniel into the lions' den where there were seven hungry lions
    • The plan was to leave him there for seven days
    • No additional food was to be given to the lions
    • Typically they ate two humans and two sheep everyday
    • There is no doubt they were hungry
  • 1:33-39
    • The involvement of Habakkuk
    • There is no other account suggesting
    • Habakkuk and Daniel were acquainted Habakkuk was in Palestine prophesying
    • He made a stew and planned to carry it to his reapers
    • An angel met him and said that food would be given to Daniel
    • The angel grabbed him by the hair and flew him over to the pit in Babylon
    • Habakkuk called out to Daniel and gave him the food that "God has sent you"
    • Daniel was elated, filled with gratitude that God had not forgotten him
    • God did not rescue him from the pit but provided for him while he was in the pit
    • He ate the stew and the angel returned Habakkuk to Palestine 
  • 1:40-42
    • The king arrives on the scene
    • The king came to the pit expecting to mourn the loss of Daniel
    • He peered inside and Lo! There was Daniel sitting with the lions!
    • The king praised the God of Daniel and drew him out of the pit
    • He then threw Daniel's accusers into the pit
    • The lions gobbled them up right away


deSilva, David. Introducing the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.  2002.

Harrington, Daniel. Invitation to the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 1999.

Meeks, Wayne, ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers. 1993.

Metzer, Bruce, Ed. The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson, eds. Mercer Commentary on the Bible.  Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. 2002.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha