The first six chapters of the Book of Daniel present a narrative theology of resistance. Daniel and his three friends—best known by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego—are Jews in Babylonian exile. Again and again, they run afoul of kings and courtiers. As they begin training for Babylonian civil service, the four reject the king’s choice of food and wine, yet end up “fatter” than all the others (Dan. 1). Nebuchadnezzar threatens to kill Daniel along with all the Babylonian sages who fail to interpret the king’s disturbing dream of a metal statue that is reduced to rubble (Dan. 2); Daniel saves the day by telling Nebuchadnezzar the statue represents a series of empires that will crumble when struck by the smooth stone of God’s kingdom. Later, Nebuchadnezzar throws Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow before an image (Dan. 3). On the night Babylon falls, Daniel reads an uncanny divine warning during King Belshazzar’s feast (Dan. 5), and he’s condemned to a lions’ den when he continues to pray to Yahweh in violation of the edict of the Persian King Darius (Dan. 6).
Daniel 3 is particularly apt for our times. Nebuchadnezzar erects a monumental golden image as the center of a new imperial cult. He gathers his court to the plain of Dura (reminiscent of Babel’s “plain of Shinar,” Gen. 11:2). Whenever music plays, the officials must prostrate themselves before the image, on pain of death. The list of instruments (tediously and comically repeated in Daniel 3:5, 7, 10, 15) includes Persian and Greek loan words, and the fourfold classification of musicians parallels the four-metal statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. The orchestra is an empire in sound, harmonizing voices from every tribe and tongue. Nebuchadnezzar unites his dominions in song. From the king’s viewpoint, a fiery furnace is an appropriate punishment for refusing to worship: Dissenters will be forcibly melted in the crucible of Babylon. The message is clear: One way or another, you will be assimilated.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego prove themselves unmeltable. They refuse to harmonize.
Initially, they don’t publicize their dissent, but they have enemies at court, the “Chaldeans” (probably astrologers), poised to bring complaints against “certain Jews.” The dramatic center of the story is a direct confrontation between king and rebels, without Chaldeans, satraps, governors, prefects, or any of the thousands of worshipers. Nebuchadnezzar is eager to give the friends an out: “We’ll play the music again, and then you can bow.” Perhaps this is mercy; more likely, it’s an effort to save face. The defiance of the three exposes the frailty of Nebuchadnezzar’s decrees and threats, and he’ll bully or cajole if it helps him achieve a show of homogeneity.
In a chapter full of comically exaggerated repetitions, the answer of the three friends is blunt. They don’t explain themselves, offer a defense, or beg. They fearlessly confess their confidence that God can deliver them if he will, and openly state their defiance: Whether we’re rescued or not, we won’t bow. By their firm confidence, Danna Fewell says, they put the king in his place, pass “judgment upon his hubris,” and “emasculate his threat.”
Contemporary lessons abound. We too live in an empire that seeks to enforce consensus. When the rainbow flags start waving, everyone had better join in and mean it. You’d best sing along when everyone celebrates the latest trans breakthrough. Private dissent won’t be allowed to remain private; cultural Chaldeans scan the landscape for people who take a stand when they should be showing respect. Some resisters will find themselves face-to-face with kings. When that happens, Daniel 3 instructs us, let your “No” be “No,” and leave the consequences to God.
In the Book of Daniel, the three friends aren’t detained but deployed. And their deployment is successful. Fewell rightly notes that the dramatic emphasis isn’t on the three friends. They’re static, unmovable. Even when they’re thrown into the fire, nothing changes; their clothes and hair are unsinged, and they don’t even smell like smoke. The personal drama is entirely with the king, and he changes radically.
Daniel 3 is framed by imperial decrees. The first requires idolatry (Daniel 3:1–7); the second prohibits blasphemy against the God of the Jews (3:28–29). The story isn’t (merely) a celebration of heroic defiance. It’s (primarily) a story of how heroic defiance humbles and converts rulers. When the powers say “You will be assimilated,” we must simply refuse and throw ourselves on the mercy of God. He is able, and may be willing, to rescue us from the flames. Just as importantly, we can be confident that faithful defiance shatters kings like pottery.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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