Sunday, April 20, 2008

Lions prefer bureaucrats

Babylon Post

April 29, 492 B.C.

Babylon: 120 Innocents Slain by lions as Darius avenges bureaucrats’ Treachery

Every Sunday—from September through May—a group of adults meet on the front pews of the Eigenheim Mennonite Church and converse about a scripture passage chosen by a committee somewhere in the USA and delivered to us along with commentary and background information in quarterly booklets. Three of us take a month in turn to prepare and lead the discussion and to render it pertinent to the group in this time, in this place.

It’s not always easy.

This quarter, the committee has “strayed” into the book of Daniel. I say “strayed” because that book itself begins with a mythology under girding the need to be faithful in exile (Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lions den are two) and then “strays” into the highly coded and apocalyptic visions of Daniel. End times theology often chooses to relate these visions of Daniel to modern times and to the second coming, a field in which most of us are decidedly uncomfortable, particularly since the interpretation of that book and the Revelation of John have resulted in false predictions leading many, many people into horrifying ventures in anticipation of an immanent apocalypse.

Today, we’ll be discussing the lions' den story. Daniel is a Jew who has been educated in the royal household of Babylon and through astute dealings, honesty and his ability to interpret kings’ dreams has risen above the functionaries in the kings’ civil service. The Persian bureaucrats are jealous, and they plot to do Daniel harm by urging the king to issue an order that, for 30 days, all citizens must pay homage to no god whatsoever, but only to Darius the king, on penalty of being fed to the lions. They then catch Daniel at his ritual prayer, rat on him and remind Darius that his decrees are binding. Daniel spends the night in the lion’s den but the lions aren’t interested—and anyway, God has tied their mouths shut.

The upshot. Darius is so impressed with Daniel’s rescue by his God that he sends a decree to all in the kingdom ordering everyone to convert to Daniel’s religion. And he has Daniel’s accusers thrown in with the lions—along with all their wives and children—and the lions feast on them; bones and all are devoured.

The lesson writers are focused on the faithfulness of people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. And they rightly should be; that’s what the stories are apparently meant to convey.

I don’t know how a rabbi would deal with the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. Neither do I know what Gerry has decided to do with it. I’ll find out in a few hours. But there’s something almost bizarre about a group of Christians in 2008 focusing for discussion on this type of material belonging to people of Jewish faith in antiquity. Granted, there’s an obvious continuity from the Old Testament to the New and neglecting that important aspect raises as many problems as it solves. But we in our discussions may again be horrified with much of this particular story. I don’t know, for instance, how many bureaucrats Darius had thrown to the lions as punishment. Let’s say 10. Because polygamy was the norm, let’s assume for argument's sake that together they had 30 wives. Let’s further assume that each wife had an average of 3 children; that would make 10 men, 30 adult women and 90 children who were thrown to the lions and eaten to avenge the husband-bureaucrats’ treachery against one of the king’s favourites.

Oh, I know that the book of Daniel doesn’t justify that enraged act by Darius. But neither does it question it. That these 30 women and 90 innocent children should be horribly and brutally killed by lions as a response to the victory of Daniel’s God over the treachery of some bureaucrats really sticks in my craw. Except that I recognize it to be a story-telling device as opposed to historical data.

When I was a child hearing this story in Sunday school so many years ago, that avenging aspect of the story was never mentioned. I wonder why? Not.

At the same time, there is a core to this story that shouldn’t be lost in the puzzlement over its peripherals, I guess. Daniel was a political functionary who remained faithful to his principles—and was rewarded by God for it. In our world as well, it’s apparent how difficult it is to work in the seats of power without compromising basic values.

Maybe that bit is enough “lesson” for a wintry spring morning.

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