Monthly Archives: September 2012

Daniel 3-5: The repetitive beauty of a folktale

Chapter three contains what is probably one of the best-known stories from the Bible. The Babylonian emperor makes a giant idol (which, by the way, has external attestation — Herodotus!) and demands that all of his subjects worship it. The Jews, of course, refuse. Three young representatives of the Jewish people demonstate their God’s superiority and keep the people safe by surviving the flaming furnace. Okay, it’s not terribly hard to figure out what that’s about. It’s also not terrible difficult to figure out why someone living under Seleucid rule would want to tell a story like that, so let’s focus elsewhere.

Look at the structure of the story. Pay attention to the repetition. Notice the nice story arc and the triumphant ending. It’s a wonderful folktale. The kind of thing that wants to be told around a fireplace in the evenings. It communicates cultural and religious values in a suspenseful and entertaining way. Let yourself enjoy the story.

In the Septuagint — and, therefore, in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Bibles — verse 23 is followed by “The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews.” You can find it in Protestant study Bibles in the Apocryphal section. In case you have trouble finding it, it’s right after the “Letter of Jeremiah.” (You’re welcome!) 

In chapter four we encounter another dream. If you recall the dream from chapter two, then the sequence of the story here is predictable. The king dreams; his court magicians can make no sense of it; Daniel proves again the superiority of his God by interpreting the dream. In the first dream, the bad news for the king was that eventually lesser empires would overtake his own. In this case the bad news is more immediate and more personal. The king will go mad and be driven from his kingdom, though he will later return. There is some external attestation for this event, but for a later emperor, not Nebuchadnezzar. There was an emporor named Nabonidus who left Babylon for several years. No explanation for his absence is offered in Babylonian records. A Qumran scroll, however, reports that in Jewish traditions Nabonidus was cured by a Jewish exorcist. 

Chapter five tells us the story of the writing on the wall. The king in this part of the story is Belshazzar, who ruled as regent during Nabonidus’s unexplained absence. Belshazzar, having had too much to drink, defiles the Temple vessels that had been brought from Jerusalem when the Temple was razed. Normally the Babylonians would have brought the gods themselves from the peoples they had conquered. This was easy enough to do because the gods are portable. You just bring their statues to your own temple. But the Jewish God was not so easy to move. The Jews didn’t have a statue of their God, and God’s throne — the ark of the covenant — had gone missing. This left the Babylonians with nothing left to claim except the holy vessels used by the priests. Belshazzar had these vessels brought to his banquet where he and his courtiers drank from them. As soon as they did this…(drumroll please)…the writing was on the wall. You know how the story is going to go, right? He brings in his court magicians, but they were good for nothing. Who could possibly help him interpret this strange writing? Daniel! And again, Daniel delivers bad news: your days are numbered; you have been found wanting; your kindgom will be divided. Has anyone noticed that Daniel never brings good news and that he keeps getting rewarded for it? Notice, too, the repetition. The story is easy to remember, predictable, and easy to tell. It’s a perfect folktale. 


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Daniel: When was it Set? When was it Written?

Look closely at the name “Daniel” and you’ll notice that it includes the Hebrew word for God, “El.” The name signals Daniel’s belonging to Israel as well as his righteousness (the name means “God is my judge”). In Ugaritic texts, Daniel is a righteous king from a time so far in the past that we can only think of it as the “long ago” of storybook lore. In the book of Daniel, our hero lives under the oppressive rule of the Babylonians. He is a youth in exile from his land who strives to maintain his Jewish identity even while living in the court of a foreign emperor and being subjected to relentless indoctrination. 

What genre do you think this story is — history, fantasy, folk lore, fairy tale, chronicle? What expectations do you have about the plot structure based on your assessment of it’s genre? 

You may recall that I often ask you to think about three different contexts when you read something from the Bible. 

  • When did it happen? or When is the story set?
  • When was it written down?
  • When are you living?

We already know that the story is set in the sixth century, during the Babylonian exile. But when was it written? The language gives us a clue. The book of Daniel is written mostly in Aramaic, not Hebrew, which places it as one of the latest books in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. It was most likely written in the Hellenistic period, which began with the rule of Alexander the Great in the fourth century. In chapters 7-12 we get another hint about when it was written: Daniel sees a vision that reveals the history of Judah in great detail up through the mid-second century. Anyone care to guess that it was probably written in the mid-second century?!

What was going on in the mid-second century? Alexander the Great had died, and his empire had been divided among his generals. Judah was ruled by the Seleucids, who tried to force the Jews to Hellenize. This included speaking Greek, studying Greek literature, foregoing circumcision, and abandoning their kosher practices. If you’ll recall that the biggest threat to Judah during exile was that the people might assimilate to Babylonian culture and lose their distinctive identity, then you might have some idea what Daniel wants to say to his own contemporaries.

I wonder what he wants to say to us?

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How we got the Bible

A shocking truth: God didn’t dictate the Bible, in English, to modern, literate people who faithfully recorded “just the facts.” God acted in history, and people did the best they could to discern where God was at work and what that work meant for them. They passed down stories of the faithful work of God from one generation to the next until eventually someone — well, several someones — started to write those stories down. They wrote them on papyrus and vellum, and the stories they wrote were copied and recopied, the originals were lost, the copies were lost, and eventually the copies of copies of copies made their way to English speakers who translated and mistranslated them and then made copies of their own. 

The story of how we got the Bible is almost as fascinating as the stories of the Bible themselves. Next Sunday, September 16, we’ll take a look at the story of how we got the Bible in its current, English format. 

In the meantime, here are some pictures to help tell the story.

Below is a picture of a page from a modern Hebrew Bible. It’s the text that modern translators would use. Notice a couple of things.

First, see those little dots under the words? They are called vowel points, and they aren’t part of the original. Hebrew words consist of consonants only. That means that “text critics,” the people who “establish the text” (that is, the one’s who decide what goes on this page), have to decide what the vowels should be. That means that the decide whether God wants us to sacrifice our goat or our gut. I hope it’s the goat! 

Second, see all of those footnotes? Those are “textual variants,” alternates that might have been the right thing to put on the page above. Why so many variants? Because of all those copies and recopies. Sometimes scribes change a thing or two — by accident or on purpose. Text critics have to decide which copy is best.


Next comes a page from the Greek New Testament. Same deal with the footnotes. Fortunately for us, Greek has its own vowels. 


Just below you’ll see a page from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was made in the third century before Christ. At that time, many Jews lived outside of the homeland and no longer understood Hebrew. The rabbis decided to make a translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Greek, which was the most widely known and spoken language of that era. The Septuagint was translated from a version of the Hebrew Bible that was lost long ago and that was more ancient that the version that is now commonly used (called the Masoretic Text). That means that sometimes when there is a conflict between the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text, text critics will prefer the Septuagint. 


Here you see an exercept from the Septuagint. Can you tell that there aren’t any spaces between the words? Hey, madam text critic, is that manslaughter or man’s laughter? Again, decisions have to be made about what words to put in type written version of the Hebrew Bible. 


Below you’ll see an image of a scroll version of the Hebrew Bible. This is the kind that would be used in a modern synagoge. It is unpointed Hebrew. Do you know how impressive it is when a rabbi reads straight from the scroll during worship? Wow! The scrolls are based on the Masoretic Text. 


So, where did translators and scholars get the words that are in the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text? And how do modern scholars check the accuracy of those texts? They go back to the most ancient sources we have: papyrus fragments. Here are some images.

This is the Gospel of Matthew. I don’t envy the poor text critic who had to cobble that one together!


This is a relatively complete page from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.


Here we find a tiny scrap of the Gospel of Mark. 


Below you’ll find a rare acheaological treasure: An image of the oral traditions being handed down from one generation to another in the long centuries before those first papyrus documents were made.


See you Sunday!

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