Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

Posts Tagged ‘Daniel at the courts of Nebuchadnezzar and Darius

Daniel 4 – 6

Balshazar

We read the first three chapters of Daniel and saw that that these opening chapters tell a court narrative where a Hebrew or Jewish outsider comes, for one reason or another, to the court of an autocratic king and wins the confidence of the king by having special knowledge or skill. In the cases of Joseph and Daniel, they have clairvoyant insight by which they interpret the kng’s dreams. In the case of Mordecai, he possesses secret intelligence and thereby foils a plot to assassinate King Ahasuerus. David too was brought to the royal court where he won Saul’s favour by his skill in playing music, or by his heroism in vanquishing Goliath. Either of these brings him close to the king.

It is quite interesting that Moses at the court of Pharaoh does not seem to fit this genre (the infancy of Moses fits a different genre, to which Paris, Romulus and Remus, Jesus and Superman belong);  the filmic representations of Ten Commandments and Moses Prince of Egypt develop a narrative portraying Moses’ success and good reputation at the Pharaonic court.

In Daniel’s generation, the king is Nebuchadnezzar who brought captives from Jerusalem to Babylon, beginning with the most distinguished and educated members of society. Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. All are given Babylonian names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. They refuse the unkosher haute cuisine made available to them, and thrive on lentils and water.

As in the case of the Pharaohs of both Joseph and Moses, the king is surrounded by his own magicians, the hartummin and ashafim, whose achievements are demonstrably inferior to those of Daniel (as they were to Joseph and Moses). When Nebuchadnezzar wants a dream interpreted, he witholds the content of the dream froml his wise men and threatens them with execution when they fail to discern it and make an interpretation of it.

The court magicians speak to the king in Aramaic and from this point forward (chapter 2, verse 4) the language of the narrative and dialogue is Aramaic.

Daniel receives a vision from God regarding Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and, when he comes before the king, he describes the dream of a statue whose head was made of gold, upper body of silver, lower body of brass, legs of iron and feet of iron and clay. When a stone struck the feet of clay, the statue toppled and the stone filled the earth. The various metals represent kingdoms and Nebuchadnezzar is the head of gold, to be followed by lesser empires. The stone represents God who strikes at the empires and fills the earth with His own kingdom, which does not pass away.

Of course there is the question of identifying the kingdoms, very much connected with the dating of the book of Daniel. There is a strong consensus for it being a work from about the time of the Hasmonean revolt, due to the detailed descriptions later in the book of the life and battles of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The connection with Antiochus was not lost on Josephus who plainly identifies him as one of the subjects of Daniel’s vision.

The kingdoms of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream could be Babylon, Media, Persia, Greece and a combination of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires which followed Alexander the Great, as the feet of iron and clay.

If the date is late enough, the last kingdom could refer to the Romans, who engaged with Antiochus in battle, well before Pompey was called in to Judea by Hyrcanus II in 63 BCE.

However, the events described at the beginning of Daniel belong to the period of the Babylonian exile, beginning 597 BCE.

Nebuchadnezzar is so impressed by Daniel’s oneiromancy that he bows down to him and wants to sacrifice to him. Later to suffer a mental breakdown, Nebuchadnezzar already shows signs of being highly strung.

In the third chapter, he has forgotten that he had affirmed that Daniel’s God was God , and has a new golden image, the worship of which is mandatory. Envious Chaldeans tip off the king that Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego are not complying and they are summoned to the royal presence. They refuse to worship the idol so the king has them thrown into the fiery furnace. The king then sees that, far from perishing, they are walking unharmed in the fire and a fourth man is with them, lebar-elohin, like a son of God, or like a son of the gods or like an angel. Nebuchadnezzar calls the three out of the furnace, blesses God and promotes Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego.

Midrash provides a similar furnace miracle story about Abraham where the persecutory king is Nimrod, another king of Babylon.

The fiery furnace story is extended in both the Septuagint and the Apocrypha as ‘The Song of the Three Children’, taking the form of Azariah’s prayer, followed by a brief description of the young men’s delivery from the furnace, and a psalm spoken by Azariah, Mishael and Hananiah.

In Chapter 4, which we are looking at this evening, the narration, which has been third person so far, is now voiced by Nebuchadnezzar. We have seen first person prophecy in the bible, but it is unexpected to find first person narration by a Babylonian despot.

He relates that he has been frightened by another dream, and sends for Daniel to interpret it when again his magicians fail him. The dream concerns a great tree in the centre of the earth, so tall it reaches to heaven and to the ends of the earth. Daniel’s role is to decode the dream on the presumption that the dream has been sent to Nebuchadnezzar from an external source, where some kind of supernatural knowledge resides.

Freud said:

The pre-scientific conception of the dream which obtained among the ancients was, of course, in perfect keeping with their general conception of the universe, which was accustomed to project as an external reality that which possessed reality only in the life of the psyche.

The bible commentator Walter Brueggemann writes:

[Nebuchadnezzar] had come to think of himself as autonomous and did not acknowledge that sovereignty belongs to whomever God may give it (Dan. 4:25). The dream asserts that Nebuchadnezzar had misunderstood his status in the world by disregarding the ultimacy of the holy God.

Daniel, the gifted Jewish dream interpreter – gifted, surely, because of his rootage in faith – counsels Nebuchadnezzar to practice mercy and justice (4:27). The dream is given because of Nebuchadnezzar’s “insanity.” The narrative goes beyond the dream to tell of a return to sanity: Nebuchadnezzar offers a doxology to the most high God and accepts his own penultimacy in the world of power (4:34-37).

The tree in the dream clearly represents Nebuchadnezzar himself. It shelters and nourishes those who live within its compass. It is to be cut down but not destroyed. What then is the remaining stump? A madman? A penitent? The Unconscious?

In the dream the commandment to cut down the tree comes from ‘a watcher and a holy one’ who comes down from heaven: עיר וקדיש מן־שמיא. Angels are called malachim, anushim, bnei elim, but ir – a wakeful one – is Enoch’s preferred term, in the pseudepigrapha attributed to him. In the Tanakh, ir, as a term for an angel, belongs only to Daniel. It is attested in Midrash Tehillim to Psalm 118:8, with the meaning guardian angel.

As עיר is commonly used to mean town or city, it may be connected with ir as ‘watch-tower’.

Daniel interprets the stump of the tree as the kingdom which will be returned to Nebuchadnezzar after seven years, when he will recover from his madness. Twelve months pass, and the king’s hubris has been restored for he says ‘Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?’

Then he is struck as described in the dream and he is driven out by his courtiers to live out of doors and eat grass.When Nebuchadnezzar is given ‘a beast’s heart’, does this resemble the situation of Pharaoh whose heart is hardened, a determinism by which even human decision making is ruled by God?

Blake’s water colour of Nebuchadnezzar dominates the imagination, the terrified eyes seeming to show that the king has insight into his condition. Alan Bennett, in The Madness of George III has comparable moments, when King George asks his wife ‘Do you think that I am mad?’ and when he quotes King Lear: ‘To deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind’.

Nebuchadnezzar’s madness runs its course and he resumes his first person narrative:

At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.

For the third time, he seems almost on the verge of becoming a proselyte, at least he utters a psalm of praise to the God of Israel. He responded similarly to Daniel’s interpretation of his dream about the statue, and to the miracle of the fiery furnace, but this is motif rather than characterization. You will see that Darius does exactly the same when Daniel survives the lions’ den.

Chapter 5
There is a question about the historicity of Belshazzar, and doubt whether he was the son of Nebuchadnezzar, as the only record of this king is the Cylinder of Inscription of King Nabonidus , where Belshazzar was the son and co-regent of Nabonidus.

As depicted in the book of Daniel, Belshazzar has learned nothing from the experiences of /Nebuchadnezzar, his putative father. He makes a lavish feast for a thousand people, using the vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the holy temple in Jerusalem. There was much drinking and praising of idols, made of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood and stone – perhapsa narrative allusion to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue. Note the Aramaic words in verse 4 for the various metals and materials.

Belshazzar was terrified when a disembodied hand wrote on the wall. He promised purple clothes, a gold chain and the governorship of a third of the kingdom to the person who could interpret the writing. The queen appeared in the banqueting hall and, prefacing her words with the customary ‘May the king live for ever,’ she tells her husband that there is wise and gifted interpreter in the kingdom, Daniel, who had been favoured for his superior knowledge by Nebuchadnezzar – and the queen says twice, ‘your father’, אבוך.

Daniel is brought to the king, who says ‘Art thou Daniel, who is of the children of the captivity of Judah, whom the king my father brought out of Judah?’

In his reply, Daniel gives a resumé of Nebuchadnezzar’s biography, his greatness, his power, his madness, his life as an ox. He uses the terms ‘thy father’ and ‘thou his son,’ so the paternity of Belshazzar is repeatedly emphasised. He then refers to Belshazzar’s grandiosity, the feast, the drunkenness, the idol worship, and finally Daniel interprets the words on the wall: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. Verse 26 really needs to be read in the original Aramaic, to catch the way the explanations include the unfamiliar words of the inscription. There is also a pun in the word upharsin, as a slight vowel change to peres, which means ‘divided’, gives the word Persia, which is shortly to bring about the destruction of Belshazzar’s kingdom.

Daniel is instantly promoted, with purple, gold chainsd and proclamations and that very night, Belshazzar is killed.

Chapter 6

Darius the Mede now possesses the kingdom and sets up a hundred and twenty satraps to govern it, with Daniel prominent among them. As with Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, Daniel distinguishes himself above his peers, who become envious. They try to find something incriminating in his life, but he is above reproach – except that he worships a God other than Darius the king. Note verse 7, ‘they came tumultuously to the king.’ The adverb is הרגשו, hargishu, from ר כ ש. They proceed to set a trap for Daniel, persuading the king to sign a statute which prohibits prayer to anyone other than the king, for a period of thirty days. Like Ahasuerus with Haman , the king appears easily manipulated and the statute is unalterable, according to the law of the Medes and the Persians. The penalty for breaking this law is to be thrown into the lions’ den.

Daniel continues to pray three times a day as usual, quite openly with the windows open, and facing Jerusalem. His enemies come upon him tumultuously and then report to the king that Daniel has been praying to his God.

The king, when told that Daniel has breached the unalterable new statute, tries to save Daniel, we are not told exactly how. The Aramaic verb שיזב, shayzayv, means to save or to release and – although it does not look like it – is a version of Hebrew עזב, to forsake, or in certain variations, to cause to be released. Whereas the causative prefix in Hebrew verbs is hi in the past tense, ma in the present, Aramaic includes a shin prefix in some causative verbs (active shaphel, passive hishtaphal), which we are looking at in לשיזבותהּ, ‘to cause him to be released’.

The tumultuous men return and remind the king that he is not empowered to change the unalterable law he has signed. Darius therefore gives the order to cast Daniel into the lions’ den, but says these words to Daniel: ‘May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you’. By refering to Daniel serving God continually, the king implies that God will find Daniel worthy to be saved. The verb is again the shaphel of עזב, ישיזבנּך, ‘He will deliver you.’

You may remember that, in the narrqtive of the fiery furnace, the miracle is observed from the point of view of King Nebuchadnezzar, rather than that of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Similarly here we are privy to the point of view of King Darius, his fasting, his abstinence from entertainment and his sleeplessness. He rises early and goes to the lions’ den where he calls out to Daniel. The reply he receives is:

O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm.

Daniel explains that the lions did not harm him because he was innocent; the following verse tells us it was because he trusted in God.

Retribution comes to Daniel’s accusers as the king has them and their families thrown into the lions’ den, where they perish.

Darius then sent out letters to all the nations of the earth, extolling the God of Daniel, in psalmodic language resembling that of Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 3, verses 31 – 33, chapter 4, verses 31 – 34.

Daniel’s long and successful career continues from his time at the court of Nebuchadnezzar, through to that of Belshazzar; he survives the fall of the Babylonians and the succession of the Medes and Persians to serve at the courts of Darius and Cyrus.

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