Wednesday, November 10, 2010

to bow or to stand

Several years ago, I taught a Sunday school lesson about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the delightfully-named trio who defied King Nebuchadnezzar, the delightfully-evil-named dictator of the third chapter of the book of Daniel. Honestly: it's hard to say the names of those three in an unjazzy way, or the name of the king without a sneer.

In the lesson, after poking fun at church retellings in which the three are invariably the same age as the audience (in Backyard Bible Clubs and VBS the illustrations show kids, in youth groups they're teens), I mention the glaring question that stares out at us from the page: Where was Daniel? This is, after all, the first-person account of the prophet's life and ministry. (That's the first half of the book; the second half contains his deliriously baroque end-times prophecies.) He was, plain as day, "a ruler of the province of Babylon." Plain as day, "all the rulers of the provinces" showed up to bow before Neb's graven image. Plain as day, there were only three who stood out like the three hairs of a 7th-grader's mustache, refusing to bow down: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

The only reasonable conclusion (though it's not explicitly stated) is that Daniel was in fact present, and that he did in fact bow.

This is an uncomfortable thing to consider. I found out much much later that other teachers had privately disagreed, teaching their students that Daniel must have refused to bow but was exempted, or that he wasn't in town. (Naturally, they never told me that they disagreed with me. Why on earth would they? Ach, phooey.) But those possibilities are each far more unlikely. A quick Google search shows (besides my article from a couple of years ago) a number of rather implausible theories and acrobatic evasions: most commentators start from the assumption that Daniel couldn't have done such a thing, and therefore conclude that he must not have been there. But all the facts clearly point to the reality that every official was there and had been called in from the furthest reaches of the kingdom.

While it's horrible that Daniel would have bowed, it's not at all out of keeping with the behavior of other Bible heroes, who regularly behaved out of character. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures proclaim often that there is no one who is really righteous, and that we're all sinners who fall short. Abraham and Moses and David — all role models of the faith — were terribly flawed; there's no doubt that Daniel was too. And what's so wrong with admitting that?

The rest of the book shows that Daniel bravely stood against tyranny and stood for his identity and his God for the rest of his life, and the total of his actions show him as a role model for integrity in the face of overwhelming political and social pressure.

I'd say that's good enough.


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