Saturday, December 17, 2011

Saintly Saturday: St. Daniel the Prophet

Today is the Feast of Daniel the Prophet and the Three Holy Youths (also known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago). They were part of the generation that were taken into Babylon as captives around 599 B.C. by King Nebuchadnezzar. All four, being of the princely lineage of Judah, were subsequently singled out to be taken into the royal court to be trained as pages. It was there that Daniel showed himself more wise than all the Chaldean sages, the Three Youths were thrown into the fire for refusing to worship idols and Daniel received his visions.

While there are plenty of fantastic images and creatures that can be found within the visions seen by Daniel, today I am rather going to concentrate on a portion of the Book of Daniel many folks may not be aware of. The textual witness for the Book of Daniel is rather complicated. Portions appear to have been written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. There are also two very different versions of Greek.

When the Masoretes began to compile the Hebrew Bible after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70., they rejected those texts that had been written in Greek. Thus, the Mesoretic Text of the OT (which forms the basis of most translations of the Bible in English) does not contain certain parts of the Book of Daniel which were written in Greek. One such section is an entertaining little story popularly known as Bel and the Dragon.

Ostensibly a polemic against idol worship, the story has Daniel convincing his friend King Cyrus of Persia that he shouldn’t waste his time with idolatry. The story is called Bel and the Dragon because the story revolves around the destruction of the idols of Bel (another name for the Babylonian god Marduk) and a dragon.

The fun comes from the descriptions of these conflicts and how they might inspire adventures and even a dungeon, of sorts. The priests of Bel claim that their God ate twelve bushels of flour, forty sheep and six measures of wine every day. This was seen to be true because all that food would disappear every day — “eaten” by Bel. In reality, the seventy priests and their families snuck into the sanctuary every night through a secret door in the floor to eat the food themselves. Daniel exposed their ruse by spreading a thin layer of flour on the floor which revealed the foot prints of the real culprits.

Daniel then destroys the dragon (which also “ate” sacrifices) by shoving balls of boiled pitch, fat and hair down the its throat. As a result, it burst.

There are several interesting possibilities here. The temple of Bel could in reality be a den of thieves who are pulling the wool over the eyes of the locals. It could also be an abandoned temple (formerly occupied by thieves and con-men?) with undiscovered secret entrances to dungeons below. In addition, while the story implies that the dragon destroyed by Daniel is a statue, the language used could be loosely interpreted to indicate an actual dragon. Taken together, these two episodes imply a city-state dominated by two cults. One is a sham put on by the local thieves’ guild and the other is led by an actual dragon.

In order to get everyone’s creative juices flowing, I offer up the following cross-section of the temple of Bel:

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