The Apocrypha in Lent – 30 March (Good Friday)

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

30 March 2018. Daniel chapter 14

Like the story of Susannah on which I wrote earlier this week, this chapter, known as “Bel and the dragon”, is unrelated to the rest of the book of Daniel and is only included because Daniel features in the three short stories that it comprises, all of which share the theme of the defeat of idolatry.  The chapter is omitted in Protestant Bibles as “apocryphal”.

In the first of the short stories, King Cyrus – mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and undoubtedly a historical person – is portrayed as worshiping the idol called Bel or Marduk which appears to eat a large amount of food (including sacrificed sheep). Daniel is no under illusion – he knows that the idol is only a bronze -covered clay statue, and tells the king that their must be trickery.  Cyrus is at least willing to investigate the truth, but the priests of Bel are confident their secret trap door (by which they go in to eat the idol’s food at night) will not be discovered. Daniel uses a simple built of forensic investigation by scattering ashes on the floor to expose the footprints of the people who come in at night, and thus persuades the king to stop worshiping the idol.

In the second story, the king is now worshiping a living creature – a “dragon” (we cannot know what sort of animal this really was). He believes it to be immortal, but Daniel very simply chokes it to death with balls of hair, grease and pitch.  In this way he persuades the king to drop the practice of idolatry.  But that is not the end of the story – for the second time (if the stories in the book are in chronological order) Daniel is fed to the lions, yet survives by God’s miraculous intervention.

Is there any relevance to this story for Christians?  Yes, very much so! Today is Good Friday, when Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate.  Pilate found himself in the same position as Cyrus did – faced with a believer in God who had been upsetting the religious systems of their day, yet willing to be persuaded that the believer in question was not only harmless to society, but maybe even right in representing a different form of religion.

Yet in both cases, the priests of the established religion – the servants of Bel, or the priests of the Jerusalem temple who professed to worship the true God, the God of Abraham (and for that matter Daniel) – were so afraid of losing their influence and their income that they threatened to riot. Just as the priests of Bel “pressed [Cyrus] so hard that the king found himself forced to hand Daniel over to them to throw Daniel into the lion pit” (14:30-31), so Pilate was pressed so hard by the Jews to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus, that he did the same.

What can we learn from these stories – true or not? It seems impossible to modern people that an intelligent person such a Cyrus could believe in a statue actually being a god, but then it seems impossible for many people that an intelligent person can believe in an unseen god.  The deity of Bel and the Dragon could be disproven; the existence of God can neither be disproven, nor proved by scientific experiment.  Daniel, if these stories are true (and the Bible has many examples of people being miraculously preserved from death) could point to the evidence in his life of a saving power, and so can many people today.  Belief in God requires faith, but a faith for which there is evidence.

It is not surprising that when Jesus hung on the cross, he was taunted to save himself and come down from the cross.  He had healed people of all kinds of illness and disability, even raised people from the dead. But it appeared he could not save himself. Where was the God who rescued Daniel from the lions, Joseph from the pit in which his brothers had thrown him, or the three young men of chapter 3 from the furnace, when his own son was dying?  The miracle of Good Friday is in fact in the fact that Jesus was not saved from physical death. For he had to undergo it in order to be raised to life, without which his saving work for all of humanity would not be complete.  Daniel’s life was saved as a reward for defeating the power of idolatry and destroying the terrifying dragon, but Jesus on the cross faced down the greater enemy, the unseen power of the Devil.  He paid the price for that with his life, but was rewarded with the everlasting life that he also offers to us.

Happy Easter!

Here ends the book of Daniel, and with it my survey of the whole Bible (including the apocryphal bits) over the last 15 months.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 28 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

28 March 2018.  Daniel chapter 13

This chapter is the story of “Susannah and the elders”. It is unrelated to the rest of the book of Daniel and is only included because Daniel features as a witness.  The chapter is omitted in Protestant Bibles as “apocryphal”.  It does, however, make some very important points about natural justice and the legal system.

This story was written about 2200 years ago, about the Babylonian culture of about 2500 years ago.  Bearing in mind that there was neither written language nor (as far as we know) any official system of justice in what we now call England at that time, it is remarkable that Babylon was known for having a detailed legal system.  If verse 5 is historically accurate, two elders were appointed as judges each year.   That’s no bad thing – most societies regard respected older people as suitable to act in that capacity, and a decision by two people rather than one is generally safer.  But there are other good principles that should be observed, and which failed in Susannah’s case.

Firstly, to summarise the story: the two judges both become infatuated by this beautiful, young but married woman, and plot together to sleep with her when they find her alone (i.e. commit rape).   A trial is held at which they preside, and their evidence that she had been committing adultery with another man is held to be sufficient to condemn her to death.  Daniel then comes on the scene, not having been at the trial, but knowing by a message from God that she is innocent.  He is then invited to preside at a re-trial at which he finds the men’s evidence contradictory, and they are then condemned to death instead.

How many faults can we find?  Firstly, the two elders acted as both witnesses and judges.  That should never happen even in the most informal of disciplinary hearings!  Secondly, there was no evidence given as to who the mystery adulterer might be.  Thirdly, the elders gave their evidence together. When Daniel interviewed them he heard them separately and was able to expose their evidence as false, for one said they saw the adultery being committed under a mastic tree, and the other said under a holm-oak.  Witnesses should be interrogated separately for just that reason.  And finally, Susannah was not given the chance to put her defence, until Daniel’s re-trial.  We might think that was “the way things were” in a patriarchal society, but as Daniel points out, Jewish law did admit women as witnesses and provide for a defence to be made (verses 48-49).

To add to all that, although not a matter of breaking the civil law (then or now) the very lustful desire they had for her is condemned as sinful.  “They threw reason aside, making no effort to turn their eyes to heaven” (v.9). It is neither surprising or sinful in itself for men of any age to find a young woman attractive, but any mature man, and certainly anyone following one of the major religions, should see there is a clear distinction between a passing look and lusting for someone so badly that he seriously contemplates raping her.

The story of Susannah, then, apart from the spiritual element of Daniel’s word of knowledge by the Holy Spirit, tells us more about principles of justice, law and what we would now call safeguarding, than about religion.  But then, religion is about real life.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 27 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

27 March 2018. Daniel chapters 9-12

Chapters 10 and 11 are titled “A time of wrath” and describe the vision Daniel is said to have had concerning a coming time of war and persecution.   Unlike some of the earlier visions there are no fantastic creatures here like the multi-horned beasts of chapters 7 and 8.  Instead we have all-too-human rulers, men of power and greed.  They are not named, though some of them are titled “King of the North” or “King of the South”.

The Jerusalem Bible’s footnotes identify many of these kings by name and dates of their reigns: the kings of the North are Alexander and his followers in Syria, and those of the South the Ptolemies of Egypt.  This does make historical sense of the story, which covers a period from 306 to 165BC, a period of 140 years or about five generations.  But given that the book was written in the 2nd century BC and Daniel was supposed to have prophesied in about the 6th century about events that took place in the 3rd, one does wonder how much was written with the knowledge of what had already happened, even if Daniel did have a prophecy that was passed own orally through this time.

The purpose of the revelation to Daniel, though, like the purpose of the revelation to St John in the first or early second century AD (i.e. the Apocalypse), was to encourage God’s people at a time of persecution by showing that there were powerful angels and archangels at work striving on behalf of goodness and justice, even when it seemed that evil had swept them away.

For the ordinary believer caught up in political and military upheaval it must often seem as if God has abandoned them to the forces of evil. But the presence of the Archangel Michael, whose name is translated as “Who is like GOD?” (10:13), serves to confirm that Daniel, and anyone else who continues faithful to God through times of trouble, has the power of God on their side.  Throughout the times of trouble there is the promise that there will be a restoration of justice and righteousness under a future saviour, and even resurrection of the dead (12:2). These are the promises that kept the Jewish people hopeful until the arrival of Jesus Christ, their true saviour.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 26 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

26 March. Daniel chapter 6

Not a new thought today – I am re-posting with a few amendments what I wrote on 30 August last year, as it is relevant to Holy Week.

A pattern, perhaps not obvious at first, is seen in the story of the lions’ den when compared with the events of Holy Week (the last days of Jesus’ life).  Daniel. like Jesus, is charged falsely by his enemies; the ruler (Darius in Daniel’s time, Pontius Pilate in Jesus’ day) tries to get out of what the law demands, knowing that the man before him is actually innocent of any crime; the crowd prevails (as it did when calling for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus) and the innocent man is reluctantly condemned to death.  Unlike Jesus, Daniel did not actually die, the lions miraculously sparing him.  But just as Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb and sealed with a stone, so Daniel is cast into a pit and a sealed stone put over it; at dawn the king, like Mary Magdalene and her friends, comes fearing the worst, but like them hears the voice of the one they thought was dead.

The outcome of both stories is much the same: King Darius is persuaded of the truth of the Jewish faith, and the Apostles come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

This story was written probably about 150 years before Jesus, yet it seems to be as much a prophecy or foreshadowing of what would happen to the Messiah, as it is a coded history of the various tyrants who had persecuted the Jews up to the time of the Macabbeans (which is how a historian would read the book of Daniel).  For that reason, as well as his God-given ability to interpret dreams, Daniel is regarded as one of the prophets.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 25 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

25 March. Daniel 3:24-90

For the rest of chapters 1-4 see my blog posts for 28 August and 29 August 2017.

These interpolations to the text of Daniel chapter 3 are titled “The song of Azariah” and “The song of the Three Young Men”.  They are put in the mouths of the Jews who, condemned for their refusal to worship the statue of gold set up by Nebuchadnezzar, were thrown into the furnace but protected from harm by an angel.  Whether this is a true miracle, or total fiction, or somewhere between, the value of these passages lies in the way that people in great danger turn to God, not in anger but in praise.  Azariah’s song acknowledges that God has rightly punished the Jewish people for turning away from him, and calls on him to have mercy on those who do still believe and trust in him.

The song of the Three Young Men (Azariah, Hananiah and Mishael, or to give them their Babylonian names Abednego, Shadrach and Meshach) is one of pure praise. It resembles the Psalms, in particular those with a congregational refrain (“Bless the Lord! Give glory and eternal praise to him!”).  Only at the end do the three men thank God for rescuing them from death, as if that is less important than praising him for his whole creation. This idea that God can and should be praised, even in the most testing of times, is another theme found throughout the Bible.

 

The Bible in a Year – 2 September

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2 September. Daniel chapters 11-12

Please excuse the delay in publishing the notes for the end of Daniel and all of Ezra, with only brief comments, as I was on holiday for a week and only making short notes to be typed up later.

In these last two chapters of Daniel, there is much prophecy of what would happen with wars between various kings of the “North” and “South”.  The actual territories involved are not identified, except for mention of the Temple indicating that Jerusalem is among the area being disputed. I will not comment further on this other than to note that there has rarely been a time of peace in this part of the world.

Chapter 12 contains elements of apocalyptic (end-of-the-age prophecy) that find echoes in Jesus’ teaching: the end of the system of Temple sacrifices (11:31); persecution of the Jews (12:1); resurrection of the faithful from death for final judgement (12:2). Even Daniel who received these prophecies was told not to worry “how or when” these would be fulfilled, all that mattered was to trust God.

Jesus would of course have known all this, and the fact that he said much the same merely confirms that the fulfilment of these prophecies still lay in the future in his day.   The Temple system ended within 50 years after that; the resurrection is yet to happen, and the persecution of the Jews has continued intermittently throughout history.  For us, too, all that matters is to trust in God and leave him to look after the timing.

The Bible in a Year – 1 September

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1 September. Daniel chapters 9-10

The prayer of Daniel in chapter 9, following the revelation that the Jewish exile would last seventy years, resembles those of King David or one of the other prophets.  It is a prayer of penitence not so much on his own behalf as on behalf of the nation. It is dated in the reign of Ahasuereus (who according to the commentaries is probably not the ruler of the same name in the story of Esther).

It is interesting that this intense prayer of penitence is followed by the appearance of the archangel Gabriel, while in chapter 10 three weeks of fasting is followed by an even greater epiphany.  Whether it is the laying aside of self-centredness in such religious practices, or the physical changes in the body due to emotion or hunger, that make someone open to such spiritual experiences, is difficult to say. But the association is a strong one.

The second appearance is of a shining figure who inspires both worship and fear. Christians might identify him as the Christ, or (since it seems this figure was not all-powerful against the ‘prince’ or guardian spirit of Persia without the aid of the archangel Michael) it might be another archangel.  But since the classification of spiritual beings is at best a subjective matter, let us just call him an angel (messenger) of God.

I will not attempt to analyse or explain the “prophecy of seventy weeks” in Chapter 9 as much greater Biblical scholars have failed in the attempt (just google it!)  I will just pick on one phrase, the “abomination that desolates” (9:27).  This too has had numerous explanations, most of which relate to the “desecration” of the Temple in Jerusalem.  This does not necessarily mean physical destruction – desecration is an extreme form of disrespect.

I refer you to an essay by the late Isaac Asimov titled “Pompey and Circumstance”.  There is a copy of it online. Read it and see what you think.

The Bible in a Year – 31 August

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31 August. Daniel chapters 7-8

The two apocalyptic visions that are recounted here are dated in the first and third years of Belshazzar, therefore before the “writing on the wall” incident in yesterday’s reading.  They use slightly different symbols, but otherwise are much the same, with horned beasts representing countries, empires and their rulers, with one defeating another, persecution of God’s people and their eventual triumph.

Much apocalyptic writing is like this.  In the second vision, an archangel identifies two of the beasts as the Median-Persian and Greek empires; but otherwise it is pointless trying to identify particular nations and rulers in later centuries.  The principle is clear: there will often be persecution of religious groups by power-hungry men and their regimes, but (as the similar Book of Revelation puts it) those who endure to the end will be saved.

There is one verse in here which is regarded by Christians as pointing to Jesus: “I saw one like a human being [or ‘Son of Man’] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him” (7:13). Jesus used the term Son of Man for himself, and here such a person is shown as being brought before the Creator, to be given (in the following verses) everlasting rule over the earth and the worship of its peoples.  That is how the Church has understood Jesus after his resurrection and ascension – he has become for ever the manifestation of God among people, and worthy of worship alongside the one he called Father.

These visions, terrible as they are, serve to remind us that worshipping God – directly or through Jesus – is risky in terms of the persecution that we might face, but ultimately we are on the side of the victor.

 

The Bible in a Year – 30 August

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30 August. Daniel chapters 5-6

We see in these two chapters several patterns repeated elsewhere in the Bible, from both before and after the time of Daniel.

Firstly, in the relations between Daniel and the various kings he serves during his time in Babylon, we see a pattern like that of the judges and kings of earlier centuries, and the way that various prophets engaged with them.  ‘Good’ kings or judges (those who honour God and his laws) tended to alternate with ‘bad’ ones who went their own way and committed idolatry. So it is with these kings.  Yesterday we read of Nebuchadnezzar, a despot who paid God no attention until he was rewarded with madness for seven years until he came to his senses and worshipped the true God.  But his son Belshazzar takes no heed of this, and desecrates the holy vessels from the Jerusalem temple by using them in a debauched banquet to toast false gods.  So the writing appears on the wall, God’s own hand apparently writing his own judgement and condemnation.  Although Daniel interprets it for him, it is too late, and he is killed that night, Daniel having been give once again a high office in the land.

Belshazzar’s successor Darius (probably not of the same family) starts off as a good king who  includes Daniel the Jew in his government, until Daniel’s rivals plot against him in exactly the same way as they did in the days of Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel is literally thrown to the lions.  Once again, he miraculously survives, giving credit to God, the king repents, converts (apparently), pardons Daniel (conveniently setting aside the doctrine of his own infallibility) and it is the plotters and their innocent wives and children who become lion fodder.

These stories – of the writing on the wall, and the lions’ den – are among the best known in the Bible, and not only by regular worshippers. Add the many similar stories in the Bible and it should be abundantly clear that taunting God by desecrating places where he is worshipped, banning worship of him, or persecuting his followers, will always lead to trouble. But it seems that rulers of nations never learn this lesson. The quiet-living, law-abiding, God-fearing citizen (be they Jew, Muslim, Christian or any other religion) is always an easy target when political expediency demands a scapegoat.

Another pattern, perhaps not so obvious, is seen in the story of the lions’ den.  Note this: Daniel is charged falsely by his enemies; the ruler tries to get out of what the law demands , knowing that he is actually innocent of any crime; the crowd prevails and he is reluctantly condemned to death; he is cast into a pit and a sealed stone put over it; at dawn the king comes fearing the worst, but hears Daniel alive, and is persuaded of the truth of the Jewish faith.  This story was written probably at least a couple of hundred years before Jesus, yet we see much the same pattern at the end of his earthly life.  His enemies persuade a reluctant Pilate to condemn Jesus on what he knows are trumped-up charges, Jesus (after his death in this case) is laid in a tomb with a sealed stone, at dawn his disciples come and some see him alive, and all (eventually) come to believe in the resurrection.

Again this is a basic principle of the way God works with people – the more those who believe are falsely persecuted, the more will their persecutors be confounded. For the law of God, as Nebuchadnezzar and Darius eventually came to acknowledge, is greater than the laws of man.

The Bible in a Year – 29 August

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29 August. Daniel chapters 3-4

In chapter 3, three of the four Jewish exiles – but not Daniel himself – are thrown into the furnace for having refused to worship the golden statue that the king set up, and also refused the opportunity to recant.  They are saved by an angel (or maybe the incarnation of God himself, for the one “like a son of man” is a title Jesus took for himself). Nebuchadnezzar, in a fashion typical of this style of writing, immediately changes from persecuting the Jews to proclaiming theirs the official religion of his empire (as we saw in Esther).

 

Miracles aside, this is a story of true witness. We are not told whether the golden statue is of Nebuchadnezzar himself – though it might have been, since dictators are prone to having statues of themselves erected in their lifetimes – but whether it was that, or the image of a Babylonian god, to worship it (or the king himself) would for the Jews have been to break the greatest commandments.  These men passed the ultimate test of faith, which led to what should have been their martyrdom.  In every age there have been people of any religion whose faith has been strong enough to lead them down this path, and they are rightly honoured. But true martyrdom is always about suffering for peacefully holding to one’s principles in the face of violence and intolerance; those who claim as martyrs people who have killed others “in the name of God” fail to understand what a martyr really is – a peaceful witness to truth.

 

In our liberal society, we agonise over whether followers of one religion should be allowed to display symbols of their religion (be it crosses, turbans, painted faces or veils) or to be ‘witnesses’ in the sense of proselytising (explaining their faith to others with a view to conversion).  Sometimes the decision is reached that such symbols or witnessing should not be allowed in public places in order not to offend others.  This is regrettable, but it is a long way from state-sponsored torture.

 

In chapter 4, which is probably not to be seen as chronologically following the earlier one, Nebuchadnezzar sends another edict around his empire telling how he had another apocalyptic dream, that Daniel interpreted as predicting his downfall and madness (eating grass like oxen) until he should honour God’s authority. Again, this comes to pass (not immediately, but a year later) until after seven years of such exile and madness the king repents and ends up worshipping God.

 

This is harder to understand. Perhaps the lesson is that megalomania such as that displayed by Nebuchadnezzar and many other dictators and emperors over the centuries is itself a form of madness, and needs to be treated by an opposite extreme – an addiction to excessive power being removed only by the “withdrawal symptoms” of excessive humility. From a theological perspective, any action or attitude that causes us to rebel against God’s will might be seen as a form of insanity, and an appropriate form of penitence is the antidote to it.

 

These two chapters together – telling of martyrdom and witness, of rebellion against God and humble penitence – point us to spiritual principles that apply to every believer, to some degree. The challenge facing you if you are a person of faith is hopefully less life-threatening than that facing the three young men, but you may still find there are times when you are put on the spot to justify your faith-inspired actions (or refusal to act as instructed). Your ‘insanity’ or mine is hopefully much milder than that of Nebuchadnezzar or other despots, but nevertheless we need to be willing to confront it, and accept whatever form of penitence God considers necessary to bring us back to our senses.