October 27, 2013
“Daniel and the Lions”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
10 Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously. 11 The conspirators came and found Daniel praying and seeking mercy before his God. 12 Then they approached the king and said concerning the interdict, “O king! Did you not sign an interdict, that anyone who prays to anyone, divine or human, within thirty days except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions?” The king answered, “The thing stands fast, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be revoked.” 13 Then they responded to the king, “Daniel, one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or to the interdict you have signed, but he is saying his prayers three times a day.”
The story of Daniel and the lion’s den is one of the few Bible stories that made it into the “Tiny Bear’s Bible” which my son Nathan sometimes chooses for a nighttime book, along with creation and baby Moses and Noah’s ark. It is a story as familiar as a nursery rhyme.
Daniel gets tossed in with the lions, God keeps him safe, Daniel emerges smiling, and we remember the happy ending. When you stop and think about it, it is really a terrifying story. Daniel works for a foreign conqueror who keeps starving lions as a means of punishing his enemies and law-breakers.
Daniel is one of three “presidents” who oversee a vast number of other workers called satraps. For reasons we could guess at, the other two presidents conspire against him – perhaps they were jealous because Daniel had distinguished himself and was receiving a promotion, maybe there are ethnic and religious tensions that are boiling over. But they couldn’t find anything wrong with him – he was honest, a good guy, faithful, diligent in his work.
So they work out a plan to trap him by setting the law of Darius the Mede (the king at the time) against the law of the God of Daniel. So they gather everyone together, except Daniel of course, and get them to agree to bring this proposal to the king – the Aramaic word has the sense of swarming to the king.
And the proposal is that anyone who prays to anyone other than the king will be thrown into the den of lions. And the king signs it. In the book of Esther there is a helpful explanation for what this means (Esther 8:8): “an edict written in the name of king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.”
And that’s where we pick up the story – Daniel knows the law of the land, and he knows the law of God, and he is faced with a difficult choice: civil disobedience and a horrifying death by being eaten alive by lions, or separation from the God who he prays to daily.
So I want us to look at this story through the eyes of Daniel who has this grave decision to make. Daniel was not a super human or a spiritual super power – what we learn about him is that he was fairly ordinary other than being a faithful and ethical person and hard-working and he has an excellent spirit.
One commentator writes that “Daniel is not being pictured as a man of the age to come, marvelously able to exercise dominion over the beasts; instead, we have depicted here a man of the present age, like ourselves, who by trust and steadfastness gives a hint of the new way in which believers can deport themselves even now as they draw strength from the certainty of God’s coming great victory.”
Daniel has two great fears before him – separation from God and death by lions.
Karen Thompson Walker is a novelist who gave a TED talk about fear and the imagination, and she points out that our fears are very much like stories – they have a narrative and characters.
When we imagine our fears we are doing a kind of unintentional story telling. Novelists spend a lot of time thinking about “what would happen if . . .”: What would happen if zombies attacked, what would happen if time travel were real, what would happen if there were ancient secret societies.
And our fears look much the same way: what would happen if I lost my job, what would happen if I lost a child, what would happen if I feel asleep behind the wheel of my car, what would happen if they say it is cancer. Children, and novelists, are especially good at using their imaginations to create a whole story surrounding their fears.
Here is my example: as a child I was terrified that a horrible beast would come out of my closet at night. Before I went to bed I would check the closet carefully and always sleep with the closet door closed – and here was my thinking, if the monster should come out I would definitely hear the closet door opening and since I was a light sleeper I would wake up, and that would give me a couple extra seconds to spring into action (I’m not sure what the plan was after that but I felt prepared) – later that fear transitioned to being afraid that a person was hiding in the closet so I slept with the door open so I could always see if there were feet underneath the hanging clothes.
Karen Thompson Walker points out that how we read our fears, which fears we listen to in a given situation like Daniel’s situation, makes all the difference in the world.
And here is the example she gives: “One day in 1819, 3,000 miles off the coast of Chile, in one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, 20 American sailors watched their ship flood with seawater. They’d been struck by a sperm whale, which had ripped a catastrophic hole in the ship’s hull. As their ship began to sink beneath the swells, the men huddled together in three small whaleboats. These men were 10,000 miles from home, more than 1,000 miles from the nearest scrap of land. In their small boats, they carried only rudimentary navigational equipment and limited supplies of food and water. These were the men of the whaleship Essex, whose story would later inspire parts of “Moby Dick.” Even in today’s world, their situation would be really dire, but think about how much worse it would have been then. No one on land had any idea that anything had gone wrong. No search party was coming to look for these men . . . Twenty-four hours had passed since the capsizing of the ship. The time had come for the men to make a plan, but they had very few options . . . These men were just about as far from land as it was possible to be anywhere on Earth. The men knew that the nearest islands they could reach were the Marquesas Islands, 1,200 miles away. But they’d heard some frightening rumors. They’d been told that these islands, and several others nearby, were populated by cannibals. So the men pictured coming ashore only to be murdered and eaten for dinner.
Another possible destination was Hawaii, but given the season, the captain was afraid they’d be struck by severe storms. Now the last option was the longest, and the most difficult: to sail 1,500 miles due south in hopes of reaching a certain band of winds that could eventually push them toward the coast of South America. But they knew that the sheer length of this journey would stretch their supplies of food and water. To be eaten by cannibals, to be battered by storms, to starve to death before reaching land. These were the fears that danced in the imaginations of these poor men, and as it turned out, the fear they chose to listen to would govern whether they lived or died. So how can we tell the difference between the fears worth listening to and all the others? After much deliberation, the men finally made a decision. Terrified of cannibals, they decided to forgo the closest islands and instead embarked on the longer and much more difficult route to South America. After more than two months at sea, the men ran out of food as they knew they might, and they were still quite far from land. When the last of the survivors were finally picked up by two passing ships, less than half of the men were left alive, and some of them had resorted to their own form of cannibalism. Herman Melville, who used this story as research for “Moby Dick,” wrote years later, “All the sufferings of these miserable men of the Essex might in all human probability have been avoided had they, immediately after leaving the wreck, steered straight for Tahiti. But,” as Melville put it, “they dreaded cannibals.” They were swayed by one story much more than the others, and they listened to the wrong one. Of all the narratives their fears wrote, they responded only to the most lurid, the most vivid, the one that was easiest for their imaginations to picture.”
So back to Daniel – he has the lurid vision of being eaten by lions, or the less violent vision of turning his back on God. And the story he listens to is the one about separation from God – that’s what matters more. And so he goes and prays as he has always done, three times a day with the windows open. There is some scholarly debate about the windows – whether we should understand them as already open, as they always were, or whether Daniel threw them open in defiance of the law so that everyone could see what he was doing.
Either way, scholars agree that in his actions he did nothing different than he done the day before or the week before – he prayed. Mahatma Ghandi wrote that he found consolation in reading the book of the prophet Daniel because he believed Daniel to be one of the greatest passive resisters who ever lived.
As one commentator puts it quite creatively about Daniel’s decision, “To live without hope in God’s victory in the restoration of the world and the completion of his redemptive work is to become a slave to Big Brother, a rhinoceros bellowing through the streets in blind allegiance to an ugly and fatally flawed leader.”
I heard a quote once and I still don’t know who to attribute it to, but it is something to effect of, we are to so fear the face of God that we have no fear of anything else, and that I think is the lesson from Daniel. We see in his story the intersection of two fears and while we may not face lions, we face our own kind of fears, our own difficult decisions.
One example of where we might encounter fears – our fears surrounding giving. It is not that we don’t want to give back to God – we are afraid that there isn’t enough, we won’t be able to pay the bills. Another one is when the topic of God comes up in a conversation and we stay quiet instead of saying something. What about when the opportunity comes to stand up for someone or something, but we are afraid of what will happen – friends won’t speak to us again, the boss will fire us. We don’t speak the truth when we should.
Our fears become bigger than what God calls us to do. There are ways we betray God or betray truth because we are afraid. So Daniel offers us a model to look fear in the face and trust God.