How Do You Solve a Problem Like Belteshazzar?

So there were these four Jewish dudes. Their names were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They were burly, strapping young lads at a time when the Babylonians were in charge over in Israel. Nebuchadnezzar, the king in Babylon, was all about having Jewish captives in Babylon to keep the Jews in line. It was custom at that time.

So Nebuchadnezzar, who’s better known as the hovership in The Matrix, was interested in getting his new subjects to go native and figured the best way to do it was to take their highest quality young folk and, um, Babylonify them. So he gave them names that were more Babylon-y than Jewish-y. So he called Daniel Belteshazzer. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah got names that would be familiar to anyone who grew up in Sunday School: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. For the younger folk they might be better known as Rack, Shack, and Benny.[1]

Our four little buddies then had a series of adventures. There was the one where they ate a bunch of vegetables because the king’s food was too sinny or something. Then there was this other one where they didn’t bow to some idol. Then there was that one time Rack, Shack, and Benny got thrown into a fiery furnace while Daniel was back home visiting his mother and presumably using his Kung Fu skills to clean up his old block that was now infested with a gang of Illyrian toughs or something. I assume there was a romantic subplot involving his old high school girlfriend, too. Daniel also interpreted a few dreams and gave us the phrase “the writing on the wall.” He was an all around cool dude, y’know? Like Idris Elba.

The one that I want to talk about is the last story in the cycle. It’s the famous one about Daniel[2] in the lion’s den. You know the story, right? Daniel got thrown into the lion’s den. The lions didn’t eat Daniel in spite of the fact that they were super hungry. King Darius realized that the god of the Jews was super awesome and bowed his head or whatever. Then everyone lived happily ever after until Alexander the Great showed up and ruined everything.

The part I care about, though, is the why of Daniel being in the lion’s den. See, he was a super popular adviser and seer under the Babylonians, because god told him stuff and all the prophets of the false Babylonian gods didn’t know nothin’ from nothin’. Daniel even prophesied the very night Darius and the Persians would take Babylon from King Belshazzar.[3] Darius was so impressed by him that he made Daniel one of the most powerful men in the Persian Empire and satrap over the former Babylonian territory. So what happened?

The king’s other advisers didn’t much like Daniel, so they tricked the king. They got him to sign a decree under the law of the Medes and the Persians that people could only pray to the king for a certain period of time and violation of the law was punishable by lion. Well, it turned out that Daniel rather famously prayed out on his balcony every morning. To his god. So it became a gotcha game and, sure enough, Daniel got got. The king didn’t actually want to put Daniel in front of the firing lion,[4] but his hands were tied, since the laws of the Medes and Persians just couldn’t be broken,[5] not even by the king. So into the pit Daniel went.

But Yahweh would not take that assault on his favored son lion down. Daniel survived, the king himself got him out of the pit, and for a moment it seemed the only losers were the poor, hungry lions. So the king solved that by throwing those other guys who tricked him down. It’s a win-win!

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There was this one time Jesus was preaching, as he did. He was on a roll, y’know? Pharisees this, faith of a mustard seed that, kingdom of god. Real good stuff. So in the middle of all this he told his followers not to pray as those pagans and hypocrites did, out on the street corners and all braggy-like. He told them to go pray in secret. Hide in the closet if they have to.

Proponents of secular culture in America love this part of Jesus’s wisdom above pretty much anything else. See, we have this real problem in America of people deciding they need to get all Jesus-y in public and rub everyone else’s face in it. It’s tasteless, really. Like having sex on Main Street right there in front of the elementary school and fire station. Nobody wants to see that. Well, I don’t know. Maybe if it was, like, Scarlett Johansson and Charlize Theron we’d all stop and let it happen and then we’d spend the rest of our lives talking in hushed tones about where we were the day an entire town uploaded videos of ScarJoCharThon[6] to YouTube at the same time. But, like, if it was just some random middle-aged couple who have a really specific fetish that they finally worked up the courage to try we’d all be like, “Ew, stop that. Regular people are gross.”

Religion is like fat people having sex is what I’m saying. It’s pasty and kinda floppy and there’s way too much grunting. Wait, where was I going with this?

This particular preaching from Jesus is actually kind of weird. See religion at the time was a public practice. We’re talking about a part of the world under the thumb of the Romans, who appropriated most of their culture from the Greeks. Religion was totally a public spectacle for the Greeks and the Romans. The Greeks were even a step back from some of their neighbors, notably the Egyptians, for whom religion was an all-consuming aspect of everything.

For the Jews the notion of religion as public spectacle was a big deal, too. That’s why the building and rebuilding of the Temple was such a big deal to them. Ezra didn’t head back from Babylon with Cyrus’s blessing so he could supervise the rebuilding of the Temple and then go pray in the root cellar for fear someone would see him.

I don’t think Jesus had any real problems with public religion. His real problem is right there in the beginning of Matthew 6: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your father who is in heaven.” It was an attack, as we so often see in the New Testament, on hypocrisy.

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So here we get to the heart of the problem. Whenever someone does something blatantly religious in public in America people who are against that sort of thing throw Matthew 6 at them. This doesn’t help, though, because those people see themselves as living out Daniel 6. So when we all take to Facebook and Twitter to mock them they see themselves as being thrown to the lions.

Sometimes this sort of behavior needs to be smacked down. Is a judge starting court sessions with prayer? That’s a problem. Is a public high school teacher telling gay kids they’re going to hell in sex ed classes? That’s a problem. That sort of thing needs to be stopped. It’s against the law.

Most of the time I think this behavior should be ignored. Is some jackass trying to start a controversy because of the color of a coffee cup? He can be ignored. Is some has-been celebrity reinventing himself as a warrior for Jesus? Who cares? I tell you, they’ll get their reward in full in the form of page views. Let’s try to make that number as close to zero as possible. Because while we all know they’re just being assholes they think they’re being latter day Daniels. Silence is the best response in that case.

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[1]This has now brought us to the part of the show where Geds goes to YouTube and watches VeggieTales videos. So I watched the Hairbrush Song and Song of the Cebu and, wow, VeggieTales have not aged well. Song of the Cebu used to be hilarious.

It’s kinda weird, too. It’s not like I was only allowed to watch VeggieTales in my youth. I was out of high school by the time they got popular. But I worked in a Christian book store at the time and VeggieTales was huge money, so I was quite familiar with the whole thing. It was enjoyable and silly in a way no Christian children’s entertainment had been before. Most of the previous stuff was just terribly earnest and kinda creepy. I present Bibleman for your viewing…uh, pleasure? VeggieTales was way better than this. Not that it takes much.

Also, yes, that’s Willie Aames, Scott Baio’s sidekick from Charles in Charge as Bibleman. So if you’ve ever asked yourself, “Hey, what happened to that guy from Charles in Charge who wasn’t Scott Baio, now you know.

I’m terrified to find out what tonight does to further fuck up my YouTube recommendations.

[2]One of the things I’ve always found weird about the book of Daniel is that all four got Babylonian names, but Daniel remained Daniel while the others were always Rack, Shack, and Benny. Meanwhile, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren’t really Babylonian names. They’re undoubtedly symbolic of something.

Which, actually, gives us a whole different topic of conversation. Daniel is a Jewish name meaning “God is my judge.” The “god” part of that name is right there at the end: El. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are all various ways of saying god is great, but the use of god there is Yahweh. This goes way back to the book of Genesis where god is alternately referred to as El and Yahweh, which is a good indication that the early Jewish texts are actually an attempt to merge two different traditions. I don’t actually know if this has any significance. I just find it interesting. Because I’m a nerd.

Meanwhile, Daniel himself is a semi-legendary figure in Jewish myth. It was traditional in ancient literature to attach stories to legendary figures and people had a hard time telling truth from myth. We haven’t advanced too much from there, honestly, even with all of our advances in literacy and communication. Look no further than President Obama, who is single-handedly traveling the country to convert all of the good little Christians into Muslims and take away the guns while using the Constitution as toilet paper and laughing at us because he’s really from Kenya. Meanwhile, all the stupid liberals think he’s just a centrist who’s helping the economy and bringing America’s respect abroad back up from the abysmal levels to which it descended during Bush’s presidency. Poor, deluded fools.

[3]How do we know that the book of Daniel is pretty much made up whole cloth? Timelines and actual historical fact. Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Darius were, indeed, real people.

Nebuchadnezzar actually did conquer Judah in 597 BCE. Belshazzar did, in fact, lose Babylon to the Persians. Belshazzar, however, was the son of King Nabonidus and the guy in charge of the army that lost to the Persians. This was in 539 BCE, which is 58 years after Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah. Now it’s certainly possible that Daniel lived through all of this. He would have been somewhere in his 70s or 80s, which isn’t unheard of for someone living high on the hog as the king’s favorite advisor.

This is where we hit the other half of the problem, though. Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Darius the Great became king 17 years later. Daniel 9 referred to him as Darius son of Xerxes. Darius was, in fact, the son of Hystaspes, a minor satrap, and managed to take the throne after a minor scuffle when Cyrus’s sons, Cambyses II and Bardiya, had a minor civil war. Darius, meanwhile, had a son who also took the throne: Xerxes I.

The latter half of the book of Daniel, meanwhile, takes the form of Daniel writing his recollections, including being the guy who convinced Darius, son of Xerxes, to allow the Jewish people to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple. The book of Ezra records that it was Cyrus the Great who allowed that to happen. As far as history goes, we have the Cyrus cylinder, which records Cyrus’s good deeds in terms of sending Babylonian slaves back to their homelands and restoring their native religions and places of worship. It does not specifically mention the Jews, but there’s no reason to think it would.

Our big takeaway here, though, is that the book of Daniel is problematic, historically speaking. It seems likely that it was written by someone who knew enough to know some real names, but didn’t know where they belonged. So we’re talking about someone who lived much later. Most scholarship points to the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who was rather famous for being the Hellenistic king at the time of the Maccabean Revolt.

[4]Firing lion. Firing. Lion. I just wrote that. I feel good about it.

[5]I’ve studied the history of this area in some detail and never run into a reference to this unbreakable law outside of he book of Daniel. It seems to me more like a convenient plot device than anything else. The entire first half of Daniel comes across that way, though. The king’s jealous advisers see that the 4 Jewish guys are prospering so they convince the king to do something that will result in their deaths. They don’t die and in a convenient reversal the jealous advisers are hoist on their own petard. Then the king orders everyone to obey the Jewish god. Then the credits roll and, “Next week on the Dukes of Babylon…”

And now I’m seeing four guys on a chariot named the General Zedekiah jumping ramps over the Tigris to escape Boss Neb and Sheriff Rothbus P. Coltrazzar. And I’m not gonna lie. I would watch that.

[6]Pronounced “Scar-Jo-Char-Thon.”

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