The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.
— Albert Einstein
Bel and the Dragon?

Bel and the Dragon?

Bel and the Dragon: Part I

Daniel Series introduction

          As we continue our series reviewing the apocryphal books, the book of Daniel offers some intriguing insights. Daniel’s book is full of history, biography and prophecy. In only twelve short chapters, the story is told of a young man (Daniel) who rises to prominence in the Babylonian and Medo-Persian empires – all of this after being taken captive from the land of Israel to Babylon. Some might be surprised to know that the apocrypha contains two extra chapters to this book. For Protestants, the book of Daniel ends with his prophecies regarding the future and the Son of Man who is to come. For Catholics and Eastern Orthodox churches, among others, the story continues with two other self-contained chapters. The first is called “Susanna” or “Susanna and the Elders” and the second is “Bel and the Dragon.”

          Even if one is not familiar with the question of the Apocryphal writings, the reading of these two additional chapters leaves the reader a bit confused as to why they were included and what they add to the book. From a literary perspective, they each act as a sort of epilogue to give the reader further information on the main character – Daniel.

How Does this Story Fit?

          Having already considered the tale of Susanna here, we now turn our attention to “Bel and the Dragon” which is located in chapter 14 of Daniel. For anyone who has never read this chapter, the title might be misleading. I recall the first time I heard the title as a child and it struck me like the title of a fairy tale where Bel is the princess stuck in a tower guarded by a dragon while she waits for her “Prince Charming” to come and rescue her. Needless to say, once I read the chapter, I was disappointed by the content since it did not meet my pre-conceived expectations. This chapter is, however, not one story but three. In this post, we will consider the first story concerning the god Bel and then in a later post the other two stories.

         The first portion of the chapter begins by telling of an idol (Bel) that Cyrus, the king of Persia, thought was a god. But the way that this story is introduced is of importance as well. It says that when “King Astyages was laid with his fathers”, then this episode with Cyrus took place. But who was this “Astyages” and how does he fit into the chronology of Daniel? The Jewish Historian Josephus may help us when he recorded: “Darius the Mede was the son of Astyages who ended Babylonian rule and his relative was Cyrus the King of Persia.” All of this is a bit confusing since the two kingdoms of Medo-Persia and Babylon had just been brought under the same ruler. Another complication is the fact that Cyrus seems to be a secondary ruler to Darius according to some historians. This would mean that Darius was the actual ruler but he had given much of the daily ruling responsibilities to Cyrus. Perhaps more startling, from a historical perspective, is the second verse which tells us that Daniel was a companion to the king and “was the most honored of his friends”.

            This begs the question of how long Cyrus had been ruling in order for Daniel to have gained such a status. Since we know that Cyrus did not come to power until he was 62 years of age (Daniel 5:31), it would seem that this might have taken place a year or two after he came to power – long enough to allow his trust in Daniel to grow.

Daniel and Bel the Idol

            The succeeding episode tells of an idol called Bel that Cyrus worshipped. Every day, “twelve bushels of fine flour, forty sheep and fifty gallons of wine” would be offered to the god and in the morning, all of these offerings would be gone. Cyrus is convinced that Bel is eating all of these offerings and he and Daniel have a discussion on that point (14:5-9). Daniel claims that Bel “never ate or drank anything” and is only a “man-made idol” (14:5-7). Then the king proposes a test to discover the truth. He will place the offerings in the temple, cause all the priests to leave, and lock the temple overnight. Additionally, he will place his seal on the temple doors so that anyone who tries to get in will suffer the death penalty. If the food is eaten, then Daniel will die and if the food is still there, the priests will die (14:12). Interestingly, it is the seventy priests who help suggest part of this plan (14:10-12), which suggests to the reader that something fishy is going on. Indeed, the next verse explains that the priests had a secret entrance under the table through which they would come each night and eat the provisions.

            Daniel, however, seems to know something is not right, so after sending out all the priests, he orders his servants to spread ashes on the floor of the whole temple. Only the king, Daniel and the servants know that this has been done (14:13-14). In the night, the priests come with their wives and children and they eat and drink everything. But this begs a few questions. First, how is it that no one heard more than 150 people eating, drinking and talking in the temple throughout the night? This seems like a large group of people for no one to have ever noticed before – especially since it happened every night. Secondly, although it makes sense how this group of people could polish off the wine easily enough, what would they do with the flour and the sheep? If the sheep were alive, then they would have to kill them and roast them, but more likely the sheep were already dead and had been offered to the god earlier. But this still begs the question as to how they could cook the sheep and potentially cook something with the flour without anyone seeing the smoke or smelling the cooking.

Daniel Uncovers the Truth

            To these questions the reader is left with no answers. But in the morning, the king and Daniel rose and went to the temple. When they opened the doors, they saw that all the offerings had been consumed. At first the king thinks that Bel has been vindicated, but then Daniel points his attention to the floor. The king says “I see the footsteps of men and women and children” (14:20). The king becomes enraged and seizes the priests and their families and they eventually tell him about the secret opening. The result is that all these families were put to death and Cyrus gives the idol Bel to Daniel who destroys both it and the temple in which it is housed (14:21-22).

            Although this account is certainly in keeping with other anti-idol aspects of Daniel’s life and public ministry, even a cursory reading of this account will cause the reader to notice a significant difference, in style and content, between it and the rest of the book of Daniel. Additionally, no copy of this chapter was found until the 2nd century AD and Rabbinic Judaism has always rejected it as inauthentic. Nevertheless, it is an interesting story and offers perhaps the first instance in ancient literature of a detective-like procedure (spreading ashes on the floor to show the marks of intruders) being enacted to solve a mystery. Indeed, this account, along with the other two in this chapter and Susanna in chapter 13 seem to indicate that Daniel would have been an early literary precursor to such detectives as Sherlock Holmes. The final two accounts in chapter 14 also offer some intriguing insights that will be considered in part II.


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