Unlikely Heroes: Daniel

This week we asked the question, “Where have all our heroes gone?” We took a look back at the decade of the 1960s to recall some of the figures that gained international reputation as heroes during those times. Among them were:

Yuri Gagarin – The first person in space in 1961. He was named a “Hero of the Soviet Union” and, even though the Soviet Union and the US/Western Europe were hardly the best of friends at that time, children everywhere were playing with toy rocket ships and pretending to be Yuri Gagarin!

John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963) whose death caught the attention of people across the globe. Across the Atlantic, in England, his life was memorialized by the building of a memorial at Runnymede, on the banks of the River Thames, where the English has previously built a memorial to the signing of the Magna Carta (1215).

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), whose death recalled memory of World War II for many people. Churchill was given honorary American citizenship in recognition of all he did in the great turmoil that swept across the world in the years of WWII.

Martin Luther King, Jr (1929-1968), whose heroism is captured in such immortal words as, “A good many observers have remarked that if equality could come at once the Negro would not be ready for it. I submit that the white American is even more unprepared.” His legacy lives on in the civil rights movement.

Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon on July 21, 1969 whose famous line, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind”, will be recorded in history books for future generations.

Today, however, it seems that the concept of “heroes’ has been reduced to the TV show of the same name. The magazine “TV Guide” happened to feature this show on its cover this week – a magazine distributed to some 20 million adults as of May 2007 [Mediamark Research, Inc.].

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has commented on the lack of heroes in today’s culture as follows, “…today, our culture is far less likely to raise up heroes than it is to exalt victims … Today, there are few (if any) heroes … What caused this cultural shift — from an emphasis on heroes to a preoccupation with victims? … our culture actually seeks to denigrate or deconstruct heroes”.

The deconstruction of heroes might be seen in the current media frenzy surrounding Mother Theresa that is casting doubts upon her faith.

In literature, it is easy to spot a hero. The monomyth (“the hero’s journey”) provides a description of a basic pattern found in many narratives that survive over time. According to Joseph Campbell in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (1949), we can identify a hero through:

• A call to adventure – the hero accepts or declines
• A road of trials – the hero succeeds or fails
• Achieving the goal – often results in important self-knowledge
• A return to the ordinary world – at which the hero can succeed or fail
• Applying the knowledge to improve the world

It seems we really need heroes. Barbara Nicolosi in “Heroes in Storytelling” asks what a child who has heroes and, by extension, a society with heroes, looks like? She reports:

• Idealistic
• Hopeful
• Imitative
• Open
• Eager to please
• Reverent
• Grateful

In contrast, when we ask, “what does a child without heroes look like?”, the answer is:

• Cynical
• Haughty
• Suspicious
• Jaded
• Irreverent
• Entitled
• Self-absorbed

If you want to become a hero, you might consider visiting the web site: http://www.howtobecomeahero.com/ where we are told:

• We cannot wait for a hero to come and rescue us.
• We cannot wait to figure out the best possible course of action.
• We cannot wait for a disaster to hear the call to heroism.

As we look for heroes who have endured, we find that in the Biblical narrative they are often the most unlikely people. Today we looked at Daniel, in particular the text of Daniel 1:1-21:

“In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods. Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself. Now God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master. The palace master said to Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king.” Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.” So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations. So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables”.

To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams. At the end of the time that the king had set for them to be brought in, the palace master brought them into the presence of Nebuchadnezzar, and the king spoke with them. And among them all, no one was found to compare with Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; therefore they were stationed in the king’s court. In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. And Daniel continued there until the first year of King Cyrus.”

In terms of what is happening in the narrative we noted:

• The great siege of Jerusalem – 605 BC (l
iken to the holocaust of WWII) – Nebuchadnezzar descended from Babylon and took Jerusalem
• 3rd year of Jehoiakim’s reign (4th in Jeremiah 25:1 – probably because of use of different calendar systems)
• Temple vessels taken “to the land of Shinar”
• Nobility taken away

Four “young men” – mentioned by name – were taken away, perhaps as hostages or to be trained to return one day as puppet rulers (perhaps both). We see in the text a classic example of how to dehumanize and reprogam people:

• Take away their names and language
• Despoil/destroy their symbols
• Isolate in a strange place
• Reeducate with a competing worldview

Step 1: Take away their names & language: To Hebrews, names are more than labels – they contain the very essence of a person. And so:

• Daniel (“God is my judge”) renamed Belteshazzar (“May Bel protect his life”)
• Hananiah (“Yahweh is gracious”) renamed Shadrach (“command of Aku”)
• Mishael (“Who is what God is?”) renamed Meshach (“Who is what Aku is?”)
• Azariah (“Yahweh helps”) renamed Abednego (“servant of Nebo”)

Step 2: Despoil/destroy their symbols: The key symbols of Judaism were land, Temple, and Torah. Two out of three were despoiled/destroyed – only Torah remained (memorized by many people).

Step 3: Isolate in a strange place:

• Verse 2: “…to the land of Shinar” [“Shinar” – legendary site of the Tower of Babel – associated with wickedness]
• Verse 4: “…in the king’s palace”

Step 4: Reeducate with a competing worldview:

• Verse 4: “…they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans”
• Verse 5: “They were to be educated for three years”
• This “reeducation” works best when the subjects are young…Plato writes “the education of Persian youths began in their 14th year” [Alcibiades 1:121]

We considered how to resist such dehumanization and recalled the prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr that we said together last week:

God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Daniel knew he couldn’t change certain things but he drew the line in the sand over the issue of food and drink:

• Unclean according to dietary laws
• Sharing food as a sign of loyalty
• Offering to pagan gods

And in so doing, a 14-year-old boy faced down the most powerful man in the world!

We asked why the Daniel story was written. Why was it important for the people to hear this story? Although there is much debate about the date of the writing of Daniel, it is possible, perhaps probable, that it was written about 165 BC:

• Daniel served as inspiration to the people
• Jerusalem ravaged by Antiochus Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire (168 BC)
• Prohibited circumcision
• Erected a shrine to Jupiter in the Temple
• Soldiers entered the Temple and slaughtered swine there
• Tried to force the Jews to eat the meat – cut out their tongues when they refused (then butchered them and burned them on the altar)
• 2 Maccabees 6:18 Eleazar (chief scribe) “was constrained to open his mouth and to eat swine’s flesh. But he, choosing rather to die gloriously … spit it forth, and came of his own accord to the torment”

The eventual defeat of Antiochus Epiphanes in a revolt by the Maccabees is celebrated to this day at Hanukkah.

By the time of Jesus:

• The brief period of independence under the Maccabees had been followed by Roman rule
• Daniel served as inspiration to the Jewish people once again
• Jesus often called on images from the Book of Daniel when he taught

Still today we see in this narrative:

• Daniel – a hero that endures
• He knew what mattered to him
• He knew that there are worse things than dying
• He knew what could be challenged (and what could not)
• He knew to set an example for others
• He knew to act and not just talk

We saw the same idea in our New Testament reading for the day (1 Timothy 4:11-16), summarized as follows:

• “… set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
• … Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them …
• … Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching”

We noted that if we:

• know what matters to us
• know that there are worse things than dying (… suffering … being uncomfortable … going without …)
• know what can be challenged (and what can not)
• know to set an example for others
• know to act and not just talk

….then we can be heroes, just like Daniel, too. And the world needs heroes……

Thanks for visiting!