Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Rescue from Fiery Death: Daniel Chapter 3 and Genesis Chapter 38

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Rescue from Fiery Death: Daniel Chapter 3 and Genesis Chapter 38

Article excerpt

The third chapter of the Book of Daniel focuses on Daniel's three companions, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Along with Daniel, these youths of Judean nobility were taken from Judea to Babylonia to serve King Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 1:3-6). Like Daniel they receive new, foreign names, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego (Dan. 1:7). In the third chapter they refuse to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar's golden statue and are punished by being thrown into a fiery furnace from which they are miraculously saved. This episode is the classic biblical example of Kiddush Hashem, the willingness to risk one's life in order to sanctify God's Name. As such, it is the only biblical example mentioned by Maimonides in his discussion of the concept. (1) This biblical narrative inspired the midrashic account of Abraham being thrown into a fiery furnace by the wicked King Nimrod after refusing to worship the local idols. (2)

The third chapter of Daniel also functions as a literary parallel to Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar. On a simple level, both tell of a righteous person saved from execution by fire, the only two such stories in the Bible. This parallel was noted by the Rabbis and formed the basis for a midrash relating that Judah's descendants, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, were saved from the furnace thanks to the merit of Judah, who rescued three people (Tamar and her unborn twins) from death by fire. (3) Targum Neofiti also establishes a connection between the two narratives: Tamar prays to God to be rescued from the fire and promises to "raise up for You three righteous ones in the valley of Dura: Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah," who will sanctify God's Name by going into fire. (4) There is, however, a more subtle parallel that gives us an insight into the literary structure of the Book of Daniel.

Chapter 3 of the Book of Daniel is unique in its being the only chapter in which Daniel is not mentioned at all. In the rest of the book, Daniel is clearly the protagonist and center of attention. His absence from this chapter is jarring and led to rabbinic speculation as to where Daniel was at the time. (5) The absence of the protagonist also parallels Genesis 38. The parallels between the Daniel and Joseph narratives have long been noted and studied: both tell the story of an Israelite taken into captivity in a foreign land who rises to power through his ability to interpret the foreign king's dreams. (6) The Joseph narrative is interrupted by the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, a chapter where Joseph is not mentioned at all, just as the story of Daniel is interrupted by that of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, where Daniel is not mentioned. (7) Both interruptions focus on characters secondary to the main narrative and describe a rescue from a fiery death. There are, of course, differences between the narratives: Tamar is saved by Judah's intervention, whereas the three youths are saved by a miracle, yet both chapters digress from the main storyline and tell of salvation from a fiery death. We can now understand that the story of Daniel not only emphasizes plot elements and utilizes phrases (8) that evoke the story of Joseph, but even has a literary structure that parallels the form of the Joseph story. In view of the fact that Daniel is not mentioned in chapter 3, contemporary Bible critics regard that chapter as "an independent story that originally had no connection with the Daniel cycle of stories." (9) However, it is precisely the absence of Daniel that makes this chapter fit organically within the structure of the Book of Daniel as a parallel to the Joseph narrative.

Once this parallel is noted, we can see that Judah and Nebuchadnezzar both follow a similar trajectory of character development. They both condemn righteous individuals to death by fire on the basis of their proclamations (Gen. 38:24, Dan. 3:6) and later admit their error (Gen. 38:26, Dan. 3:28-29). There is a parallel between the victims in both narratives--Tamar in the one and Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah in the other. …

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