Fifth Week of Lent, Wednesday
Iconic images and words in the Bible interconnect to form a constellation that radiates to the “edges” of infinity. The episode of the three Jews thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image summons iconic connections from Genesis to Revelation.
The Hebrew word for “image” (tselem) recalls the Garden of Eden where humankind is made in God’s image. King Nebuchadnezzar turns Eden upside-down by playing God and ordering his subjects to worship a golden image (tselem) he has set up. In the process, his visage (tselem of his face) is distorted and bent out of shape. On the flip side, the faithfulness of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah refines and purifies the true image of God as fire-tried gold.
Daniel also presents Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatry as an attempt to reverse the curse of Babel. The story of the golden statue takes place in the “land of Shinar,” the ancient name for Babylonia where the infamous tower was built (Genesis 11:2; Daniel 1:2).
From the food test in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in the first chapter of Daniel, to the refusal of the three Jews to test God or worship an idol, a type of the three temptations of Christ in the desert can be discerned (see footnote 4). Divine assistance is given in both trials.
The following poem is written in twelve stanzas in honor of the twelve tribes of Israel. The dodecasyllabic tercets honor Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. In the fourth stanza, their Babylonian names are used, but in the twelfth, their Hebrew ones (see footnote 12 for an explanation). The quatrain in the eleventh stanza celebrates the mysterious fourth figure in the furnace who “looks like a son of God” (Daniel 3:92 in the New American Bible Revised Edition).
King Nebuchadnezzar set up in Babylon
A golden statue calling every echelon
To worship with flute, lyre, bagpipe, and trigon.
Officials of every tribe, language, and nation
Fell down before the tselem in adoration,1
Vainly striving for Babel’s unification.
Humans in God’s tselem sculpted on the sixth day2
To a sixty by six cubit god gave away
Their glory to a tselem made by hands of clay.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego dissented.
The tselem of the king serpentinely twisted.3
Straight stood the three, and to their sentence consented.
Live or die, we will not test Adonai our king,4
Whether or not he saves us from the fire blazing.
Your gods we will not serve, nor the gold engraving.
Seven times hotter heat the furnace, charged the king.5
Seven times seven cubits high rose the flaming—
An oblation of fire-tried gold, God embracing.6
Azariah prayed while walking in the blaze.
Blessed be your name, O Lord God; we give you praise.
Jerusalem you judge when she hides from your gaze.7
For your name’s sake, O Lord, void not your covenant.
Remember Abraham, your beloved servant,
From whom seed like countless stars will be descendent.8
A cool, spring breeze whistled like dew through the furnace;
An angel of the Lord brought succor and solace.9
A glorious hymn of praise rang out from three voices.
God of our fathers, we bless you with one accord.
Angels in the heavens, all creatures, bless the Lord.
From the abyss of death, his sons he has restored.10
Nebuchadnezzar rose, hearing their melody.
Turning to his nobles, he cried, Four men I see!
A shining son of God is walking with the three.
Powerless was the fire to singe hair or body.11
Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah
Refused to bow to all but Adonai (shachah).
Your God lives, blessed the king of Babylonia.12
2 The word tselem is also used of the image of God in Genesis 1:26: “Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image (tselem), after our likeness.” Cf. Romans 1:23. In the Bible, the number six symbolizes human weakness, imperfection, and sin. The statue’s dimensions reflect the Babylonian sexagesimal (base 60) number system.
3 Daniel 3:19: “Then Nebuchadnezzar was full of fury, and the expression (tselem) on his face changed toward Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.” Idolatry distorts the image of God.
4 Hebrew readers do not pronounce the divine name, YHWH, out of reverence. Instead, they say “Adonai” (Lord) in place of the Tetragrammaton.
The response of the three Jews was perfected by Christ in his forty days’ temptation in the wilderness.
Now, if you are ready to fall down and worship the statue I made, whenever you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, dulcimer, harp, double-flute, and all the other musical instruments, then all will be well; if not, you shall be instantly cast into the white-hot furnace; and who is the God who can deliver you out of my hands?”Daniel 3:15
The tempter in the desert similarly challenged Jesus from the parapet of the temple in Jerusalem:
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:
‘He will command his angels concerning you’Matthew 4:6 (cf. Luke 4:9-12)
and ‘with their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”
Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah responded:
“If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, you should know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up.”Daniel 3:16-18
“Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’”
Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”
At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written:
‘The Lord, your God, shall you worshipMatthew 4:7-10 (cf. Luke 4:5-8)
and him alone shall you serve.’”
In the first chapter of Daniel, the four men of Judah underwent a food test that threatened to annihilate their identity as sons of the Hebrew covenant. Christ’s first temptation in the desert also centered on food.
Jesus’ response from Deuteronomy 8:3 placed him in continuity with Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, and the Mosaic tradition:
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”Matthew 4:4
These three temptations (food, testing God, and idolatry) can ultimately be traced back to the trial before the tree of knowledge in Genesis.
5 Daniel 3:19; 47. Seven is the number of perfection and completion in the Hebrew Scriptures. The detail of the flames rising “forty-nine cubits above the furnace” comes from the apocryphal additions to the Book of Daniel, inspired additions to the Aramaic text found in Greek translations. Click here for a sample of English Bibles that contain the verse. In the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition), it is verse 24 of the Prayer of Azariah inserted within Daniel 3.
6 “Fire-tried gold” is an image of proven faith in both the Old and New Testaments (Malachi 3:3; 1 Peter 1:7). In this poem, the true gold of the image of God is contrasted with the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar.
7 Daniel 3:24-31 (NABRE). In the protological account of Genesis, Adam and Eve “hid” from the face (panim) of the Lord God after the transgression (Genesis 3:8). Cain “went out from the face (panim) of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16).
8 Daniel 3:34-36.
9 Angels also ministered to Jesus in the desert (Mark 1:13; Matthew 4:11).
10 Daniel 3:52-90.
11 Daniel 3:90-94. The ascension of the three Jews from the inferno is a type of the resurrection.
12 Daniel 3:95-97. The Hebrew names of the three Jews in the last stanza celebrate their fidelity to the God whose name they bear. Their Babylonian names, imposed on them by the regime, pay homage to foreign gods.
Belteshazzar means “Bel protects” or “favored by Bel,” referring to Baal, the supreme god of the Babylonians.
Shadrach means “the command of Aku,” the Sumerian moon-god.
Meshach, according to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, probably refers to the name of a Chaldean god.
Abednego means “servant of Nebo,” the Babylonian god of literature and science. Nebuchadnezzar’s name is derived from the same god and means, “Nebo, protect the crown!”
Shachah, the Hebrew word for “bow down,” is used here in the context of worship (e.g. Psalm 29:2). Click phonetics for the pronunciation of shachah. The word is also found in the context of paying homage to a non-divine subject, such as an angel or a powerful person (e.g. Genesis 18:2; Esther 3:2). The Latin word latria (an act of adoration or worship due to God alone) approximates the meaning of shachach used in this stanza.