Verses 1–42


This chapter consists of two stories that are only loosely related. There is considerable scholarly debate as to whether these stories originally belonged together or were artificially joined when they were made a part of the Daniel tradition. Moore ingeniously suggests that just as the Susanna story represents Daniel as a precocious and wise youth, so also the stories of Bel and the Dragon—taking place during the Persian rule—represent the old and wise Daniel still true to his faith.57 Certainly both stories deal with idolatry, although in one case the idol is fashioned by human hands and in the other case it is a living animal. Both parts obviously deal with the theme of idolatry in exile, already a major concern in Second Isaiah and in the Hebrew/Aramaic stories of Daniel 1–6. Finally, some scholars have suggested that Daniel brings these contests upon himself. But let us not forget the ominous words of the king, which begin the episode of Bel and the Dragon: "Why do you not worship Bel?" (v. 4). From the lips of a man who can dispatch death in seconds, the implied threat is obvious. However, there is another clear difference between the stories of this chapter and Daniel 1–6, with which they otherwise have much in common. The Jewish courtier Daniel is much bolder now; he not only wisely advises the king, but also laughs at the king’s mistakes. Indeed, one of the most important details of this story is precisely that Daniel has developed a dangerous sense of humor.



Verses 1–2, Introduction and Setting. In the LXX version of this story, Daniel is curiously identified as a priest, and there is an early mention of the prophet Habakkuk, who will play an important part in the second story about the "dragon." Moore wonders whether this mention of a priestly Daniel suggests that these stories were originally about another Daniel.59 That is possible, but may simply be a detail that developed when these stories circulated separately.

The stories in Bel and the Dragon are identified with the Persian period in the Theodotion text, although the subjects are Babylonian ("Bel" is an epithet for "Marduk," the great national god of the Babylonians). It is possible that the chronological identification with the period of Cyrus is intended to establish Daniel as one of the trusted leaders of the empire ("friend of the king"), rather like Daniel’s fame in Daniel 6. Once again, we see that the Greek stories that have become a part of the Daniel tradition take most of their clues from the sixth of the Aramaic/Hebrew stories, where the ruler is identified as Darius "the Mede" (who, nevertheless, is most likely modeled on the historical Darius, third ruler of the Persian Empire after Cyrus). What is curious, however, is that Cyrus is not mentioned by name throughout the rest of the story, creating suspicion that the opening lines were added later. In the story, the ruler is identified only as "the king" (in the LXX, Cyrus is not mentioned at all), and the reader may have questions about a story that has Cyrus worshiping a Babylonian idol.

In the writings of Herodotus, King Astyages (v. 1) dreams of his daughter giving "birth" to the destruction of his Median regime; in fact, Cyrus the Great is the grandson of Astyages, and he did defeat the Median Empire in his early moves toward the consolidation of power in the Persian Empire. This is the only mention of King Astyages in the Daniel tradition—clearly intended to make up for the mistake of placing Darius before Cyrus in Daniel 6.

Verses 3–4a, The Worship of the Idol. The idol Bel is introduced here. The idol is "fed" from the king’s holdings every day and is honored each day by the king. Moore notes that the specific amounts fed to the idol are not so important as the intention to indicate "large amounts." Furthermore, we know from Herodotus that a table, presumably for human food, was indeed present in certain Babylonian shrines.61 Is it only a coincidence that once again the issue of food is at the heart of a Daniel story (cf. Daniel 1)?

It is written that the king traveled every day to "do honor" to the idol. Incidentally, we know that Cyrus claimed (in the Cyrus Cylinder) as part of his imperial propaganda for Babylonian consumption that he revered Marduk, and he further claimed that Marduk made his conquest of Babylon possible. Since the identification of this king as "Cyrus" plays a rather insignificant role, however, little importance need be assigned to this coincidence. The term used for "doing honor," one of many used for acts of worship or reverence (typically translated as "doing reverence" or "homage" by kissing the hand or by prostration), is not only common in the Daniel stories (see Dan 3:5–7, 11–12, 14–15, 18, 27–28) but is also used of proper worship in the book of Psalms (Pss 22:27; 29:2; 45:12; 66:4; 72:11; 81:9) and in Isaiah (Isa 2:8, 20; 27:13; 37:38; 44:15, 17, 19; 45:14; 46:6; 49:7, 23; 66:23). Such acts, therefore, include the implication of recognizing a higher authority as well as a spiritual authority. The term runs through the story of Bel like a major theme.

Verses 4b–9, The King Establishes the Contest: Bel vs. Yahweh. The king’s questioning of Daniel’s refusal to honor Bel sets the stage for the coming challenge—and certainly implies a threat. Daniel must respond; it is not a matter of choice, as some commentators have suggested. This is similar to the opening sequences of the Hebrew/Aramaic Daniel traditions: Daniel does not stop praying to his God (Daniel 6), and Azariah, Mishael, and Hananiah do not bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue (Daniel 3). The contrast between Bel and Yahweh sets the parameters for the challenge that follows, which is reminiscent of Elijah’s challenge to the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel.

Daniel contrasts the idol with the living God. The Greek term for "idol" (χειροποίητος cheiropoiētos) is an interesting, complex term composed of "made" (ποιέω poieō) and "hand" (χείρ cheir), thus "handmade god" (cf. Lev 26:1, 30, "carved image"; Judg 8:18; Isa 2:18; 10:11; 16:12; 19:1; 21:9; 31:7; 46:6; Wis 14:8). In contrast, the "living God" (cf. 3 Macc 6:28) is the God whom Daniel worships. "Living God" is also an interesting term, where one might have expected a more specific title that identifies this God with the Jews. At this point in Jewish tradition, however, the writer is asking his audience to take a somewhat more philosophical position. It is no longer a question of "your" god vs. "our" God, but the living God vs. mere idols; and thus Daniel’s use of the phrase "living God" is not merely an alternative to the king’s chosen object of reverence, but a direct challenge: the living God as opposed to your foolishness.

In v. 6, the king responds to Daniel’s challenge instantly with a reasoned argument: If Bel does not live, how then does Daniel explain Bel’s appetite? Daniel’s reply entails what is perhaps the most shocking aspect of the entire Bel tradition, and a detail that dramatically sets this story apart from the rest of the Daniel tradition, yet binds it inextricably to that tradition: Daniel laughs.

How is Daniel’s laughter to be understood? Moore suggests that Daniel must have felt quite secure to mock the king in this way, but there is much more to this laughter than mere security within the context of the story line. It is important to note that laughter in the Hebrew Bible is usually an act of derision and mockery (only a few exceptions to this can be noted, such as Gen 21:6; Eccl 2:2; 3:4). Abraham and Sarah laugh from incredulity bordering on irony (Gen 17:17; 18:12–13, 15). In Job, laughter is a sign of scorn or mockery, particularly as the result of reversal of fortune (Job 8:21; 17:6; 22:19; cf. Ps 80:6; Jer 20:8; 48:26, 39; Lam 1:7; 3:14; Ezek 23:32; Amos 7:9). The theme of laughter as reversal is clear, for example, in Ps 52:6–7:

The righteous will see, and fear,

and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,

"See the one who would not take

refuge in God,

but trusted in abundant riches,

and sought refuge in wealth!" (NRSV)

In wisdom literature, laughter from mirth is discouraged (Eccl 7:4, 6; Sir 19:30; 27:13) as in Sir 21:20:

A fool raises his voice when he laughs,

but the wise smile quietly. (NRSV)

As we approach the later Hellenistic period materials, the theme of laughter as scorn increases. Wisdom 5:3 speaks eloquently of the oppressors who once mocked the poor and righteous in laughter, while in Jdt 12:12, the Assyrian men fear that Judith will laugh at them if they do not sexually use her, and in 4 Macc 5:28, the martyr story of Eleazar has him saying to his persecutors, "You shall have no such occasion to laugh at me" (NRSV). Finally, social reversal is implicit in Jesus’ dramatic remark in the Gospel of Luke: "Woe to you who are laughing now,/ for you will mourn and weep" (Luke 6:25b NRSV). When this is all taken into consideration, Daniel’s laughter becomes an interesting advance in the entire corpus of Daniel stories. By the time of the writing of the story of Bel, the quiet confidence of Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael that God would deliver them had become the mocking laughter of the revolutionary reversal of fortune that is a central aspect of apocalyptic political doctrine.

Daniel warns the king not to be deceived. That the leaders of Israel deceived the Jews is a central aspect of the theology of Isaiah (e.g., Isa 3:12; 9:15) and Ezekiel (e.g., Ezek 8:17; 13:10), but openness to deception is considered a form of foolishness in the late wisdom tradition as well (e.g., Sir 3:24; 9:7–8; 15:12; 16:23). The idol is made of "clay and bronze," two materials that the reader of the book of Daniel is familiar with in association with handmade gods in Daniel 1–6, although one might have expected the more precious silver and gold at this point. His advising the king not to be deceived once again associates Daniel with wisdom.

In v. 8, the king’s response is anger. The allusion to the anger of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3 (see also Dan 9:16; 11:44) is the warning that a serious challenge is about to be set: If Bel is no god, then the priests will die; but if Bel is genuine, then Daniel will die for blasphemy. Collins notes the "cavalier introduction of the death penalty" in this story, but in any context of exile and occupation the threat of death is a constant reality. Given this element, it seems strange that some scholars would continue to argue that these stories are "less negative" toward the king than are the stories of Daniel 1–6.

Verses 10–17, The Contest Is Carried Out. Verse 10 clarifies that Daniel is alone, pitted against a large number of the priests of Bel. This adds drama to the story, of course, but sociologically it represents Daniel as a minority facing the majority Babylonian culture. Both aspects are important. (Note also the possible allusion to Elijah facing the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18.) But the inclusion of the wives and children is a comment on the corruption of the entire pagan society. It is ambiguous, when the time arrives, whether the entire families are also punished when Bel is revealed to be false.

The priests invite the king to view the contest, indeed, to participate himself, by overseeing the placement of the food in the idol’s temple. The king is then invited to seal the door with his symbol of authority. (In the LXX, the priests as well as the king are invited to seal the opening.) We are reminded of another chamber that was sealed with the sign of the occupying ruler in Matt 27:66. The priests, then, invite the king to participate in their deception. This invitation further increases their risk, of course, but the priests are confident in the king’s presence because of what they know is hidden—picking up a theme from the Susanna tradition of the hidden vs. the revealed. Daniel reveals truth; his opponents hide the truth.

After the king, then Daniel is invited to oversee the preparations. But Daniel takes one further precaution. Although the reader is not led to believe that Daniel knows about the secret entrance, he does know that the removal of the food must involve the priests’ gaining access to it in some fashion. The spreading of ashes is meant, therefore, to detect any entrance into the chamber in the vicinity of the food. The Greek text clarifies that the priests of Bel did not observe Daniel’s placing of the ashes on the floor; only the king witnessed this action, and thus the king is privy to Daniel’s plan from the beginning.

The king rises early in the morning. The particular time reference may not necessarily be important, although rising early was a sign of intentionality, a measure of the importance of an act (cf. Moses with Pharaoh, Exod 8:20; 9:13). Sirach advises to seek wisdom "from early morning" (Sir 4:14; 6:36; and to seek God early, Sir 32:14; 39:5). The slow development of the story masterfully builds tension before the moment of revelation. It appears at first that Daniel is defeated. (Note that in the LXX Daniel challenges the priests to also verify that the seals have not been broken. The LXX at this point seems to enjoy heightening the extent of the irony.)

Verses 18–19, The Royal Fool and the Laughing Jew. Verses 18–19 must be read together. The king commits a foolish act by saying in a "loud voice": "You are great, O Bel, and in you there is no deceit at all!" He proclaims that his previous actions were correct before he even gives time to a full consideration of the facts. Now the king is portrayed as not only gullible, but foolish and hasty as well. The trap is set for Daniel to spring.

In response to the king’s claim to power, to truth, and to religious wisdom, Daniel laughs and tells the king to look at the footprints in the ashes. In the LXX, Daniel laughs "heartily," increasing the level of mockery. The king is invited to "look [imperative] and know." The priests’ faith is based on deception, but Daniel’s faith is based on what is open and can be seen.

Verses 20–22, Daniel Reveals the Truth. When he realizes the truth about the priests’ deception, once again he is enraged. He orders not only the priests but also their wives and children arrested. When the priests reveal the truth about their secret entrance, the king has them put to death (One wonders whether they expected some form of clemency for this act of revelation.) In the LXX, however, Daniel reveals the hidden door—which presumes that he knew what was going to happen all along—and the king is taken to the houses of the priests, where the food is found. Although it is left somewhat vague whether the wives and children are also killed, it would not be totally unexpected, given their mention throughout the rest of the story. Once again, although moderns may be disturbed at this aspect of the punishment, it is not an unusual element of reversal in Hebrew lore. This detail also serves to magnify the megalomania of the king; his anger is so irrational that he will even kill children (cf. Dan 3:13; 8:6, 19; 9:16, 26). Perhaps we should view these events—fictional though they may be—with the same sadness of heart that, during the Passover seder, accompanies the spilling of drops of wine in remembrance of those Egyptians whose death was a part of liberation from Egyptian slavery.

Daniel, rather than participate in the killing of persons, destroys the idol and its house. This is an interesting contrast of Daniel’s religious action and the king’s murderous decree (note the number of executions in the book of Daniel:2:13, 24; 3:23; 4:34; 6:24; 11:44). It is possible that Daniel’s actions allude to Jer 51:44: "I will punish Bel in Babylon." (Bel is also mentioned in Isa 46:1 and in the apocryphal Letter of Jeremiah, which is largely concerned with idolatry as well.)

Many scholars have noted that the temple of Bel/Marduk was actually destroyed by the Persian ruler Xerxes I (486–465 bce), and that occurrence must have been in the background of the events described in this story. One can hardly miss the significance of placing a Jew at the center of the destruction of the temple of Marduk—the very religious symbol of power for the conquering Babylonians.



Verses 23–42 bear an interesting relation to Daniel 6, as each places Daniel in the lions’ den as punishment for his religious faith. However, the story of the dragon has some curious elements to it, not the least of which is the strange involvement of a prophet traditionally named Habakkuk.

Verse 23, The Setting and the "Dragon." The term used for "dragon" is a Greek term (δράκων drakōn) that translates the Hebrew for "serpent" (תנין tannīn), more specifically for "snake." In the Moses story, the connotation is clearly a snake (Exod 7:9–10, 12; Deut 32:33). But the term is also used to refer to the echoes of the ancient Canaanite belief about Yam (Job 7:12), the god of the sea, represented as a coiling serpent, and "Leviathan" (Job 9:13; 26:12; Pss 74:13–14; 104:26; 148:7; Isaiah 27; Amos 9:3). Many scholars have speculated about snake worship (zoolatry) as an aspect of Babylonian worship, but despite some interesting archaeological fragments, the case remains unconvincing. Since living snakes were certainly an aspect of Egyptian religious practice, some scholars have suggested that the origin of this story is in the Egyptian Jewish diaspora.

Other scholars have suggested that the snake/dragon story is a midrash (a story that develops, or expands upon, an earlier short text) on Jer 51:34, 44:

"King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has devoured me,

he has crushed me;

he has made me an empty vessel,

he has swallowed me like a monster;

he has filled his belly with my delicacies,

he has spewed me out.

I will punish Bel in Babylon,

and make him disgorge what he has swallowed.

The nations shall no longer stream to him;

the wall of Babylon has fallen." (NRSV)67

Ezekiel 29:3 LXX calls Pharaoh the "great dragon" (see also Ezek 32:2). Given this association of the "dragon" to the exile, one can see that, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the story of the dragon runs in close association with the tradition of Jonah in making references to the exilic experience. I would argue that there is a thematic connection between these texts, rather than interpreting the dragon story in the Daniel tradition as a specific development of the scriptural tradition of Jeremiah 51. If, for example, Jonah’s "dragon" is an allegory of Babylon’s "swallowing" of the Jewish community, then Daniel’s destruction of the dragon is at least as compelling for its listeners as was his destruction of Bel and the sanctuary of Babylonian power.

Verses 24–26, The Challenge and the Contest. The king challenges Daniel—a clear reference to the story of Bel, which precedes this episode. The dragon, unlike the god Bel, however, is a living animal and not merely a handmade idol, lending credence to the notion that this story is based on the keeping of sacred animals as symbols of deities.

Daniel’s response to the king’s challenge to him to worship the dragon is to focus not on the aspect of its being a living creature, but on who is actually sovereign, on who is "Lord," and—ultimately—on who is powerful. Thus Daniel presents a counterchallenge to the king. Daniel proposes to kill the dragon without using the weapons of worldly power—without "sword or club." Daniel will prove the truth without the world’s tools, for it is inherently blasphemous to suggest that truth can be derived from weapons.

Verse 27, The Killing of the Serpent. The particular formula that Daniel mixes—that is, fat, hair, and pitch—does not appear to have particular significance. Although unpleasant even to the modern reader, this mixture hardly appears lethal. But perhaps that is just the point. Those commentators who have suggested that Daniel must have slipped something lethal into the mixture may well be missing a significant detail that Daniel succeeds precisely without lethal weapons. Some scholars have argued that the original Aramaic source for this story must have contained a reference to a wind that brought about the death of the dragon. The idea is that this wind is related to the story of Marduk’s destruction of Tiamat in the Babylonian creation story in the Enuma Elish, where Marduk uses wind to burst the belly of the sea monster Tiamat. Others suggest that Daniel knew of the explosive nature of the mixture. Moore rehearses some of the traditional ways that this concoction has been amended to include lethal elements like nails, combs, and hatchets. The result, in any case, is that when the serpent eats the cakes that Daniel makes from this mixture, the dragon bursts open. And with this Daniel demonstrates to the king that no true god could have been defeated so easily. This quick dispatch of the serpent becomes the opening sequence to the central theme of the story of the dragon: the Babylonians’ attempt to avenge the destruction of Bel.

Verses 28–32, Daniel Thrown to the Lions. Verse 28 contains a startling concept. The Babylonians are angry because of Daniel’s influence on the king, and to express their frustration they use a surprising phrase: "The king has become a Jew." By the time of the Hellenistic period, it is not inconceivable in Jewish thought that a foreigner might "become" a Jew—presumably referring to a convert. Collins objects that even this fact does not necessarily refer to conversion in the modern sense. But can we even know what "conversion" meant in that period? A clear transformation of character and religious observance is suggested by the vocabulary of the passage. The degrees of transformation in the foreign king make an interesting study in the Daniel tradition, including the statements made by Nebuchadnezzar and Darius in Daniel 1–6. The foreign monarchs often proclaim that they are impressed by the God of the Jews, and they even acknowledge this God’s impressive achievements. But does this suggest conversion or transformation? I would argue that the oft-noted positive view of kings in Daniel 1–6 is only a positive view of transformed and humbled kings. Here in Bel and the Dragon, we have moved beyond simply a change of behavior in favor of the Jews. The reader must keep in mind that the story does not so much suggest that the king did, in fact, convert, but merely that the Babylonians accuse him of having done so. This accusatory context lends credence to reading this phrase as an actual conversion precisely because it would be considered so shocking.

Daniel, the Jewish exile, has revealed the religious foundation of the Babylonians to be based on fraud, so now the Babylonians seek to kill him. They force the king to hand Daniel over to them. Similar to Daniel’s laughter in the story of Bel, the story of the dragon reveals some conceptual developments from the Hebrew/Aramaic Daniel stories. The Babylonian advisers do not even bother with a ruse to trick the king as they did in Daniel 3 and 6. Here, they resort to the only basis of their power in the first place: the threat of violence. They demand that either Daniel be handed over to them, or they will revolt against the king. Given what we know of the constant threat of revolt and rebellion in the Achaemenid and Hellenistic eras, such threats would have clear meaning.

The text suggests that Daniel was in the lions’ den for six days, and then proceeds to exaggerate the danger by pointing out that the lions had not been fed their daily rations of two humans and two sheep. Surely this detail is intended to increase the horror of the threat to Daniel, so as to further magnify the miracle of his deliverance.

Verses 33–39, The Intervention of Habakkuk. The intervention of the prophet Habakkuk is one of the strangest aspects of all of the Daniel traditions. The writer tells us that Habakkuk, at home in Judea, had prepared bread and stew for the reapers when an angel appeared to tell him to take it instead to Daniel in Babylonia. It is curious why Habakkuk should have been chosen. His time of prophecy was at the beginning of the Babylonian era—apparently prior to 598 bce—and includes a message of doom for Jerusalem, facing the ravenous conquests of the Babylonians. However, there is a strong polemic against idolatry in Hab 2:18–19 that may well have recommended this prophet to the writer of this tale:

What use is an idol

once its maker has shaped it—

a cast image, a teacher of lies?

For its maker trusts in what has been made,

though the product is only an

idol that cannot speak!

Alas for you who say to the wood, "Wake up!"

to silent stone, "Rouse yourself!"

Can it teach?

See, it is gold and silver plated,

and there is no breath in it at all. (NRSV)

There is a strong theme of punishment for the Babylonian conquerors in Habakkuk as well—although arguably not unique to the prophetic corpus.

An angel of God brings Habakkuk to Babylon and into the presence of Daniel. Habakkuk’s feeding of Daniel (reminiscent of God’s care for Elijah in his exile) is seen as God’s answer to Daniel’s prayer for aid, for Daniel responds with thanksgiving in terms that are familiar to the Daniel tradition: "You have remembered me, O God, and have not forsaken those who love you" (v. 38; cf. Ezra 8, where the fasting Jews are protected by God).

Verses 40–42, The Reversal. The king, like Darius in Daniel 6, comes to mourn Daniel. Darius was less certain of Daniel’s death than is the king of the dragon story, but the result is similar. When the king learns that Daniel lives, he shouts "with a loud voice" (similar to the shouts earlier, "You are great, O Bel" [v. 18 NRSV]). What the king shouts is a statement of existence: There is no God but the God of Daniel. This is in keeping with the transformation (perhaps conversion) implied in the earlier accusation of the Babylonians (v. 28).

The story is complete with the expected reversal of fortune; those who sought to destroy Daniel are themselves destroyed. What is missing is any indication of a reward for Daniel—a curious omission, given its frequent mention in the other stories.


1. Stories like Bel and the Dragon presume the contact between cultures—the arguments over the validity of one religious belief over another. These are, therefore, diaspora issues as well as issues of political occupation, and part of their profundity is precisely the power of those who hold such false beliefs and the apparent lack of worldly power held by the Jews, who nevertheless prove the beliefs of the dominant power to be false. The suggestion is clear: If the oppressors’ religious beliefs are false, then their power must be limited as well. Mockery is a powerful weapon for those living in the shadows. The laughing Daniel is an important symbol of resistance.

2. The Babylonians in the stories of Bel and the Dragon are portrayed as idolatrous, and their persistence, their faith, is made "real" by superior force. The two go hand in hand, for the only way for idols to be portrayed to "live" is by force of arms. Thus Daniel overcomes them with wit and wisdom, and not with swords and clubs. Truth is hidden by violence, but it is revealed by the subversive teaching of the wise, and especially by the stories of clever Jews who are able to defeat the powerful with the weapon of cleverness and wisdom.


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