History goes like this: in the year 597 BC the Kingdom of Judaea, which was a tributary state of the powerful Babylonian Empire, rebelled and after a siege that lasted more than a year, Jerusalem was pillaged and eventually destroyed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II. The long chapter of Babylonian Captivity had just began for the people of Israel.
The Book of Daniel narrates the sufferings but also the hopes of the Israeli people during their captivity. Even though it is not regarded by many scholars as strictly historical (Holm, 2008), it captures the yearning for freedom of an enslaved nation looking for a brighter future and a return to its fatherland. It was written during a time of crisis and persecution of the Jewish religious customs and everyday life by King Antiochus IV, and so Daniel sets the limits of his storytelling from one tyrant to another. From King Nebuchadnezzar II to Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire.
In a sense, the story seeks to remind the Jewish people of their roots, tries to lift their spirits and calls on them to protect their identity against anyone who tries to erase it (Mein & Camp, 2004). The tyranny imposed, which usually tries to create a new identity for the enslaved people and force them to leave their ways and forget their past, is a common notion throughout human history. Actually, it is more than a notion posed by historians. It is a fact.
The third chapter of the Book of Daniel starts with the gigantic golden image (almost 90 feet tall) of Nebuchadnezzar, which was set on the province of Babylon. The king then orders every official under his direct command to come and pay tribute to the image of their king. Almost everyone obeys, except three young Jewish men called with their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The king summons them and asks them to obey. They deny and with just a few words, they eradicate the all-powerful notion of supreme and uncontested rulership possessed by the king. After that, they are faced with the death penalty, death inside a fiery furnace (Bibles, 2008). Presumably, one of the first recorded acts of civil disobedience in human history is conducted and concluded.
Whether this scene, as recorded, is based on facts is not the point to be proven in this article. Rather, it needs to be stated that in the cultural and historical context of the writer, a vision of identity and nation is brought forth. The young men are asked to betray not just their God, but who they are. To betray their cultural DNA, their homeland, their own history. They are faced with a dilemma. Death or moral subjugation. They choose to die. As it is stated it in the book, they hope for salvation from God. But they point to the king, that even if salvation does not come, they would not change their minds.
Civil disobedience is now an integral part of Western political conceptions and philosophy. One may wonder, what is the true purpose behind it? What does someone enacting civil disobedience try to achieve? Clearly, the disobedient shares the same notion as the revolutionary, the need to change the world and the subsequent end of any injustice conducted by a legitimate authority (Arendt, 1972). The difference being that, in contrast with the revolutionary, the disobedient does not want to create a new system of law or a new governance but instead tries to uphold the law dictated by his conscience. It can be seen in the Book of Daniel, that the three men accept the verdict and the penalty of death. In a way, their intention is not to overthrow the king by a revolution or a coup. They deny his authority, because for them the ultimate and supreme authority is their conscience and, obviously, God. They see themselves through the lens of their nation’s history, as a continuation of the traditions and the values of their forefathers and this narrative, we must not forget, comes at a time when the surrounding environment of the writer is more or less equally tyrannical as in his story.
Centuries after the Book of Daniel was written, the Civil Rights Movement was sweeping through US society. This time, there wasn’t a certain tyrant trying to eradicate the identity of a nation but a deep-rooted racist belief held by many people, that viewed Black men, women, and children, not as equals, but as second class citizens. Behind prison bars, the voice of Martin Luther King echoed what the Three Young Men said to the Babylonian King, that the ultimate authority of every human is his/her conscience and the ultimate law is the one made by consent and not by tyranny (King, 2018). Oppression never lasts, self-determination does.
Arendt, H. (1972). Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution. Boston, MA: Mariner Books.
Bibles, E. (2008). ESV Study Bible (Illustrated ed.). Chicago, IL: Crossway.
Holm, T. L. (2008). The Fiery Furnace in the Book of Daniel and the Ancient Near East. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 128 (1), 85–104. Ann Arbor, MI: American Oriental Society
King, M. L. (2018). Letter from Birmingham Jail. London, UK: Penguin
Mein, A., & Camp, C., V. (2004). The Human and the Divine in History: Herodotus and the Book of Daniel (The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 396) (1st ed.). London, UK: T&T Clark.
Andrianoupolitis, K. (1725-1750). The story of Daniel and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace. [Painting]. Benaki Museum of Greek Civilization, Athens, Greece. Retrieved from: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-story-of-daniel-and-the-three-youths-in-the-fiery-furnace-adrianoupolitis-konstantinos/OAG-uUoOh6C9YA
Parks, G. (1963). Untitled. [Photograph]. The Gordon Parks Foundation, New York City, NY, USA. Retrieved from: https://www.artbasel.com/catalog/artwork/53193/Gordon-Parks-Untitled-Washington-D-C
Unknown. (550-400 BC) The life and times of Nebuchadnezzar II [Photograph]. The British Museum, London, UK. Retrieved from: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-life-and-times-of-nebuchadnezzar-ii/6AFSiGg9EQkQ7Q