Imagine that the US was totally aggressive and mercenary, which it’s definitely not, and you have Babylon. No city or nation could resist against its military. Babylon became the largest city the world had ever seen. It would seem that victory for God’s people was hopeless, at least by any direct confrontation. Daniel, like Esther, demonstrates to us that God’s people can change the world by being used by God on the inside, rather than through confrontation from the outside. Daniel became a prisoner some 1500 miles from his boyhood home, so that Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest king of the greatest empire to date, could not escape from God. It makes us wonder who was really the prisoner, Daniel or Nebuchadnezzar.
The Babylonian Empire only dominated the world for a short 67 years, from 605 BC to 538 BC, and Nebuchadnezzar ruled for 43 of those. Nebuchadnezzar was Babylon. Only the first eleven years of his reign are documented on the cuneiform tables known as the Babylonian Chronicle, so we have plenty of latitude to understand how God could have totally transformed the great king from a megalomaniac to a believer, even though it is not documented elsewhere than in the Bible. Such a miraculous change in the most important historical figure of that time is the main reason that many people dismiss Daniel as fiction. At the beginning of Daniel chapter two, king Nebuchadnezzar is ready to completely wipe out all the wise men of his kingdom on a whim because they can’t read his mind. At the end of chapters two and four, he is praising Daniel’s God as the one true God. It sounds too good to be true.
The book of Daniel describes six ethical confrontations between the God of the Jews and the cultures of Babylon and Medo-Persia. As a result of the first conflict over eating the king’s food, Daniel gained the respect of the high-ranking Ashpenaz. This allowed Daniel the chance to reveal and interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about a statue that represented successive world empires. The head of gold was Babylon; the chest and arms of silver would be Persia; its middle and thighs of bronze would be Greece; the legs and feet would be Rome. Each world empire lasted longer but was inferior to the preceding empire. This interpretation of moral decline goes against our belief in the constant improvement of technology. It’s a divine view of human government that shows that we truly need to be saved from ourselves. The details are subject to interpretation, but the overall rebellion of mankind against God is not.
The third prison story is not dated but probably occurs later in the 43-year reign of Nebuchadnezzar. The king made a 90-foot golden statue, reminiscent of his dream, and demanded that all his regional leaders bow down to it. Although he had personally recognized Daniel’s God as being above all other authorities (Dan. 2:47), Nebuchadnezzar did not renounce his own supremacy over his subjects, nor his polytheism. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego put that to the test by refusing to worship anything other than their God. This was like a judicial test of a previous ruling. When the three Jews survived the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar recognized that they had “yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God” (Dan. 3:28). He then made a decree to punish anyone who attacked their God, whom he officially declared to be the “Most High God”. This was a huge step in recognizing Judaism within the empire, but it did not significantly change religious practices of others.
The next event, which is recorded in Daniel 4, involves God humbling the king, who still has an enormous ego. In accordance with Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the king seems to have suffered from a psychological disorder like boanthropy in which he believes himself to be an animal and acts accordingly. The “Prayer of Nabonidus”, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, describes the same thing happening to King Nabonidus for seven years. King Nabonidus could not have been the true subject of this sickness, however, since his years are all accounted for. Nebuchadnezzar is said to have died in 562 BC, but I have yet to find the source of this statement. On the other hand, if Nebuchadnezzar’s reign ended with insanity in 562 BC, his “restoration” could have corresponded to the rise of king Nabonidus in 556 BC. It’s curious how well the conversion of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel chapter 4 aligns with the religious revolution of King Nabonidus.
Nabonidus began his reign with a coup d’état. Early on, he was at odds with the religious establishment that strongly supported the worship of Marduk. His mother was Addagoppe of Harran, priestess of Nanna or Sin. Her autobiography was found at Harran in 1906. Together, they worked to repair the temples in the religious centers of Ur and Harran, cities of Abraham. He may have also converted a temple of Marduk to the worship of Nanna in the city of Babylon. In 552 BC, they relocated to Tayma in the Saudi peninsula, which was later known for being a Jewish stronghold. Nabonidus seems to have supported religious worship more closely tied to the Jews than his coregent Belshazzar, who ruled from Marduk-worshipping Babylon. It would be interesting to know how much influence the Jews and Nebuchadnezzar really had on King Nabonidus.
The fifth story of Daniel involves the fall of Babylon in 539 BC. While King Nabonidus was often away, the coregent Belshazzar ruled in Babylon. According to Daniel chapter 5, Belshazzar had the audacity to toast the Babylonian gods using the golden vessels stolen from the temple in Jerusalem. This was the last straw. The Greek researcher Herodotus recounts, probably incorrectly, that Cyrus the Great had his men divert the Euphrates River and wade in the riverbed under the wall. In any case, the people were overconfident and taken by surprise. Overnight, Daniel passed from being the advisor of Belshazzar to that of the King of Persia.
The sixth and last story in the book of Daniel is that of Daniel in the lion’s den. It concerns a ruler named Darius the Mede, which seems to be another name for Cyrus the Great. This Darius is only found in the Bible. Cyrus had many titles, such as King of Persia, King of Media, King of Lydia, King of Babylon, and King of the Four Corners of the World, and kings usually had several names. Theologians have suggested that Daniel 6:28 be translated “So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius[, that is,] the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” In any case, the story says that Daniel, as a high official, refused to stop praying, was thrown into a lion’s lair, and miraculously escaped alive. This would be a bold fabrication if it did not happen. The ruler of the largest empire that the world had ever seen recognized the God of Daniel by royal decree. Never underestimate the influence of a prisoner.
The pen truly is mightier than the sword. While Nebuchadnezzar’s sword deprived many of their lives and property, Daniel’s pen has brought faith and hope that God has not forgotten the victims. The unjust imprisonments of Joseph, Israel under Moses, Daniel, Peter, Paul, and John have served as stepping stones for changing the lives of their captors and reversing injustices. Freedom is highly overrated.