Today’s text was from the book of Daniel, Chapter 3.
This is a popular bible story, especially in Children’s Bibles. It is a strong story of God’s faithfulness. It features hyperbole, drama, narcissism, resistance and of course, a fiery furnace. Three young men, with hard to pronounce but memorable names (Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego) only appear in this story. The faithful people of God stand up against the demands of a rival king.
But, beneath the surface, there is another ‘understory’ that runs through it. A thread that opens up whole new vistas for us. It is a story of refugees, a foreign land, and the spiritual struggle between oppressor and subjugated servant.
As they say on This American Life – Act 1 – The Story.
In Daniel 1, which few of us read when we read this story in chapter 3, we learn that the names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are not the birth names of these three characters. In fact, they were Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.
As the ruler of Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar ordered these Jewish men – these Jewish servants/slaves – to learn his language and customs so they could work in his court. To signify their allegiance to him, he changes their names; speaking not only to their identity and heritage, but also their faith. The original names of these Jewish men contain references to God such as “God is gracious” (Hananiah), “Who is like God?” (Mishael), and “God keeps him” (Azariah).
These references to the God of Israel have now been substituted with references to the Babylonian gods, such as Nebo — Abednego means “servant of Nego.” The climax of the story is that these newly renamed men are ordered to bow down and worship the golden statue of the Emperor, and hence to submit to his authority instead of the authority of the God of Israel.
In short, there is a systematic attempt to reward these young men if they will forget their heritage, their faith, and their past.
However, the three young men refuse to bow down before the king and forsake their God. Against all odds, they remain faithful to their cultural and religious identity as Jews in the diaspora.
Their resistance is met though with an incredible show of force when the King first repeatedly threatens them with death, and then acts on these threats by throwing them into a furnace that is so scalding that even the guards who throw the men into the fire succumb to its heat. And yet, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are miraculously saved and the scalding flames of the fire do nothing to harm them.
But the drama of Daniel 3 highlights the plight of the exiles during the Babylonian era after having been forcefully removed from their home land by this same King Nebuchadnezzar.
Biblical scholars agree that the historical setting of Daniel 1-6 really reflects a much later time, most likely under the late Persian Empire. But, as they transpose their current challenges to a time long before, the narrative raises the central question (then and now): How does one survive under a foreign empire, and how does one remain a faithful Jew amidst all the threats to Jewish identity?
Daniel 3 thus details the exemplary behavior of these faithful believers who, despite the worst kinds of trials and tribulations, remain faithful to God and refuse to give up their religion. Secondly, this chapter wants to share with its readers the conviction that the reason why these immigrants survived under a hostile foreign empire is because of God’s faithfulness. The miraculous nature of the men’s survival leaves no doubt that it is only because of God’s intervention that they did not succumb to the empire’s attempts to wipe them out.
This narrative encouraged its original audience, believers who found themselves under the Persian empire, to persevere.
Act 2: Fast Forward to Now
In most of our readings of this biblical story, we are invited to connect with the brave and faithful threesome. Courage in the face of threat, trust in the face of the fire.
One wonders, however, if the story might speak to us more if we connect identify not with the three men, but with the powerful King Nebuchadnezzar? How might this be a prophetic call to repent of the way we’ve prioritized our story, our needs and our comfort at the expense of those who’ve been asked, or forced, to ‘change their names’ literally and metaphorically?
In her book on the US National Parks, The Hour of Land, author Terry Tempest Williams writes ‘any good story with the muscle of privilege behind seems believable. But we so often forget to ask, “Who benefits from telling the story this way?” Whose story isn’t being told, or isn’t be told in their own voice?
In June of 1864, not long after the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant – which secured the Yosemite Valley, and the ancient, giant Sequoias of Mariposa Grove for the future – first as a state natural preserve and later as a national park in 1890. Lincoln never saw the park, but he did see its beauty and glory through the images of photographers. Lincoln believed preserving this land might offer a unifying peace for a divided nation.
What he didn’t say, and what we don’t read in the Park manual is that 14 years prior to signing the Land Grant, another war was fought – the Mariposa Indian War. In the midst of a gold rush a volunteer militia, the Mariposa Battalion, fighting on behalf of California, went to battle against the Ahwahneechee Indians who lived in Yosemite Valley. Chief Tenaya (after whom a lake was named) and his people were moved to a short lived reservation near Fresno(from the cool mountains to the hot desert). It was short-lived because Congress refused to honor any of the 18 treaties made with California Indians in 1851-52. As ones with the ‘muscle of privilege’ we can tell the grand story of Yosemite without every asking, “Who’s story isn’t being told?”
A similar dynamic was played out in almost every national park in this country. “The creation of America’s national parks has been the creation of myths.” The myth is that Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 and void of people. In fact, it was the seasonal and cyclic home of Blackfeet, Bannock, Shosone and Crow Nations. The myth said that Indians avoided the geysers and hot springs. The truth is the US Government didn’t want visitors to encounter Indians.
Act 3 – The tension we live with
Williams acknowledges this intricate tension in our personal and national psyches. The parks draw 300 million visitors a year – in part because they feed our souls. And they also represent the complicated nature of our role as those in power. Leaning more deeply into this tension, she suggests, allows us to encounter our own humility, to develop our capacity to stay open and curious in a world that beckons closure through fear.
King Nebecunezzar in Daniel’s story today has the power to both demand subjugation of Jewish servants, and then the power to even frame their story of personal, faithful, resistance. Did you hear that – even the story of Jewish resistance to the King is shaped and told by the King.
As so often it is. That ‘muscle of privilege’ continues to operate. But what if we started with this very story – remembering that the stance of faith we see in these three men has layer upon layer of courage to it.
The unseen story before the current story.
The systemic story that shapes a personal narrative.
The details highlighted by those of us in power verses the details of those not in power (and usually not highlighted)?
What if we committed ourselves to asking about the ‘under story’. The immigrant story, the story of poverty, the story of hidden and forbidden faith.
What if we, through our curiosity and openness and humility, entered this and ever story looking for the ‘original’ voice of these three characters, slowly moving towards telling a whole different story.
The personal courage that is exhibited in this story is not to be minimized or marginalized, but it is a story of repeated aggressions and oppressive acts. It is a story of trust shaped not by success, but metaphorical (and if we are honest, probably literal) heat and fire. It is a story of the ignorance of the powerful, even as they oppress, about the tenacity and grit and long-suffering hope of the nameless in their midst.
Act 4 – The invitation
Imagining ourselves as the powerful in this story invites us to a reversal of perspective. Using this story as the powerful metaphor it was meant to be; what if we humbly acknowledged that too often we
have supported systems that demean others by asking or demanding they take on new names, have supported the suppression of the faith of youth and their passion,and have supported the unending servitude of others to systems that discriminate and disempower them.
What if we faced our complicity with an honesty born out of curiosity and humility- naming this a story not of Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, but a story in fact of Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah. Because when we name it truthfully from their vantage point, it becomes a strong of an even greater strength, an even more faithful persistence, and an even more long suffering hope.
If we encounter this story from their perspective, I think it opens us up to a more powerful spiritual gut check. A more powerful reckoning with the faith we are called to claim. A more meaningful invitation to the persistence we are called to live in this, or any, time.
I ask this not to make us feel more guilty about our power, but in order to let the oppressed of this story offer a different lens on the challenges we face.
When we are afraid, how might this and other stories of immigrants inform us about the radical meaning of trust in the face of danger and dislocation?
When we feel like our voice isn’t being honored, how might this and other stories of profound voicelessness speak to the humility of those who have spoken truth to power from a place of much less power than we have?
When we long for community, how might this and other stories of cultural eradication speak to us about the power of community and relationship even when the whole world is against us.
We cannot know, really, how this story of faithful, immigrant resistance really impacted the King and his world.
We cannot know the end results of those later Jews who wrote this story as a parable for their own faithful struggle.
But what we can take from this ancient story is the power of faith to help us both survive and thrive in a time of deep struggle.
We can remember that until we ask after the understory, the back story or the untold story, we cannot begin to fathom the power of our faith, or anyone’s faith, to persevere in times of despair.