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Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego

Franz Joseph Hermann, "The Fiery Furnace; from the Book of Daniel, 3"; St. Pankratius, Wiggensbach, Germany. King Nebuchadnezzar (left) watches the three youths and the angelic figure in the furnace (right), while the king's gigantic statue towers behind them (centre).

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are the three pious Jewish youths thrown into a "fiery furnace" by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, when they refuse to bow down to the king's image according to chapter 3 of the book of Daniel. The three are preserved from harm and the king sees four men walking in the flames, the fourth "like a son of god".[1]

The first six chapters of Daniel are folktales dating from the late Persian/early Hellenistic period, and Daniel's absence from the tale of the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace suggests that it may originally have been independent.[2] It forms a pair with the story of Daniel in the lions' den, both making the point that the God of the Jews will deliver those who are faithful to him.[2]

Contents

  • Summary 1
  • Composition and structure 2
    • Book of Daniel 2.1
    • Daniel 3 2.2
  • Genre and themes 3
  • Interpretation 4
  • Eastern Orthodox observance 5
  • Popular culture 6

Summary

Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, late 3rd century/early 4th century.

King Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image in the plain of Dura (a word meaning simply "plain") and commanded that all his officials bow down before it. All who failed to do so would be thrown into a blazing furnace. Certain officials informed the king that the three Jewish youths Hanania, Mishael and Azaria, who bore the Babylonian names Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego and whom the king had appointed to high office in Babylon, were refusing to worship the golden statue. The three were brought before Nebuchadnezzar, where they informed the king that their God would be with them. Nebuchadnezzar commanded that they be thrown into the fiery furnace, heated seven times hotter than normal, but when the king looked he saw four figures, and not three, walking unharmed in the flames. Seeing this, Nebuchadnezzar brought the youths out of the flames and promoted them to even higher office, decreeing that any who spoke against their God should be torn limb from limb.[3]

Composition and structure

Book of Daniel

It is generally accepted that the Book of Daniel originated as a collection of folktales among the Jewish community in Babylon and Mesopotamia in the Persian and early Hellenistic periods (5th to 3rd centuries BCE), expanded by the visions of chapters 7-12 in the Maccabean era (mid-2nd century). Modern scholarship agrees that Daniel is a legendary figure. It is possible that the name was chosen for the hero of the book because of his reputation as a wise seer in Hebrew tradition. The tales are in the voice of an anonymous narrator, except for chapter 4 which is in the form of a letter from king Nebuchadnezzar. Chapter 3 is unique in that Daniel does not appear in it.

Daniel 3

Daniel 3 forms part of a chiasmus (a poetic structure in which the main point or message of a passage is placed in the centre and framed by further repetitions on either side) within Daniel 2-7, paired with Daniel 6, the story of Daniel in the lions' den:

  • A. (2:4b-49) – A dream of four kingdoms replaced by a fifth
    • B. (3:1–30) – Daniel's three friends in the fiery furnace
      • C. (4:1–37) – Daniel interprets a dream for Nebuchadnezzar
      • C'. (5:1–31) – Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall for Belshazzar
    • B'. (6:1–28) – Daniel in the lions' den
  • A'. (7:1–28) – A vision of four world kingdoms replaced by a fifth

Chapters 3 and 6 contain significant differences, however. The story of the fiery furnace does not include Daniel, while the story of the lions' den does not include Daniel's friends; the first story takes place under Nebuchadnezzar and the second under Darius; and in the first story the disobedience to the earthly ruler takes place in public, while in the second Daniel petitions God in private. The stories thus supplement each other to make the point that the God of the Jews will deliver those who are faithful to him.

Genre and themes

The Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (15th century icon of the Novgorod school).

The legendary nature of the story is revealed by the liberal use of hyperbole - the size of the statue, the use of every kind of music, the destruction of the executioners, and the king's rage followed by his confession of the superiority of the God of Israel. The plot is a type known in folklore as "the disgrace and rehabilitation of a minister," the plot of which involves a man in a state of prosperity who is sentenced to death or prison by the plots of his enemies but vindicated and restored to honour.

When Nebuchadnezzar confronts the defiant Jewish youths who refuse to submit to his will he asks them what god will deliver them from his hands. Their reply is the theological high point of the story: without addressing the king by his title, they tell him that the question is not whether they are willing to bow before the king's image, but whether God is present and willing to save. When the three are thrown into the furnace the king sees four men walking in the flames, the fourth "like a son of god," a divine being.

Interpretation

The Hebrew names of Daniel's friends were Hananiah (חֲנַנְיָה), "Yah (i.e., Yahweh) is gracious", Mishael (מִישָׁאֵל), "Who is like God?" and Azariah (עֲזַרְיָה), "Yah has helped", but by the king’s decree they assigned Chaldean names, so that Hananiah became Shadrach, Mishael became Meshach and Azariah became Abednego. Shadrach's name is possibly is derived from Shudur Aku "Command of Aku (the moon god)", Meshach is probably a variation of Mi-sha-aku, meaning "Who is as Aku is?", and Abednego is either "Servant of the god Nebo/Nabu" or a variation of Abednergal, "servant of the god Nergal."

Daniel's absence from the tale of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego suggests that it may originally have been an independent story; the word "Dura" (where the statue is erected) means simply "plain" or "fortress" and is not any specific place; the Greek historian Herodotus mentions a golden image of the god Bel in Babylon, but the gigantic size of this statue suggests that its origins lie in folklore.

Eastern Orthodox observance

The Greek version of Daniel 3 inserts "the song of the three youths," two psalms, connected by a narrative emphasising their miraculaous salvation. The song is alluded to in odes seven and eight of the canon, a hymn sung in the matins service and on other occasions in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where their feast day is December 17 (along with Daniel). The Orthodox also commemorate them on the two Sundays before the Nativity of Christ. The reading of the story of the fiery furnace, including the song, is prescribed for the vesperal Divine Liturgy celebrated by the Orthodox on Holy Saturday. Likewise, the three are commemorated as prophets in the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church on December 17 with Daniel.

Popular culture

Literature

Music

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