Today it was my responsibility to teach a lesson on one of the more familiar stories of the Bible, that of Daniel in the lions’ den, to my Sabbath School students . Although the story is itself familiar, in large part because of the incongruity of an elderly man (probably in his 80’s) being protected by God from ravenously hungry lions while being ironically comforted by a king trapped into the act by his own legal system. I’m not sure how politically sophisticated my students are (they are, in their own ways, very clever, but politics does not appear to be any of their interests, at least not directly). All too often, what we read out of stories depends on what kind of mindset and preconception that we bring to the stories themselves, even though any good story is going to be rich enough to support a wide variety of insights and interpretations by virtue of its detail and context.
Let us take the story of Daniel in the lions’ den as an example. I tend to automatically write and think of the story as Daniel in the lion’s den, unless I catch myself beforehand. Intellectually, it is easy to remember that there were plenty of lions in the den (Daniel 6:16, for example), but somehow metaphorically I see the real lion in the den as not being physical but spiritual in nature. It was, after all, not the fault of the lions themselves that Daniel was placed in their presence, but rather the deceitful and wicked plotting of some rivals of Daniel, who were offended at his religious beliefs and jealous of his moral probity and sought to use his religion as a trap, a scheme that ultimately came from our adversary, Satan the devil, a veritable roaring lion himself. This is a case where larger and deeper meaning can, without careful reading, obscure the literal meaning of a text, something we must be careful to avoid.
Yet the religious and political aspects of Daniel’s trial must not be ignored. Daniel served an oriental monarch (by no means an easy task), who had overinflated views of his own divinity, and a serious problem in that his autocratic power attracted a lot of unethical hangers on who wanted to utilize that power for their own wicked ends. Daniel’s religious beliefs were certainly unusual (as genuine followers of God have probably never been a majority in any society throughout the entirety of human history), and this made him vulnerable to a plot wherein the wicked counselors appealed to the considerable monarchy of the Persian king to pass a law that prohibited the worship of any being apart from him. Daniel’s response is notable, though, in that he openly courted danger by opening his upper windows and continuing to pray thrice daily (morning, noon, and evening). This was not a man hiding in a private closet hoping to avoid notice, but a man who openly refused to obey a wicked law that sought to contradict the loyalty that God requires. While not all octogenarians are so bold, this passage is one of several strong indications of how the godly should react to ungodly laws, by forcing the secret plots of our enemy into an open test between God and Satan, allowing God to prevail in such a way that serves to increase His glory.
In this story (as well as Esther) we see that those who fancy themselves to be autocratic rulers, and undisputed lords of all that is within their reach often find themselves to be slaves of the traditions that uphold our power and positions. Hesitating to attack the foundations of our comfort, we find ourselves trapped into decisions that we would not have taken on our own. This story is therefore a subtle critique on the narratives of power and authority that rulers like to make for themselves, as we see in this story that a generally wise and decent king is deceived into an ungodly action by wicked counselors, trapped into punishing someone he knows is innocent, and just as powerless as anyone else in seeking that his serious blunder does not have lasting consequences for him in the loss of a trusted and honorable servant. After all, those who loyally serve God will be ethical in their dealings in all walks of life, which is something that Cyrus recognized, even if not all kings are that perceptive.
Of course, the main reason this story has endured for so long is because of its vivid imagery. Daniel is saved from the grip of the ferocious lions but the wicked counselors are thrown in the next morning for plotting against him and they do not even make it to the base of the den alive before being ripped asunder by the ferocious and ravenous beasts. Certainly, the violent and bloodthirsty imagery is a part of this story that is immensely appealing, especially to my young students (who show a fascination for such things), even if the subtle and thought-provoking context is less readily apparent. Let us be glad, at least, that such historical incidents can endure as memorable so that those whose minds are turned towards the deeper and darker matters of the hearts and plans of mankind can work with such rich material.
 See, for example: