The Book of Daniel

West Side Moravian Church
July 8, 2012

The Didactic Story

The Book of Daniel is a series of teaching stories. Teaching stories – called didactic stories by the scholars – have built-in lessons about how to live life properly. The reason to tell the story is to convey the lesson. Aesop's Fables are examples of didactic stories; almost all involve animals, but none of them are told in order to teach about natural history. Instead, the purpose of each fable is to teach a lesson about how you should live your life.

Jesus' parables are also didactic stories: They are told in order to teach a lesson about what the world is really like and how we should live here. Making a story helps us to remember the lesson and to relate Jesus' message to our lives.

Didactic stories are common in all cultures. Let me read you an American didactic story written by Mason Locke Weems around 1800. You'll recognize the story, even though you may never have heard the original version.

When George … was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day, in the garden, … he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don't believe the tree ever got the better of it.

The next morning the old gentleman, finding out what had befallen his tree, … came into the house; and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him anything about it.

Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. George, said his father, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden? This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, … he bravely cried out, I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.Run to my arms, you dearest boy, cried his father in transports, run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees …. (Weems, chapter 2)

Do you know who George is? Of course you do! This is a story that was told about George Washington. Except – when you think about it, the story isn't really about George Washington at all. I know that some people are very much attached to the literal truth of this story. I saw on the internet that someone was offering a reward of $10,000 for proof that little George really did chop his father's tree. That $10,000 is safe.

But this story would be just as good if it were told about Benjamin Franklin or Francis Marion. Parson Weems' lesson for us is that if you want your children to be honest, you must reward (and not punish) their honesty.

As you listen to stories from the Book of Daniel, you'll find they are didactic stories, too. Although the stories tell about Daniel and his friends, they aren't really about Daniel. These are teaching stories. The lesson which they teach is the reason they are told.

The overall lesson of the stories in Daniel is that the goodness of God is more real and powerful than are the dangers of the world. To live in reality, you must live with God. As Carol Newsom expresses this lesson, To do an act of goodness is to root oneself in reality. To commit an act of evil is to cut oneself off. (Newsom, page 124)

To Live Touching Ultimate Reality

The first 6 chapters of Daniel are simple stories like The Three Young Men and the Fiery Furnace and Daniel in the Lion's Den. They are children's stories – although, of course, many adults also enjoy reading them.

When Daniel keeps faith with God, he stands for everyone who has kept faith in the face of physical, economic, and psychological threats. When Darius allows him to be thrown to the lions, Darius stands for all the repressive regimes of history: the butchery of Antiochus Epiphanes, the crucifixions by Rome, the Inquisition's tortures, the Nazi gas chambers, the Soviet gulag, the Ugandan militias.

In the same way, the 3 friends faithfully faced the fiery furnace under Nebuchadnezzar. They said, If the God whom we serve is able to save us from the blazing furnace and from your power, then he will. But even if he doesn't, … we will not bow down to the golden statue … (Daniel 3:17-18) That is, remaining faithful to God is more important than remaining alive. As Carol Newsom expressed the lesson of this story, Even if one perishes in the act of choosing the good, something of inestimable importance has been saved, namely, one's identification with the good. (Newsom, page 50)

Yet the stories uniformly do not allow the heroes to perish. Isn't that rather unrealistic? Facing real persecutions, real people really die. But in the context of the didactic story, the happy ending is an affirmation of a deeper reality. Quoting Carol Newsom once again: The violence represented within these stories acknowledges the real power possessed by forces inimical to virtue. But the happy endings function as a narrative metaphor for the ultimate moral coherency of the world. To embrace virtue is to align with something that is in the end more powerful than evil. (Newsom, pages 50-51)

The Apocalyptic Tale

If the first 6 chapters of Daniel are stories for children, the last 6 must surely be stories for adults – although, to be sure, many children enjoy reading them and trying to figure out what they mean.

The stories of chapters 7 through 12 are apocalyptic tales. James Charlesworth explains that Apocalyptic – from the Greek word … meaning revelation or disclosure – is an adjective that has been used to describe both a certain type of literature and a special feature of religions in antiquity. Often the word apocalyptic is used to describe a religious point of view that is preoccupied by the approach of the end of all normal time and history. (Charlesworth, page 3)

This morning I'm referring to Daniel 7 through 12 as being a specific type of revelatory literature that has a narrative structure and unique characteristics, such as pseudonymity, bizarre imagery, and visions of the end of time. (Charlesworth, page 3) Other examples of apocalyptic literature exist. In the Bible we have some chapters in Matthew and of course the whole of the Revelation to John. Among other apocalyptic books we have The Testament of Abraham, The Apocaylypse of Enoch, and parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, among others.

Surely the 7th chapter of Daniel has bizarre imagery: a lion with wings, a gluttonous bear, a leopard with 4 heads, a beast with iron teeth. What are these strange beasts? The story provides its own interpretation; it says, These are 4 empires, empires which crush and trample their victims. But what is the end of them? Empires are beastly while they last, but in the end the people of the Supreme God will outlast them all.

The stories in chapters 7 through 12 are written primarily for people who are living with the beasts. They are more for the followers of Jan Hus in 1415 than privileged Protestants of 2012. But we can read these tales and learn their lesson. For the apocalyptic tales are didactic stories, too, teaching the lesson that the Kingdom of God is in the end more powerful than evil. (Newsom, pages 51)


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