This coming Sunday at Cleveland Drive Presbyterian Church I will be preaching on the familiar story of the three friends in the fiery furnace in Daniel 3. Those three friends are commonly known by their Babylonian names because of this passage; the Babylonian names of the three friends being Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. As I was preparing the sermon, I noticed the similarities between the way that the story opens and closes. Both the opening and closing sections have this list: satraps, prefects, governors, and counselors. They both speak of peoples, nations, and languages. Furthermore, the consequence in the opening section for refusing to worship the image that King Nebuchadnezzar made was to be cast into a burning fiery furnace and the consequence in the closing section for speaking against the God of the three friends was that they would be torn limb from limb and their houses laid in ruins. The latter ties the text to Daniel 2 (see Daniel 2:5). The opening also is tied to Daniel 2 by use of the catchword “image” (see Daniel 2:31ff). In any case, the similarities made me curious whether we are dealing with a chiasm and I didn’t check to see how I’ve outlined it in the past.
A chiasm is a literary structure common in ancient Hebrew writings that is a different pattern than found in literature today. I’ve uploaded a pdf of the proposed chiasm of Daniel 3 here. You will note that each parallel section is labeled so that you can see this pattern and the turning point in the center of the passage. I’m proposing that Daniel 3 follows an A, B, C, D, C’, B’, A’ pattern. It isn’t as simple as the beginning and closing sections being the same or B and B’ being the same, or C and C’ being the same. Instead, the C’ goes a step further than C, and B’ goes a step further than B, and A’ goes a step further than A.
The progress from A to A’ is rather straightforward. In A, the King made a decree that all peoples/nations/languages must worship the image that he set up or they will be cast into the burning fiery furnace. In A’, the King made a decree that all peoples/nations/languages cannot speak against the God of the three friends or they will be torn limb from limb and their houses laid in ruins. The punishment of the latter is greater than the former for the latter speaks of their houses. But the most important progression is from a decree that they engage in idolatry to a decree that they not speak against the God of the three friends. Since it was common for anti-Semites in those days to use the Hebrew religion as a weapon against the Jewish people, this was a most welcome decree.
I’ve labeled both B sections as “Living in the Fiery Furnace.” This is also the title of Sunday’s sermon. In the former, the fiery furnace is a metaphor for the treatment of the Jewish people in Babylon by their enemies. The passage says that certain Chaldeans made a malicious accusation against the three friends. This links the passage to Daniel 6. Elsewhere on this site you can read much more about the structure of the Book of Daniel and how these two stories are similar. Of course, it is a chiasm so the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den in Daniel 6 actually goes a step further than the story of the three friends in the fiery furnace in Daniel 3. In any case, the phrase “malicious accusation” is ‘literally’ “ate their pieces,” which invokes the picture of lions attacking these lambs of God. A more precise explanation of this is also available elsewhere on this website. The point is that the fiery furnace (like the Lion’s Den) are metaphors for the treatment of the Jewish people in Babylon (and then Persia) by their enemies. However, the B’ section shows us a picture reminiscent of apocalyptic literature, which is designed to comfort the persecuted. In it we see the soldiers who take the three friends up to the fire are killed and the three friends fall bound into the fiery furnace where a fourth person “like a son of the gods” removes their binds and walks with them. As a trial by ordeal, the trial is considered fair because it killed the soldiers and didn’t harm the three friends. Thus the former are found guilty and the latter are found innocent. In other words, the Chaldeans making the accusation are the ones with the malicious intent whereas the three friends are loyal servants of the king. Nevertheless, the progress between these two parts is obvious: from a fiery furnace as a metaphor to a literal fiery furnace.
The C verses are also advanced in C’. In Daniel 3:13-15, King Nebuchadnezzar is in a furious rage. In Daniel 3:19-21, he is full of rage. I labeled them both the same on the outline, but it would appear that the latter is actually taking the former a step further. I will point out in the sermon that when the passage takes this step further there is something that gets lost in translation. That is, the English says that the “expression” of his face was changed against the three friends. The Hebrew word is “image.” That is, Nebuchadnezzar is becoming like the image he made. This progression is also noticeable when noting that the fiery furnace is at the normal level of heat in the former and that the King ordered it to be heated seven times more than usual in the latter. The number seven is usually symbolic of perfection, but this symbolism is not apparent in this text. Instead, it is probably seven times because of the popularity of the number seven in apocalyptic literature. The most obvious progression between the two sections is that in the first one the King says that they will be cast into the burning fiery furnace if they refuse to comply and in the second one the King orders them to be bound and cast into the burning fiery furnace and they are.
At the center of the chiasm of Daniel 3 is the confession of faith by the three friends. Usually in a chiasm there is a strong link between the A and A’ sections and the center of the chiasm. In this passage the link is less developed, but the idea is that their confession of faith is the reason for the progress from A to A’. It is even the reason for the difference between B and B’. That is, what they can see with their eyes is B — they live in a metaphorical fiery furnace. But the truth they know by faith is B’ — God is with them in the fiery furnace and sets them free. In any case, the center of the passage is the point for those living in exile — whether or not you will survive physically, trust in the God of Israel.
I know that I’ve mentioned before that this passage is a comedy. (See my earlier commentary on this passage). Some of the comedic elements are things like Nebuchadnezzar becoming like the image, the ways that the people become lifeless and unthinking idolaters and the soldiers burn like wood, and the lists like the titles of the various officials. But it is even more important to think of this as a comedy in the traditional literary sense: the passage has a happy ending for the three friends.
Editorial Note: In my earlier writing I proposed a different chiasm of Daniel 3. (See the pdf link on this post.) Some might argue that it is a cautionary tale about seeking chiasms where there are none, but I would argue that we might not all agree on how precisely to divide up text but there are enough hints there to know that a chiasm is intentional. I believe that my new outline is better, but am open to suggestions/feedback.