“King Belshazzar made a great feast for his one thousand dignitaries, and he drank as much wine as the thousand (Daniel 5:1).” So this new king is introduced, and he’s a clear lush. He’s Nebuchadnezzar’s son, and follows the tradition of ancient near-Eastern kings throwing excessive parties – flashback to Esther and Ahasuerus in the Purim story! This king takes things even further and decides to take the vessels that his father looted from the Temple to drink out of at his party. So with this massive foreshadowing, we know that only bad things will come to him.
Just as the debauchery is reaching a peak, things get weird. “At that time, the fingers of a human hand emerged and wrote opposite the candelabrum on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the palm of the hand that was writing (Daniel 5:5).” So that’s terrifying, and the king agrees. We are told that the color drains from his face, and like his father, he calls for the necromancers and astrologers and promises rewards for someone who can tell him what it means. Everyone fails yet again, and the queen (who is nameless) comes to save the day. It reminds me of the Esther story, where the wife of the king has the answers, and yet her voice and role are marginalized in the kingdom due to her gender. In this case, she points her husband towards Daniel, who is immediately brought before the king.
Though the king promises Daniel gifts and power, he’s modest. “Then Daniel raised his voice and said before the king, ‘Keep your gifts for yourself, and give your lavish gifts to someone else, but I shall read the writing for the king, and I shall let him know the interpretation (Daniel 5:17).'” Daniel gives major insights, the king is happy and rewards him regardless of his admonitions not to, and all seems good. Until the next sentence, the final verse of the chapter.
“On that very night, Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was assassinated (Daniel 5:30).” WHAT? This is one of the first cliffhangers I really remember in Tanakh. I actually can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow, when things inevitably blow up in Daniel’s face.
This chapter starts with a change of narrator, and Nebuchadnezzar is speaking in the first person. “I, Nebuchadnezzar, was tranquil in my house and flourishing in my palace (Daniel 4:1).” He has another nightmare, and once again brings the wise men of Babylon to help him. All of them fail, until Daniel/Belteshazzar shows up. Nebuchadnezzar relays all of the details of his bizarre dream, and expresses his confidence in Daniel, because of his past experiences with him. Daniel is confused at first, and then gets scared, but eventually he realizes that the dream isn’t meant for Nebuchadnezzar himself, but rather for his enemies. “That is, O king, for you have become great and strong, and your greatness has increased and reached the heaven and your dominion [extends] to the end of the earth (Daniel 4:19).”
The king freaks out again, and the people eventually rebel against him. He is ostracized from humanity, but then he is restored, and once again ends up praising God. I swear, this king runs so hot and cold. He goes back and forth seemingly constantly, and doesn’t seem to have any stockpile of memories or past experiences to draw from. Every day is a clean slate, which strikes me as very dangerous.
“King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, its height sixty cubits, its width six cubits; he set it up in the plain of Dura, in the capital city of Babylon (Daniel 3:10.” I know that we’re anti-idols, particularly in Tanakh, but I have to say, this sounds kind of awesome. Sorry for that awkward blasphemy. All of the leaders of the community and kingdom gather for the dedication of the statue, and there’s a new edict that whenever the people in the kingdom hear music of any kind, they should immediately prostrate themselves to the gold statue. I can already tell that this won’t go well, particularly with the memory of our last book and how much Jews don’t like being told to bow.
And, just a couple of verses later, I’m right. “In view of this, at that time, some Chaldean men approached and denounced the Jews (Daniel 3:8).” They basically call out the Jews, Daniel’s friends, for not listening to the edict. The king becomes enraged that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego don’t follow his commandment, particularly given that the punishment of choice is being thrown into a fiery pit. However, this doesn’t seem to bother them too much, as they are confident that God will save them from the fires. This doesn’t sit well for the king, of course, and he has them tied up and thrown into a furnace.
All of this backfires, as the men who did the throwing end up falling in and burning. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego are there and don’t burn, and there’s also a fourth figure, who is said to be an angel. Nebuchadnezzar is amazed, and calls them out of the fire. Once again, he is impressed by God, and he issues a new edict that no one can blaspheme the God of the Jews. “How great are His signs, and how mighty are His wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom, and His dominion is with every generation (Daniel 3:33).”
“Now in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar dreamed dreams, and his spirit was troubled, and his sleep was interrupted (Daniel 2:1).” This anecdote, about a king who is disturbed in his sleep and needs someone to interpret his dreams, gives me massive flashbacks to Joseph interpreting for pharaoh, which set him on his rise to power back in Egypt. Several try to interpret for Nebuchadnezzar, but there’s a lot of confusion, and the king is angry. “In view of this, the king was in great wrath and anger and ordered to destroy all the wise men of Babylon (Daniel 2:12).”
Daniel and his friends are part of that category of wise men. Daniel speaks with Arioch, the chief executioner, and finds out that the decree against the wise men is because of dream interpretation fails, so he immediately goes to tell his colleagues and they get a vision from God to help them interpret for the king. “Then the secret was revealed to Daniel in the vision of the night; then Daniel blessed the God of heaven (Daniel 2:19).” Arioch brings Daniel to the king so he can share the meaning of the dream. Nebuchadnezzar is blown away, and rewards Daniel extremely. “Then the king elevated Daniel and gave him many great gifts and gave him dominion over all the capital cities of Babylon, and he was the chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon (Daniel 2:48).” So far, so good! This chapter, at least, ends on a high note, though I’m sure there’s much more drama to come.
The book of Daniel starts by giving us some context. “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem and besieged it (Daniel 1:1).” Babylon conquers Judah, and the king tells his deputy to bring young men to his palace as tutors. For some reason, these men need to be handsome as well as intelligent, which I’m sure is indicative of some near-Eastern practices that the commentators go nuts over. It actually seems like a counterpart to Esther, when the women had to prepare for months before they were deemed ready to stand before the king, because we see here that it takes three years of training for these young men to go before Nebuchadnezzar.
“Now there were among them, from the Judahites, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Daniel 1:6).” All of their names are changed to Babylonian names, and Daniel stands out, because he wants to maintain his standards of kashrut, even in the king’s palace. He and his friends, as a result, become more favored and more attractive than any of the other young men, in addition to being more intelligent. This foursome become his trusted advisors on numerous matters.
We end with another context clue. “And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus (Daniel 1:21).” Cyrus apparently reigned from 550 – 530 BCE, so we know at least a gist of when we’re talking about with this book. As I said, it’s a totally new one for me, so I’m intrigued! More next week!
The final chapter of the book of Esther is a grand total of three verses long, so this post will be short and sweet. I’m going to reflect on the final verse of this fascinating, chaotic book. “For Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to King Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews and accepted by most of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all their seed (Esther 10:3).” This might be the most classic Jewish verse I’ve read in all of Tanakh. Thanks to Mordechai, the Jewish people are literally saved from destruction. He is the king’s right-hand man, and uses his power in the best interest of his people. And despite all of that, it specifically says that he’s accepted by most of the people. Classic Jews – even this seeming paragon of perfection doesn’t get universal approval, because 2 Jews/3 opinions isn’t just a tongue-in-cheek idea, but a real, visceral concept. It can be frustrating, but ultimately I think it’s a good thing that we as a group are hard to please, that we are self-critical, and don’t blindly accept our leaders.
With that, the book of Esther has come to an end, and tomorrow starts Daniel, a book I’m much less familiar with, so it’ll be exciting to see what happens. Reading this chapter means that I’m done with 829, and there are only 100 left to go in this project! It’s crazy that it’s winding to a close. I’m torn between what I should do Jewishly next, after this three year endeavor finishes. Would love to get feedback on my options – details to come!
This chapter continues the last one, with the Jews going on the offense. “And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword and with slaying and destruction, and they did to their enemies as they wished (Esther 9:5).” I wrote about this yesterday, so all I’ll say is it’s one thing to stand up for oneself, but another to go past the precipice and come down on the other side, and behaving in a way that is no better than one’s enemy. Haman’s sons die, but in a moment of morality, we learn that the Jews don’t take the spoils of war, which could demonstrate that the didn’t go all the way to the proverbial dark side, and maintained their humanity.
Now, we hear about Purim. “And the Jews who were in Shushan assembled on the thirteenth thereof and the fourteenth thereof, and rested on the fifteenth thereof, and made it a day of feasting and joy (Esther 9:18).” The holiday is coming up in a couple of weeks, making this a perfect time to be reading this chapter. We see the commandment of remembering and celebrating these days, something I look forward to actualizing pretty soon.
The power shift is seamless. Haman is dead, Mordechai get’s the king’s ring, and all the authority that comes with it. “And Esther resume speaking before the king, and she fell before his feet, and she wept and beseeched him to avert the harm of Haman the Agagite and his device that he had plotted against the Jews (Esther 8:3).” Sadly, because the king is thought to be infallible, his orders can’t actually be rescinded, and he did agree to the murder of the Jews of Persia. So instead, they find a workaround, which manifests in the arming of all of the Jewish communities so they can defend themselves. The Jews are given leave to attack those who would oppress them, and the whole community is thrilled with this. “And in every province and in every city, wherever the king’s order and his edict reached, [there was] joy and gladness for the Jews, a banquet and a festive day, and many of the peoples of the land became Jews because the fear of the Jews was upon them (Esther 8:17).”
Ugh. There’s such a tension in this chapter. On the one hand, everyone is safe and can defend themselves, and there’s a party. I remember learning about all of those pieces, and it’s great. But then things seem to reach the peak and go just a bit too far when the people go on the offensive and apparently invoke fear in the people of Persia. It’s hard to maintain sympathy once they become the aggressors, particularly seeing that they know all too well what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a mob. Once we know what it’s like to be the victims, shouldn’t we behave in a more humane way once we’re the power force?
The weekend is over, and Esther is ready to wine and dine the king and Haman. This is somehow a multi-day affair, and finally, Esther has the king drunk enough – I’m guessing – that she feels ready to get real. “And Queen Esther replied and said, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, O king, and if it pleases the king, may my life be given me in my petition and my people in my request (Esther 7:3).'” Esther reveals the whole plot to the king, including that Haman is the one behind the plot. Haman freaks out, and we have a piece of the text that I must have read before but never paid close attention to. The king leaves for a moment because he’s so angry.
“Then the king returned from the orchard garden to the house of the wine feast, and Haman was falling on the couch upon which Esther was, and the king said, ‘Will you even force the queen with me in the house?’ The word came out of the king’s mouth, and they covered Haman’s face (Esther 7:8).” I guess I’m paying attention in a closer way than before, because it seems obvious to me that Haman attempted to assault Esther in this moment. What does this mean? Was he trying to argue with her and got carried away? Was he actually trying to rape her? Is she fighting him or is she in shock over the whole thing? Is it because she’s a Jew, or because she outed him, or just because he’s an evil man left alone with a woman? Regardless of the ‘reason,’ it’s horrifying, and is one of way too many #MeToo moments in Tanakh. Thankfully, in this case, punishment is quick. Haman is hung, and with the ultimate poetic justice, he dies on the same gallows that he personally ordered built for Mordechai.
So Haman is building gallows, Esther is wining and dining, and Ahasuerus is having a bad night’s sleep. He needs some bedtime reading, so he has someone read the chronicles of the kingdom to him. “And it was found that Mordechai had reported about Bigthan and Teresh, two chamberlains of the king, of the guards of the threshold, who had sought to lay a hand on King Ahasuerus (Esther 6:2).” This was Mordechai’s earlier heroic act, but he was never rewarded for it. The king is upset, so he calls the nearest advisor, who is Haman, because ironically, he is waiting to talk to the king about hanging Mordechai on the freshly built gallows. So the king calls Haman in, and awkwardly asks him what he thinks should be done for the man the king wants to honor.
Haman, self-centered jerk that he is, thinks that the king is speaking about honoring him, and has clearly been thinking about this, because he has an immediate (and elaborate) response. It involves wearing the king’s crown, and his robes, riding his horse, and being paraded through the city by a prince. “And the king said to Haman, ‘Hurry, take the raiment and the horse as you have spoken and do so to Morechai the Jew, who sits in the king’s gate; let nothing fail of all that you have spoken (Esther 6:10).'” I can’t imagine how crestfallen his face must have looked when he realizes that the guy he’s actively trying to kill is now someone he has to submit to. But Haman follows orders, and then races home to keep complaining to Zeresh, his wife. This whole chapter is just full of irony, and seems to point to a true dichotomy between Haman and Mordechai, as when one’s star rises, the other falls, and vice versa.