Monthly Archives: July 2015

Heroes of the Bible: Three Men and a Furnace

How many of you knew when you saw the title that I would be reflecting on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? One source I read called this story a farce, with everything so exaggerated as to make it ridiculous. As I was reading it I found myself almost laughing at the repetition of the whole list of different officials or the long list of instruments. Farces are fun, but as you are aware the best political cartoons while farcical are very telling. This story is certainly one of the saving power of God it is also a story about three heroes who stood up for what they believed despite potential dire consequences!

This story is from the time of the Babylonian exile. The king at the time was Nebuchadnezzar II. At that time the Babylonian empire had control of vast areas from modern day Iraq, some of Persia, the Holy Land, and , at its height, all of Egypt. It was impossible for one man to rule such a vast area so Nebuchadnezzar had scores of governors, and lesser officials each with their own authority and territory and one of them was Daniel. After having a dream interpreted by Daniel the king was very happy and granted Daniel’s request to appoint his three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to high offices.

We pick up here with today’s story. The king had a sixty cubit tall idol constructed and made a decree that everyone must bow down to the idol when they heard certain music  (a long and specific list of instruments and the ensemble) and that anybody who failed to do so would be thrown “immediately” into the furnace.  With the king’s decree in place some of the Babylonian officials noticed some people not bowing down as ordered. This information was passed on to the king, that some Jews were not complying and naming Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who had recently been raised to positions of authority (presumably over Babylonians).

Despite the edict saying they would be immediately thrown into the furnace, the king had the men brought to him. They were questioned and then they were given a choice of following the decree or being thrown into the furnace. They answered first that they didn’t need to defend themselves to him and then that they would not bow to the idol. Just saying that they didn’t have to answer to the King was a major thing, and the they chose the furnace! Furious the king had them bound by his strongest men, the furnace heated to seven times its usual temperature (again an extreme unlikely to be possible), and had them thrown in.

The result was not what Nebuchadnezzar had expected. First his strong men who threw our friends into the furnace were themselves consumed by the fire. Then the king saw those three men, no longer bound and joined by another, walking around in the furnace. Taken aback he checked with others to confirm that he had indeed had three and not four men cast into the furnace. (the comic double take) Then he noticed that while the friends looked just as they had, the fourth man “had the look of a god”.

He called Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the fire. They came out with no sign of having been anywhere near a fire. They didn’t even have that nice campfire smell. “Therefore (the king makes a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins…” Dan 3:29

Did these three men have a superpower that made them fire resistant? Of course not! Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, their Hebrew names, went by the Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were exiles from Jerusalem, educated, thanks to the Babylonian schools, and friends of Daniel. Through that association they had been named as officials of the province of Babylon. With positions of power they were living well, and yet they were not free to go home to Judah. As God had instructed the exiles, they had built houses and planted crops and blended in with the population of the day. Unlike most of the Jews these three, and Daniel presumably, had not taken up worship of the gods of their Babylonian captors.

For the most part furnaces are used in metaphorical ways in the Bible to represent a variety of things such as; God’s judging and testing, a refining fire to strengthen or to reform the people of Israel, and to represent the presence of God. We also associate that kind of fire with condemnation, like the fires of hell. The type of furnace being referred to in the story is probably one for smelting and refining metals and would therefore be both large and very hot, though I doubt it could be heated to seven times its regular heat without it breaking down. Nor do I think it likely that they had a furnace so large that four grown men could walk around in it.

I don’t think that the idols and furnaces which we face in our own lives are very different from those in today’s story. We have lots of idols and furnaces don’t we? We are rarely ordered to bow down but rather encouraged by clever marketing etc. But there are people in our world today being forced to change religion. In some African and the Middle Eastern countries groups like Boko Haram are actively forcing people, through kidnapping and threats of death, to convert from Christianity and Judaism (or any other religion) to Islam. As Matthew warns in 10: 18, disciples, “you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me.” He continues in verse 28 to say, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” For those who endure to the end will come through the furnace unscathed!”

So what was the superpower that these three men shared? What was it that made them heroes? Their superpower was the conviction of their faith. They chose the fire, not because they assumed that God would save them, but because they would not break faith, they would not deny the god of their ancestors. They were what some sources call catalyst heroes. In a way like mentors, they acted heroically but they didn’t change much themselves, rather they brought about change in others. In this story the other is Nebuchadnezzar who, though not giving up his gods, comes to acknowledge and respect the God of Abraham as the only god who could have delivered in this way (Dan 3:29).  In terms of the author’s purpose for this story it seems likely that the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was used as a catalyst to change the Jews to return them to the worship of the Almighty God.

While the steadfastness of our heroes’ was a catalyst to change, it was of course God himself who protected them from the fire in the furnace. Unlike Nebuchadnezzar God doesn’t really need us to worship him as without us he still has the whole of creation to praise him. As to his fiery furnace, we read in the Psalm this morning that God’s fire consumes his adversaries. Our heroes firmly stood on the ground of, and then were cast into the fire for the Almighty God not because they trusted that he would save them, but because they believed that he was the one true god. Nobody enjoys the furnace, the refining process. But when we find ourselves being coerced into worshiping other things let’s join Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in jumping from the frying pan to the fire!

Scripture refereces:

Daniel 3: 1-30

Psalm 97

Matthew 10: 16-33

Nel, Marius North-West University, (Potchefstroom) Daniel 3 as satirical comedy file:///C:/Users/Cathy/Downloads/263-791-1-PB.pdf

Types of Heroes (Adapted from Vogler, 1999, pp. 41–44)

Dancing in the Streets!

We recently had vacation Bible school at our church. The leaders and 20 children gathered in the evenings and opened and closed the sessions with singing, dancing and celebration. We did actions to the songs along with the accompaniment of recorded bands and it didn’t matter if we got the words wrong occasionally, came in at the wrong times or forgot the actions because we were rejoicing before God. Now think back to the last time that people in your services of worship jumped up and down, clapped along with the music, waved their arms in the air or acted out the loving embrace of God. Has this ever happened during your Sunday morning services? Has it even happened on special occasions?

In the OT dancing was a form of religious worship and community celebration. Dancing and singing and playing instruments were part of public rituals and festivals as part of communal worship. Dancing was the opposite of mourning, was a way of greeting warriors and victors home. Men danced, women danced, it was a way to worship God with your whole mind and body. Where did our dancing go?

In 2 Samuel 6 King David danced in the streets. In the OT several words are used to refer to dancing. The one used in our reading today was only used in this one place in the Bible and means “whirling.” Other words for dance referred to writhing, whirling, and skipping about. This is not the kind of practiced dancing that we see on such shows as So You Think You Can Dance. Anyone could whirl, and skip about. This speaks of a sort of primal movement, like that of children who are so excited at the arrival of a special guest that they cannot keep still. Is this not how we should be greeting God?

Why was David dancing in the first place? David had consolidated his rule and set his capitol in Jerusalem but it was not truly the center of Judah and Israel because the Ark of the Covenant of God was the center for their religion and it was not in Jerusalem. David decided that it was time to bring the Ark to the capitol. Our reading this morning had two sections separated by five verses. The move of the Ark of the Covenant did not go as smoothly as David would have liked. He gathered 30,000 men including the Levite priests and set off from Baale-judah. Things started out fine with the Ark on a new cart and being cared for by the Levites, but it ended up being left in the house of Obed-edom after Uzzah touched the Ark to steady it on the cart and was struck dead by God. David decided it was too dangerous to take into the city. After three months he was told that the household of Obed-edom had been richly blessed by the presence of the Ark and once again he set out to bring it home.       

On both stages of the journey there was dancing. From Beele-judah we read that David and the people of Israel danced before the Lord with all their might. On the second leg David left off his kingly robes and wore an ephod , probably over his tunic, and danced with all his might before the Lord. Imagine the scene. The king who had united all Israel, defeated the Philistines was not being carried on a litter, not riding a fine horse, not marching solemnly but skipping and whirling around on the streets in little more than his underclothes!

There has been a lot of speculation about the scene I just described. First there is an issue of exactly what he was wearing. The Bible says that, “David was girded with a linen ephod.” It does not say that David was naked except for the ephod. Some have speculated that he was basically naked, others that he was wearing a loin cloth of sorts, others that he was humbling himself and becoming as one with the people.

The ephod was a piece of priestly clothing made of two rectangular pieces of linen which are held together at the shoulder with buckles. Priests would have worn this over their underclothes and tunics and for the high priest under a fantastic jewelled breast plate. This was priestly garb, worn exclusively by those who served as priests. For David to remove his fine robes and signs of his sovereignty was definitely humbling, but taking up the ephod may be seen as taking for himself also the role of a religious leader as well.

Significant as all that may be, I believe that the issue of his behaviour on this journey bears more attention. As I mentioned above, David was not behaving in what we would consider a respectable kingly manner. He was not riding a fine horse, he was not puffing himself up to appear important and be admired by bystanders. Does this sound familiar at all? This King David, from whose line Jesus would later be born, was more like Jesus in this march.

And David danced! With intention and also with abandon he danced to worship the Lord and to greet the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem in the same way that people danced to welcome home victorious soldiers. Such a spectacle did he make of himself that his wife, Saul’s daughter Michal, saw it she was disgusted and turned away. If we continued to read to her greeting her husband home she rebuked him for “shamelessly uncovering himself before the eyes of his servants’ maids.” David defends his action by saying, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me prince over Israel, the people of the Lord that I have danced before the Lord.”

When did dancing change from being a primary act of worship to being something that some denominations actually consider a sin? Even by the time of the New Testament dancing is no longer associated with worship. It is still a celebratory act but more secular in nature. Even as the people of Israel were dancing to the Lord, those of the polytheistic religions were dancing to their gods. Perhaps the change began as a way of differentiating themselves from the polytheists. Over time dance, now a secular activity, took on other purposes. We know that the nature religions dance in ceremonies, that there are dances used to whip up fighting spirit before battle, that dance is used for seduction, for spectacle, for art. But we no longer dance.

I am not really suggesting that we need to be literally dancing in the streets in praise of God, nor am I suggesting that we need to clear dance space in our places of worship. But I do think that there is something of the being physically swept up in worship that has dried us out. Are we dancing in spirit? When we worship do we feel like skipping and whirling? When we leave church after a service do we feel light on our feet? When was the last time you felt so excited you just couldn’t be still?

There is a very popular quote from Mark Twain about dancing which seems to fit well here.

“Dance like nobody’s watching

Love like you’ve never been hurt

Sing like nobody’s listening

Live like it’s heaven on earth.”

If we are dancing with all our might before the Lord then it doesn’t matter who else sees us or what they think of our dancing skills. It doesn’t even matter if they think we are crazy for dancing! We really have something to sing about because, while this may not yet be heaven, we are already living the resurrection life.

2 Samuel 6: 1-19