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Bel and the Dragon

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James King West writes of Daniel 14:1-22: "The second story is a satire on pagan divinities in the vein of Isaiah 44:9-20 and the Letter of Jeremiah (Baruch 6). In a discussion with King Cyrus of Babylon as to why he does not worship Cyrus' idol called Bel, Daniel denies the king's claim that Bel eats the food offered to him daily. When Bel's priests are challenged to prove it, they allow the king to place the food in the temple and seal the door. In the meantime Daniel has ashes sifted over the floor. The next day Daniel and the king find the food gone but the floor is covered with footprints. Discovering the secret doors by which he had been deceived, Cyrus is enraged and orders the execution of the priests and their families, while Daniel is permitted to destroy the temple and the idol." (Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 458)

Louis F. Hartman writes of Daniel 14:1-22: "This little 'detective story' is another folk tale of the 'Daniel Cycle.' It is a Jewish satire on the crudities of idolatry, although actually it is a caricature of pagan worship. The offering of food and drink in sacrifice to pagan gods did not differ substantially from similar offerings made to Yahweh in the Temple. In both cases, a certain amount of the sacrificial offerings went quite legitimately to the priests and their families. However, the Jews of the last pre-Christian centuries were so convinced of the folly of idolatry (cf. Wis 13:1-15:17) that this unfair ridicule of pagan worship is understandable." (The Jerome Biblical Commentary, vol. 1, p. 460)

James King West writes of Daniel 14:23-42: "In the companion story the same motive of lampooning pagan deities is apparent. The issue is approached, however, from the opposite angle. Whereas Bel is nothing more than a man-made statue, a fact which is easily demonstrated by its inability to eat, the dragon is manifestly a living creature and does eat. To prove that the dragon also is no god, therefore, Daniel must somehow show that merely being alive and able to eat is not sufficient evidence to establish divinity. This he does by offering to perform the apparently impossible feat of slaying the dragon 'without sword or club' (14:26). The king's acceptance of Daniel's challenge is a tacit admission of the premise that if Daniel succeeds the dragon is no god. Having concocted some cakes of pitch, fat, and hair, he feeds them to the witless beast which promptly explodes." (Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 458-459)

Louis F. Hartman writes of Daniel 14:23-42: "Another short story of the 'Daniel Cycle,' it is basically a variant of the story told in Dn 6 (Daniel in the lions' den). Here is included another satire on pagan worship—Daniel's blowing up of the Babylonians' divine serpent. Although once an independent story, in its present form it is edited to follow the preceding tale (cf. v. 28); in all the Gk manuscripts, the two stories are together, and the LXX even prefixes to the former the note, 'From the prophecy of Habakkuk, son of Jesus, of the tribe of Levi.'" (The Jerome Biblical Commentary, vol. 1, p. 460)

Daniel J. Harrington writes of Daniel 14:23-42: "This addition is a combination of three episodes: Daniel and the dragon (vv. 23-28), Daniel in the lions' den (vv. 29-32, 40-42), and Habakkuk's magical journey (vv. 33-39). The three episodes are loosely joined in a plot that vindicates Daniel and the God whom he worships, and are linked to the Story of Bel by verse 28 ('he has destroyed Bel, and killed the dragon')." (Invitation to the Apocrypha, p. 118)

David A. deSilva writes (Introducing the Apocrypha, pp. 239-240):

While the author remains anonymous, some scholars have ventured to posit a very specific time and circumstance of composition. Davies (1913: 656), for example, suggests composition in a time of serious religious persecution, as under Antiochus VII Sidetes. The assertion that 'the general character of this tract' suggests authorship during a time of bitter persecution is without foundation, arising no doubt from the unwarranted reading of the actions against Daniel in the second part of the story as a reflection of the author's own time. Moreover, the picture of Antiochus VII painted by Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 13.236-248) does not support the claim that he was an enemy of the Jewish religion per se. Although he retaliated against Simon's anti-Seleucid actions by invading Judea and even besieging Jerusalem, and although he pressed the seige so hard that many died of famine, he showed himself quite favorably disposed toward Jewish piety, allowing a truce for the week of the Pentecost celebration at John Hyrcanus's request and even providing bulls for sacrifices, winning himself the epithet 'Antiochus the Pious.' This display of reverence toward Jewish piety led to a resolution of the dispute shortly thereafter.

The composition of Bel and the Dragon was inspired not by persecution but by the perennial problem of living as a minority, monolatrous culture in an idol-worshipping world. The attack on both idolatry and zoolatry makes Egypt the place where the stories would be most on target with regard to the religious alternatives encountered by God-fearing Jews (see the Egyptian Jewish texts Wis. 11:15-16; 15:18-19; Letter of Aristeas 138) (Roth 1975: 43), who could profit from some reinforcement of the unique truth of their own religious heritage despite the lavish expenditures and apparent devotion of their neighbors toward their gods. The main obstacle to this provenance is the fact that no known Egyptian Jewish text was composed in Aramaic or Hebrew (Collins 1993: 419). Thus, while this provenance is not impossible, since not all Egyptian Jews need to be supposed to have forgotten their ancestral language, it is more likely that the story originates in Palestine and that idolatry and zoolatry simply are attacked as two well-known forms of Gentile impiety.

Robert Doran writes: "The narrative has been nicely welded together into a single plot. The LXX and Theodotion use different connectives, but in both versions the narrative coheres. The major actors remain the same throughout—Daniel, the king, and the Babylonians. Both Bel and the snake are characterized as objects that the Babylonians worship (vv. 3, 23). After the snake is destroyed, all those from the region (LXX v. 23; Theodotion: 'the Babylonians') came against Daniel to complain that the king had become a Jew, had overthrown Bel, and had killed the snake. The story of the threat to Daniel's life is thus strongly connected with the preceding narrative. The king's first confession of Bel's greatness (v. 18) and his final confession of Daniel's God (v. 41) use almost exactly the same formulas, even though LXX and Theodotion offer minor differences. This repitition is highly significant and helps unite the narrative. The LXX further connects the two episodes by the phrase 'in that place' in v. 23, but also by developing the motif of eating. This motif dominates the Bel episode (vv. 7, 8, 9, 11, 15, 17, 21). In the snake episode the king claims, 'You cannot say he is bronze. Look, he lives and eats and drinks.' Daniel then destroys the snake by offering it fatal food (v. 23). In the Theodotionic version the connection is made through the notion of life: Daniel worships the living God (v. 5), while Bel is not a living God (v. 6); the king asserts that Daniel cannot say that the snake is not a living God (v. 24), but Daniel insists that it is his God who lives (v. 25). The links between all the episodes in both versions are so pervasive that the narrative must be seen to be a whole. Such stories, of course, could theoretically have existed independently, but there is no evidence that they did." (Harper's Bible Commentary, p. 868)

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