The behavior of the satraps is very similar to that of the Chaldeans toward the three Hebrews (chapter 3). Interestingly, it is a behavior presenting all the characteristics of anti-Semitism: the same hatred of the foreigner, of his customs, of his religion; the same morbid jealousy; the same allusion to his Jewish origin (verse 13); and the same political concern. Where the Jew is perceived as a threat to unity, anti-Semitism becomes the unifying factor of nations and ideologies, from Marxism to Nazism, from left-wing tendencies to rightwing tendencies, down to the religious democracies.
Chapter 6 is a lesson for the majority, warning them not only against the temptation of anti- Semitism, but also against any form of xenophobic oppression. Whether it be a Jew in a Christian setting, or a black man in a white neighborhood, anti-Semitism is the prototype of the hatred between the races, the religions, and the nations—the hatred of the difference. Anti-Semitism profiles itself as a crime against humanity. But it does so in disguise. In the name of the state, of God, or of Allah, we despise, we pursue, and we crucify. Anti-Semitism is essentially religious. We hate and kill with a clear conscience, certain of the approval and blessing of God. The story of Daniel uncovers the hidden mechanism of anti-Semitism. The religion of the satraps is a man-made production. Instead of being inspired from above, it emerges from an administrative committee: “The royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed that the king issue an edict” (verse 7). Adoration is programmed; disobedience automatically results in death in the lion’s den. Their decision made, they now rush to the king “as a group” (verses 6, 11, 15). God being absent, everything depends on their own political performance, hence the surge of nervous activity. Workaholicism is a symptom of a godless age. This obsession with success that we sometimes encounter in our religious communities is not necessarily a sign of holiness, but betrays rather a disconnection with the God above.
The human has replaced God, and this substitution is described in legal terms: the law of God, dat (verse 5), has been discarded for human law, dat (verse 8; Aramaic, verse 9). The same word qayam is used in the text to characterize both the human decree (verses 7, 15; Aramaic, verses 8, 16) and the God of heaven (verse 26; Aramaic, 27). This hypocrisy, this void of God which pretends to be God, is the root of all fanaticism and intolerance. And indeed, the royal decree is to be violently enforced: “Anyone who prays to any god or man during the next thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into the lions’ den” (verse 7).
The violence hurled against the “unbeliever” is but the symptom of religious failure on the part of the persecutor. From the Crusades to the Inquisition, from Hitler to Stalin, to the Ayatollahs, always there is the same pattern of intolerance. When a religion poses as an Absolute, convinced that it is the Truth, it cannot stand the sight of other religions. For they may remind it too much of its own presumptions and lies.
In the midst of all this hassle, the true believer does not worry. The contrast, as depicted in chapter 6, between Daniel and the crowd around him is striking. Surrounded by the noisy and febrile satraps, Daniel remains silent. He turns neither to his colleagues nor to the king. Instead, he withdraws to his room, and turns his face to the west. To political strategy, Daniel opposes prayer.
This is the fifth prayer in the book of Daniel. The context is one of despair. Daniel knows he is powerless. He is acquainted with Median and Persian law: once a decree is issued, it is irrevocable (verse 8). An occurrence of this same law is found in the book of Esther (8:8); and in extrabiblical literature we are told of the case of a man that was sentenced to death for a crime that he did not commit. When his innocence was finally proven, it was too late to revoke the edict and the man was executed.2 There is no way out for Daniel; even the king can do nothing. The prayer takes on new significance in such a context. It is not uttered as a religious duty, nor by routine or superstition. It is not concerned with the social qualities of composure and beauty. Such a prayer is rare, for it surges out of imminent death; only the essential is said.
But this prayer is not an exception. It is not the circumstances that have forced Daniel into this state of prayer. The text mentions that Daniel “prayed, . . . just as he had done before” (verse 10). To the automatism of the satraps, Daniel opposes the prayer of a free man. He prays no matter the circumstances, in good times and in bad times Prayer is not for him a last resort, in sickness or in death. Prayer is an integral part of his life. The prayer of Daniel is that of a hero and of a saint.
It takes heroic courage to ignore the edict and to pray anyway. In performing the simple act of kneeling, Daniel is risking his life. He could have hidden away to pray. Scripture even encourages prayer in seclusion (Matthew 6:6). When prayer becomes trendy, it is required to pray in secret. But when prayer is outlawed, to pray in hiding is to imply that the king is greater than God. Daniel could have, for a while at least, adapted to the circumstances. After all, God forgives; He knows the heart of a person. But Daniel prefers to die rather than to put a momentary hold on his religious life. Under these overcast skies, he does not run for shelter, but stands tall as a free man. Daniel chooses to remain faithful to God in his heart and in his actions. His courage is remarkable because it is lucid. Daniel is an intelligent and experienced man; he knows what he is up against. This is not the action of naive virtue, incapable of anticipating the gravity of the consequences.
But more than the prayer of a hero, Daniel’s prayer is that of a saint. It is easier to say a prayer in the roar of trouble than in the purring of daily action. To the courage of Daniel is added the virtue of patience. The prayer of the martyr is easier than that of the housewife. “It is easier to be a hero than a saint” would be the comment of Doctor Rieux in Albert Camus’ novel La Peste. A heroic gesture is shortlived and public. This is what makes it heroic. A saintly action, on the other hand, remains in obscurity and lasts a lifetime. Nobody applauds, nobody knows or cares. It is easier to pray during the ordeal than in the course of ordinary life.
If Daniel does not succumb to this ordeal, it is because of the frame he gave to his prayer. In his house, he set apart an “upstairs room” for his daily prayer. This was the luxury of only a few very high-ranking officials (2 Kings 1:2; 4:10-11). Prayer becomes then associated with a place, making it easier to leave other concerns on the threshold. Prayer is also maintained through discipline: Daniel prays “three times a day” (verses 10, 13). Prayer should not be reduced to those “stirrings of the soul” which come and go, depending on our mood, or on the quality of the moonlight. The example of Daniel teaches us that prayer should be integrated in the rhythm of life. Prayer is life. It must be nourished, it must be tended to, it must be allowed to breathe, to exhale. For prayer is also a sigh, a longing of the soul. Prayer is a basic need; it must be performed even when the feeling is not there. Prayer should be included in our agendas, as much a part of life as meals, work, and appointments. Only then will we be strong enough to face the ordeal when it comes.
Interestingly, Daniel’s time of prayer coincides with the time of the sacrifices in the temple of Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 23:30-31). In remembrance of these rituals, Daniel positions himself facing the west. In the prayer inaugurating the temple, king Solomon already sensed this extrapolation from ritual to the prayer of the exiled.
“And if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive . . . if they . . . pray to you toward the . . . city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer” (1 Kings 8:47-49).
Prayer is then intimately linked to the sacrifices. Like the sacrifice, prayer is supposed to bring us nearer to God. The Hebrew verb “to sacrifice” comes from the root qrb which means “near” and implies God’s move closer to the person. Prayer is not the ascension of man to God, but the descent of God to man. Here lies the difference between the religion of Daniel and the religion of the Babylonians, who depend on their own efforts.
The orientation of the prayer toward the temple is also a gesture of hope: the hope of the exiled for return, for the restoration of the temple. Prayer also holds the dimension of the future. Daniel does not turn toward Jerusalem like a sorcerer who would turn to the sky for rain. His gesture has no magical purpose. He knows the answer lies elsewhere, “in heaven” as Solomon said. Daniel prays towards Jerusalem because he hopes in the future. His prayer is situated in time, not in space. For the Hebrew, the sacred lies in time, not in space. It is not the monument that matters, but the time; as was observed by Abraham Heschel: “‘The day of the Lord’ is more important to the prophets than ‘the house of the Lord.’”3
This gesture of Daniel was in any case retained by the three monotheistic religions:Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three religions would orient their prayers and build their temples in the direction of Jerusalem.
The prayer of Daniel is woven around the two elements of faith and hope. They are implied by two verbs. Daniel “gives thanks” (verse 10), and Daniel “asks” (verse 11). The first verb mode comes from the word yad (open hand) and expresses the gratitude of one who has received. The second word mithannan comes from the word hnn (grace) and is the supplication of him who has not received.
Prayer is then enrooted in deprivation and blossoms in the grace of a God who gives. To pray is to recognize one’s own void, and to recognize that all that is comes from above. Prayer is an act of humility. Daniel kneels down to pray, the gesture of the slave or of the vanquished soldier, whose destiny is now in the hands of his master.
*1This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, A Jewish Prince in Exile: The Wisdom and the Visions of the Prophet Daniel, to be published by Review & Herald Publishing Association.
2Diodorus of Sicily 17.30.
3Abraham J. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: 1951), 79.
Image: Daniel in the Lions Den by Briton Riviere (1840-1920). Public Domain