The story of the statue set up by Nebuchadnezzar reminds one of the story of the tower of Babel. The link between the two is already suggested by the common use of the word biqah at the head of both passages (Gen 11:1; cf. Daniel 3:1).
It is the same decor of the plain which serves the two events. The tower like the statue is erected “in the plain,” evoking the infinite aspect of this region which stretches over hundreds of miles— the space needed for the crowd gathered there to worship together.
Both events most likely occur in the same place. It is definitely the same geographical area, Babylon. And if we take the somewhat vague expression of the “plain of Shinar” used in Genesis 11:2 in the broader sense as a “province of Babylon,” it may well be that it applies to the plain of Dura also situated “in the province of Babylon” (Daniel 3:1). It is the same plain. Archeological excavations conducted in the area confirm the account of Daniel, since they led to the discovery of a spot whose Arabic name still resounds of its ancient designation as Tolul Dura (mound of Dura). It is located 3 miles south of ancient Babylon near the river of Dura as it rejoins the Euphrates. The digs even uncovered a platform nineteen and a half feet high with sixteen and a half square yards of surface which could have well served as a support to the statue.
The ceremony to which Nebuchadnezzar calls his guests is, as in the episode of Babel, a religious one. It is a dedication, a hanukkah (verse 2, 3). This word is always used in the Bible in relation to the altar or the temple (Numbers 7:10, 84, 88; 2 Chronicles 7:9; Psalm 30:1; etc.). The intentions of Nebuchadnezzar are therefore clear: he substitutes the cult of his person to divine adoration. It is hence not surprising that this whole scenario leads to rituals of adoration. The same gesture of prostration, sgd, through which the Nebuchadnezzar of chapter 2 expressed his adoration for God, is now required in regard to the statue. Nebuchadnezzar has insofar replaced God. This usurpation of God is perfectly in line with the proud tradition of Babel, as a movement from below which soars up to claim divine glory and prerogatives.
The parallel between the two enterprises is striking. At the time of Babel “the whole earth” clustered “in the plain” to unite in this common sacred work (Genesis 11:1). Nebuchadnezzar gathers “in the plain” not only his officials but “all peoples, all nations, all men of all tongues” (verse 3) with the purpose of uniting them in a common sacred work in his honor. Here we discern a first trait of the religion of Babel: because the end is a human one, it does not tolerate diversity. It is the same passion for unity which we witness among the builders of Babel: “Let us build ourselves a city, with a tower . . . , so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4; italics supplied).
Both the metals and the measurements of the statue evoke this preoccupation with unity. The statue is entirely of gold: in reaction to the statue in the dream which was depicted as composed of several metals each representing another kingdom, Nebuchadnezzar casts his statue in one metal only, representing his own kingdom, the gold. He thereby rejects, not only the idea of succession, but also the idea of difference: all is cast in the same mold.
The statue measures sixty cubits: the use of the number sixty must here be understood in its cultural context. In Babylonian numerical symbolism, sixty represents the notion of unity. In erecting his statue to a height of sixty cubits, Nebuchadnezzar seeks primarily to enforce his will for unity; one kingdom, one religion. Nebuchadnezzar’s obsession for unity can be today better understood in the light of a recent archeological finding: a cuneiform tablet dating from the ninth year of his reign (595-594). The tablet relates of a certain insurrection which had then posed as a threat to the kingdom’s unity/
In the light of these events, we understand that the king would feel compelled to erect his statue as a symbol of unity, as a test to insure his subordinates’ fidelity. Down to our times we know what forms of intolerance such politics have engendered. From Louis XIV to the ayatollahs, not forgetting Hitler and Stalin, it is a historical constant: when unity is the ideal to reach, suspicion falls on the difference which must then be eliminated. Woe to him who cannot squeeze into the mold. Violence becomes the corollary to intolerance. Hence the threat accompanying the call to adoration: “Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace” (verse 6).
The religion described in these lines is not the result of a reflection, of a choice, nor the expression of a faith or of an experience in depth. Here, we worship because we are forced to do so. We kneel, but the heart is elsewhere. It is a religion of bureaucrats, of sheep, a religion of automatons. And indeed, these are the prototypes we encounter in the valley of Dura.
Cited first are the “bureaucrats,” the officials ranking from highest to lowest; they are all present, cited by the lengthy list of Daniel in hierarchical order (verse 3). Their adoration is a formality; they are there because of their position. It is in their best interest to show some zeal, for their religion is their position and their success in the social pyramid.
Following the officials is the crowd. Like sheep with the same milky wool, the same feeble, stereotyped bleat. Pressed together, it is more comfortable; it takes up less room.
These people cannot adore on their own; they need directions, a starting signal, as in a typical totalitarian society. All is in order, in a straight line, as the text narrates: “they stood before it” (verse 3), ready to raise their hands, or fists, like puppets. This is suggested particularly by the repetitious reading of the list of officials when convoked by the king and as they execute his command, likewise as far as the musical instruments are concerned.
He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to assemble to the dedication of the image he had set up (Daniel 3:2).
So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it (Daniel 3:3).
As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up (Daniel 3:5).
Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations and men of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up (Daniel 3:7).
Lengthy paragraphs, but intentionally so, to highlight the automatic character of this adoration through the satirical technique of repetition. The role played here by music is not the least. The orchestra is well furnished and numerous instruments “of all kinds” are contributed. Three wind instruments are balanced by three string instruments, framing the ceremony with the threesome symbol of perfection. Everything is measured, in place. For lack of depth, the form is at least maintained. A shift of focus to external organization is often a compensation for internal sterility. The administrators in office are more preoccupied with structures and policies, as though hinting to the extinction of reflection and faith. The formalism of the religion of Babel prevails over the spiritual truth. Hence the primordial role of music in that context: to produce the illusion of the religious sentiment.
Thinkers of Antiquity were well acquainted with this art as a means to incite the mystical experience. And indeed, music has long been associated with the use of drugs and the practice of mutilation leading to ecstasy, or unio mystica. All is on the level of the emotions and the nervous system. Immediate satisfaction guaranteed! Even today, thanks to the media, we can witness to the effect of music on the masses. Singers and musicians exercise tremendous power over crowds of adoring fans. The lyrics and the coherence of the message are not needed anymore to convince. This phenomenon has even invaded religious communities. In reaction to the cerebral frigidity of traditional services, certain denominations have fallen into the other extreme. There, the message is spoon-fed and washed down by the continuous purring of background music, where the believers transported by the spirit shout and cry out in delirious enthusiasm. The necessity of reflection is outdated; absolute judgments are smiled at. This episode in the book of Daniel is a warning against a strictly “emotional” religion. Emotion can be a part of the religious experience only when conjugated with reflection and thought. The whole being is implied in adoration; to neglect one aspect might lead us into such a crowd that bows down before any old idol. Likewise, in the plain of Dura, the preachers of Babel do not waste time in dry demonstrations or arguments. Music suffices to activate adoration. Religion is lived strictly in the present. This dimension of the present is indicated explicitly several times.
“As soon as you hear . . . , you must fall down and worship” (verse 5). Grasped by the emotion conveyed by the music and carried away by the swaying of the crowd, one falls to his knees without a thought of tomorrow; it is almost a reflex. The blazing furnace stands nearby as an immediate threat. Here again, the dimension of the present is alluded to: “Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown.” Terrified by the proximity of the threat, their thoughts become imbedded in the present and their obedience proceeds from instinct of selfpreservation.
Violent and intolerant, totalitarian and mechanical, the religion of Babel is also essentially a religion focusing on the present. In any case, it works: everyone obeys. Everyone except a few . . .
This article is an excerpt from a forthcoming book entitled A Jewish Prince in Exile: The Wisdom and the Visions of the Prophet Daniel
Image: The Tower of Babel. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Public Domain