Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

(Mural of The Three Holy Children, from the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

There was three children from the land of Israel

. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

Took a trip to the land of Babylon
. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Babylon

. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

He took a lot of gold and made an idol

. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

And he told everybody when you hear the music of the trumpet

And he told everybody when you hear the music of the flute
And he told everybody when you hear the music of the horn

You must fall down and worship the idol

. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

But the children of Israel would not bow down

. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

So the king put the children in a fiery furnace

He heaped on coal and red-hot brimestone

Seven times hotter, hotter than it oughta be

. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

Well they couldn't even burn a hair on the head of Shadrach

Laughing and talking while the fire is jumping around

Old Nebuchadnezzar called "Hey there!" when he saw the power of the Lord

And they had a big time in the house of Babylon
. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

--Louis Armstrong, "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego," from "The Strip," (1951) starring Mickey Rooney. (Embedding of the video disabled by request, but you can see it on YouTube here.)

The Daily Office Old Testament readings lately have been out of the book of Daniel. I could have "cut and pasted" the text, but ol' Satchmo's version is the one I always hear in my head when I read that part of the book of Daniel, so I figured I'd let him tell the story.

Ever been in a situation where you got "tossed in the furnace," but not burned?

Whoo, boy, I sure have. I bet you have, too. I would venture to guess there is a near-universal experience in humanity, where we each, in our own way, "held our ground," whether physically, psychologically or morally (maybe even stupidly so, or at risk of physical or psychological peril) but when it was all said and done, we were not harmed. Now, that doesn't mean that in the times leading up to it, we weren't sick with worry, or maybe we did that ground-holding for all the wrong reasons, or we didn't behave badly in places, but somehow, all the same, we escaped being "burned."

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is one of those stories that many of us learned in Sunday School because it was simply an adventurous story that gets little kids' attention. But like the other things in the Bible that are prone to becoming "kitsch," like Psalm 23 and the Lord's Prayer, most of us never really STUDY the story, we just, somewhere in adulthood, dismiss the story as too fantastic and most likely untrue, and more or less shove it off in the corner.

Well, I decided to sit with it a while in a more studious fashion.

For starters, from the get-go, it was intended to be an "intentionally fantastic" story, in the vein the ancient Hebrew rabbinical teaching takes place in the yeshiva--keep pushing the story to more outlandish and ridiculous levels to bring home a major underlying teaching point. It's a device that Jesus himself used in the parables.

First, you have to know what all was going on in the Greco-Roman world at the time part of the book of Daniel was probably written. Antiochus IV (in a rein from roughly 175-160 BCE) had erected a big ol' statue of Zeus in Jerusalem, and was expecting it to be worshiped and paid tribute. As you might imagine, the Jewish inhabitants there had a problem with that. Some of the exaggerations in the story (the size of the statue of Nebuchadnezzar, the use of repeated listings of items and phrases in the story, etc.) probably have elements of satire for people of that time, that are lost on us.

Rabbinical thinkers of the time were drawing attention to the contradictions between their covenant with God in light of their own existential misfortunes of being "occupied" by outsiders. We see other evidence of this in apocryphal literature, via what we know in the Episcopal church and the Roman Catholic church as "The Song of the Three Young Men," (sometimes called "The Song of the Three Holy Children.") Those of you familiar with the Book of Common Prayer will recognize parts of The Song of the Three Young Men in our Canticle 12 ("A Song of Creation") and Canticle 13 ("A Song of Praise.")

But, ultimately, this is not so much a story of "recounting a miracle" (there's really no historical basis to take this as an "authentic historical story") as it is one of "deliverance from tribulation."

The basic elements of the story include the following:

1. A powerful ruler with a big self-made monument;
2. Pompousness and sycophantic fawning on the part of those worshiping it;
3. A threat of destruction to those who don't;
4. A minority group of oppressed people, who choose not to go along with that, who are subsequently challenged and interrogated and threatened;
5. Said minority group does not seem to expect to be delivered in a game of "My God's better'n your god." They more or less say, "If our God chooses to deliver us, we think he's powerful enough to do that. But we're not exactly expecting that, and if it doesn't happen, doesn't happen. We're still not doing what you say."
6. As expected, in the furnace they go, but emerge unscathed. A "fourth" figure is seen in the furnace--the sum of what is happening appears to be "more than the parts." (We are not told who the fourth figure is; we only have the speculation of the high counselors that this figure "has the appearance of a god.")
7. The powerful ruler says, "Ok, I was really really stupid. I get it now. You are the minority here, but you're right."

When we start to look as this story as a formula for change, rather than as a free-standing account, there are a million places in the world it can hook to terrorism, the bullying of our children, GLBT rights, empowerment of women and minorities, even the now-controversial topic of "American exceptionalism." On a personal level, perhaps it speaks to our individual addictions, our egos, our domestic relationships, or the various communities in which we interact.

As with all good stories, it raises more questions than provides answers.

What are the silly oversized monuments we erect to ourselves?

Who are the people we have expected to fawn and worship them?

What did we do when someone said, "No, I won't do that?"

When we were "thrown in the furnace," did we have an expectation of deliverance, that isn't always a reasonable expectation?

When did a convicted minority change our minds?

But most importantly, in those times we were delivered from the "furnace" without a blister on us, or even the smell of smoke, did we truly show gratitude for it?

I'll leave the answers to those questions up to you, dear readers. As for me, I think I'll show my gratitude by singing along with Louie!



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I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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