Most of the “court tales” we hear these days relate to the NBA and the recent lockout. The book of Daniel certainly features big egos, a bit of sport, and plenty of suspense, but its early chapters tell a completely different kind of court tale than the NBA tells.
Daniel 2 moves us into a series of five stories (“court tales”…see below) that relate to Daniel (and his friends) serving in the court of a foreign king. Here’s the overview:
- Chapter 2 – Nebuchadnezzar’s statue dream. King Nebuchadnezzar has a disturbing dream about a statue. Only Daniel is able to interpret it for him.
- Chapter 3 – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego & the fiery furnace. King Nebuchadnezzar builds a humongous statue and commands that everyone bow down to it. Refusal results in a trip to the fiery furnace . . . from which there should be no return.
- Chapter 4 – Nebuchadnezzar’s tree dream.King Nebuchadnezzar has another disturbing dream. This time it’s about a tree. Again, only Daniel can interpret it for him.
- Chapter 5 – Belshazzar & the handwriting on the wall.King Belshazzar (a successor of Nebuchadnezzar) hosts a blasphemous feast and witnesses a disembodied hand eerily writing on the wall. Again, only Daniel can sort out its meaning: the king’s demise and death.
- Chapter 6 – Daniel in the lions’ den.King Darius is hookwinked into making a law that leads to Daniel’s overnight stay in the lions’ den.
Commentaries often refer to these stories as court tales or court stories (or court narratives) because they are pretty consistent with a genre of story from the ancient Near East in which a wise and pious exile survives and, in fact, thrives in the court of a foreign king. Usually these stories show up in one of two flavors: (1) a conflict, in which the hero of the story faces danger on account of his character or faith; (2) a contest, in which the hero of the story faces a problem that may stump others, but s/he solves it.
In addition to the collection of such stories from the wider ancient Near East, the Bible itself includes a collection of narratives besides Daniel’s set that are, more or less, court narratives: Joseph in Pharaoh’s court (Egypt); Esther (and her uncle Mordecai) in Ahasuerus’s court (Persia); Nehemiah in Artaxerxes’s court (Persian). The Roman Catholic Bible includes a few more: Tobit in Shalmaneser’s court (Assyria); Ahiqar in Esarhaddon’s court (Assyria); Judith and Assyrian commander, Holofernes.
One of the purposes of such stories in the ancient Near East was to foster nationalism among exiled or oppressed people groups. The heros and heroines of the stories make their countrymen proud by their superior character and their success in adverse situations. When they shine, their people cheer. When the foreign kings and other bad guys look like buffoons, the people laugh. And they are extra proud to be who they are.
The stories in Daniel 2-6may very well have served this purpose at some point, especially if they ever circulated as individual stories before the entire collection was compiled. However, when they are put together in the book we have today, they do a whole lot more. But that discussion is for another day.