Most of us are fairly obsessed with how we look. Think about how much time you spend every day making sure you smell respectably well, your clothes match, your hair is under control, your teeth are food-free, your fly is up, and so on.
Appearance is pretty important to us. However, this is not the case when it comes to the appearance of biblical characters. The biblical writers are, in fact, quite stingy with their descriptions of characters. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the Gospels where you can read every single word and still not be able to describe Jesus’ appearance (aside from saying he was a Jewish man who lived in the first century, which will only help you with skin, eye, and hair color, type of wardrobe, and probably stature). Think about the characters in the Bible whose physical appearance you can actually describe: Esau had lots of red hair; Elisha was bald; Saul was tall; Zaccheus was short. The only reason the narrators tell you these things is because, in the majority of cases, they are critical to the plot at hand.
Biblical writers are not stingy, however, with dialogue. Reporting people’s words is one of their most basic tools for developing plot and character. We get to know people in the Bible by what they say and how their words contribute to the events unfolding.
Such is the case in the first part of Daniel 2 (vv. 2–12), where we have a conversation between King Nebuchadnezzar and his wise men. The conversation, like most in the Bible, is a “duologue,” that is, a dialogue between two characters: the king and “the wise men,” who speak as a group. Here’s how the dualogue goes, once the king has summoned his experts to relieve his angst:
- King: What he wants (“I had a dream, and my spirit is troubled to know the dream” v.3, ESV.)
- Wise men: Request (“O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation” v.4.)
- King: Threat (“The word from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins. But if you show the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. Therefore show me the dream and its interpretation” vv.5–6.)
- Wise men: Repeated request (“Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will show its interpretation” v. 7.)
- King: Accusation (“I know with certainty that you are trying to gain time, because you see that the word from me is firm—if you do not make the dream known to me, there is but one sentence for you. You have agreed to speak lying and corrupt words before me till the times change. Therefore tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can show me its interpretation” vv. 8–9.)
- Wise men: Declaration (“There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh” vv. 10–11.)
Aside from the debates that come out of this section (i.e., whether the king had forgotten his dream, whether he had a reason to suspect a conspiracy, and whether the wise men were professionally incompetent because of their inability to meet his demands), a more productive question is what are these characters like based on what they say here? I’m going to let you ponder their words for a couple days before I tell you what I think. And maybe while you’re pondering that, you could also reflect on what your words say about you.