One of my favorite Steve Martin scenes takes place in the bread aisle of the supermarket where he has been sent on an errand to buy hot dog buns. Annoyed by the fact that hot dogs come in packs of eight and buns come by the dozen, he flips out and rips open the bun bags to remove the “superfluous buns” before taking up the matter with the poor stockboy and then the manager who dared to challenge him. On account of his overreaction, he lands in jail for the night.
If you know the context of the movie (Father of the Bride) when you see this scene, you know that Martin’s character is stressed out over the mounting expenses of his daughter’s wedding and the episode in the hot dog aisle is simply the last straw. If you don’t know the backstory when you see the scene, you think he’s just a maniacal weirdo in a skin-tight tuxedo who severely overreacts to an everyday situation.
In Daniel 2, we don’t get the backstory for Nebuchadnezzar’s exchange with his wise men. People like to speculate about it, and that’s all well and good, but at the end of the day, the text simply doesn’t tell us everything we want to know.* It’s not important to what the text wants to show. And I submit that part of what Daniel 2:1–12 wants to show is a maniacal king who severely overreacts to a common situation.
When the king’s wise men appear, he makes a standard-sounding request. Look at the response of his experts and you know they thought this was just another day at the office. “O king, tell us the dream. We’ll tell you what it means.” For such situations they had gone through rigorous years of training. They were professionals and one of their jobs was interpreting dreams. No doubt they had stood before Nebuchadnezzar before and done just that.
Look at the king’s response. He flips out and threatens to rip them to pieces if they don’t tell him the dream and its interpretation. The wise men don’t realize yet what’s hit them, and if any of them did actually hear the king correctly, they are sure he couldn’t really mean what he said. They repeat nearly verbatim what they said to their boss the first time. This time the king responds with accusations about their integrity, and this time the wise men finally hear him. I paraphrase their response: “Are you nuts? No one (in his right mind) has ever asked wise men to do this because it’s not something we—or any other human being—can do. You’ve gotta be a god to do that.”
The narrator paints an out-of-his-head King Nebuchadnezzar while showing us the inadequacies of the king’s best. The king receives a message from the divine realm and since he apparently doesn’t trust his wise men to do their jobs and decipher it for him, he sets in motion a plan to kill them all. The logic is befuddling. If he kills all the wise men in the kingdom, how will he ever know the meaning of his dream? How will he know in the future what the gods want to tell him? Perhaps this too is part of the narrator’s portrait of Nebuchadnezzar – he acts (and overreacts) before he really thinks things through.
*The text hints that in addition to wanting to know the meaning of his dream, the king really wanted to test his wise men. He accuses them of intending to come up with “lying and corrupt words,” so perhaps he’s had reason to suspect them of this in the past but couldn’t quite prove it. His test will let him prove it. Given the nature of his (unreasonable) demand, it seems quite possible that he wanted to do away with the whole lot of them. He knows they will fail this test and when indeed they do, he orders them killed.