“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” is nowhere in the mind of the storyteller of Daniel 3. He fully intends to mock Nebuchadnezzar, and he does so through his use of repetition.
But why is he picking on poor old King Nebuchadnezzar? Is he worth mocking just because he’s a pagan king? This certainly isn’t the way the Bible always treats foreign kings. In fact, in other places (Jer 25:9; 27:6; 43:10), Nebuchadnezzar is called God’s servant without a whiff of sarcasm. Why might the narrator of Daniel 3 want to mock the Babylonian king?
For this, we turn again (and again) to the repetition. The most repeated phrase in the chapter relates to the king and the image he set up, and the two components (the king and his homemade image) appear together in all but one of the repetitions (v.10):
- v.1 “King Nebuchadnezzar made an image…and set it up”
- v.2 “the image that he set up”
- v.3 “the image that Neb the king set up”
- v.5 “fall down and worship the image of gold that Neb the king set up”
- v.7 “fell down and worshiped the image of gold that Neb the king set up”
- v.10 “fall down and worship the image of gold”
- v.12 “worship the image of gold you have set up”
- v.14 “worship the image of gold I have set up”
- v.15 “worship the image I made”
- v.18 “worship the image of gold you have set up”
The narrator is mocking Nebuchadnezzar because of the silly image he has made. Idolatry is a favorite topic of biblical authors for poking fun at others. One of the finest examples of this is in Isaiah 44:9–20. The ultimate absurdity of idolatry is found in vv. 15–17:
“He takes a part of [the cedar tree] and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!’ And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god!’”
The narrator of Daniel 3 wants you to think of this passage in Isaiah and recognize the ludicrous situation Nebuchadnezzar has manufactured. How do I know the narrator wants you to think of this? A wonderful characteristic of biblical literature tells me so: intertextuality. What’s that, you ask?
Read Isaiah 44:17 again: “And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god!’”
You can probably hear Daniel 3 in that verse – making (an image), fall down, worship it. But the clincher is the last phrase, what the idolater says to his “god” – “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
Now read the end of Daniel 3:15, Nebuchadnezzar’s challenge to the stubborn and straight-backed Hebrew exiles: “And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
Intertextuality is when one text draws on another text and invites you to see them as related. (We saw the same think in chapter 1 and the mention of Shinar). When you read the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, you hear over and over (and over) again about this king who made an image and set it up for everyone to worship. When some brave souls refuse to worship it, the silly king mocks their God who, he says, is surely unable to deliver them! The irony, of course, is that the men are delivered, but not by the god of gold – which just might have melted had it been thrown into the fiery furnace. It wouldn’t have even been able to save itself, much less anyone who worshiped it.