Sometimes the Bible is outright confusing to us (for example, the bit about the sons of God marrying the daughters of men in Gen 6 – that’s a head-scratcher). Other times, it is refreshingly straightforward and clear (for example, the bit about God being the creator). Then sometimes we think it’s clear and obvious, but a careful reading of context makes things fuzzy.
This is the situation with the decree of Darius in Daniel 6.
We’ve already talked about the problem of Darius the Mede himself – namely, who on the ancient Near Eastern earth was he – but that’s just one of two significant problems associated with the elusive king. The second is what he decreed that led to Daniel’s overnight with a pride of hungry lions.
If you’re familiar with the story, you’re probably thinking, “Um, what’s the problem here? The text is pretty clear: don’t pray to anyone but me for 30 days. It’s right there (6:7).” You’re right. It says that.
The problem is what happens when you read the rest of the story and learn that Darius was dismayed (and thus, presumably, surprised) when he heard that his well-loved servant Daniel had turned up guilty. How did he not know this would happen? Then if you keep reading, you hear Daniel say he was innocent of any wrongdoing before the king (6:22). How is that possible if he had defied the king’s order? (Compare Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who boldly said they’d defy the king’s order to worship only their God; 3:16-18).
Apparently whatever the king decreed, neither he nor Daniel thought he’d be guilty for praying to his God. So, what, exactly, was the decree?
I’m not one to disagree with the Bible, so the decree was that no one could pray to any god or human other than the king for thirty days. The question is why neither Darius nor Daniel thought this decree should apply to him. The answer is unclear, but one good proposal is that in Darius’s mind, the decree was for Persians, whose religion was Zoroastrianism and who worshipped Ahura Mazda (go check Wikipedia on these).
At the time of the decree, it may be that the Persians had corrupted their Zoroastrian religious practice by mixing practices of other religions into it (the fancy word for this is “syncretism”), and Darius hoped that by funneling all worship through him for a short period of time, they could get Zoroastrianism back on track. Since Daniel was a foreigner, he had his own God anyway and wasn’t part of this Persian problem.
So then, why was Daniel found guilty? Well, Darius’s officials could easily have made the case that such a high-ranking government official as Daniel should carry out the letter of the law. When push came to shove, Darius lost…and so did Daniel.
Oh wait – the guys actually eaten by the lions lost.
P.S. I don’t get credit for this theory. It’s spelled out in much greater detail by John Walton in “The Decree of Darius the Mede in Daniel 6” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 31.3 [September 1988]: 279-86).