Basketball and Babylon

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.

6 responses to “Basketball and Babylon”

  1. Just wondering here: would that make Satan’s appearance before God in the Book of Job an “anti-court” narrative?

    1. I can’t hear your tone here, so I’m not sure if you’re being clever or serious. 🙂 If serious, I’ve never heard anyone talk about the prologue in Job as a court (or anti-court) story. If clever, sure. 🙂

  2. Probably a bit of both, although upon further review, I suppose I could have worded it a bit better. I meant that the Book of Job seems to present Satan as the very opposite of what the hero or heroine of a court narrative is/does.
    not wise (Satan thinks he knows how Job will respond and seems to baited easily by God)
    not the least bit pious (first, he’s the accuser; second, by agreeing to the bet would seem to question God’s omniscience, as it seems unlikely that God would have made the bet if He knew He would lose)
    Instead of thriving, he’s clearly shown as the loser of the bet.
    And there are a number of commentaries that compares Satan’s appearance before God to that of a royal court audience, such as “The symbolic vision of Micaiah, which naturally recalls the well-known description in Job i. 6-12 of the intercourse of Satan with the Lord Himself, is… obviously drawn from the analogy of a royal court, where, as in the case before Micaiah’s eyes, the king seeks counsel against his enemies” (p. 94: see footnote for 1 Kings 22:19-22) and “Above all, [the] angels [in Job] praise God, like royal court singers, who played a similar role on earth” p. 58 of two books with long titles that I don’t feel like cutting and pasting (much less typing out), especially since the bibliographical information is readily available from the links to Google Books I just supplied.

    1. Okay, now I’m tracking with you. 🙂 There are a couple things going on here – (1) the court in Job is generally understood to be a meeting of the divine council, a pervasive ancient Near Eastern idea that the gods met together to deal with matters at hand. Whatever god was head of the given pantheon was in charge of the council, but the group consulted together and then went about their business. The evidence is pretty solid that Israel believed in their own divine council, of which Yahweh was head and the “gods” were his angelic messengers. (The most current and substantial work on Israel’s divine council that I know about is by Michael S. Heiser, a colleague of mine from studies at UW-Madison who now works for Logos Bible Software. I recommend his work to you for further reading.) (2) the genre of Job 1-3, although narrative, doesn’t really fit the court narrative genre specifically. The main character of the book of Job (besides God, of course) is Job, hands down. He’s the hero. The accuser in chapters 1-2 is just part of the trigger for the events that befall Job; he is never the focus of the story or the reason it was written. So, the interest of the text isn’t his wisdom, piety, or success. The interest of the text simply isn’t him – it’s God and Job. So, although I understand what you’re suggesting and why, I’m reluctant to say that Job 1-2 is a court or anti-court narrative.

  3. Oh, sure… deflate my argument with something so trivial as facts.

    But… then again… maybe that he isn’t the focus of the story is yet another indication that it’s meant as an anti-court narrative. 🙂
    (Sometimes I think so far outside the box I can’t remember where I put the blasted thing. Besides, it’s my pet theory… I can’t just let it *sniff, sniff* dieeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.)

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