A Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures (give or take…)

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:

First exchange

  • 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.)

Second exchange  

  • 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.)

Third exchange

  • 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.

7 responses to “A Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures (give or take…)”

  1. Taking a wild guess here, but I surmise that his dream did not include that “one day… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers“? Or was that some other King and some other dream?
    I’m thinking that there are at least two things happening here:
    1) “whether he had a reason to suspect a conspiracy”
    I’d say he had reason to suspect something was going on. if, as the wise men said, the gods could tell him what his dream was, then those same gods should be able to tell them as well- unless they’ve been equivocating about ability to communicate with these gods.
    2) “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand….” sounds like a bit of foreshadowing here (unless the narrator intends for this to be a very short story.

    1. Your brain works in strange and random ways, I have to say. 😉 About the workings of the narrative: (1) There’s a good possibility that Nebuchadnezzar had reason to suspect conspiracy, though the reality of the situation isn’t the focus of the narrative. Ultimately, his reactions to his wise men serves to raise the tension and the stakes – and pave the way for Daniel & his God. (2) “There’s not a man on earth…” serves a similar purpose – raising tension and stakes, and yes, I agree, foreshadowing. Later in the chapter Daniel himself will agree with their assessment – and refuse any credit that *he* knew and interpreted the dream.

      1. “Your brain works in strange and random ways, I have to say.”
        Half the time, I’m surprised it works at all. 😛

        “There’s a good possibility that Nebuchadnezzar had reason to suspect conspiracy, though the reality of the situation isn’t the focus of the narrative.”
        I was thinking more along the lines that logically, their statements don’t add up, rather than in terms of political intrigue.
        One: the wise men won’t tell the king the content of his dream
        Two: either they don’t know it or they do and are conspiring by withholding the content from him (not necessarily against him to depose him or harm the kingdom).
        Three: They claim the “gods” can tell the king his dream.
        Four: They claim (or at least imply) that they can communicate or divine the thoughts of these same “gods”.
        Five: If statements three and four are true and not just false assertions of the wise men, then there is no reason why the “gods” can’t impart the content of the dream to the wise men as well.
        Six, therefore, if they don’t know the content of the dream, they have been deceiving the king about their abilities.
        Thus, going back to point two, either they don’t know the content of the dream (and therefore have been deceiving the king about their abilities) or they do know the content of the dream (and therefore have formed a conspiracy to withhold the information from the king)..

      2. Okay, I’m working on less than half a brain here (teaching a 2-week modular class), so we’ll see if I make any sense in response.
        1. I don’t think the narrative supports that the wise men *won’t* tell the king his dream. They *can’t* tell him because it exceeds their professional abilities. They don’t know the dream.
        2. If there’s a conspiracy in view, I think it’s either in the past – and why the king is presently concerned – or the king distrusts his wise men generally and suspects they might try to pull one over on him here.
        3-4. Their ability to divine the thoughts of the gods was a science – not knowledge they channeled. There were reference books galore to help them sort out the meanings of dreams and other earthly events. Though, some commentators will say this event intends to highlight the fraudulent nature of the wise men’s “skill.”
        5. Some commentators would agree with you (see above note). But Nebuchadnezzar is demanding that his wise men do something wise men were not traditionally expected to do – it exceeded their studied expertise. Obviously, given what we know about Daniel & his God, the wise men are frauds – but I’m not sure in Mesopotamian terms that would have been true. What I mean is, kings didn’t ask or expect their wise men to do such a thing. It wasn’t in their job descriptions. 🙂
        6. See above. I don’t think they’ve been deceiving the king about their abilities. They are the best Babylon has to offer – or they wouldn’t be in the palace. If it *can* be done, they can do it.

  2. jeffrey askanazi Avatar
    jeffrey askanazi

    Descriptions of people in the Bible are notable for what one can read between the lines, Jacob was a “smooth skinned man”, Esau was hairy–do a forearm comparison in class and you might conclude Jacob was a black man

    1. Based on other biblical texts describing “smooth-skinned” people, you might conclude this too. Isaiah 18 refers to the Cushites (Ethiopians) as “tall and smooth,” though, admittedly, commentators (and translators) are all over the board on this chapter.

  3. […] 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 […]

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