Moving to a New Chapter…or not

Look! We’re starting a new chapter! That is, we’re starting a new chapter unless you happen to be reading the Hebrew Bible…then we’re still in chapter 3, verses 31–33. In any English Bible, the same verses are in chapter 4, verses 1–3. In these three verses Nebuchadnezzar makes a proclamation to “all peoples, nations, and languages” to tell them “the signs and the wonders that the Most High God has done” for him.

Chapter divisions aren’t part of the inspired text, though they are immensely helpful for those of us who don’t have the whole Bible memorized. We owe a huge debt to Archbishop Stephen Langton who, in the thirteenth century, took upon himself the task of chapter-ifying the Bible. He didn’t do this randomly – ancient manuscripts show section breaks, of sorts, but they aren’t as neat and tidy as chapter numbers.

So, what’s the debate over these three verses? Are they the conclusion to the Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego story, or are they the introduction to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 4? If you stick with the Hebrew Bible chapters, you like the way it repeats “all peoples, nations, and languages” from the beginning of chapter 3, and you think Nebuchadnezzar is responding to the fiery furnace.

Personally, however, I think the English division gets things right. First, Nebuchadnezzar already made a proclamation in the aftermath of the fiery furnace. This would be a second proclamation, with a really different tone than the first. (The Nebuchadnezzar in these three verses doesn’t sound like the king who threatens to dismember people in 3:29.) Second, in chapter 4 Nebuchadnezzar recounts extraordinary circumstances God used to humble him – a story that better fits his proclamation about “the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me.” Finally, chapter 4 ends with similar language to these three debated verses and so forms an “inclusio” – a literary envelope around the story inside.

So, look! We’re starting a new chapter!

2 responses to “Moving to a New Chapter…or not”

  1. jeffrey askanazi Avatar
    jeffrey askanazi

    Any thoughts why Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego always appear as a threesome?

    1. Well, a couple musings – for what they’re worth. 🙂 First, I think it’s part of the chapter repetitious scheme. Their three names, always the same, contribute to the whole rhythm (and delight and mockery) of the story. Second, it’s possible the narrator means to use them corporately to represent the situation of the Jews in exile – perhaps reflecting the people’s uncertainty about whether God *could* deliver them.

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