A religious feeling, strong though misdirected, evidently existed both in king and people, involving considerable expenditure on objects and places of worship. It was not as to the propriety of worship in itself, but of the object towards which it ought to be directed, that the controversy arose.
Two sorts of worship were in vogue: --
(a) Bel-worship. As to the practice of this in Babylon no question appears to be raised; he was the supreme god and guardian of Babylon. The representation of Cyrus as a worshipper of Bel agrees with the account of himself in the Annals of Nabu-nahid, cited by Ball on v.4; and Sayce (Temple Bible, Tobit, p.95) notes that the cuneiform monuments have shewn that Cyrus was politic enough to conform to the religion of his Babylonian subjects.
The unabashed effrontery of the idol-priests (vv.11, 12) is very characteristic. See, however, Blakesley's note on Herodot. VIII.41.
(b) Dragon-worship. This is not otherwise known to have existed in Babylonia, but snake-worship, which may be the same, is asserted by J. T. Marshall (end of art. Bel and the Dragon, Hastings' D. B.). In support of this it is noteworthy that ho drakon is identified with ho ophis in Rev. xii.9, and that nchs and tnyn seem identified in Ex. iv.3 and vii.9. A. Kamphausen, in the Encycl. Bibl., thinks that |Günkel has conclusively shewn that the primeval Babylonian myth of the conquest of the chaos-monster or the great dragon Tiamat by the god Marduk lies at the root.| So J. M. Fuller, in the S. P. C. K. Comm., says that |in Babylonian inscriptions dealing with the fall, a dragon, generally female, appears.| Daniel plans his scheme in accordance with the dragon's known voracity (Jer. li.34). The prosekunesan ton drakonta of Rev. xiii.4 may have been suggested by the dragon-worship here; esebonto is used in v.23, proskuneson (with dat.) in v.24 (both versions).
Daniel set himself, in reply to the king, who suggested to him the propriety of Bel-worship, to detach the Babylonians from these superstitious follies, to interpret God's will in the matter, and to free them from the service of idols. Yet his own name, Belteshazzar,' may have implied Bel's existence; still, even if it was so, we must remember that it was not self-assumed, but given by the chief eunuch. The king's question shews that he misunderstood Daniel's character. It is noticeable, as a link of connection between the two parts of the story, that Daniel attacks the former superstition, Bel, by disproving the belief in the god's powers of eating; and the latter, the Dragon, by destroying the supposed divinity by means of what he ate.
As described in the Greek, Daniel's method of destroying the Dragon appears quite inadequate to effect his purpose. The ingredients named as composing the ball do not seem capable of achieving the result which followed. But in Gaster's Aramaic a different light is thrown upon the matter; for the ball is merely used as a vehicle to conceal sharp teeth embedded in it, so that the Dragon might swallow them unawares, and sustain internally a fatal laceration. If this be accepted as correct, Sir Thomas Browne's discussion, as to how such unlikely ingredients might bring about a death of the kind described, is naturally set aside. S. Wilkin, however, in his edition of Browne's Works, 1835 (Vol. II. p.337), does not treat Sir T. Browne's discussion as a serious one; but in this view all will not concur. Schürer, in Hauck's Dict. (I.639), writes of the Dragon as having been slain |mit unverdaulichen Küchen|; and Toy, in the Jewish Encyclopædia, regards |the iron comb insertion as a natural embellishment.| It is, however, not at all out of keeping with Daniel's clever devices for the detection of error, and looks like a practicable plan. And Josippon, quoted by Heppner, op. cit. p.33, gives a similar account of the Dragon's destruction, vhchrvtsym qrny hvrzl.
The consequence of the prophet's triumph in each case appears to have been that the king was convinced of the vanity of idols much more than his people. And as Daniel's demonstrations were not, so far as we see, made before the general public, this is what might have been expected. A similar conviction on Nebuchadnezzar's part, without any spontaneous assent of his people, may be noticed in Dan. iii.28-30, vi.25-28. A lack of popular adhesion to the king's change of mind would sufficiently account for the early restoration of Bel's temple (see 'Chronology,' p.225).
In v.21 the LXX. states that it was Daniel who shewed the king the privy doors. This, on the whole, has more vraisemblance than the idea of Theodotion, who states that it was the priests who undertook the task. Ball suggests that they did so because they were |in fear of their lives|; but if so, this plan of saving them, by making a clean breast of the matter, was unsuccessful.
Another religious feature shews itself in v.28, viz. the scorn in which the Babylonian zealots held the Jewish religion. It would evidently have been regarded as a degradation for the king to become a Jew, and social would probably here combine with religious grounds in giving force to this feeling. Compare Pilate's contempt of such an idea with regard to himself, as expressed in St. John xviii.35. Grotius proposed a translation which inverted the phrase in such a way as to make it apply to Daniel: |A Jew has become king.| This, however, is not natural in the Greek, has no countenance lent to it by the Aramaic text, and is clearly opposed by the Syriac marginal title as given in Swete's manual LXX, |tit. adpinx. ut vid. peritou basileos legousi os gegonen Ioudaios, Syr^mg.| Cajetanus Bugati also (Daniel, Milan, 1788, p.162) thinks Grotius wrong. For a similarly imagined instance of a king embracing Judaism, cf. II. Macc. ix.17, headed by A. V., |Antiochus promiseth to become a Jew,| on which Rawlinson notes, |it is extremely improbable that Epiphanes ever expressed any such intention,| an opinion in which most will agree.
The withholding of food, in order to sharpen the lions' appetites (v.32), shews a spirit similar to that which directed the sevenfold heating of the furnace in chap. iii. The numbers in vv.2, 10, etc. are quite in keeping with Daniel's use of symbolic numeration for purposes of religious teaching; and the zeal displayed against idolatry is characteristic of the Jewish captivity, as depicted in the canonical book which bears his name. These three points, therefore, so far as they go, tell in favour of the religious unity of the whole.
Daniel appears on the same terms of intimacy with royalty as in the canonical book, and speaks his mind a little more freely and intimately perhaps, as becomes his added years and experience. He still acts as a divine messenger to a heathen king, and he successfully unmasks his fallacy of judging by appearances in the matter of Bel's food. His laughter in vv.7,19, may have been amusement at the king's simplicity or at the priests' cunning, the king's wrath in vv.8, 21, being compatible with either. But this laughter of v.7 only appears in Th's version. As in Susanna, he stands as the willing exposer of fraud, intellectually acute as well as morally upright.
v.29 Th has been objected to by Ball and by Zöckler as an unlikely mode of address by the conquered Babylonians to Cyrus their conqueror. Probably some tumultous rising took place, which the king, a true oriental monarch, pacified at the expense of Daniel. On such outbreaks courtly politeness often vanishes, and the tyrant is subject to tyranny. Such an occurrence agrees with Habakkuk's description of the Chaldees as |bitter and hasty| (i.6), and senseless' and 'absurd' are scarcely the terms to apply to it.
The slaughter of the priests (vv.22, 28) is quite in accordance with the practice as shewn in the canonical chapters ii. and vi. ; also the destruction of false accusers (v.42) with vi.25; so also the keeping of lions by the king; and so, too, the method of double sealing (v.11 O', 14 Th; vi.17). That paidaria should be under the command of Daniel (v.14 Th and Syr.) is what would be likely for one in his position. The term is used of himself in Sus.45 Th as a page of superior rank. The idea of an image being made of more materials than one (v.7) is paralleled in ii.32, 33.
Cyrus' cowardice in giving up Daniel to the threatening mob is very like Pilate's in delivering up Christ (St. Matt. xxvii.26, St. John xix.16). Paradidomi is used in each case (v.29 Th, 30 Th and O'). Similar, too, is Nebuchadnezzar's conduct with Daniel, and that of Herod Antipas with St. John Baptist. Despotic rulers are often frightened by popular clamour. But Cyrus, however weak in yielding, appears at the close of the story in a less odious light than Pilate.
As in Susanna, there is no indication of rabbinism in the legal, religious, or social standpoints of the story.