The mystery revealed/6 - Truth without love kills. Faithful companionship is the saving dew.
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 08/05/2022
«If your God does not want idolatry why does he not eliminate it"? The sages replied: "If idolatry concerned only what the world does not need, He would certainly eliminate it. But men also consider the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets to be divinities. Must He destroy the whole world because there are madmen?»
Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah
The fiery furnace in which Nebuchadnezzar throws Daniel's companions and their salvation offers us a great teaching on the nature of power and martyrdom.
For those in power it is not enough statues erected in their honour. They want them to be adored as well, to be the object of pilgrimages and liturgy. A statue without worship would be insufficient, because a statue will only become divine if worshiped by the faithful. Hence, subjects are needed, subjects precisely because they worship the statue of the king. This is the essence of power, which can renounce everything except adoration. This is why every power tends to be idolatrous, and why every statue, of gods or sovereigns, is an idol in the Bible. We have stopped believing in gods but not worshiping statues. Profits are not enough for the large companies of today: they want the adoration of the statue, devotion to the brand, genuflection in front of their goods, consumer loyalty. Yet as the Bible had already told us and we can clearly see today: removing God from the horizon of history does not mean eliminating the image of God from the world, it only means multiplying the number of statues, idols and fetish worshipers. Because if capitalism were only a matter of money it would not have occupied the temple of our souls for such a long time.
Daniel's sensational success as a dream interpreter won him fame and honour at the court of King Nebuchadnezzar: «Moreover, at Daniel’s request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon, while Daniel himself remained at the royal court» (The Book of Daniel 2,49). This separation between Daniel and his three friends introduces the famous account of the miracle of the furnace, one of the most beloved biblical narratives.
We still find ourselves in an environment dominated by a statue. Not the one in Nebuchadnezzar's terrible dream, but the one built by him: «King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon» (Daniel 3,1). A colossal statue, about 35 meters tall. Emperors have always loved to be represented with gigantic statues, and not only in ancient times. In this case we do not know if the statue represented the king or the god at the head of the Babylonian pantheon: Marduk. However, what is clear is that we are in the presence of an idolatrous phenomenon: "The prefects, the governors ... and all the high authorities of the provinces came to the inauguration of the statue. They arranged themselves in front of the statue erected by the king. An auctioneer shouted aloud: «You must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace» (Daniel 3,5-6).
A crisis now looms following Daniel's success: «At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “Your Majesty… there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon - Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego - who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up”» (Daniel 3,8-12). The Chaldeans, perhaps a group of scribes, are not really slandering the three friends. As we will soon see, they are telling the truth. It does not take a lie to hurt someone. An act of spite is often created with some real news, used as lethal weapons. There is wickedness generated by lies, but there is also wickedness built with truth, which is distorted and becomes malignant when it loses its touch with benevolence. Many complaints reveal true things - Jews have always known this - but born out of an intention marred with death they are lethal. Truth without love is the other name of evil.
Perhaps those Chaldeans wanted to eliminate the three Jews to take their place in the government of that province, or perhaps they did not think they would benefit from that denunciation except from the pleasure of hurting someone: it is not easy to say which of the two actions is the worse. When those who hurt us do it in view of their interests, their actions are predictable and we can defend ourselves; when, on the other hand, those who act do so moved by irrational passions it is very difficult to foresee them and it is almost impossible to put an end to the war, because people feed on the conflict itself (nationalism has always been one of these passions). In the eighteenth century, many philosophers and economists (Montesquieu, Smith, Genovesi) thought that market development would put an end to wars because, they believed, that the market needs interests and non-destructive passions - who knows what they would say today, faced with countries that aim to fight wars using trade sanctions?
The development of the story tells us that the spies were right: «Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? (...) You will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand» (Daniel 3,13-17).
Judging from this passage everything seems to be setting the scene for a classic structure of martyrdom, of extreme testimony in the face of a powerful person who forcibly imposes an act of worship that a believer cannot perform - "we do not need to defend ourselves before you". The logic of martyrdom is always the same and it is always beautiful (if well understood). Martyrdom does not need the certainty of the existence of paradise, a martyr's reward is not about reward after death. At the time of the Book of Daniel, it was by no means evident in Israel that there was a life beyond death. There are many examples of witnesses to a truth who die as martyrs without believing in a life beyond this one (even if there is always an afterlife in every beautiful death, even if it is in the memory left to a child).
But there is more. Daniel's friends were men of faith, but to accept martyrdom they did not need the certainty that God would save them from the flames: «But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up» (Daniel 3,18). But even if God does not free us... This verse constitutes an immense spiritual and ethical innovation. The martyr-witness is faced with a non-choice. He is not a tragic hero who has to choose between two alternatives: to die or to betray. The martyr has already ruled out the second possibility (betrayal), because it is simply not a viable alternative: it might be in theory, but not in practice. The Bible gives us a God who is above all the God of life, but it teaches us that saving your own life is not the most important thing in life: saving your own conscience is more important than saving your skin. Our dignity and our value are greater than our own life, to the point of being able to give it freely, in many ways, even in martyrdom, when existence, while ending, blossoms to its full beauty in the greatest act of freedom.
Authentic faith is not abjurable just as we cannot abjure our bowels or our marrow. Biblical faith does not let go, as no true faith would, because, simply put, if I betray my faith I deny the very best part of me, I would die before I die. We find this tremendous, stupendous dimension of faith even in a few decisive moments in life when we realize that there really is no choice, that there is only one path to take. We have met a person with whom we wish to start a new life, we are sick and tired of wife, husband, convent, community. We decide to change our life, and the day we are meant to leave we realize that there is no choice, because the loyalty to a family in crisis, to a dull community is simply the deepest part of us. And we stay, perhaps unhappy, but true. And then we have a better understanding of what martyrdom truly is. A martyr would accept martyrdom even if he were certain that there was neither a heaven nor any intervention from God. This is why, paradoxically, the martyrdom of an atheist reveals the most radical nature of any martyrdom to us.
Salvation arrives in the story of the three companions: «And he commanded the strongest men that were in his army, to bind the feet of Sidrach, Misach, and Abdenago, and to cast them into the furnace of burning fire (...) And they walked in the midst of the flame, praising God and blessing the Lord» (Daniel 3,20-25). The story would seem to lead to the outcome of a parallel story in the Second Book of Maccabees (chapter 7), where an anonymous mother and her seven children all die as martyrs. There is a twist, however: «But the angel of the Lord went down with Azarias and his companions into the furnace: and he drove the flame of the fire out of the furnace, And made the midst of the furnace like the blowing of a wind bringing dew, and the fire touched them not at all, nor troubled them, nor did them any harm» (Daniel 3,48-50). A miraculous salvation: «Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and said to his nobles: (...) Behold I see four men loose, and walking in the midst of the fire, and there is no hurt in them, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God"» (Daniel 3,91-92). The same Bible, but two very different outcomes: the angel did not show up to save that mother and her seven children, something that instead did happen in the case of the three companions. This is the plural salvation of the Bible. The world is filled with dying children and children who are saved every day. And every ending can be good, if lived with fidelity and freedom.
Interpreters and analysts of all times have always been fascinated by the "fourth man" that the king sees coming out of the furnace together with his three companions. Man and also "son of God". Some see Daniel himself in there, others an angel, the messiah, Christian authors a prefiguration of Christ. We do not know. It is a fourth character who could not have been present in this already wonderful story at all. And instead he is. And when we find a word, a character in the Bible, who could very well not have been there, but is, it is always that one gifted piece, and it is completely free. I like to think that when faithful friends join their lives, there is always a "fourth companion" in their walk together towards martyrdom. Sometimes we see him, sometimes we do not. But he is there, among us, to fill that last journey and, sometimes, the return with "dewy wind".