The first name and the last

The first name and the last

The mystery revealed/2 - Even those who hammer the nails into us are essential actors in the history of salvation

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 10/04/2022

«Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion's toppled towers.
Oh, my homeland, so lovely and so lost!
Oh memory, so dear and so dead!
Golden harp of the prophets of old,
why do you now hang silent upon the willow?

Temistocle Solera, Va, pensiero (Fly, my thoughts) from Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi

The beginning of the Book of Daniel already introduces, within the context of the Babylonian exile, decisive themes from the entire book, reminding us of the biblical meaning of a name

«In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god» (The Book of Daniel 1,1-2).

The opening words are essential in all great books. In some, they are almost everything. The author of the Book of Daniel places the story during the Babylonian exile, starting from the first wave of deportation of 598-597 BC, when the temple was sacked but not destroyed. That would instead happen ten years later with the second great destruction-deportation. In that first wave, the political, economic and religious elites were exiled, including the prophet Ezekiel. The historical references do not coincide with those narrated by the Second Book of Kings (24) nor with Jeremiah (25, 36, 46), which are the most reliable historical sources, although the data in the Book of Daniel is consistent with the Second Book of Chronicles (36). The author, writing down the narrated facts about four centuries after their event, does not care about the rigor of chronology but the theological context. Daniel is a man of exile, his life and his prophetic action will all take place in Babylon, from beginning to end as decreed by the Edict of Cyrus: «And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus» (The Book of Daniel 1,21).

Thus, the Babylonian exile. The Bible is also a map, with its own geography. Exile is one of its cardinal points, which allows biblical man to identify where up and down are, where his sun rises and where it sets, an essential map for the long journeys of the individual and collective soul. After exile, nothing was ever the same again. The faith of Jacob-Israel came out of that fight in the night both wounded and blessed, with a new name (Genesis 32). YHWH became a different God, no longer a national warrior deity "of armies", rivalling the other gods while dwelling in a stupendous temple and conversing with the offering of sacrifices. Finding themselves without a temple, without a homeland and with a God defeated by the "false and lying gods", the Jews managed to save their identity. They understood that the house of God was the whole world and that it could be worshiped anywhere in «spirit and truth», that mercy was more important than the sacrifices of bulls, and so one day they removed the harps from the willows on which they were hung and resumed their song (Psalm 137). The exile was a creative destruction of enormous proportions: the theological and social certainties of the first centuries of the great kingdom of David were swept away, finding themselves humiliated and poor, however, one day a resurrection began along the rivers of Babylon. A "faithful remnant" returned: after seventy years of exile only a few of those who had left returned home, but that small flock had kept the faith and hence it had saved everything - it is in fact the faith-trust that must be saved while in exile, it is the only thing that counts.

And the race was able to resume and continues to this day. The most beautiful of books began being written along those great rivers: the stories of the patriarchs, many psalms, perhaps some pages from Job and the Canticle, the chapters of the suffering Servant and Book of Ezekiel. A lot of the Bible, some great prophets and perhaps even the Sabbath, were the precious patrimony (gift of the fathers) of the exile. And we cannot exclude that Psalm 22, the score on which the evangelists composed the symphony of the Passion, was born during the exile from the song of a God found while being abandoned. Exile will not end if we do not start singing in a foreign land again one day.

In this incipit, we also find some essential biblical names. The first is Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonians. A name analogous to what Pilate is to the Gospels, where in spite of himself he entered the decisive story and even the Creed. Each story in salvation history contains that one royal name, reminding us that our stories of salvation must not only contain the names of those who loved and saved us. They also, they must also, contain the names that made us suffer, the names of those who hammer the nails into us, because they remind us of the truth of pain and of history. They too are memory; they too are necessary actors in the drama of salvation, even if they do not know or want it.

Giuseppe Verdi wrote Nebuchadnezzar (abbreviated to Nabucco) while his people, in a different exile, struggled to put an end to another occupation. And when Fly, my thoughts was sung at the La Scala opera house, the «homeland, so lovely and so lost» was that of the ancient Jews, but it was also, above all, that of the Milanese and the occupied Italians. Thus, we come to understand Daniel's "librettist": when the Jews sang the name of Nebuchadnezzar during the persecution of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, in reality they were singing about another king, another struggle, another exile, another resistance. This too is the power of words, the weak and extraordinary power of art.

Another name, which could appear to be a secondary and negligible detail to us, is the «land of Shinar». In Genesis, Shinar is the region inhabited by Nimrod, the «mighty warrior on the earth» (Genesis 10,8-10). This is why we are not surprised to read that the place where the survivors of the flood built the Tower of Babel is Shinar: «Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled» (Genesis 11,1-2). Babel, meaning Babylon. The beginning of the Book of Daniel thus suggests that the book that is about to begin is also a theological and social reflection on power, on how to save one's soul when one is oppressed by a great power and someone very powerful, on how to get out and escape their invincible seduction and temptations, while keeping one’s innocence. A power that, in the Bible, is always idolatrous, because it promises another salvation, linked to power and greatness and not to the poor and nomadic voice of a deponent God, who does not exercise power like those in power on this earth because, as the ocean does with the continents, it withdraws to bring our freedom and ourselves out. If we do not come out every time that we read the Bible in depth with a more radical critique of all forms of power and a desire to free the oppressed from the many powerful, the reading has been mere vanitas.

«Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility - young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians… They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service. Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah» (The Book of Daniel 1,3-6). We find ourselves in the world of courts. Four young Jews of royal or noble family, therefore part of those deported aristocratic elites, are introduced into the environment of the courts. They are handsome, healthy, educated, intelligent and wise young people, characteristics that almost always came together in Wisdom tradition. The best of youth among the deportees. The apprenticeship in the culture and language of the Chaldeans lasted three years, a bachelor's degree in science and literature. The Chaldeans at that time were the cultural and scientific elites of the Babylonians, experts especially in technology, divination and astronomy.

And here is another decisive message from this first chapter. The Jews were very impressed, perhaps amazed, by the culture and science of the Babylonians. That superior civilization from many points of view stunned them, seduced them deeply, and more than a few Jews thought about embracing it. The Book of Daniel is a great ethical exercise in the cultural resistance of a small poor people in the face of the cultural and scientific power of a great empire. The first temptation they had to face was not religious, not the one linked to the charm of Marduk and its spectacular processions, no; the people of the word were tempted by words, the people of wisdom were tempted by another, different wisdom. A temptation analogous to that which the writers of the Book of Daniel felt towards the great Hellenistic culture and wisdom. For this reason, reading the Book of Daniel is essential for those who find themselves wanting to preserve a poor inheritance within wealth, a weakness under the weight of power, because they feel that that poverty and that smallness are, simply put, their soul: it is simply them.

One of the greatest blessings of the Babylonian exile (less so than with Greek occupation) was a real squaring of the circle: the people managed to preserve their identity but were also formed and nourished by the great Babylonian culture and science. The biblical myths and many pearls of wisdom scattered throughout the Bible, so well embedded therein that they can no longer be recognized, were born out of this. The great hope contained in the Book of Daniel therefore lies in the possibility of learning even from an enemy power, of growing even within the greatest of misfortunes, of living by feeding on the food of the architects of one's own failure.

The four names of the young people are all theophoric names: "God is my judge" (Daniel), "Yahweh is gracious" (Hananiah), "Who is like God?" (Mishael), "Helped by God" (Azariah). However, «The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego» (The Book of Daniel 1,7). The operation of changing names, between two different, opposite types of names, is one that can often be found in the Bible. The Babylonians loved these exercises: «He made Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, king in his place and changed his name to Zedekiah» (2 Kings 24,17). A similar gesture was also made a few years earlier by the Egyptians with the father of King Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23,34). Those in command tend to be very fond of changing the names of their subjects, be they political or spiritual, because the new name is a sign of something privately owned. The biblical God, on the other hand, does not change our name. He is quite fond of our name, because there is nothing more beautiful than the names of ones’ children. And that is how he calls us: «Samuel», «Hagar», «Mary». And the few times that he does change it (Jacob, Simon), he does it to show us an even freer not-yet of love.

Crossing empires while keeping the name with which we arrived is difficult. There are many powerful people who try to change it, and take away our first free name as children in order to give us the seal of slavery. Blessed are those who keep the name of the first day because on the last day they will hear it pronounced by a good voice.

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