The mystery revealed/7 - The name is saved not by venerating the past but by guarding the future
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 15/05/2022
"If I were an angel
I would go around the world.
I would go to Afghanistan
and further down to South Africa
and talk to America
And if they don't bring me down
I would also speak with the Russians."
Lucio Dalla, If I were and angel (Se io fossi un angelo)
Nebuchadnezzar's dream with the tree and Daniel's interpretation of it reveal the nature of power and the secret of its conversion and salvation.
One could traverse the entire Bible chasing its trees and plants. It would be a wonderful journey. Although, strangely enough, we do not find any plants on Noah's Ark, only animals, as if trees did not share the same life and death as all other living beings, trees and plants are essential protagonists of the biblical stories – oaks, vineyards, figs, cedars, sycamores, brooms, almond trees, brambles… Ancient civilizations were very fascinated by the different intelligence of plants and the vegetable world. They intercepted their different languages and were immersed in the same rhythm of life. They did not move too fast, and therefore they could align their soul with that of other living beings. They sensed that the spirit of life that flowed within the trees was the same spirit that inhabited them and filled the whole world. They knew that the trees and the woods had a lot of wisdom to teach. They were meek and entirely vulnerable and they did not flee in the face of danger, but they were also strong when the storm, earthquake or flood came. They felt that everything was in a mysterious relationship of love with everything else.
Of all the plants, large trees were the most fascinating. They saw them growing downwards and upwards, sinking into the subsoil thirsty for darkness and climbing towards the sky greedy for light. They died every autumn and rose again every spring and they were the first signs and "sacraments" of the generous gratuitousness of nature and of the life that loves us beyond any of our merits - trees are not meritocratic. The stars were too far away and difficult to decipher, but when standing in the shade of a large tree, looking up at its immensity, already immense when they while still children, everyone got lost in it feeling the thrill of eternity. And so, they learned something about infinity and about the gods. However, the waking hours were not enough for ancient man to understand all the signs and language of life, they needed their sleep and dreams as well. Because when they closed their eyes, the limits and bonds of their difficult and often sad existences fell away and everything became possible. Thus, they talked with angels and demons, with their ancestors and sometimes with God. With the disenchantment of the modern world, we have forgotten how to close our eyes, but some traces remain in the dreams of the poor and in the wonderful dreams of grandmothers. In Naples, the word for sleeping and dreaming is the same.
The fourth chapter in the Book of Daniel begins with another dream of Nebuchadnezzar, which frightens him again. He orders all the wise men, astrologers and magicians of Babylon to explain the dream to him, but they are unable to do so. Finally Daniel arrives, and the king tells him his dream: (Daniel 4,7-10). A concentration of symbols and words. On that peak that touches the sky the image of Babel relives, providing the biblical reader with an environment of power and pride (hubris). That tree that nourishes "every living thing" recalls the tree of life, with which the Bible opens (Genesis) and ends (Revelation). It is also an image of the ancient tradition of the cosmic tree, which we find in legends and myths of many peoples (for ex. Yggdrasill). The dream continues and reaches its dark side: «Cut down the tree and trim off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from under it and the birds from its branches. But let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field» (The Book of Daniel 4,14-15).
The great Babylonian culture and those that followed it in Israel (the Persian and Greek cultures) knew that the heart of a tree is found in its roots. Observing the life of trees, they understood that the centre of a plant’s life was not to be found high up on top or in the large and strong trunk, but humbly in the humus, in the dark, in the realm of the invisible. Thus, a shoot can also grow from a stump (like Jesse's sprout). Even great felled trees are no stranger to legends (Kalevala, for example). The dark side of the dream does not end with the felling of the tree, however. The vigilante (a figure similar to an angel, much loved by the apocrypha of the Old Testament) continues to speak: «Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him. The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict» (Daniel 4,16-17).
Having told his dream, the king awaits the interpretation from Daniel, which arrives, after some hesitation: «The tree that you saw, which grew and became strong, whose height reached to the heavens and which could be seen by all the earth… it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong» (Daniel 4,20-22). It is you, O king: a word that closely resembles the amazing, splendid one pronounced by the prophet Nathan after telling King David the parable of the abducted lamb: «You are the man!» (2 Samuel 12,7). The prophets are not afraid to call the powerful by name and to use the second person singular even, especially, when they have to communicate a difficult message - it is in their honest interpretations of the uncomfortable dreams of leaders that true prophets prove themselves to be radically different from false ones.
The great tree, extended over the whole earth, a good and fruitful tree, is therefore the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar. At this point, we have the elements to follow Daniel's exegesis of the rest of the dream: «They shall drive you from men, your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field, and they shall make you eat grass like oxen. They shall wet you with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over you» (Daniel 4,25). The felled tree is the king, the kingdom of which he will be deprived. He will be chased out of the city and will live like a beast among beasts. Seven times (years?) will have to pass, and the number seven is the number chosen to express an indefinite time span but still a long time. And so Daniel concludes his explanation: «And inasmuch as they gave the command to leave the stump and roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be assured to you, after you come to know that Heaven rules» (Daniel 4,26). That death will not last forever. The root remained alive, the angel only knocked down the trunk.
Hence, the king's dream and Daniel's interpretation of it serve as a lesson on power. The Bible has a consistent idea of the power of kings, sometimes represented with the image of a great tree (for example, in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 31). It knows that empires, by nature, are subject to corruption, because becoming too large a tree is intrinsic to the very dynamics of power, both back then as well as today. The trees of power do not know how to stay small. And when the power becomes absolute and the kingdom becomes an empire, the kings and those in power are transformed into beasts. The Bible, however, tells us that in heaven, there is something, Someone much higher than the greatest power, who will judge the masters of this world, because there is justice beyond the largest tree on earth. We do not always get to see the downing of the tree of power that oppresses us, but as long as someone who is oppressed opens a Bible and finds this prophecy of Daniel in there, he or she can hope, and not in vain, that the end of the empire will indeed come and begin a new liberation. The Bible is also the gift of a hope of last resort, when "many times" pass and the mighty continue to grow, and remain beasts.
It should also be noted that the description that the Book of Daniel gives us of the Babylonian empire is not that of a cruel and unjust power. That tree bears nourishing fruit and the tone of the dialogue between the prophet and the king is friendly and kind on both sides - it always makes quite an impression, especially these days, to see Daniel conversing with an oppressive king, and while speaking to him, he manages to humanize him and tame his nightmares. Hence, the message of the dream about the tree is not only addressed to the excessive, wrong and cruel kinds of power. It is an ethical discourse on every form power, even on those that, especially at the beginning, do not appear particularly iniquitous or ruthless to us, including spiritual and religious powers. Even good and fruitful trees will one day become too tall and wide and must be cut down, because if they are not cut down the root will also eventually fail. The felling of the tree can and often does become the salvation of the root and of itself: not only does the living root save the severed trunk, but it is the bare stump that guards the root. Only large trees that are felled can experience new life.
There is a moment when an empire - a person, a community, a company… - crosses the critical threshold in terms of its own height and width. This threshold is invisible, in part because the good and many fruits have an opiate effect that prevents us from seeing that the greatness has become excessive, that the blessing is becoming a curse. We grow too much, naturally thinking that we are doing the only good thing, convinced in good faith that great success is the sign of the truth of our history. We forget the little flock, the beatitudes, the mustard seed, and we identify with the big tree, which we believe is larger than the earth. If one day, once you have crossed the threshold (which is always crossed), someone or something arrives that causes the tree to collapse, the felling may contain the only possible salvation. To the tree and its inhabitants, everything speaks only of death, but if the root remains alive that cross can still flourish.
The message from the dream is very clear on how to save the root: the root is not the tree's past, it is its future. When the tree finally falls, you will not be saved by saving the great past but by guarding a small future. It is the prophetic logic of the "remnant": the root is that faithful remnant that will return after the felling. Salvation is a verb declined in the future. The remnant that returns is a child, it is a son, it is the name of the son of Isaiah - Shear-Jashub: «The remnant shall return» (Isaiah 7,3). The root is the tree's tomorrow, not its yesterday.