The seven times of the beast

The seven times of the beast

The revealed mystery/8 - It takes a lifetime to be able to look at us as God does.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  22/05/2022

Words of prayer, pronounced by Nabonidus, king of Babylon, the great king: «I, Nabonidus, was afflicted with a malignant ulcer for seven years, and I was estranged from men. A seer forgave my sins. He was a Jew».

The Prayer of Nabonidus, found among the Qumran manuscripts

The fulfillment of the terrible dream that the king of Babylon tells Daniel reveals some passages from the grammar of the "curse of success" which touches empires and communities to us.

Our acts of justice are not the price of our salvation; they are only the expression of a law of reciprocity. The interpretation of the dream of the big tree ends with a piece of advice from Daniel to King Nebuchadnezzar: «Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue» (The Book of Daniel 4,27). The king's conversion and his works of mercy are not the condition to be re-established tomorrow in his kingdom. However, Daniel's advice tells us that it is convenient to convert and do acts of justice and mercy towards the afflicted. It is good to go back to being just and merciful. We might not, and God would love us just the same, if He did not he would be worse than we are, who love our children even when they are bad and ungrateful. However, we can also decide to be merciful, we can wish to be like God. We can do it precisely because we are free, because we are certain that we are loved even if we don't. The heart of the Bible and, perhaps, the mystery of its God lies in this meeting of excesses, in this dialogue of freedom of love. It takes a whole life and infinite meekness to be able to keep our gazes at level of God’s eyes, and within this lofty meeting of pupils to learn that we are more beautiful than our merits and less ugly than our sins.

After the explanation of the dream, the book tells us that the prophecy contained in that vision is fulfilled: «Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you!"» (4,29-31). This thought of Nebuchadnezzar is extremely important, a veritable key to reading this complex and beautiful chapter. We can imagine the king strolling through the gardens. At a certain point, a thought starts to take form, detaching itself from all the others and imposes itself in his soul until it becomes the dominant thought: I really achieved something extraordinary, and I did it only "with the strength of my power". A sentiment opposite to what Italo Calvino attributed to Kublai Khan: «In the life of the emperors there is a moment, which follows pride in the boundless breadth of the territories we have conquered (...); a sense of emptiness that takes us one evening with the smell of elephants after the rain and sandal ash that cools in the braziers (...); it is the desperate moment in which we discover that this empire that had seemed to us the sum of all wonders is a ruin without end or form» (The invisible cities).

Nebuchadnezzar, on the other hand, is in a completely different state of mind. He is at the peak of his own success. He sees it everywhere, and is convinced that he is the main, if not the only, architect of that extraordinary work. The Greeks had a precise word to describe this feeling of the king: hubris, a combination of pride, hubris and haughtiness. The book of Daniel then tells us that all absolute power is atheist, even when it is blessed by priests and the coronation takes place in the temple, because the king ends up not recognizing that the origin of his successes and glory is outside and over him. And here is the meaning of the pedagogy of defeat and catastrophe, which comes to remind kings that they are not gods and their peoples not to treat them as gods. The Bible learned all this during the great defeat of the Babylonian exile, and has never forgotten it. Today, however, not even catastrophes are enough to make us understand the true idolatrous nature of these powers: and leaders continue undisturbed to feel like gods and we continue to consider them divinities.

History knows a profound law of the evolution and decline of people. Its centre is the management of that typical feeling that had taken possession of the king of Babylon in his garden. When a life, a community, grows and develops with great force, it becomes inevitable for Nebuchadnezzar’s dominant thought to arrive one day. At first, the most honest and religious people manage to think that they are only tools, "pencils" in the hands of Someone else who is the true author of the great triumph; but, almost inevitably, on a different day a moment will come when the successes become so astounding as to convince the "kings" that without them the empire would not have existed, and so they become the masters. Almost no dictator is born a dictator, he becomes one day while taking a stroll in the garden.

The individual and collective stories of extraordinary successes that have been able to last over time are those very rare ones that have not fallen into this terrible trap, that have not been affected by this "curse of abundance". Because in the very moment in which that seductive and tremendous thought takes possession of the mind and heart, the death of both people and communities begins: "in that very moment ... the kingdom is taken away from you". They die because the past devours the future. The scholar begins to devote his energies to promote the books of yesterday and no longer to study in order to write the best books of tomorrow. He only attend places of consent and applause while escaping all forms of criticism and he starts to leaf through the books of others from the last page, searching for his own name in the bibliography. In collective experiences, the damage is even greater and more serious. The illusion of the great empire spreads like a plague among everyone; it self-reinforces itself in the dialogues, becoming unbreakable and infallible. Critical voices are silenced or, more often than not, they silence themselves and, perhaps in good faith, the celebration of the God of the community gives way to the self-celebration of the community that has now become god. The few great success stories that manage not to be eliminated by their own success are those where their protagonists are capable of a systematic policy of self-subversion, who manage to cure this super-success syndrome while it is still incipient. They stop before the critical threshold, they go back to being poor and small before they have become too big and rich to be able to do so. They dismantle the buildings and come back as builders of tents.

When this does not happen, the fulfillment of the word pronounced by heaven about the king becomes inevitable: «He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird» (Daniel 4,33). It is very likely that the text is attributing an episode in the life of his son-in-law Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon (see the prayer in exergue) to Nebuchadnezzar, here. However, the narrative power of these verses is extraordinary. In the space of one morning, the king finds himself transformed from the greatest ruler of the earth into an unclean being similar to the monsters of the Aeneid or the Divine Comedy. From demi-god to beast. How many times have we seen it, and continue to see it. The mismanagement of great success often produces this metamorphosis: you fall asleep in your usual bed and wake up as a cockroach, without knowing why. We need "seven times" to hope to understand this, and sometimes it is still not enough.

It is important to note that the dream is explained to Nebuchadnezzar twelve months before its fulfillment. It seems that the king had had a year, a whole time, to change his course of time and avoid ruin. However, this is a false perception. In reality, not even the presence of true prophets can save an empire from its decline, because when the terrible dreams come at night to a king, the decline has already begun a long time ago, the point of no return has already been surpassed. Prophecy is an authentic gift not because it reveals the future, but because it reveals what is already present although the protagonists are not yet aware of it. That thought of the walk had already taken over the king's heart; it had already occupied his whole life, many times in many ways. Communities do not listen to the prophets because they reveal what the communities have already become, and they prefer not to know. The prophet sees the signs of the metamorphosis "in a dream" before it even takes place: and thus he is already seeing beasts where everyone else still sees men and women. And nobody takes him seriously.

Then comes the day when the metamorphosis really takes place and everyone, inside and outside the community, see s that they have truly become beasts. There, in that moment, sometimes we realize that we were long gone from the human consortium, that we were already behaving like werewolves and monsters, devouring many prey as we built our infinite success without even knowing it. The time of the beast is always a terrible time. It is a long time: it lasts seven times. We feel surrounded by markets and we feel like animals too: we are afraid; we feel a lot of anger and we feel infinite remorse. We would like to escape, but we must stay put, because the only wise thing that we can do is to wait for the end of the "seven times". We ask the trees to teach us their meekness, the earth its humilitas, we become beggars of humanity towards plants, stones, stars, and with Job we learn the language of worms. And finally we understand the Psalms, we begin to pray after having said many prayers. Jeremiah and Hosea speak to us, and the song of the servant of YHWH becomes our only song. It is a time of immense pain, of humiliation. You can even die, some really do. However, you can also decide to continue living: some people succeed in doing so, sometimes even the community as a whole.

In fact, the Bible gives us wonderful good news: even the seven times of the beast can be a time of salvation: «At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honoured and glorified him who lives forever» (Daniel 4,34). At the end of the seven times, the beast-king looks up again. The Book of Daniel is where the Bible began to use the word "heaven" as a synonym for God. The second metamorphosis is all in that snout that turns back as it twists in search of the stars.

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