Bel and the Dragon (Daniel 14; LXX)

Daniel, Bel and the Dragon (France, 15th century)
Daniel, Bel and the Dragon (France, 15th century)

The text of Bel and the Dragon is most likely based on a Hebrew or Aramaic original that no longer exists (the medieval Aramaic manuscript of the Chronicle of Jerahmeel might contain a descendent of the Hebrew Vorlage). In addition to that, no Jewish writer quotes from Bel and the Dragon, neither was any of it found at Qumran. The Greek text of Bel and the Dragon exists in two versions: The OG, or LXX, and according to Theodotion. The text of the Septuagint version is only preserved in â967, the Syrian translation of the Hexapla by Origin (Syh), and the Codex Chisianus from the eleventh century (MS 88). In early Christian times, the Theodotion translation became more prevalent and is the one that is quoted by the early church fathers who considered Bel and the Dragon to be canonical. Bel and the Dragon consists of at least two independent stories, the one of the destruction of the idol Bel, the one of the killing of the animal, and possibly a third about Daniel in the lion’s den. The tales are often dated to the second century B.C.E., but an exact date cannot be determined.


Idolatry and Zoolatry

Nothing is known about the creation and the origin of the idol and the snake in Bel and the Dragon. There is no reason given for why they exist unless one wants to take into consideration the note that the priests and their families gain profit from Bel’s and probably also the animal’s existence. The idol consists of clay with a bronze outer layer, although only Theodotion’s version mentions explicitly that it was made by human hands. It is portrayed as being fed and cared for by the Babylonians in typical ancient Near Eastern fashion; and it is its inability to eat that will be used by Daniel to prove that it is nothing more than a created image. While the animal that the Babylonians worship is truly alive, Daniel will still defeat it, this time by using the animal’s ability to eat. The text of Bel and the Dragon does not mention that the Babylonians ascribe any powers to the idol or the animal. The only “proof ” that Bel was alive and of value is that he could eat and drink. All in all, only a little attention is given to the points of argument that are of utmost importance in Hebrew Bible idol texts: whether the idol was made, and whether it was really alive and had any powers.

While the Babylonians in the story treat the idol and the snake as if they were gods, Bel and the Dragon does not spend any time at all comparing them to the one true God. When Daniel is asked why he does not worship them, he simply answers that he worships no one but “the God who created heaven and earth,” the “God of the gods,” and that he worships no one but “the living God who has created heaven and earth and has dominion over everything living.” Thus, it is highlighted that God is living (Th), is the creator (OG+Th), and has dominion over everything (OG). Meanwhile, neither version of Bel and the Dragon mentions God’s acting in history on Israel’s behalf, God’s laws or covenant, or God’s judgment, as is typical for a text of the Second Temple period.

The destruction of the idol and of the snake by Daniel takes the most space in the story. It is an intentional destruction performed in order to prove that neither the idol nor the animal are gods. The experiments conducted by Daniel are so easy that even the simplest of minds can understand them. In the case of Bel, Daniel devises a plan to prove that the food provided for the idol is not eaten by him but by the priests and their families. Precautions are taken to ensure the correct execution of the experiment: the doors are locked and sealed with the rings of the king and respectable priests, and the floor of the temple is secretly covered with ash in order to preserve footsteps of intruders. The next morning, the betrayal is revealed when the footsteps of the priests and their families are found. Because of the simplicity of the experiment and the foolproof precautions, there can be no doubt to the reader that it was not Bel but the priests who had been eating the provisions. In the case of the animal, Daniel again acts intentionally. He claims that he can kill the animal without weapons and does so with a mixture of pitch, fat, and hair. In either case, divine command or support are not necessary. As in most Diaspora literature of the Second Temple period, the authority of the Gentile king is not questioned, and actually, Daniel appears to be on friendly terms with the king. Daniel wants to prove, however, that there is no reason to worship Bel or the animal because they are powerless and, in the case of Bel, lifeless.1


The Focus on Food and Mouth

In biblical literature and beyond, idols have mouths but cannot speak or eat. This simple observation is re-used and expanded in Bel and the Dragon where eating and not eating determines life or death in four instances:

  1. When Bel’s ability to eat (OG 7) or to eat and drink (Th 6, 7) are used to test whether the idol is living, it is demonstrated that Bel does neither, and thus is inanimate. Subsequently, the idol is handed over to Daniel and destroyed.
  2. The priests and their families use the food provided for Bel for their own nourishment, but after this is discovered, in OG they are handed over to Daniel (22) and in Theodotion they are killed by the king (22). Their eating leads to their demise.
  3. In the case of zoolatry, it was shown that the simple equation of eating=living=divine no longer holds. Worshipped animals eat and are alive, but they are not gods. Therefore, Daniel’s treatment of the animal is the culmination of the story, and the only such tale that we have from the Second Temple period. In a twist of humor, it is the animal’s very ability to eat that leads to its death.
  4. There is another instance in Bel and the Dragon where the motif of eating is used. When Daniel is thrown into the lion’s den, the seven lions do not devour him (OG 31–32) even though they are not fed anything else (Th 32). Instead, Daniel is saved from starvation after six days when Habakkuk miraculously brings him food.


Theodotion versus Old Greek

Of the two versions, Theodotion uses more of the traditional Jewish material that was found in the Hebrew Bible’s descriptions of idolatry and zoolatry. OG, however, appears more removed from the traditional arguments.

While OG does not give any hint as to the origin of the idol, Th 5 reiterates the old idea that it is not alive. Theodotion’s Daniel asserts that the idol is not a “living god,” and has “never eaten or drunk anything” (Th 6, 7). In this version, Daniel also disputes that the snake is a “living God” (Th 24). In OG, “living” and “drinking” are not mentioned (OG 6–9), although they are found in the description of the snake (OG 24). Neither version has a refutation of the special powers of the idol or the animal.

When one compares the two versions for comparisons with God, more differences become evident. Theodotion 5 has a longer, creed-like statement made by Daniel, which includes the ideas that God is living, has created heaven have been proven to be false. Theodotion thus clearly expresses the idea that the Gentile king will admire (and maybe convert to) the Jewish God of Daniel, if it is only proven that his own gods are worthless. The God of the OG version is simply called “the Lord” (OG 4). At the end of the story, the king praises God’s greatness, but he does not address God in the second person and as “Lord” so that the possibility of a conversion of the king is suppressed (OG 41). Both versions, however, preserve the accusation by the Babylonians that the king has become a Jew.

The actual destruction of the idol and the snake again receives different emphases. Theodotion 22 has the more violent version and clearly indicates who killed whom: the king kills the priests, and is accused of toppling Bel and killing the snake (Th 28). In OG, the priests are “handed over” to Daniel, but it is not reported that they are killed (OG 21).37 Bel is destroyed, but the text is not clear about who does the destroying (OG 21). Here, the king is accused only of toppling Bel and killing the snake (OG 28).

From these observations, it can be concluded that OG preserves a wisdom-like version of the story that must be attributed to a more reserved strand of Second Temple Judaism, one that was perhaps more interested in conforming to Hellenistic standards and ideals than the author of Theodotion.38 OG is farther removed from the traditional material of stories that narrate the destruction of idols: it does not focus on the differences between the Jewish and Gentile gods, it does not mention the fate of Bel’s priests, and credits no one with the destruction of Bel. The Theodotion version, however, is a bolder version of the story, and can probably be attributed to a more aggressive and perhaps nationalistic strand of Judaism. It preserves more traditionally Jewish material, has more attributes for the Jewish God, comes closer to an actual conversion of the king to Daniel’s God, and features a more aggressive attitude of both the king who kills the priests, and of Daniel who destroys the animal and Bel, as well as his temple.

Both versions of Bel and the Dragon appear to accept Gentile sovereignty, but attempt—more or less aggressively—to convince their surrounding culture and earth, and rules over everything. OG 5 limits this statement to God’s creative powers, but later adds that the Lord is the God of gods (7). The most striking difference is that in Theodotion God is clearly Daniel’s God (Th 4, 25, 41), whose greatness is acknowledged by the king after the idol and the animal that Jewish religious practices are just as common sense as Hellenistic ones. It is characteristic for this attitude that the story culminates in the king becoming a monotheist, yet the texts never entirely prove or acquit him of the accusation that he became a Jew.


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