Making fun of foreign kings (2)

Ninive, Koenigspalast / nach Layard - Nineveh, Assyrian palace / watercolour -

Painting of Nineveh by James Ferguson 1853

Good satire or parody can be hard to detect. The better it is, the more likely it is that someone will take it seriously and won’t get the joke. I well remember when I was a much younger man having a conversation with a good mate about the clichés that were used in church prayers far too often. Between us we came up with an impressive list of all the prayer-clichés we could think of. A few days later my mate’s church had a social function in the church hall and my friend was called on to say grace before dinner. Being young, brash, and a bit of a smart-arse, my friend decided to have some fun while having a pointed poke at what had become a traditional, yet irrelevant style of prayer. He made use of every one of those clichés in a rather lengthy parody of grace before dinner. Later that evening an elderly lady came to him and said “I’ve been a member of this church for forty years, and that was the loveliest prayer I’ve ever heard!” That’s a sign of truly clever parody – people will be divided as to whether it is serious (and in this case pious), or is making a joke at the expense of those who take it seriously.

The royal court scene in Jonah 3 in my view is a case of clever satire (and parody), which commentaries have traditionally interpreted very seriously (while missing the humour, and, therefore, the real point of the story). It must have been the briefest evangelistic campaign in history (Jonah preached for only one day in a city which normally took three days to cross), consisting of just five words (in Hebrew, a few more in English): עֹוד אַרְבָּעִים יֹום וְנִֽינְוֵה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! Remarkably, the people responded to this short message by repenting, proclaiming a fast, and putting on sackcloth (Jonah 3:4-5). It’s remarkable for several reasons: Jonah was unheard of in Nineveh, and had only just arrived; being from Israel his message would suggest that the god of tiny Israel was more powerful than all the gods of Nineveh and the mighty Assyrian empire; the five-word message gave no details and no call to repent or opportunity to avert the disaster. News of this reached the king, who immediately responded in much the same way as his people. His response was even more remarkable because he only heard the message second-hand, and was in a much better position to evaluate the likelihood that an unknown preacher from some backwater would know the fate of a great city like Nineveh, soon to be the most powerful city in the world. This is all so astoundingly unlikely the initial readers or listeners of this story would almost certainly have recognised it as humorous.

So the king decided to issue a decree that everyone should fast and put on sackcloth. The problem with this is that everyone had already decided to do just that! His decree would therefore be meaningless, simply ratifying what the masses had already decided. It would confirm that the king wasn’t in control, and that the mob made the rules. Nineveh wasn’t a democracy, and wasn’t about to become one, so the king issued a different decree:

“By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water! They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty.” (3:8)

The royal decree affirmed what the masses had already decided, but the king extended it to livestock as well! The animals even had to repent from their evil ways and cry out to God! The writer is having a joke at the king’s expense. He makes him out to be powerless – if he can’t rule his own people at least he can issue decrees to dumb cattle. The writer of Jonah has a final punchline right at the end of the book, where God is discussing with the prophet whether or not he should save Nineveh, because, after all, it was a big city with a lot of (dumb) people (because they couldn’t tell one hand from the other) but with “many cattle” (who were smart enough to cry out to God and to repent!) (4:11).

But there’s a twist in the story. When the king issues his decree he adds “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (3:9). In the words of one biblical scholar, this is “a piece of rather sophisticated theology” [1]. The Ninevite king demonstrated an apparent awareness of Hebrew scripture, or at least the theological issues which gave rise to or came out of those texts, because he uses the specific language of several texts in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and Chronicles and frames it as a question in an almost identical way to the book of Joel. Is the writer implying that the Ninevite king was familiar with all these biblical texts? The idea is comical, which may very well be the point of the ridiculousness of the allusions. 

In using these texts in the way he does, the writer simultaneously ridicules the foreigner and makes his question the central issue of the story. The king would certainly have been unaware of one or other of these texts, yet the writer puts words into his mouth with which the reader or listener would have been familiar, implying that he was aware of the theological discussion about these texts. This is a story-telling device which is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Nebuchadnezzar is ridiculed on the one hand, but makes profound statements about God on the other. Naaman, a Syrian military commander, was humiliated by the prophet Elisha, but teaches the king of Israel a valuable lesson at the same time (2 Kings 5). It’s a clever device. It’s easy to ridicule a foreigner, but then to have sophisticated theological truths come from their mouths is akin to saying “See, these stupid idol-worshippers get it, why don’t you?” The audience is first softened by the humour, and in doing so the writer/speaker prepares them to be more receptive to the hard-hitting message that follows. 

[1] Good, Edwin M., Irony in the Old Testament.London: SPCK, 1965, p.50

Making fun of foreign kings (1)

Nebuchadnezzar-cameo

Cameo of Nebuchadnezzar on display in the Florence Museum, dated to 585 BC

Several times in the Hebrew Bible the writers make fun of foreign rulers, often with an interesting twist. Here are two examples which have some striking similarities.

Daniel 3 tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue and how he “sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue” (v.2). And then, in case you missed it, the very next verse says “So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue” (v.3). Then, once all these people had assembled the king makes a proclamation that “when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue” (v.5).  Then, again in case you missed something, “as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up” (v.7). But just to make sure we really get the point, the writer tells us that certain officials came to him and said “You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue …” (v.10). Tiresome as it may be, we get the same list again in verse 15 when the king addresses three Jews: “Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good.” Why do we need such repetition? It seems that the writer is emphasising that the Babylonians had an endless stream of officials and bureaucrats and that everything was done with a great deal of pomposity. He makes fun of it by repeating the long lists of officials and instruments.

The book of Esther begins by explaining that “King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa,  in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his officials and ministers” (1:3).  Then, at least ten times throughout the book, we are told about banquets. The book is actually structured around these feasts. It’s as though the writer is letting us know that it seems that all the Persian officials do is eat and drink wine! Like repetition in Daniel, the writer of Esther makes fun of the endless feasting of the Persians by mentioning it at every turn in the story.

These are possibly the two best examples of making fun of foreign rulers and their courts in the Hebrew Bible, but there are also other occasions when foreign rulers were ridiculed, suggesting it was a common practice. But these humorous stories often contain a twist and the joke is turned back on the reader or listener. More about that to follow in my next post.

Boccaccini, Daniel and 1 Enoch

Following on from some discussion with Dustin Smith on an earlier post about angels and princes in Daniel 10, I thought I’d post some ideas by Gabriele Boccaccini which are consistent with my conclusions.

In Roots of Rabbinic Judaism [1] Boccaccini argues for the emergence of three quite distinct Judaisms in post-exilic Judea:  (1) Sapiential Judaism (as evidenced in such works as Proverbs, Job, Jonah, and Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes); (2) Zadokite Judaism, detected in texts including  Ezekiel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles); and (3) Enochic Judaism (priestly opposition to the Zadokites, embodied in such works as the Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch).

In the post-exilic period the so-called Zadokite priesthood, descendants of Zadok the chief priest in the time of King David, took control of the rebuilt temple, established the priesthood as the dominant political force instead of a restored Davidic monarchy, and ruled Judea until shortly before the Maccabean revolt. Enochic Judaism is named after the Book of Enoch, which is really a composite work of five books written, according to a consensus of scholarly opinion, between 300 and 100 BCE, and reflects the theology of a group of disenfranchised priests. Sapiential Judaism was a kind of secular morality, in which the accumulated wisdom of several generations provided an alternative to the covenantal theology of the Zadokite priesthood. Their literature includes works such as Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Wisdom and Sirach.

Broadly speaking Boccaccini theorises that the Sadducees were descended from the Zadokites, the Essenes and Christianity from the Enochic tradition, and Rabbinic Judaism as we know it from a synthesis of Zadokite and Enochic theology through the Pharisees.

Boccoccini argues that the book of Daniel reveals the emergence of a “third way” between Enochic and Zadokite Judaism and understands that Daniel “opposed the Enochic doctrine of the superhuman origin of evil and strenuously defended the tenets of Zadokite Judaism: the covenant (based on the Mosaic Torah) and the legitimacy of the Second Temple.”[2] There is no place in covenantal theology for a superhuman cause of sin and evil. Instead there is a temple sacrificial system which offers a framework for personal responsibility and accountability for sin, and even in the context of a vision in which some of the “host of heaven” are thrown to the ground (8:10), which sounds Enochic, Daniel is more concerned about the end of the evening and morning temple sacrifices and the desecration of the temple (8:11-14). In his prayer in chapter 9, possibly the climax of a structural chiasm, Daniel focused on Israel’s transgression of the lawof Moses (11-13), the holy city Jerusalem which is called by God’s name (16, 18, 19), the temple (17), and exile and restoration (13-15, 17); all Deuteronomic themes, and central to Zadokite theology. Enochic Judaism did not accept these covenantal theological premises or that history degenerates because of human sin and, based on the Book of the Watchers and the dream vision of 1 Enoch 83-84[3], believed that “the crisis was something deeper than the consequence of human sin”, that the degeneration of history was caused by angelic sin and that the earth is the victim of chaotic forces.[4] Reading Daniel against a background of Enochic theology one could read the conflict between Michael and the princes of Persia and Greece as a continuation of this celestial battle (as J.J. Collins does). However, Boccaccini’s reading of the clash between two (or three including Sapiential Judaism) theological worldviews makes better sense of Daniel 10 in my view.

This is not to discount the contribution of 1 Enoch to our understanding of Daniel. On the contrary, Enoch helps us to understand the divergent theological viewpoints of the time and, whether or not we agree with Boccaccini’s view that there was an alternative Enochic stream within Judaism in that period, to fully understand Daniel we need to understand the Zeitgeist of second century BCE Judea and hence the available literature.


[1] Boccaccini, G., Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, from Ezekiel to Daniel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.) 2002

[2] Boccaccini, 2002, 206

[3] Especially 84:4 “The angels of your heavens are now committing sin (upon the earth) and your wrath shall rest upon the flesh of the people until (the arrival of) the great day of judgment”.

[4] Boccaccini, 2002, 165, 167

Angels and Princes in Daniel 10

In the prologue to the final vision of the book of Daniel (chapters 10-12) Daniel saw “a man clothed in linen”. The “man” in Daniel’s vision is sometimes assumed to be Gabriel (based on Gabriel’s appearance in chapters 8 and 9) but the man is not actually named here. “If Daniel knew it was the Gabriel he had seen earlier, surely he would have named him here” and “we would expect the description to be in chapter 8 when he first appeared to Daniel”.[1] Some elements of Daniel’s encounter with this “man” are puzzling. The man said “the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia”. Who is this “Prince of Persia”? Later there is a reference to the “prince of Greece” (v. 20) and “Michael, your prince” (v. 21) and “Michael the great prince who has charge of your people” (12:1). The suggestion is often made that these three “princes” are patron-angels. Michael certainly has that role here (“who has charge of your people”) and he is also referred to as one of the seven archangels in 1 Enoch 20:1-8. What we have here in Daniel 10 then may be a conflict between the visionary man and the patron angel of Persia, with the patron angels of Greece and Israel also becoming involved. There are two other texts which may suggest celestial beings may represent or rule nations:

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders [Or territories] of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. [Compare Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text Israel]. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” (Deuteronomy 32:8-9 ESV).

“Over every nation he set a ruler. But Israel is the portion of God.” (Sirach 17:14-15)

Neither of these texts specifically refer to patron-angels but the “sons of God” in the DSS and LXX readings of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 are understood to be angels. The reference in Sirach is to a “ruler” set over each nation, and could only be understood as a reference to angels if the Deuteronomy text is read as a deliberate intertextual link (which is possible considering both texts refer to Israel as the Lord’s/God’s portion).

1 Enoch 10 also has a conflict between angels, with the angel Raphael binding the angel Azazel, the angel Gabriel destroying the children of the Watchers, and the angel Michael  binding the angel Semjaza and his associates. Revelation 12 has a war in heaven with Michael and his angels fighting against Satan. Revelation is almost certainly alluding to 1 Enoch. Do we have a similar celestial conflict here in Daniel 10?

The Hebrew word translated as “prince” throughout Daniel 10 is שַׂר sar a word often translated as “leader” or “commander”. The Hebrew term שַׂר used more than four hundred times in the Old Testament, carries the following meanings: captain, leader (Num.21:18; 1Sam.22:2); vassal, noble, official under a king who functions (a) as a ruler or counsellor (Gen.12:15; 1Kings20:14–17), (b) the sovereign or magistrate of a region (2Chron.32:31), or (c) the ruler of a city (Judg.9:30; Neh.7:2); commander (Gen.21:22,32); head of a group of people, that is, an official  (Neh.4:10; Ps.68:27 [28,Heb.]; Dan.1:7–11,18); one who carries a certain religious responsibility (Ezra 8:24,29; Isa.43:28);or a person in an elevated position (Ps.45:16[17,Heb.]; Isa.23:8). The common denominator in these diverse uses is the concept of “one who commands.”[2]

The Septuagint translates this with a word carrying a similar meaning. “The LXX diverges more markedly from the MT at the references in 10.13, and 20 to ‘the prince of Persia’ … and ‘the prince of Greece’ … [T]he terminology of the LXX translation differs in that these princes of Greece and Persia are seen as … ‘leaders/commanders’ … its referent is almost inevitably to political or military leadership. In Daniel it translates שַׂר in the list of officials in 3.2. It translates שַׂר three other times in the LXX (1 Kgs 29.3-4; 1 Chron. 11.6; 2 Chron. 32.21), and each time the context is secular.”[3] “The choice of vocabulary in the LXX suggests that the Greek translator regarded the Princes of Persia and Greece as human figures, and so interpreted an ambiguous Vorlage in a particular direction.”[4]

It is interesting that “nothing is made of the battle among the princes in the message that follows in chapter 11”.[5] Their appearance in the prologue to the vision is almost incidental. Several scholars, including William Shea, hold that the “prince of Persia” was one of the political authorities in Persia who opposed the reconstruction of the Jewish temple. Shea writes, “If one looks for an earthly human prince of Persia in the 3rd year of Cyrus, there is one specific candidate for that historical position: Cambyses, the son and crown princeof Cyrus… This is the one interpretation which takes cognizance of both (a) the potentiality for interpreting the word ‘prince’ as a human being, and (b) the actual political situation that obtained in the 3rd year of Cyrus. In my opinion, therefore, Calvin was correct in this identification.”[6]

There is a strong case, in my opinion, for Shea’s view that these “princes” are human political or military leaders. The “prince of Persia” would most likely be Cambyses who was a co-regent with Cyrus, making sense of the plural “kings of Persia” (v.13). Daniel 10:1 calls Cyrus the “king of Persia” while Cyrus was apparently known as “King of Babylon” and appears not to have used the title “king of Persia” for himself.[7] The recurrence of the expression in verse 13 in the plural “kings of Persia” is a significant detail and probably refers to the co-regency of Cyrus and Cambyses. While Cambyses is here referred to as “prince of Persia” both Cambyses and Cyrus are designated “kings of Persia”, consistent with the crown prince being a co-regent.

Cambyses’ opposition to national cultic temples is well documented by Shea, and it is significant that the Jerusalem Temple was not rebuilt during his reign. Daniel’s “mourning” occurred during the same twenty one days time-frame that the visionary man “struggled” with the prince of Persia, and may very well have been due to Daniel’s knowledge of some local political event (perhaps a delegation from opponents to the temple rebuilding in Jerusalem). It is possible then that the matter which concerned Daniel was the same matter that occupied the angel.

If this interpretation is correct then Daniel 10 has nothing to do with celestial battles between the patron angels of nations, and has no relevance for understanding the wars in heaven in 1 Enoch 10 and Revelation 12.


[1] Gowan, D.E., Daniel, (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 2001, 143

[2] Stevens, D. E., “Daniel 10 and the Notion of Territorial Spirits,” Bibliotheca Sacra 157: 628 (2000): 410-431, 413, citing Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, (Leiden: Brill) 1995, 1350-53

[3] Meadowcroft, T. J., Aramaic Daniel and Greek Daniel: A Literary Comparison, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press) 1995, 253

[4] Meadowcroft, 254

[5] Gowan, 2001, 144

[6] Shea, W. H., “Wrestling with the Prince of Persia: A Study on Daniel 10,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 21 (1983), 249. The reference to Calvin is to John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of the Prophet Daniel (reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 2:252

[7] Collins, J.J., Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press) 1993, 372