Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
Daniel 3 (the third chapter of the Book of Daniel) tells how Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three noble youths of Jerusalem, condemned to death in a fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon because of the faithful refusal to worship any god but the God of Israel, were saved by the angel of God and promoted to high office. The theological high point of the story comes when Nebuchadnezzar confronts the defiant Jewish youths and asks what god will deliver them from his hands; they reply that the real question is whether God is present and willing to save. When the three are thrown into the furnace the king sees four men walking in the flames, the fourth "like a son of god," meaning a divine being: the message is not that they are rescued from the fire, but that God is present with them.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Jewish youths of noble birth "without physical defect, and handsome," were taken to Babylon to serve in the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar king's palace and learn the literature and language of the Chaldeans (meaning both the Babylonians and the court magicians–this background is related in chapter 1 of Daniel). Soon they were appointed to high office over the province of Babylon (chapter 2, verse 49). King Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden statue on the plain of Dura in Babylon, and commanded that all should worship it on pain of death, but Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did not. Certain Chaldeans reported this to the king, who commanded that the three Jews be thrown into the fiery furnace, but when this was done God sent his angel to protect them. Nebuchadnezzar therefore promoted them over the province of Babylon, and decreed that any who spoke against their God should be torn limb from limb.
Composition and structure
Book of Daniel
It is generally accepted that the Book of Daniel originated as a collection of folktales among the Jewish community in Babylon and Mesopotamia in the Persian and early Hellenistic periods (5th to 3rd centuries BCE), expanded by the visions of chapters 7-12 in the Maccabean era (mid-2nd century). Modern scholarship agrees that Daniel is a legendary figure. It is possible that the name was chosen for the hero of the book because of his reputation as a wise seer in Hebrew tradition. The tales are in the voice of an anonymous narrator, except for chapter 4 which is in the form of a letter from king Nebuchadnezzar. Chapter 3 is unique in that Daniel does not appear in it.
Daniel 3 forms a chiasmus (a poetic structure in which the main point or message of a passage is placed in the centre and framed by further repetitions on either side) within Daniel 2-7, paired with Daniel 6, the story of Daniel in the lions' den:
- A. (2:4b-49) – A dream of four kingdoms replaced by a fifth
- B. (3:1–30) – Daniel's three friends in the fiery furnace
- C. (4:1–37) – Daniel interprets a dream for Nebuchadnezzar
- C'. (5:1–31) – Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall for Belshazzar
- B'. (6:1–28) – Daniel in the lions' den
- B. (3:1–30) – Daniel's three friends in the fiery furnace
- A'. (7:1–28) – A vision of four world kingdoms replaced by a fifth
Chapters 3 and 6 contain significant differences, however. The story of the fiery furnace does not include Daniel, while the story of the lions' den does not include Daniel's friends; the first story takes place under Nebuchadnezzar and the second under Darius; and in the first story the disobedience to the earthly ruler takes place in public, while in the second Daniel petitions God in private. The stories thus supplement each other to make the point that the God of the Jews will deliver those who are faithful to him.
Genre and themes
The legendary nature of the story is revealed by the liberal use of hyperbole - the size of the statue, the use of every kind of music, the destruction of the executioners, and the king's rage followed by his confession of the superiority of the God of Israel. The plot is a type known in folklore as "the disgrace and rehabilitation of a minister," the plot of which involves a man in a state of prosperity who is sentenced to death or prison by the plots of his enemies but vindicated and restored to honour.
When Nebuchadnezzar confronts the defiant Jewish youths who refuse to submit to his will he asks them what god will deliver them from his hands. Their reply is the theological high point of the story: without addressing the king by his title, they tell him that the question is not whether they are willing to bow before the king's image, but whether God is present and willing to save. When the three are thrown into the furnace the king sees four men walking in the flames, the fourth "like a son of god," a divine being.
The Hebrew names of Daniel's friends were Hananiah (חֲנַנְיָה), "Yah (i.e., Yahweh) is gracious", Mishael (מִישָׁאֵל), "Who is like God?" and Azariah (עֲזַרְיָה), "Yah has helped", but by the king’s decree they assigned Chaldean names, so that Hananiah became Shadrach, Mishael became Meshach and Azariah became Abednego. Shadrach's name is possibly is derived from Shudur Aku "Command of Aku (the moon god)", Meshach is probably a variation of Mi-sha-aku, meaning "Who is as Aku is?", and Abednego is either "Servant of the god Nebo/Nabu" or a variation of Abednergal, "servant of the god Nergal."
Daniel's absence from the tale of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego suggests that it may originally have been an independent story; the word "Dura" (where the statue is erected) means simply "plain" or "fortress" and is not any specific place; the Greek historian Herodotus mentions a golden image of the god Bel in Babylon, but the gigantic size of this statue suggests that its origins lie in folklore.
Eastern Orthodox observance
The Greek version of Daniel 3 inserts "the song of the three youths," two psalms, connected by a narrative emphasising their miraculaous salvation. The song is alluded to in odes seven and eight of the canon, a hymn sung in the matins service and on other occasions in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where their feast day is December 17 (along with Daniel). The Orthodox also commemorate them on the two Sundays before the Nativity of Christ. The reading of the story of the fiery furnace, including the song, is prescribed for the vesperal Divine Liturgy celebrated by the Orthodox on Holy Saturday. Likewise, the three are commemorated as prophets in the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church on December 17 with Daniel.
References and portrayals in popular culture
- 1954 In her short story A Circle in the Fire, Flannery O'Connor partly parallels this story, ending with the phrase, "as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them."
- 1955 In the play Guys and Dolls, Sky Masterson says, "Never tangle with me on the Good Book... In one of my blackest moments I came up with a three-horse parlay, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego."
- P. G. Wodehouse often referred to Shadrach, Mechach, and Abednego in his novels and short stories, thus using a humorous and somewhat irreverent hyperbole to describe the typically minor difficulties or mental turmoil faced by the characters in his stories.
- 1963: Martin Luther King Jr. references them in his Letter from Birmingham Jail
- 1976: Robert Silverberg's science-fiction novel Shadrach in the Furnace
- 1989: William T. Vollmann's short story Scintillant Orange in The Rainbow Stories collection features the captured Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
- 1999: cartoonists Howard Mackie and John Byrne created the character Shadrac, a Spider-Man foe, cursed by being a "human torch", who never dies or burns up
- 1930s: "Shadrack", written by Robert MacGimsey
- 1955: Gesang der Jünglinge, electronic work by Karlheinz Stockhausen, takes its title and some words from the story
- 1966: The Burning Fiery Furnace, one of the three Parables for Church Performances composed by Benjamin Britten, his Opus 77
- 1966: The Abyssinians, "Abendigo" on the album Satta Massagana
- 1968: "The Fourth Man in the Fire", the Johnny Cash song appearing on the albums The Holy Land (1969) and Unearthed (2003)
- 1974: The Sly and the Family Stone song "Loose Booty", featuring the three brothers' names as its central hook
- 1977: The Congos' song "La La Bam Bam" mentions the three men
- 1980: The Twinkle Brothers' song 'Never Get Burn' mentions the brothers, along with Daniel and Jonah, as figures protected from harm.
- 1979: Bob Marley and the Wailers' "Survival"—"We're the survivors, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: thrown in the fire but a never get burn."
- 1989: The Beastie Boys song "Shadrach", which samples the Sly Stone vocal hook
- 2014: The Jen Larson song, "Fourth Man in the Fire" from the bluegrass album, Burning House featuring Andy Statman and Noam Pikelny.
- 1995: The VeggieTales episode "Rack, Shack, and Benny" tells a version of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego with Bob the Tomato, Junior Asparagus and Larry the Cucumber, respectively, playing the title roles
- 2013: Segment of the episode "Survival" in the miniseries The Bible
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Fiery furnace.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1897 Easton's Bible Dictionary article Shadrach.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1897 Easton's Bible Dictionary article Meshach.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1897 Easton's Bible Dictionary article Abednego.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Abednego.|
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