By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of the fiery furnace from the Book of Daniel is a memorable episode in the Old Testament. In summary, Nebuchadnezzar condemns three Jewish men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be burned alive by being thrown into a fiery furnace.
But why were they sentenced to such a punishment, and why was Daniel, the title character of this book of the Bible and the companion of Shadrach et al, spared this fate? And what happened to Shadrach and the others when they were thrown into the ‘burning fiery furnace’? And why have we all been getting Nebuchadnezzar’s name wrong all this time?
There are a number of curious details about this story, so let’s subject it to some closer textual analysis to try to divine its meaning. First, though, let’s briefly summarise the story.
The fiery furnace: summary
The story of the fiery furnace is recounted in the third chapter of the Book of Daniel. Quotations are from the King James Version.
3:1 Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, whose height was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof six cubits: he set it up in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar was, according to classical historians, the man responsible for making Babylon one of the wonders of the world. He was credited with constructing (or at least ordering the construction of) the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But curiously, ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ wasn’t his name: the second ‘n’ was an error.
His Babylonian name was Nabū-kudur-usur, so if anything he should be Nebuchadrezzar. But the mistake – invented by the author of the Book of Daniel – has become the name by which the Babylonian king is now most frequently known.
Like most absolute rulers, Nebuchadnezzar (as the Daniel author calls him) insisted on his subjects coming to the gold statue of himself that he’d had constructed and paying due homage to it – and, by association, to Nebuchadnezzar himself:
3:2 Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent to gather together the princes, the governors, and the captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.
Any subject who refused to bow down before the image would be punished by being thrown into a fiery furnace and burnt to death:
3:6 And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.
At this time, the Jews were living in exile in Babylon. The Book of Daniel mentions four Jewish men in particular: Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel himself. Being Jewish (and thus forbidden by the Ten Commandments to worship any ‘graven image’, because it was a form of idolatry), these men could not in good conscience kneel before the image of the Babylonian king:
3:12 There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
Note that Daniel is absent from the list for some reason, so escapes this fate. But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are brought before the king to explain themselves:
3:14 Nebuchadnezzar spake and said unto them, Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up? 3:15 Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands? 3:16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter.
The three Jewish men know that God will save them from such a fate as burning to death in the fiery furnace:
3:17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.
So they refuse to worship Nebuchadnezzar or his statue. Predictably, the king flies into a rage at this act of defiance:
3:19 Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: therefore he spake, and commanded that they should heat the furnace one seven times more than it was wont to be heated.
The three Jewish men are bound in their clothes and then thrown into the furnace:
3:21 Then these men were bound in their coats, their hosen, and their hats, and their other garments, and were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace.
But Nebuchadnezzar is amazed to find that the three men are not consumed by the flames, but walk through the fire, unharmed. And there is a fourth figure with them:
3:25 He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.
This reference to the fourth man being ‘like the Son of God’ has been retrospectively read as a reference to Jesus, but Daniel is an Old Testament book and it is not concerned either with the events of the New Testament or even, here, with the idea of prophesying the coming of the Messiah. Instead, ‘the Son of God’ (as it’s rendered in the King James translation) means something closer to ‘a son of the gods’, i.e., an angel:
3:26 Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the mouth of the burning fiery furnace, and spake, and said, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, ye servants of the most high God, come forth, and come hither. Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, came forth of the midst of the fire.
The men are all unharmed, as are their clothes, when they step out of the fiery furnace. Nebuchadnezzar has witnessed a miracle, which proves that the Jewish men spoke truth when they told the king that their God would ‘deliver’ them from death in the fiery furnace:
3:28 Then Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God.
Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t just take back his words, but he actually promotes the three Jewish men to higher office:
3:30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in the province of Babylon.
The fiery furnace: analysis
Perhaps no other book of the Old Testament, with the exception of the Book of Genesis, contains such a dense collection of famous stories within its first five chapters. By the time we reach the end of the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel, we have encountered Nebuchadnezzar throwing Shadrach and the two other men into the fiery furnace, the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast, and Daniel himself being thrown into the lions’ den.
It is the first of these stories that concerns us here, of course. And the theological meaning of the story of the fiery furnace is clear: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship a graven image of the Babylonian king, because God forbids it; and for their faith and loyalty, they are saved from the fires of the ‘furnace’ or oven.
But because of the striking visual nature of the spectacle, with the men emerging unharmed from the flames, the story also has the effect of revealing God’s power directly to Nebuchadnezzar himself. The story thus offers a moral lesson to both Jews living under tyrannical imperial regimes and those rulers who would attempt to set themselves up as higher than God.
The Book of Daniel is a curious thing. Although it concerns events of the sixth century BC, during the reign of ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ in Babylon, it was clearly written many centuries later: some time in the second century BC is the best guess.
And there are some, as Isaac Asimov argues in his informative (but sadly out-of-print) Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament by Isaac Asimov, who have argued that the Book of Daniel should really have been grouped with the Apocrypha, with the Book of Susanna or Bel and the Dragon, because it was written long after the other ‘prophetic’ books (the Book of Jonah was written in around 300 BC).
But Daniel was included in the canon of Biblical texts, and its stories have consequently become among the best-known in all of the Old Testament. The Book of Daniel deals with the Jews deported from Judah to Babylon in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, and shows Daniel and his co-religionists resisting the Babylonian king’s tyrannical demands that they leave aside their religious devotion to God.