Reflections on Daniel, Chapters 2-4, on the occasion of President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration and Travel Ban

The brief comments below are taken from my very short book, Cities of Tomorrow and the City to Come: A Theology of Urban Life. I’ve been thinking about them as I ponder the right response to President Trump’s Executive Orders, especially the recent immigration and travel ban. The order is shameful. There’s no reason to believe that the ban makes the United States safer, and while the President has fairly sweeping authority on immigration, there are good reasons to doubt the legality of many parts of the measure. More importantly, the measure fails the test of caring for the vulnerable – for Muslims who have been persecuted by ISIS and others, for oppressed religious minorities, including but not limited to Christians, and for many others whose lives are imperiled in their homelands and who seek refuge among us. Scripture teaches us that caring for the vulnerable is part of what it means to be truly human. Among other texts, Chapters 2-4 of the Book of Daniel teach us this:

As I prepared for my remarks, I was drawn to the Book of Daniel, specifically the “Nebuchadnezzar Cycle” of stories in chapters 2–4. We can easily miss the big picture of these chapters when we read them one at a time as we usually do. But if we read them together, we get a picture of what it should mean to be like God and what it should mean to be fully human. And there’s a perhaps surprising message about caring for the poor….

In Daniel 2 we encounter Nebuchadnezzar, raving mad after a troubling dream. He insists that someone among his many wise men—his magicians, enchanters, and sorcerers—must tell him not only what the dream means, but also what the dream was. That is, he has no plans to tell them the dream so that they can interpret it. Rather, he is measuring their expertise and authority in the interpretation by whether or not they actually need to know the dream in advance. A truly reliable interpreter, he seems to think, doesn’t need to be told what the dream was. At first it doesn’t seem that anyone will live up to his expectations. Indeed, his wise men tell him that he is asking for something humanly impossible: “The thing that the king is asking is too difficult, and no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals” (Daniel 2: 11 NRSV).

Just as Nebuchadnezzar is about to kill his wise men—to tear them limb from limb and leave their houses in ruins—for their failure both to tell and to interpret his dream, God gives Daniel both the content and the interpretation of the dream: Nebuchadnezzar dreamt of a statue of five different materials and of a stone not cut by human hands that destroys the statue and becomes a great mountain, filling the whole earth. Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that the statue represents a timeline of sorts, with successive kingdoms represented by different materials, and his kingdom is represented by the statue’s head of gold. The rock that rolls out of the mountainside is the rock that will destroy the statue—it represents the kingdom not made by human hands that will overthrow all human kingdoms: “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever; just as you saw that a stone was cut from the mountain not by hands, and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold” (Daniel 2: 44–45 NRSV).

Nebuchadnezzar was apparently ambivalent about this interpretation: on the one hand, he rewarded Daniel for telling and interpreting the dream, giving him gifts, putting him in charge of the province of Babylon, and setting him over all of the other wise men; on the other hand, Nebuchadnezzar apparently didn’t like the idea that his kingdom might not last forever. The very next thing recounted in the book of Daniel is Nebuchadnezzar’s making a statue of all gold and insisting that everyone in his kingdom bow down to worship it. Here’s one of the connections we miss when we read these stories separately, or when we read them as if the point of chapter 3 is the heroic faith of Daniel’s three friends. By making a statue that is gold from head to toe, Nebuchadnezzar was saying, “If the statue is a timeline, and if my kingdom is represented by gold, then the golden part should be from head to toe! My kingdom is forever. No other kingdom will come after it. No otherworldly ‘rock uncut by human hands’ will roll out of a mountainside and destroy it. Bow down and worship my eternal kingdom!” We might miss the point, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t. By refusing to bow down and declare their allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar’s supposedly eternal kingdom, they were declaring again their allegiance to the one true God whose kingdom is forever. For this they were bound and thrown into a fiery furnace, where they were joined and protected by a powerful otherworldly figure of the sort that Nebuchadnezzar was insisting could not thwart his intentions.

In chapter 4, we learn that Nebuchadnezzar faces judgment even while his delusions of grandeur continue. He has another dream that features a tall tree that stands at the center of the world and is visible to all corners of the earths. Nebuchadnezzar describes the tree: “Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed” (v. 12). But the king’s dream soon became a nightmare. A “holy one” came down from heaven and cried (vv. 14–16), Cut down the tree and trim off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from under it and the birds from its branches. But let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him.

When Daniel interprets this dream for the king, Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that the king himself is the tree, and that chopping it down and placing a band around it represents God’s judgment on his kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel says, will be made to act like an animal for seven years, to go on all fours in the dew and eat the grass of the earth: “You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven” (v. 25).

God’s judgment on Nebuchadnezzar will be harsh, but Daniel reports that there is one way that Nebuchadnezzar can delay this judgment, one thing he must do to earn a stay from the God of the universe. What is this one thing? Is it to offer sacrifices? No. Is it to return to the temple the things that Nebuchadnezzar’s men had stolen? No. To return God’s people to their land? No. To bow down before Yahweh? Not exactly. Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that the only way Nebuchadnezzar can delay this judgment is to stop oppressing the poor. “Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed” (4: 27). Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “Stop sinning and do what is right. Break from your wicked past and be merciful to the poor.” As the New American Standard Bible translates the verse, “Break away now from your sins by doing righteousness and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor.” This last translation makes clear that Daniel is urging Nebuchadnezzar to break away from his sins by doing what is right and to break away from his iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. That is, showing mercy to the poor isn’t something Nebuchadnezzar was to do in addition to breaking away from his iniquities, but it was a central practice to which Daniel was calling Nebuchadnezzar.

So what does this have to do with how we respond to poverty, distress, and vulnerability in urban life? This is a story about what it means to be human and what it means to truly be like God. Nebuchadnezzar wanted to be like God in having a kingdom that was forever and over all things. Daniel’s message to Nebuchadnezzar was “You want to be like God in all the wrong, or at least inconsequential, ways. You want your kingdom to last forever and to be everywhere, but you should want to be like the God who loves and showers mercy on the poor. Anything less than that is subhuman, so if you can’t do that, then you will face a fitting judgment. As an expression of your inability to embrace what it means to be human by caring for the poor, the distressed, the vulnerable, and the marginalized, you will live like an animal for seven years.”

If we truly want to be like God, we should care for the least of these, providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, and security to the vulnerable. We should empower the powerless and give voice to the voiceless. To do so is to be more like Jesus Christ, the true king who was not subhuman but perfectly human.

So what did I finally say when I spoke in the planning meeting? I tried to put Daniel 2–4 in a nutshell…. God’s Word teaches it is less than human to treat the poor with contempt, and for this reason we should consider the needs of the poor first. I could know that we are called to treat the vulnerable with love and mercy, to place the poor at the center of our concerns. I could know that this is the responsibility of our communities and their leaders—including secular authorities like the King of Babylon—and the church.

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