The Book of Daniel (composed in Hebrew and Aramaic)[1] is divided into two sections reflecting two different literary genres. The first section (chapters 1 through 6) is a collection of first-person tales about Daniel and his three companions, with the Babylonian names of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Daniel and company have been taken in 606 to Babylonia, where they have risen to prominence in the courts of Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Darius the Mede. The second section (chapters 7 through 12) is a collection of apocalyptic visions of a brighter future, interpreted by an angelic figure. According to tradition, the entire book was written by Daniel during the Babylonian exile.

In this article we look at the most famous of the tales — Daniel in the lion's den (Chapter 6), which has inspired many works of art.

Exalted to position of satrap or governor over a province of the Persian Empire, Daniel continues to worship the God of Israel. His fellow governors persuade the King Darius the Mede to pass a decree prohibiting any prayer except to the king himself. When the ministers discover that Daniel, ignoring the decree, continues to pray three times a day, they report to Darius and have Daniel tossed into the lions' den, the mouth of which is sealed with a huge stone. In the morning, Daniel emerges unharmed from the den, while those who had set the trap for him are thrown into the den themselves, where they are devoured instantaneously.

Click on images to view enlargements

Daniel and the Lion (1655)
Gian Lorenzo Bernini,
Terracotta, height 41.6 cm
Museo Sacro,
Musei Vaticani, Vatican

Daniel in the Lion's Den
drawing by Gustave Doré

Daniel in the Lion's Den
(c. 1615)
Pieter Pauwel Rubens
Oil on canvas,
224.3 x 330.4 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The lion, as we know, appears frequently in the Bible as a general symbol of strength.[2] And we are familiar with two biblical heroes, David and Samson, who demonstrate the ultimate prowess by defeating lions.[3] In our story, Daniel seems to be making a strong and clear association between the lion and the powerful kingdom of Babylonia, echoed in his later vision in which Babylonia is depicted as a lion with eagle's wings.[4] This story, like the others in chapters 1-6, is a paradigm for Jews living in the Diaspora under persecution, demonstrating that fidelity to one's religion is feasible despite the demands of powerful pagan rulers. The theme is one that echoes throughout apocalyptic literature: the righteous will be delivered from the fires of persecution and from the clutches of the "human animals" who are trying to destroy them.

The hero of the Book of Daniel attracted the attention of poets and writers from the early Middle Ages. In art, Daniel is a familiar figure, both because of the dramatic, visual quality of the biblical episodes in which he figures and because of his adaptability to Christian typology. Christians thought that Daniel in the lion's den prefigured Jesus in his sepulcher, and also represented the saved soul, or man under God's protection. Daniel is usually portrayed as a young, beardless, and often naked youth, sometimes wearing the Phrygian bonnet. He is seen flanked by his lions, and occasionally accompanied by the ram of his apocalyptic vision.

[1] The book of Daniel, written in Hebrew and Aramaic, was not included among the prophets in the Jewish canon (the Talmud states that although he was terribly wise, he was not a prophet), but among the Writings, the last books to be accepted as Scripture. [back]
[2] Lamentations 3:10, Proverbs 28:15, Amos 3:12, Isaiah 31:4. [back]
[3] Judges 14:5-6; I Samuel 17:34-36. [back]
[4] Daniel 7:4. [back]
Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1971).
John H. Tullock, The Old Testament Story (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2000).
R.J.Z. Werblowsky and G.Wigoder (eds.), Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997).

LIONS Table of Contents



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