2015: Advent Religion: Heroes and Villains

by on December 9, 2015

There are lots of good stories in the Bible. There’s the cute bits, like Noah’s Ark, and the thrilling bits, like Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and the entertainingly silly bits like Zacchaeus climbing the tree. We liked to tell the stories, preach about them, read them out. There are some properly good stories in there. You can learn things from them.

But we, being the people we were, always had some ambivalance about the morals of the stories. They often had clear-cut heroes and villains and, well, we didn’t think it was so clear-cut. The villains are usually powerful men, which is to say respectable men. Part of the establishment. We liked respectable members of the establishment. We felt a sympathy for them we didn’t have for scrappy young rebels. So our readings of those stories always had a hint of apology in them.

Take Daniel. Daniel famously ended up being thrown (ineffectually) to the lions, because he repeatedly defied the king, Darius. Darius issued legal edicts, which Daniel ignored; this was part of a plot against Daniel by some other politians, because his defiance was predictable. So Darius, after much soul-searching, decides he can’t go against his own edicts, because he’d look weak, and throws Daniel to the lions. The lions do not eat him and all ends well.

The hero of this story is clearly Daniel, the villains are the scheming politicians, and King Darius is weak and a bad example.

The way we read it, though… Daniel is breaking the lawful rules of a court in which he is a foreigner. He holds office on sufferance. He’s an outsider. If he breaks the rules of the court he should expect to be punished for it – except in this case God was on his side and he was right to treat God’s rules as more important than the king’s. Because they were clearly written down and in direct contradiction. Usually, you should follow the rules of the king, but in this case, Daniel has sufficient excuse. Darius could have been smarter and seen the scheme for what it was, but once he’d issued the edict, he was right not to make exceptions. There have to be rules. Rules have to be followed.

The scheming politicians were probably rotters, but they were being enviably clever in how they went about things and you have to admire their shrewdness in getting the king to condemn Daniel himself rather than trying to just murder him.

We read all the stories like this, with this sympathy for the people in power. Defiance from the lower orders is not an inherent good. An ordered, regular society is. So if you’re going to go up against the system, you’d better have it in black and white in the Bible that you’re right.

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