So on last week’s podcast, Dizzy and I discussed some of our favorite myths and legends from the Old Testament. The inspiration for the podcast came from Neil Gaiman’s delightful new book on Norse Mythology, in which he encourages all of us to continue telling and retelling the stories that are most important to us. So that’s what I’ve gone ahead and done.
One of my favorite tales from the Hebrew scriptures is the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego which, despite being treated like the forgotten stepchild of Daniel’s adventure in the lion’s den, is a wonderful and entertaining story in its own right. Basically, it tells the story of 3 Jewish friends during the Babylonian exile who are serving under King Nebuchadnezzar (the greatest of all biblical names, in my humble opinion), and who stand up to him when he turns into a bit of a bully. In the face of persecution, they remain faithful to the God of Israel, and as a result they are rewarded with, um, not dying, I suppose. If you need more of a refresher than that, feel free to read up on the full version here.
Now, I ask you to keep in mind that I am neither an expert in the study of scripture nor the telling of stories, so what I’ve basically done here is shattered a Ming vase into a thousand tiny pieces and then put it back together with duct tape and bubble gum. But hopefully it’s good for a chuckle.
The Strange Tale of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
“Is it hot in here?” asked Hananiah who was called Shadrach.
“It’s Babylon in the month of Tamuz,” replied Mishael who was called Meshach. “It’s always hot.”
“I wish we had air conditioning,” said Hananiah.
“What’s air conditioning?” said Azariah who was called Abednigo.
“It’s this box that you put in your window and it sucks in hot air and spits out cold air into your home. I saw it in a dream,” said Hananiah.
“Oh,” said Azariah. “Can we get one?”
“An air commissioner.”
“Air conditioner. And it hasn’t been invented yet, Az.”
“Oh. Well how do you know all about it, then?”
“He saw it in a dream, remember?” said Mishael. “And if we don’t get to work on a battle plan to send to the king, all three of us will have plenty of time to dream of air conditioners and unicorns and, oh you know, freedom, fresh air and the like when we’re chained in a cell beneath the palace.”
“Wake up on the wrong side of the bed, Shach?” asked Hananiah.
“Don’t call me that,” said Mishael who did not like to be called Meshach. “And I’m just trying to look out for us. Ever since the retreat at Tyre, Nebuchadnezzar has been in a pissy mood.”
“Oh, Nebby’s just got a big head and a tiny brain to fill it,” said Hananiah. Azariah snickered. “Every time he loses a battle it’s the same thing. He commissions dozens of graven images of himself, has them placed around the city, and decrees that everyone must worship him like a god. Then, he gets distracted by a pretty girl or a shiny new battlefield, and the whole thing blows over.”
“Well, all the same. We’d best cobble something together to send off to the king, or there’ll be Sheol to pay.”
“Does anyone else hear a zither?” asked Azariah.
“No!” said Hananiah and Mishael together.
“Now, Az, what do you think we should do about this Tyre situation?” said Mishael.
“Well, I suppose we should probably go after Kabri.”
“Really?” said Hananiah. “Not much of a prize, that place.”
“Maybe not, but we should be able to sneak it from the Phoenicians without really breaking much of a sweat, and that gives us a toe hold near Tyre already equipped with ancient citadel walls. We send out raiding parties, cut off supplies to the big cities, and basically lay long-term siege to the whole region. It’s not the quickest way, but eventually Tyre will fall to us. Trust me. Are you guys sure that you don’t hear a zither?”
“If you weren’t some kind of beautiful military savent, Az, we’d have locked you up and thrown away the key long ago,” said Mishael. “Sometimes I feel that we should still be locked up just for listening to you, but if you say that the road to Tyre goes through Kabri, then I suppose that’s what we’ll have to tell the king. Can we get it into a dream, Hananiah?”
“Way ahead of you,” said Hananiah, who had already taken out parchment, pen, and ink. “I’m thinking something with a giant, maybe? He gets hit in the nuts and crumples like a punctured sack of grain.”
“Nope. No nuts, and no sacks,” said Mishael. “You know that Ashpenaz is going to read this before it gets to the king, and eunuchs are always sensitive about such things.”
“You know, Shach, sometimes you’re no fun at all.”
“Indeed. Try again.”
“How about this – we start with a serpent, but instead of cutting off the head we cut off the butt. Then, the whole thing slowly rots and dies.”
“Tail, not butt. I like it. Start fleshing out the details.”
“I wish Daniel were here,” said Azariah. “He always spins the best dreams.”
“Me too, Az,” said Mishael. “We all miss spending time with him, but Daniel’s got important work to do at court.”
“Yeah, like wiping the Nebby’s arse and singing him a lullaby every night,” muttered Hananiah under his breath.
Just then, two men wearing the robes of Chaldean satraps burst through the door. They were overweight and overdressed, and a combination of heat and haste had left them quite sweaty and breathless and unpleasant.
“Yes! I totally called it!” said one man to the other. “Let the record show that I was right, and you were wrong, and you owe me a flagon of wine. Mark it down.”
“Why aren’t you three praying?” asked the man who now apparently owed the other a flagon of wine.
“What do you mean?” said Mishael. “We heard no zither. No dulcimer either, for that matter.”
“Yeah,” said Hananiah, nodding emphatically. “No zither, no dulcimer, no horn or pipe or harp or, uh, what’s the other one again?”
“Double-flute,” said the man who was owed a flagon of wine.
“Right,” said Hananiah. “No double-flute, so no praying.”
“What’s a double-flute?” said Azariah.
“I’m sure these two could explain it to us,” said Hananiah. “Unless, of course, they’re eunuchs.”
“The fact remains,” interjected Mishael quickly, “that we did not hear any music, and that is why we are not worshipping the idol of the king.”
“The zither has been playing on the square, just outside the window of this room, for nearly five minutes,” said the eunuch who was owed wine.
“Told you,” said Azariah. Mishael and Hananiah cringed.
“The king will hear of this,” said the grumpier of the two eunuchs.
“Honestly, we didn’t hear a zither,” said Mishael.
“Yeah,” said Hananiah. “In fact, I’m deaf in one ear. We all are.”
“King Nebby has a big head and a tiny brain to fill it,” said Azariah.
The Chaldean eunuchs left in a hurry, and Hananiah dropped his head onto the desk with a thunk.
The next day, Shadrach who was once called Hananiah, Meshach who was once called Mishael, and Abednego who was once called Az were all brought before King Nebuchadnezzar. The king, whose head seemed quite normal in size much to the surprise of Abednego, looked at them sternly.
“The Chaldeans tell me that you refuse to bow down and worship my golden statue whenever you hear the horn, pipe, dulcimer, harp, double-flute, or zither. Is this true?”
“To be honest, I’ve always hated the zither,” replied Shadrach, just before he was struck by the butt end of a palace guard’s lance. “And eunuchs,” he added, under his breath.
“What was that?” said the king.
“Nothing, my king. Just expressing my preference for the double-flute, is all.”
“The truth is, my king,” said Meshach who did not like to be called Meshach, “that we do not worship you as our god. There is only one God for us Jews, and while we loyally serve you as our king, we cannot pay homage to two divine masters.”
“You know that my decree says that the punishment for refusing to worship me is death by fiery furnace, right?”
“Right, about that…” said Shadrach, but that’s all that he was able to get out before the butt of a spear smacked into his jaw and cut him off. Shadrach caught his breath, and then began to laugh. “A spear!” he cackled. “That would have made for such a better dream!”
“What are you talking about?” said King Nebuchadnezzar.
But Shadrach wasn’t talking to the king. He was looking at his friends, Mishael and Azariah. “A snake can’t bite with its butt, but a spear can. It makes so much more sense for a battle that needs to be won. Cut the butt off of a spear, and eventually the whole thing rots or turns to ash or something. That would have been a much better dream!”
“What is he talking about?” said the king, looking at Meshach and Abednego.
“It’s a dream he had, my king,” said Meshach, “and if Abednego’s interpretation of Shadrach’s dream is correct we think it may hold the key to entire region of Tyre.”
“It’s about air commissioners,” said Abednego to the king.
“Not that dream, Az. The other one.”
“Oh, right,” said Abednego, scratching his head. Then, turning to the king, “It’s about Kidra!”
“We transcribed the dream and brought it with us today in the hope of reminding you that we are much more useful to our king alive than we are dead.” Meshach reached down to his belt and produced the scrap of parchment on which Shadrach had recorded the dream about the serpent.
“I thank you,” said the king. He gave a wave of his hand to send the eunuch Ashpenaz across the room to retrieve the parchment. “I will give this to Daniel so that he might offer his own interpretation. Speaking of Daniel, he was here just before you all arrived. As you may imagine, he is quite distressed by your behavior and its potential consequences. He begged for me to give you a second chance to show your loyalty. I sent him away before you were brought in because I knew it would be difficult for him to see you in shackles, but he asked me to tell you that your God would understand if you bowed down and worshipped me according to the law. There is no jealousy among the gods.”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood silently. Each man knew that Daniel would never have said such a thing, and if he were present to hear such an accusation he would likely fly into a rage and find himself shackled right beside them.
“So,” continued the king, “I am prepared to honor Daniel’s request and give you one final chance to preserve your lives. Prostrate yourselves, here and now, and worship before me, or else face the furnace.”
“My king,” said Meshach, “we honor you for your wisdom and cunning as a ruler, and your might as a military commander is rightfully known throughout the land, but we worship only the one true God. Cast us into the fire if you must. Our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, will protect us.”
“I see,” said the king. “Does he speak for all of you?”
“He does,” said Abednego.
“It’s Babylon in the month of Tamuz,” said Shadrach. “We’re already in a furnace, and we haven’t burned up yet.”
The king turned to Ashpenaz. “Tell the men down below to add more logs to the fire. I want that furnace hot enough to melt the beak off of a phoenix.” The eunuch bowed and scurried out of the room.
When he had settled on death-by-fiery-furnace as his preferred method of execution, King Nebuchadnezzar had commissioned a massive furnace room to be installed just beneath the main hall of the palace. It was not uncommon for the flames to reach three stories in height and be seen shooting out the top of the blackened chimney that rose from the palace ramparts. In the royal hall, the king had a heavy iron door put in place that opened directly to the furnace so that prisoners, and the occasional unruly advisor, could receive their judgment and be cast directly into the flames. He could watch the executions without even needing to move from his throne. As Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood awaiting their fate, the iron door began to rattle and hum with the fury of the flames building behind it.
The king nodded at the guard who stood by the door. The guard swung the door open, and was immediately turned to ash by the heat of the raging fire within the furnace.
“Now,” said the king, “cast these men into the fire.” But none of the palace guards stepped forward to fulfill his command. “Cast them into the fire, or you’ll all be joining them!” he yelled. The guards all shuffled their feet, but nobody approached Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego. Finally, the king had to choose three men from among the guards and assign them the task.
The guards made sure to stay a full spear’s length behind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They poked and prodded at them to guide them toward the furnace. Still, the heat was intense, and they could feel their skin beginning to blister. One of the guards cried out in pain as drew closer to the iron door. A final push sent Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego tumbling over the lip of the furnace and into the fire, and at the same instant all three guards burst into flames and fell down dead on the floor.
Nebuchadnezzar waited to hear the screams of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but the hall was silent.
“Perhaps we overdid it with the fire,” said the king to his eunuch. “I don’t like it when they die too quickly to scream.”
The king waited a bit more. The flames began to die down, but still no sound of tortured wailing came from the furnace. Then, he heard it, but it wasn’t the screams he expected. Instead, this particular tortured wailing sounded like…singing?
“Dancing queen! Young and sweet, only seventeen. Dancing queen, feel the beat of the tambouriiiiiiiine! Oooooh!”
Nebuchadnezzar rushed from his throne and looked through the door of the furnace into the flames below, where he saw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego unburnt and unharmed.
“Has anyone ever told you that you’ve got a lovely singing voice, Az? It’s much more pleasant than a zither,” Meshach was saying as he tapped his toe and snapped his fingers to the beat. “And I love this song! You’re so creative.”
“I heard it in a dream once,” said Abednego who was called Az.
Shadrach was dancing in a circle around Abednego, his robes flowing and arms whirling about his head. “Does anyone else feel a cool breeze blowing?” he asked his friends.
“You know, I do feel a bit of a breeze now that you mention it, Hananiah,” said Meshach. “It’s quite lovely. Do you feel it, Az?”
“I do,” said Abednego, “but I thought you said they hadn’t invented the air commissioner yet.”