Beware of the Lions of Tribalism

Angry lionWhen I was young I heard all the stories that make up the first part of the book of Daniel: Daniel and the Lion’s Den, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the Fiery Furnace.

Well, mainly those two. Not too much about the disembodied hand writing on the wall, even though that’s where we get the saying, “The writing is on the wall.”

But maybe that story is just too weird for a flannel board.

We never really covered Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams of a large statue toppling over (where we get the saying about clay feet) or the huge tree being cut down (where we get…nothing. It’s the red-headed stepchild of Daniel stories.)

We did hear about Daniel and his Jewish friends refusing the king’s food and thriving on water and vegetables, but it didn’t make as much of an impression as the other two stories.

Seriously, what first-grader is impressed about eating their vegetables when you’ve got guys surviving fiery furnaces and lions?

Impressed or not, all the stories made the same point, we were taught: stay faithful to God no matter what.

Don’t compromise your faith.

God protects those who refuse to back down in their commitment to Christ.

I recently read an adult Sunday School lesson on Daniel, and it makes the same point, just with bigger words and without the flannel board. And if that is all that the stories are supposed to convey, then that’s fine.

But it’s not. There’s more that’s there. And it isn’t necessarily nice, but it’s something we desperately need to learn.

Daniel is set during the Babylonian Exile, but that’s not when it was composed. It was written for Israelites living sometime in the 160’s B.C.E. This is the period of the the Maccabean Revolt against their Seleucid occupiers after Alexander the Great’s conquest and imposition of Greek rule.

This period is important because the conditions resulting from the successful revolt are still in force when Jesus lived and died. What conditions are those?

There is intense hatred toward foreigners—not just the Romans who supplanted the Greek Empire and took over—but all foreigners. They were lumped together under the term goyim, which we translate as gentile. It literally means “nations,” but in the 1st century it was said with a sneer. It was a derogatory term that indicated someone who worshiped falsely and was unclean, uncouth, and unjust.

More than anything, they were unJewish. UnIsraelite.

Which was very unCool.

This “Israel First” movement had its roots in the immediate aftermath of the Exile, but it came to a head during the Maccabean period and is reflected in Daniel.

Understanding this it’s clear that  those stories weren’t told just to say, “Stay faithful to God.”

They were told to say, “Stay faithful to Israel. Stay faithful to being Jewish. We’re better than them.

“We’re so much better, we can eat nothing but water and vegetables and still come out stronger and healthier. We’re so much better, we can be thrown into fiery furnaces and lions’ dens and angels will protect us.

“We’re so much better, we can interpret dreams that no one else can, and advance to the head of leadership even under foreign kings. As long as we stay faithful to God and to Israel.”

They equated those two things, faithfulness to Israel and faithfulness to God. If you weren’t faithful to the state of Israel, you weren’t faithful to God. You weren’t a real Israelite.

That’s what got Jesus into trouble. He rejected such tribalism. He accepted the goyim, including those Israelites who had been cast aside as unclean, as unfaithful to the Law and to Israel.

That’s why they had to kill him. He was a blasphemer of God and a traitor to Israel.

But it’s the tribalism that ultimately destroyed Israel. They went into the fiery furnace and rebelled against Rome. They took up swords and jumped into the lion’s den, but there was no angel to protect them when the lions of Rome did what lions always do.

Jesus had tried to warn them. Tribalism killed him, and tribalism destroyed them.

But Jesus still lives, as does his church, the New Israel that is supposed to model that there is no longer Jew or Greek…but in Christ we are all one.

© Can Stock Photo / Nejron

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