I spent half of my childhood wanting to be a lion tamer. Every other day, I watched a VHS recording of a Ringling Bros. special my parents taped for me and all I wanted was to be the guy inside the cage with the lions. There were tigers too, my favorite of which was the white one, and in my living room I pretended I was directing the giant cats to wow the audience. I also wanted his knee-length coat and the knee-high black leather boots. I could do without the top hat but loved the rest. When I visited the zoo, I only really cared about finding the lions. I’d hold onto the railing of their habitat for as long as I could, watching Simba’s every move. (Every lion was Simba in the 90s) Since lions were my favorite animals, you can understand why I had an affinity for the story of Daniel, the Bible’s lion tamer.
Turns out, there was a lot more to Daniel’s story than his night in the circus. Long before he inadvertently wound up with my dream job, he along with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were just kids working for the king. Did you know this quartet of above-the-title characters shared the same opening act? I didn’t when I was a kid but their stories are actually two pieces of the same statement and although they were told in Sunday School separately, they fit together seamlessly.
As it’s written, King Nebuchadnezzar recruited (read: forced) Israelites to join into his service. His request was specific: he wanted hot young men who were smart, well informed, quick to understand new things, and who’d look nice in his administration’s pledge class photo. In return for their enlistment, the boys would learn the language and literature of the Babylonians as well as become privy to the fancy food and wine from the king’s table. That doesn’t sound like a bad gig when you live in a desert. Of the young men “recruited,” four were our heroes Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—the fab four of the Old Testament. Daniel’s name was changed to a much longer, more cumbersome Babylonian name, Belteshazzar, and the other three are actually known today for their Babylonian names rather than their original Israeli names. [Daniel 1:7]
Daniel established himself as the Danny Zuko of their little gang and asked their superior if the Fab Four could refrain from eating the fried foods, caloric wines, and B.C. sodas on which the king preferred to dine. I know the rationale behind this was his desire to be healthy and fine-tuned but I’m sure he also wanted to retain the “hot” part of his bio. The official wasn’t so sure because eating at the Babylonian McDonalds was all he’d ever known, so Daniel asked for a dry run: give him and the three boys nothing but vegetables and water for ten days, after which he could assess the difference between they and the rest of the hot smarties in their recruitment class. After ten days, the Fab Four looked healthier and more shredded than the other tub-of-lard recruits so the official made the rest of their class follow suit.
After three years of learning, studying and forced veganism, all of the hot smarties had to go before the king to be inspected. As you’d predict, the king found our Fab Four to be ten times better than anyone the king was already relying on for advice. “Rack,” “Shack,” and “Benny” became administrators over Babylon while Daniel took a job within the royal court.
I need to backtrack. “Rack,” “Shack,” and “Benny” are nicknames given to Shadrach (“Rack”), Meshach (“Shack”), and Abednego (“Benny”) by the popular Christian animated series Veggie Tales. The show’s creators gave them nicknames that would be easier for kids to remember and while I may be in my mid-30s, I still prefer these names. Also, in the Veggie animated version, our protagonists were portrayed as workers in a chocolate bunny factory rather than a palace in Babylon. So yeah, it was awesome.
After some time and with very little context provided, King Nebuchadnezzar had an enormous golden idol constructed, after which he summoned all of his administrators from across the country to attend the ribbon cutting. At the ceremony, the king instructed all his muckety-mucks to fall down and worship the idol whenever they heard the music play—kinda like what happens when Britney comes on in a gay bar—and he decreed that if anyone refused to bow, they’d be thrown into a blazing furnace. Not wanting to become barbecue, folks did as they were told — all except for our trio of administrators. They, like Elton John, were still standing.
That didn’t sit well with everyone on the ground so some astrologers decided to rat them out. Your majesty! Those three hot smarties with the long names won’t bow down to your gods and that’s so not fair! Our knees are killing us and they’re just standing there all smart and smug and hot. They must hate you! Clearly, that news didn’t thrill ol’ Nebbie so he asked “Rack,” “Shack” and “Benny” if it was true that they refused to be team players and worship his idol like everybody else. They told him he was correct; they weren’t interested.
It was a bold move by our boys, standing up to the king like that, and I’m sure Nebbie was taken aback since he’d had such a solid rapport with them up to that point. But Nebbie stood his ground and reminded them if they didn’t bandwagon like the rest of the kingdom, he’d make good on his decree to throw them into a furnace. He then taunted them by saying, “What god would be able to rescue you from my hand anyway?” [Daniel 3:15] I imagine them staring at him, unimpressed, before telling him they didn’t need to defend themselves because their God was more powerful than him anyway. “As a matter of fact, dying would be a better alternative to worshiping this silly image of gold you spent so much time with your interior designers creating.”
Nebbie—a king rife with control issues and a large circle of yes men—immediately ordered the furnace heated up seven times hotter than usual and for the boys to be thrown in so he’d never have to deal with their backtalk again. The flames were so hot, the soldiers who dropped the boys into the fire didn’t even survive doing so. I imagine this looked something like the dude whose face melts off in Raiders of the Lost Ark and as such, you’d think they’d notice the boy’s faces didn’t instantly melt, but whatever. They fell into the fire and that was that. Nebbie wins. The boys lose.
Except on second glance, onlookers noticed something in the flames. Not only were the boys not dead and melted, but there were four dudes chillin in the fire, not three.
Nebbie started to lose his mind and probably his lunch knowing he’d ordered only three dudes to be thrown in and they should’ve been instantly turned into charred goo, yet he could clearly see four very not-dead dudes walking around the fire unbothered like the silver guy from Terminator 2.
Church folks, when talking about a particularly meaningful church service or prayer meeting will sometimes say, “God really showed up.” It’s a phrase that doesn’t make much sense to people who aren’t fluent in Christianese and honestly, it’s a bit of a misnomer in general because God has, at all times and in every place, already shown up. But this is the very most literal version of that colloquialism. This is God actually showing up and hanging out with them in the fire.
Amazed, Nebbie shouted into the fire, Since y’all are still alive, go ahead and come on out! The fire hadn’t even singed their hair and Nebbie realized the boys were right, he was wrong, and whoever they were praying to was actually in control. He says in verse 28, “They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.” Isn’t it nice when the villain suddenly gets the plot? But don’t worry, he then decreed that anyone who spoke negatively about their God would be “cut into pieces and their houses turned into piles of rubble.” Some things never change. “Rack,” “Shack” and “Benny” got promotions, Nebbie got religion, and the story shifts back to Daniel.
Once we circle back to Daniel, Nebbie is no longer in the picture. Actually his son is out of the picture too. Violent times. A new king, King Darius, had taken the throne and he’d appointed Daniel to one of the top three cabinet positions in his administration. Dan was so good as his job, Darius was even considering promoting him to the top administrator in the land. When news of this got out, it upset the men who felt like that job should’ve been theirs so they began searching for ways to knock Dan down a peg. The problem was, they couldn’t land on any viable infractions. There was no corruption, there were no scandals, he was trustworthy, well-liked and wasn’t negligent. He was basically the Obama of his day.
In the Veggie Tales version of Daniel’s story, three dancing asparagus sprigs sing, “Oh no, what we gonna do? The king likes Daniel more than me and you. Oh no, what we gonna do? We gotta get him outta here.” One of their ideas was, “We could use him as a footstool or a table to plan Scrabble on, then tie him up and beat him up and throw him out of Babylon.”* Those aren’t exactly adjacent stakes as what Daniel faced in his biblical tale but the theme is the same. They were jealous, they wanted him out, and they plotted relentlessly until they came up with a solution.
The only way they could knock him down was to find a religious loophole in which to trap him so they presented the king with a plan eerily reminiscent of what happened with “Rack,” “Shack,” and “Benny.” Their suggestion was to author a decree which stated no one in the kingdom was allowed to pray to any god other than the king. If they were caught doing so—caught being so blatantly disrespectful to the king’s supreme authority—into the lion’s den they should go. The king went with their idea because he was into the ego stroking.
This didn’t faze Daniel. He went right up to his room with the fancy bay windows that opened toward the city and continued to pray on his knees three times a day. The jealous men were waiting for this, knowing he’d do as he’d always done, and as soon as they saw it, they went to the king and reminded him of his decree. They then smirked as they told him D-Money was praying to his God and that only meant one thing: lion food.
Not only had they trapped Daniel, but they’d trapped the king as well. Darius liked Dan and had no desire to make lion brunch out of him, but as hard as he tried to get around the law that he, himself, signed into existence, he couldn’t. They’d trapped him good.
I imagine this sets up an awkward conversation between the king and Dan. The king is all, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to do this, I was just feeling crappy and small and these fellas said it would be in the interest of my self-care if I had some praise doted on me for a change. I never thought it would put you in this position.” Inside his head, you know Dan was thinking, “You’re a royal dumb-dumb but that’s why we get along. But yeah, they got us good.” So the king, forced to act like the Genie when he has to give Jafar his wishes, gave the order to toss his buddy Dan into the lion’s den. As they carted him off, the king shouted, “I truly hope the God you keep praying to will rescue you because I can’t quit you!”
We’re finally here. The big moment. Dan took a tumble down into the den where the lions were kept and everyone figured that was the end. I’m certain the lions were poked and prodded and inhumanely starved so they’d immediately pounce on anyone who fell in; animal abuse at its finest. Then, to put a period at the end of this sentence, a stone was placed over the mouth of the den so no one could get in or out.
I’ve often wondered what Daniel could’ve been thinking down there. The images shown to us in Sunday School ranged from Daniel standing in the center of sleeping lions with his hands together in prayer to images of him sitting on a rock as an angel stood beside him pointing at the lions in a way that said, “Shut up Mufasa. Nala, go to bed. I am the captain now.” For what it’s worth, I imagined Daniel as Luke Skywalker when he was dropped into the Rancor’s cage in Return of the Jedi, but rather than fighting to get out, the hungry beasts in the cage sat quiet. That had to be unsettling. Silence can be the most unsettling sound in the world—I mean, have you seen I Am Legend?—and add to that the possibility there was an angel standing there as well? That’s a lot. Do you make small talk with the angel? I for sure would.
When I was a one-year-old, my parents recorded a series of TV specials called Disney’s DTV. It was 1984 and MTV had taken over the airwaves so in response, Disney took popular music and laid it over the top of classic Disney animation to create music videos which repurposed everything from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Jungle Book by overlaying songs by Madonna, Elvis and Stevie Wonder. My mother has always said I could work the VCR before I could walk so every day for my toddler years, I watched these specials on repeat. Of those videos to songs like Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello,” the one that stayed with me the most was “There Must Be an Angel (Playing With my Heart)” by The Eurythmics. It was played over a cut of Fantasia where the girl centaurs flirt with the boy centaurs and beyond instilling me with a love of Annie Lennox and Greek mythology, that song became the first song I truly loved. As such, I imagine I’d be totally up for ‘talking to an angel’ as the song suggests. I’d have questions for sure.
Hi there. Thanks for keeping their mouths shut. I’d prefer not to be eaten. I mean, I was prepared to die but I’d prefer to live. My apartment has a great view. So thanks. So… How are you? How’s your mom? Do angels have moms? Was that insensitive? I’m sorry… Are you gonna stand there all night pointing at the lions? Should I be praying or has that been covered already? Did you happen to bring a snack?
I don’t know what actually happened, I wasn’t there and it’s not explained in the Bible, but whether in silence or in small talk, that had to be an unsettling evening for Daniel.
King Darius spent the evening equally as unsettled. So nervous he couldn’t bring himself to eat anything, he paced back and forth, hoping to God that God actually existed and would come through with the assist. As soon as the sun started to peek over the horizon, he bolted back to the lion’s den and called down the shaft. “Dan! Dan? You there? Did God show up? If you don’t answer, I’m selling these lions to a circus where they can be truly abused!”
But Daniel shouted back that God sent an angel who shut the mouths of the lions. “I’m good! None of them hurt me and we slept really well. Thank you for asking!” He explained that God found him innocent and as such, saved his life. He also took advantage of having the king’s undivided attention to remind him he’d never wronged him leading up to this furry little episode. I’d be testy too after that sort of night. The king, utterly relieved, realized how he’d been tricked into signing the decree that landed Daniel in this situation.
Hold up. Who is the king around here? Darius, that’s who. I make the laws and I can unmake them too. They thought they could just use me like that? Naw. I’m awake now kids.
So with that, he swapped Dan for the men who’d tricked him—tossing them into the den along with their wives and children—and the Bible says they were lion food before they even hit the floor. Dayum. The king then told all of his people how Daniel stood up for what he believed and even against the threat of being thrown to the lions, stood unwavering in his integrity. He admitted Daniel was right and so was his God. Moral of the story: Be faithful and stand strong.
As a freshman in high school, I was timid and shaky and self-conscious about every aspect of myself. I didn’t really know who I was growing into and as such, I tended to keep to myself. At church, I knew everyone and that was my happy place but at my school, I was a loner. I took a required speech class and my teacher, Coach Dawson, told us to prepare a persuasive speech. Over the weeks, we learned the ins and outs of how to convey need to an audience, all the while trying to brainstorm what our speech’s topic would be. The only idea I could come up with was to persuade my classmates to come to the Crossroads Bible Club.
I’d been tipped off about this club by a friend and on Thursdays after the school day ended, I’d meet with a handful of other students in one of the science classrooms to talk about how God could help us make it through high school. I wasn’t involved with anything at school at that point and this felt like a stranger-danger-less way to make friends. The club was run by a college-aged girl named Christy who was a part of a discipleship program at her church. After our weekly meetings were over—all of which she was perpetually late for so I began starting the meetings myself—she would drive me home. Beyond the pleasure of her company, it was also nice to not have to take the bus.
On the drive home, I would talk to Christy about church and life and she’d tell me stories about when she was a student at my school. Being in the car with her felt, at times, like I was an imposter in an older-person’s world. Once, she pulled up to a dude in the parking lot and I realized it was Tyler, the most popular guy in school. He was a football player, well liked, had a good sense of style, and I’d marveled at him in the hallways in the way freshman marvel at seniors. As he talked with her, he looked over at wormy little me in the passenger’s seat and extended his hand. “Hey, I’m Tyler,” he said as he shook my trembling hand. I think I responded with words, perhaps it was just spit-up and gurgles, but I felt seen by my school’s resident Danny Zuko and that felt weird and cool and inclusive. Time spent with Christy and our Crossroads Bible Club felt like an adventure so I wrote my speech imploring my classmates to come check it out so they might also feel the same.
Standing in front of the jocks and pretty girls and burnouts in my speech class, I shook as I spoke. It felt like I was preaching naked and everyone was judging me for being so preachy. I got through it though and after taking my seat, I shrank back down into myself to listen to the other speeches while doodling in a spiral notebook with one of my sparkly gel pens. When I got my grading sheet at the end of class, I’d been given an A. Coach Dawson pulled me aside as I gathered my gel pens and told me she was impressed by my bravery to stand up for what I believed. She also said she was proud of me. I may not have been smart and hot like the Fab Four but it not only felt like I was surviving the fire, but that I wasn’t alone in the flames either.
The Faithful Fab Four were, in a very real way, part of a resistance. In the theocracy of their day, their standing up (literally) for their beliefs was every bit as political as someone boycotting or protesting a law or bill issued by the government. There was a little resistance in my speech as well. I don’t know if you remember high school, but it’s not the most awesome place to “be yourself.” Glee was a cute show and all but in real life, it takes a lot of balls to stand up for who you are and what you believe in. Especially when it’s not the popular opinion.
But we rise and we resist that notion to conform or stay silent. As Junior Asparagus sang in Veggie Tales, “I think little guys can do big things too.” I don’t know that the Fab Four’s stories are telling us that if we stand up to the government, God will save us, but they’re definitely showing us the importance of standing up right where we are.
What they’re also saying—and doing so through such beautiful symmetry—is that no matter what comes at us, God is there. Whether we’re under assault from elements outside our control (“Rack,” “Shack,” and “Benny” vs. the fire) or by something/someone intent on causing us harm (Daniel vs. the lions), God is there. God was with those boys in the fire, with Daniel in that pit, and with me addressing my class. No, my life wasn’t on the line, but God doesn’t show up only when the stakes are life-and-death. God is with you now, right where you are.
Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s stories can be found in the book of Daniel.
So what’s this all about? Read my introduction to the Sunday School for Sinners and Saints project here.
Illustrations by freepik.com
*”Oh No! What We Gonna Do?” VeggieTunes. Phil Vischer, Mike Nawrocki. ℗ 1995 Big Idea Entertainment