Daniel in the lions’ den: literary criticism by an atheist

I find myself attending evensong a bit these days. For an atheist, it throws up a number of issues, but since my son is one of the choirboys I tend to show up to say hello to him and enjoy the music.

Yesterday’s service included a reading of Daniel in the lions’ den. Apart from the excellent reminder of correct use of a possessive apostrophe for a plural noun, at some points I had to restrain myself from heckling. Apparently that’s not done. There are levels of parental embarrassment for kids, and having your mum heckle during evensong is probably way up there.

They are a traditional lot. It was King James version all the way, with its forasmuch and thus and which altereth not. But far from being lulled into a poetic trance from the beauty of the language, I found myself listening to the story: a story I thought I knew well. It is bonkers. Let me recap.

Good old King Dari’us of Medes and/or Persia (he of the extra and unexplained apostrophe) likes Daniel. So far so good. But apparently his cronies – those 120 princes sent out to run the country – get themselves into a right tizzy because Dari’us likes Daniel better than them, and puts Daniel in charge of the three people in charge of the 120. Are you with me? So the 120 presidents and princes wonder how to bring Daniel down. They can see he’s a goody-goody, so concoct a convoluted plan to trick him into being naughty.

First: they nab a meeting with Dari’us. Rule one when you see the king – you have to tell him to live for ever. Far from being peeved about being lied to, apparently Dari’us likes that. He’s not blessed with much independent thought, as we’ll see in a moment.

Second: they persuade Dari’us to agree to a thirty-day moratorium on anyone asking anybody anything. It is DIY month in Medes (and/or Persia). This includes any sneaky questions to any god, by the way.

Third: they get Dari’us to sign the decree. See my previous point about him being a bit technically challenged on the old independent thought process. Dari’us loves Daniel. He knows Daniel is one for the prayers. Does it never occur to him that these 120 envious numpties are up to something?

Fourth: apparently any law is an instant classic. It cannot be changed. In the wonderful King James language “according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not”. This bit’s important. Not even the king can change his mind once he’s squiggled on a bit of papyrus or vellum or whatever they used. (I never said this was going to be a learned article.)

Fifth: they get the king to agree to feed anyone ignoring this new law to some lions they handily keep about the place.

So, off go the scheming types like a lynch mob to Daniel’s house, where of course they catch him dashing off the odd prayer (through a conveniently open window in the direction of Jerusalem). They rush back to the king and tell tales. Dari’us, presumably kicking himself by now, sees what an oaf he’s been, but admits it is true according to the law of the Medes and Persians “which altereth not”. Bugger.

Dari’us spends all that day trying to work out a way he could save Daniel, but the dastardly plotters come back to remind him that “no decree or statue which the king establisheth may be changed”. So they chuck Daniel in with the lions, Dari’us seals up the stone with his own signet (a harsh touch, I thought) and they all scarper, leaving Daniel to be munched.

First thing in the morning, probably even before breakfast, Dari’us rushes back and wonders if his friend is now just so many lion toothpicks. But no! A cheery shout goes up from inside that the king should “live forever”! These guys just don’t know when to stop lying. Daniel then tells his old mate all about an angel shutting up the lions’ mouths, completely forgetting that he could have sustained several bad scratches from their claws that probably need a bit of disinfecting now.

All’s well that ends well, you might think. But no. This is wild west country, this bible stuff. Eye for an eye and all that. Dari’us thinks it’s ok to cast all the men who accused Daniel into the den of lions instead. And it doesn’t stop there. Their wives and children get chucked in as well, just for the hell of it. And the lions “brake all their bones in pieces”. Because it was their fault too, apparently, that Dari’us was a teensy bit too malleable to be much cop at being a king. Go Dari’us.

Then, blow me down, Dari’us doesn’t learn. He only goes and writes another decree, never mind that it was writing a bloody decree that got him (well, technically, Daniel) into so much trouble the first time. This time everyone has to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel. Because a bit of trembling and fearing does everyone good now and then.

And Daniel “prospered in the reign of Dari’us”. I bet he did.

And that is why I didn’t heckle.