God is Judge

Chapter 5

A Commentary on the book of Daniel

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The Fiery Furnace


The narrative in Daniel 3 poses a number of questions – firstly, Daniel is absent without explanation – the story is only concerned with his three companions.  Secondly, the ritual significance of the image is left unexplained. Lastly, the response of the three companions to Nebuchadnezzar allows for the possibility that God would not save them.


Nebuchadnezzar’s image is made of gold and is sixty cubits high and six cubits wide. The base of the image is obviously circular with the width representing the diameter of the circle – this gives us a cylindrical ‘image’ which has the form of a tower or stele.[1] It is therefore unlikely    Continued  ˃


[1] Robert Hayward commenting on the Oniad temple at Leontopolis notes that tower (compare the tower of Babel) is often used in a synecdochal fashion for temple; “Compelled by this statement, Onias is given a tract of land, a hundred and eighty furlongs distant from Memphis, where he erects a fortress and builds a temple sixty cubits [emphasis mine] in height, made out of huge stones.  In contrast to his earlier statement (1.33), Josephus here declares that the temple resembles a tower and is unlike the sanctuary in Jerusalem. The temple-tower image appears to have been part of the common parlance of the day, used to represent the temple in Jerusalem symbolically. In his description of the temple at Leontopolis, Josephus also states that the height of the tower was sixty cubits [emphasis mine] (J.W. 7.427), and that this temple was “smaller and poorer” than the one in Jerusalem (Ant. 13.72).  Sixty cubits, however, are the exact dimensions given for the restored temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 6:3; 1 Esd 6:24, Ant. 11.99; 15.385; J.W. 5.215)”. See Robert Hayward, “The Jewish Temple at Leontopolis: A Reconsideration,” JJS 33 (1982): 429-43, 431-32,433 

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that the image represents any human form. At the basis of the measurements is the Babylonian Sexagesimal system with a numerical base of sixty.[2]  The volume of the cylinder is 1696 cubic cubits and the surface area is 1188 square cubits (1134) [3] it is therefore unlikely that it was solid gold but probably overlaid with gold.[4]  One can speculate that the gold was booty from Solomon’s temple and the emphasis on gold and the number six is certainly a poignant commentary on the demise of the splendour of the Davidic dynasty.[5]  The temple of Ezekiel’s vision employs the same proportions for the posts as Nebuchadnezzar’s does for his image (Ezek 40:14; 41:1)[6] - the choice of the same dimensions is probably deliberate. The fact that the image is left undefined [7] indicates that the ritual aspect is relatively    Continued  ˃


[2] Babylonian influence is still felt in the measuring of angles, geographic coordinates, and time.


[3] The Babylonians calculated the circumference of a circle as three times the diameter (3 x 6=18). The area of a circle was calculated as one twelfth of the squared circumference (1/12 x 182=27).  The surface area of the cylinder (using Babylonian formulae) was therefore the area of both end circles (27 square cubits) plus the area of the side (60x18=1080) giving 1134 square cubits (27+27+1080). This is close to the modern calculation of 1188 square cubits.  Of course the end that stood on the ground would not require coating with gold making the total available surface 1159 square cubits (modern calculation) requiring 290 talents of gold (see  footnote below).

[4] The Most Holy Place (a perfect square with sides of 20 cubits) with a total surface area of 2400 square cubits required 600 talents of gold to overlay the interior (2 Chron. 3:8).

[5] The weight of gold that came to Solomon yearly was 666 talents of gold (1 Kings 10:14)

[6] Although the cubit measure in Ezekiel is the ‘long cubit’ (Ezek. 40:5) the proportions are the same as Daniel’s image

[7] We are not informed that it is an image of Marduk or a likeness of Nebuchadnezzar, etc…

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unimportant - the image is only of import in that it is used as a litmus test for loyalty to the king. This may explain the absence of Daniel whose loyalty was above question and who was continuously in the king’s presence while his companions were elsewhere busy with administrative tasks.


The loyalty test


We might ask what events prompted Nebuchadnezzar to impose such an extreme test of loyalty. The date given for the loyalty test in the LXX is the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. This is significant because the temple was burned in the eighteenth regnal year (586/7). Critics believe that this is simply a gloss and that the LXX version has borrowed from Jer. 52:29 in order to provide a plausible reason for the ceremony, namely, pledging loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar but other intertextual connections with Jeremiah place the fiery furnace incident firmly within this period.


Jeremiah 29:21-23 reports the ‘roasting’ of two false prophets in Babylon. Paul-Alain Beaulieu[8] believes that an actual incident is being reported; “We have seen that several Babylonian sources of the first millennium chronicle the burning of individuals upon royal command for crimes of rebellion and sacrilege. Therefore the probability of a Babylonian setting for the redaction or editing of these chapters [Jer. 27-30] must be seriously considered. This is further supported by the fact, recently pointed out by Jack Lundbom,[9] that, oddly, Jer. 29:22 uses the root קלה (“to burn, roast”) to refer to the execution of the condemned prophets, rather than שדף [cf. Gen. 38:24] which is the verb that normally refers to the burning of     Continued  ˃


[8] Paul-Alain Beaulieu, The Babylonian Background of the Motif of the Fiery Furnace in Daniel 3(JBL 128, no. 2 (2009): 273–290),289

[9] (Ibid,  p. 289, fn 49) - Lundbom, Jeremiah 21–36, 358

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individuals in the Bible. The use of קלה here derives in all probability from Babylonian usage. The usual verbs referring to burning as death penalty in cuneiform sources are qalû, which is the cognate verb of קלה, and less frequently qamû [10].


Moreover, Beaulieu notes that, “Jeremiah 27–29 has long been recognized as a distinct unit within the book. The three chapters display a number of peculiarities, including shorter spellings of Yahwistic names, the frequent use of titles with personal names, and the spelling of the name Nebuchadnezzar with an n rather than the more accurate r found in the rest of the book.[11] The spelling with n is in fact the more common one in the Bible and the only one attested in the book of Daniel.[12] Yet this is not a sufficient reason to assume an influence of Jeremiah 27–29 on Daniel. More suggestive in this regard could be the fact that the short spelling of the name Jeremiah (ירמיה    Continued  ˃


[10] (Ibid, p. 289, fn 50) -See Carroll, Jeremiah, 554: there may have been wordplays on qlh, “to roast,” qll, “to curse,” and the family name of the false prophet Ahab, bēn-qōlāyāh, “son of Kolayah.” This, however, does not reduce the probability that Jer. 29:21–23 refers to an actual event.

[11] (Ibid, p. 289, fn 48)  Adriaan van Selms, “The Name Nebuchadnezzar,” in Travels in the World of the Old Testament: Studies Presented to M. A. Beek on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday (ed. M. S. H. G. Heerma van Voss; SSN 16; Assen: Van Gorcum, 1974), 223–29.

[12] According to BibleWorks the form of Nebuchadnezzar (with an n) occurs some 60 times - 2 Kgs. 24:1, 10f; 25:1, 8, 22; 1 Chr. 6:15; 2 Chr. 36:6f, 10, 13; Ezr. 1:7; 2:1; 5:12, 14; 6:5;Neh. 7:6; Est. 2:6; Jer. 27:6, 8, 20; 28:3, 11, 14; 29:1, 3; 34:1; 39:5; Dan. 1:1, 18; 2:1, 28, 46; 3:1ff, 5, 7, 9, 13f, 16, 19, 24, 26, 28; 4:1, 4, 18, 28, 31, 33f, 37; 5:2, 11, 18 (note the exclusive use in Daniel and Jeremiah 27-29). The form Nebuchadrezzar (with an r) occurs some 31 times - Jer. 21:2, 7; 22:25; 24:1; 25:1, 9; 29:21; 32:1, 28; 35:11; 37:1; 39:1, 11; 43:10; 44:30; 46:2, 13, 26; 49:28, 30; 50:17; 51:34; 52:4, 12, 28ff; Ezek. 26:7; 29:18f; 30:10 [P.W.].

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instead of ירמיהו)[13], which characterizes Jeremiah 27–29, occurs elsewhere only in Daniel 9 and Ezra 1”.


This data establishes intertextual connections between the “letter” that Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the Babylonian captives (Jer.29:1) and the book of Daniel (cf. Dan. 9:2) and this requires us to closely examine the historical context in the years shortly prior to the burning of the temple in 586/7 BC.  The book of Jeremiah (and Ezekiel) point to a deeply divided community with Jeremiah regarded as a Babylonian sympathiser and collaborator by certain elements.


Jeremiah urged a policy of continued submission to Nebuchadnezzar which he symbolised by wearing a wooden yoke in the market place in Jerusalem. The temple-affiliated prophet Hananiah encouraged by those in Babylon like Shemaiah (Jer. 29:24-27), prophesied against Jeremiah:


This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the Lord’s house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed from here and took to Babylon” ( Jer.28:2-3).


[13f] According to Bibleworks the shorter form  yirməyāʰ occurs 14 times - 1 Chr. 12:11; Ezr. 1:1; Neh. 10:3; 12:1; Jer. 27:1; 28:5f, 10ff, 15; 29:1; Dan. 9:2 with 121 occurrences of the longer form  yirməyāhû -2 Ki. 23:31; 24:18; 1 Chr. 12:14; 2 Chr. 35:25; 36:12, 21f; Jer. 1:1, 11; 7:1; 11:1; 14:1; 18:1, 18; 19:14; 20:1ff; 21:1, 3; 24:3; 25:1f, 13; 26:7ff, 12, 20, 24; 29:29f; 30:1; 32:1, 6, 26; 33:1, 19, 23; 34:1, 6, 8, 12; 35:1, 3, 12, 18; 36:1, 4f, 8, 10, 26f, 32; 37:2f, 6, 12ff, 21; 38:1, 6f, 10ff, 19f, 24, 27f; 39:11, 14f; 40:1, 6; 42:2, 4f, 7; 43:1f, 6, 8; 44:1, 15, 20, 24; 45:1; 46:1, 13; 47:1; 49:34; 50:1; 51:59ff, 64; 52:1 [P.W.].

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Hananiah broke the yoke from Jeremiah’s shoulders in a show of contempt for Yahweh’s word. Jeremiah urged a policy of non-resistance to the Babylonians and even wrote those who had been taken into exile instructing them to pray for the Babylonian king and settle permanently into life there (Jer.29:7). Nebuchadnezzar required an oath of fealty from Zedekiah (Mattaniah), which he made in the name of Yahweh (2 Chronicles 36:13). Unfortunately Zedekiah was a vacillating leader, easily swayed by the false prophets who encouraged rebellion. The false prophets no doubt pointed to the rescue of Jerusalem during the Assyrian crisis, but Zedekiah was no Hezekiah (the suffering servant of Isaiah). Isaiah had predicted that Hezekiah’s wealth and his sons would be carried off to Babylon but the false prophets probably argued that the prophecy had already been fulfilled in the first deportation – indeed they were predicting the imminent release of the captives and encouraging rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar. Therefore Nebuchadnezzar faced a growing crisis with Tyre, Egypt, and perhaps Ammon (hence some of the oracles in Ezekiel against these nations) supporting Judah’s rebellion.


The context of Daniel 3 is therefore one of imminent rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar. The group of exiles in Babylon is not homogeneous – there are those like Daniel and Ezekiel who support Jeremiah and seek the peace of Babylon. There are those false prophets who agitate for an early return and preach rebellion. There are also those (perhaps the vast majority) who are undecided. Then there is the remaining population in Judea with equally split loyalties - Jeremiah’s warnings ringing in their ears while the false prophets mount a concerted campaign to discredit him. With letters and recriminations flying to and fro between Jerusalem and Babylon and rebellion fermenting it is no wonder that Nebuchadnezzar devised a loyalty test. He had already ‘roasted’ two false prophets in the fire but this obviously did not halt the contagion, so now a more targeted approach was adopted; Nebuchadnezzar invited several suspect authorities (from the countries fomenting rebellion?) to participate in a ceremony that would demonstrate loyalty to the king.


Nebuchadnezzar anticipated the rebellion and sent his army to Judah in order to crush it. By early 588, only Jerusalem and the fortresses at Lachish and Azekah still resisted the Babylonian onslaught. By    Continued  ˃

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summer, those fortresses fell and Jerusalem itself was placed under siege. In the summer of 588 Pharaoh Hophra sent an army to relieve the siege of Jerusalem, forcing the Babylonians to disengage. This short respite was greeted with widespread jubilation by the citizens of Jerusalem (cf. Jeremiah’s warning in Jer. 37:6-10) who saw this as divine deliverance of the city. But the Babylonians easily routed the Egyptian troops and recommenced the siege, which ended with the destruction of the city and the burning of the temple.


The ceremony


For the above reasons this chapter is placed in the period immediately prior to the fall of Jerusalem, with the fate of the city still undecided and the loyalty of some of the citizens of the neo-Babylonian Empire in question. The loyalty test has bizarre, even comical aspects, with the music probably sounding like a cacophony of squeaks and squawks and the command to fall down at the sound a bit like a game of musical- chairs with the last man standing cast into the fire. Many commentators suspect this amusement is a literary device ridiculing oriental despotism but comical aspects are just as likely attributed to an attempt at flushing out the miscreants by humiliating them.[14]


The lack of Akkadian terms in the list of functionaries is notable, as is the predominance of words of Persian origin. Added to this is the use of Greek terms for some of the musical instruments. On this basis many liberal exegetes argue for a Maccabean date for the chapter but rather than a second-century date the combination of Persian and Greek terms indicate that the material was finalized during the reign of Darius Hystaspis in the Persian period (when Daniel was nearly 100 years old).


[14] Porteous (Daniel, 58) remarks; “It has been suggested that the sounding of musical instruments as a prelude to an act of worship may be intended as a blasphemous parody of the blaring trumpets on the Jewish New Year’s Day. The martyrs were thus expected on this view to take part in a kind of black mass or witches Sabbath”

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Three in the fire


Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction to the refusal of the three companions to worship his image confirms the reading that has been proposed;


“But if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” (Dan.3:15)


This echoes the challenge of Sennacherib at the hand of his emissary Rabshakeh;


Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their countries from my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem from my hand?”(2 Kings 18:35)


He also wrote letters to revile the LORD God of Israel, and to speak against Him, saying, “As the gods of the nations of other lands have not delivered their people from my hand, so the God of Hezekiah will not deliver His people from my hand.” (2 Chron. 32:17)


Jerusalem had been saved from the hand of the Assyrians during the reign of Hezekiah. In the mind of the people the city was inviolate because of God’s presence in the temple and this was expressed as a proverbial saying in Jeremiah’s day; “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD are these”. (Jer. 7:4) The divine response to this overconfidence is found in Jer.7:20 – “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, My anger and My fury will be poured out on this place -- on man and on beast, on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground. And it will burn and not be quenched.”


Therefore the fate of the three companions is analogous with the impending fate of Jerusalem – “He has cut off in fierce anger every horn of Israel; He has drawn back His right hand from before the enemy. He has blazed against Jacob like a flaming fire devouring all around”(Lam. 2:3) and; “The LORD has fulfilled His fury, He has poured out His fierce anger. He kindled a fire in Zion, and it has    Continued  ˃

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devoured its foundations”. (Lam.4:11) It is in this light that the response of the three companions must be understood;


“If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.” (Dan.3:17-18)


Towner remarks, “It is interesting to note the degree to which more recent translations have read the straightforward Aramaic text in such a way as to emphasise the uncertainty and ambiguity of the lads’ reply. Following the ancient versions, the King James Version obfuscated the answer by translating “If it be so, our God whom we serve, is able to deliver us…..but if not….”  The Revised Standard Version maintains this translation in the text –never clarifying to what the inserted word “so” is referring – but offers a clearer but theologically more daring alternative in the margin. Today’s English Version (like JB and Lacocque) goes all the way with the daring alternative and offers, “If the God whom we serve is able to save us….then he will. But even if he doesn’t….” (This is exactly what the Aramaic says.)”[15]


Therefore the companions seriously consider the possibility of divine inaction –perhaps God will intervene but even if he does not intervene they will not worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image or his idols. Attitudes held by the three companions reflect the attitudes held by many of the Gola (exilic community) – they did not know whether God would chose to save Jerusalem or not (which prophets to believe?) but whatever the outcome they would remain steadfast  and would  resist full integration. They would remain loyal to Nebuchadnezzar but would not worship his image or his gods.


[15] W. Sibley Towner, Daniel,(John Knox Press; Louisville, 1933 reprint 1984),52

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Four in the Fire

The three companions were cast into the furnace when to Nebuchadnezzar’s astonishment they were joined by a fourth figure “like the Son of God”:


“Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” (Dan. 3:25)


The “Son of God” (NKJ) is translated more precisely as “a son of the gods” (RSV/NIB/JPS/YLT),[16] this figure is equated with an Angel in the doxology of Dan. 3:28 (God.....sent His Angel) and is a member of the divine council (cf. Job1:6; 2:1), perhaps this is the Angel of the presence known as the Holy one of Israel;


So the Light of Israel will be for a fire, And his Holy One for a flame; It will burn and devour His thorns and his briers in one day...... And it shall come to pass in that day That the remnant of Israel, And such as have escaped of the house of Jacob, Will never again depend on him who defeated them, But will depend on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.(Isa.10:17,20)


Although the four “men” were in the midst of the fire, they were not hurt – the fact that they were not consumed by the fire echoes the appearance of the Angel of Yahweh in the burning bush;


And the Angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. (Ex. 3:2)


Moses received his commission and the burning bush revelation heralded the deliverance of the nation from Egyptian bondage. God is     Continued  ˃


[16] The Aramaic bar-´élähîn is here equivalent to the Hebrew bünê ´élöhîm

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described as a “consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; 9:3), Isaiah sums up the dilemma during Hezekiah’s reign as follows:


The sinners in Zion are afraid; Fearfulness has seized the hypocrites: “Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?” (Isa. 33:14)


Fire can either destroy or purify, usually the process of refining is destructive – the sinners in Zion were literally destroyed by fire – God did not save them –“For I have set My face against this city for adversity and not for good,” says the LORD. “It shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.” (Jer. 21:10) However, repentant sinners in Babylon were refined through the fire of exile, “Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: “Behold, I will refine them and try them; for how shall I deal with the daughter of My people?” (Jer. 9:7) This is similar to the refining process during the Assyrian crisis except on that occasion the city was spared, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction”. (Isa.48:10)


In the concluding doxology (Dan. 3:28-30) Nebuchadnezzar threatens to punish anyone who speaks “amiss” against the God of Israel by cutting them in pieces, and burning their houses. The LXX and Th use the Greek βλασφημήσῃ (blasphemy) for “speak amiss” a reference to the taunts of Sennacherib during the Assyrian crisis but the Greek used there (2 Kings 19:3) [17] is ἐλεγμοῦ which refers to refutation of error (cf. speak amiss), however the Modern Greek Bible also employs blasphemy and the MT, נאצה is translated by the NKJ as blasphemy in Kings and in the parallel passage in Isaiah and Tobit (S) 1:18  referring to the same incident employs, βλασφημιῶν (blasphemies). On that occasion the reproach/error/blasphemy perpetrated by Sennacherib was that Yahweh was not able to deliver the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the temple. Ironically the contemporaries of Daniel and Jeremiah    Continued  ˃


[17] And they said to him, “Thus says Hezekiah: ‘This day is a day of trouble, and rebuke, and blasphemy….’ (2 Kings 19:3 cf. Isa.37:3)

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who “spoke amiss” (blasphemed, spoke error etc) were the ones who believed that God would not punish them because the temple was in their midst. Daniel’s companions acknowledged that although God was capable of saving them (i.e., Jerusalem) he might not (because of the nation’s sinfulness), unlike the false prophets (who declared imminent deliverance); the three friends did not “speak amiss”.


The threat to burn the houses of the blasphemers was carried out when Nebuchadnezzar burnt the city (cf. Jer. 34:2) and the “cutting in pieces” of the blasphemers is an allusion to the reversal of the land-covenant (Gen 15:10) which had been dishonoured when the Jewish rulers “passed between the pieces” (Jer.34:18-19) and then subsequently reneged on the promise to liberate their fellow Hebrews at the Jubilee. The land covenant had heralded the release of the Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage (Gen.15:13-14; Jer.34:13)[18] and the rulers had imitated the same ritual but then given back-word, now Yahweh would do the same – the land-covenant would be put in abeyance – the mutilated bodies of the covenant breakers would lie exposed to the vultures (Jer. 34:20 cf. Gen 15:11) as a consequence of the Babylonian onslaught. 


Apocryphal additions

The Protestant translations of Daniel (such as NKJ etc) contain no apocryphal additions but some of the Catholic translations (such as the Jerusalem Bible) contain the “Prayer of Azariah” (Abednego) and “The Song of the Three Young Men” these versions follow the Septuagint (LXX). The Greek version places the two Psalms between verses 23 and 24 of chapter 3. There is general consensus among scholarship that the two Psalms are second century Maccabean additions that were not present in the Aramaic originals that the Greek    Continued  ˃


[18] The covenant referred to in Jer. 34:13 is the Sinai covenant which included the Jubilee laws that regulated restoration of property rights and liberation from slavery (indentured labour). The covenant of Genesis 15 established the property right of the whole nation (that descendants of Abram would inherit the land) and the liberty from (Egyptian) bondage of the whole nation. Therefore the Jubilee law is a “subset” of the Genesis land-covenant.

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translators worked from and this is confirmed by their absence from the Qumran Daniel text 1QDb.


These psalms, although late apocryphal additions, are important in so far that they demonstrate that the Septuagint translators were not averse to including more recent material because they recognised similarities between the Antiochene crisis (concerning the temple) and the Babylonian crisis (also concerning the temple) - for example, the charge of blasphemy levelled at Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:3; Isa.37:3; Tobit (S) 1:18) and at those who “speak amiss” (Dan.3:28) was also  directed at Antiochus (and his collaborators) were the word blasphemy is employed with greater frequency than anywhere else in the biblical and extra-biblical material (1 Macc. 2:6; 2 Macc. 8:4; 10:35; 15:24). The late apocryphal psalms are therefore collective psalms of lament and penitence, recognising the right of God to punish his people and the need for atonement in the absence of any temple service. 




Even if the LXX dating of Daniel 3 to the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar is a gloss, the intertextual connections between Jeremiah and Daniel place this incident immediately prior to the burning of the temple.  The story reflects the crisis brought on by the impending fall of Jerusalem – would God allow the temple and city to be burnt?  Would the Gola survive the “fire” of exile?  How would God deliver them?  This is not just the story of three young men enduring a trial by fire but the story of a nation enduring a crisis of faith.