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Why Everyone Loves Daniel

American politicians have turned to the story of the lion’s den for centuries

Stuart Halpern
August 09, 2023

Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine

Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine

With the summer’s cinematic return of ageless wonders Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Tom Cruise as Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt, it’s time for another canonical hero to hit the silver screen. You know, that handsome ancient Israelite, bedecked in a multicolored coat who found himself thrown into a pit but was also second-in-command in the palace of a foreign land, interpreting the nighttime visions of a king?

No, I’m not talking about Joseph—although the recent announcement that the upcoming Wicked movie’s director Jon M. Chu will be helming a new iteration of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for Amazon Studios is welcome, to be sure.

I’m talking about Daniel.

His tale, told in his eponymous biblical book, is rarely read, even among Orthodox Jews (it being written largely in Aramaic probably has something to do with it). The quick recap is that Daniel was taken into exile by the Babylonian forces a few years before they destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. There he interpreted dreams for the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, was rewarded by being given royal robes, saw his three fellow Israelite friends survive being thrown into a fiery furnace because of their faith in God and refusal to bow down to an idol, deciphered the writing on the wall (yes, that’s where it comes from) that appeared before King Belshazzar, and had his own series of dreams.

Oh, and he had a certain run-in with nature’s apex predators.

It’s that particular tale, told in chapter 6, that has found a surprisingly large fan base—throughout American political history.

Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den because he prayed to God while facing Jerusalem in violation of a law mandating that only the king was to be worshiped. The law had been passed by a group of nefarious palace officials looking to conspire against their Hebrew colleague, who dared to be different. Daniel survived and it was his antagonists who got their just deserts. Or rather, became dessert.

Americans from the revolutionary era, through the fight against slavery, to both sides of the political aisle today, have found inspiration in Daniel’s series of adventures and carnivore-facing courage.

In 1775, preacher David Jones of Philadelphia tried to stir his congregations toward the cause of rebellion against the oppressive British. He sermonized that when Paul in the New Testament said to be “subject to higher power,” he cannot have meant that we must be loyal to monarchs if they be unjust. Jones argued:

We cannot suppose, either that this text enjoins absolute submission to all laws, which may be made in a land; for some are so wicked, oppressive and unjust in their nature and tendency, that the best of men have thought it their indispensable duty to disobey them. You may well remember, that Nebuchadnezzar made it a certain law, that all nations in his empire should, on pain of death, worship his golden image. Was it the duty of his subject to obey or not? The conduct of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego will determine the point, who, refusing to comply, were cast into a fiery furnace. Remember also, when Darius, king of Persia, made a statute, that no man should petition either God or man, save himself, for thirty days, Daniel refused obedience unto the decree, because it was unrighteous.

To Jones, Daniel and his friends modeled steadfast resistance against a tyrannical regime.

John Adams, later to become America’s second president, believed that Daniel modeled leadership qualities for the young country. Writing to James Warren in April 1776, he said: “the management of so complicated and mighty a Machine, as the United Colonies, requires the Meekness of Moses, the Patience of Job, the Wisdom of Solomon, add to the Valor of Daniel.”

The struggle for the abolition of slavery, and later civil rights, also saw Daniel’s courage as inspiring the cause. A well-known spiritual used the story of Daniel in the lion’s den as a metaphor for deliverance from slavery and injustice. The spiritual begins, “didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel … and why not every man?” Frederick Douglass, in Chapter 11 of his autobiography, writes that he “felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions.” And in October 1864, Sojourner Truth, the escaped slave turned abolitionist and women’s rights activist, thought of the story while visiting President Lincoln. Truth, who never learned to read or write, was a devoted student of the Bible. She saw in the Great Emancipator shades of Babylon’s great visionary:

I said to him, Mr. President, when you first took your seat I feared you would be torn to pieces, for I likened you unto Daniel, who was thrown into the lion’s den; and if the lions did not tear you into pieces, I knew that it would be God that had saved you; and I said if he spared me I would see you before the four years expired, and he has done so, and now I am here to see you for myself.

Decades later, in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. drew comfort from Daniel’s friends’ faith amid the fire, musing: “Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved.”

King’s citation has been one of the 20th century’s plethora of Daniel invocations, ranging from the courtroom to Congress.

Amid the 1925 Scopes trial, the highly politicized case over whether evolution should be taught in schools, William Jennings Bryan argued that throwing man in with the rest of “thirty-four hundred and ninety-nine other mammals—including elephants!” was tantamount to “putting Daniel in the lion’s den!”

Democratic Congressman Jim Wright, who would later go on to be speaker of the House under President Ronald Reagan, wrote in his memoirs of seeing the Catholic President John F. Kennedy address a powerful Council of Methodist Bishops. “I made a statement afterward,” he recounted, “that Kennedy reminded me of Daniel in the lion’s den. A few of my constituents got angry at me, accusing me of comparing Protestant ministers to lions. They were just looking for something to get shook up about. I’m glad I lived during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. It was a time when a man could have heroes and be unapologetic.”

In 1992, a campaigning President George H.W. Bush tried to galvanize support from the religious right. The Washington Post recounted that Atlanta pastor Charles Stanley told the congregation, and hundreds of thousands of TV viewers watching the livestream, that upon welcoming Bush, he had shown the president his favorite painting, an image of Daniel in the lion’s den. “Daniel didn’t have his eyes on the lions,” Stanley said, even though their den was filled with bones. No, the Post recounts Stanley arguing, “Daniel kept his eyes on a ray of sunlight, on the Lord.”

Disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to robe himself in Daniel’s garb while facing criminal charges of corruption, stating to CNN’s Larry King, “I felt that—understanding I was walking into something much like Daniel in the lion’s den—the chances were pretty slim that I’d be able to convince them to bring my witnesses and prove my innocence.”

Bipartisan immigration reform efforts in 2013 also saw in Daniel a symbol of strength—for politicians going on TV. Commenting on the small group of Republicans like Marco Rubio participating in the collaborative effort, Democrat Chuck Schumer told ABC News, “They’re getting a lot of flak and they’re showing strength.” Schumer lauded Rubio for going on conservative talk shows, including Rush Limbaugh’s on Fox News, and advocating for the framework. “He’s been Daniel in the lion’s den,” Schumer said.

In January 2023, when Politico covered efforts to unseat chairperson of the Republican National Committee Rona McDaniel, it titled its report “McDaniel in the Lion’s Den.”

Daniel even made an appearance in the January 6 hearings. During two-and-a-half hours of testimony, Vice President Mike Pence’s lawyer Greg Jacob described fleeing to a secure location with Pence as the mob chanting “hang Mike Pence” stormed into the Capitol. While in the secure bunker, Jacob said, he pulled out his Bible and turned to the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. “Daniel 6 was where I went,” he said, “and in Daniel 6, Daniel has become the second-in-command of Babylon, a pagan nation that he completely faithfully serves. He refuses an order from the king that he cannot follow, and he does his duty—consistent with his oath to God. And I felt that that’s what had played out that day.”

So many diverse figures have drawn from Daniel the ability to retain faith amid fear and strength of conviction amid conflict. From freedom fighters to those who see themselves falsely accused, preachers to pundits to presidents, fans of his story would no doubt make it a blockbuster. While it might take a bit longer to see Daniel follow Joseph into theaters near you, here’s hoping.

After all, as that other guy likes to say, any dream will do.

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada, which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, Esther in America, Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.