Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Daniel on Icons

There's a running "image" theme in Daniel. It runs explicitly through chapters 2 and 3 where Nebuchadnezzar initially has a dream that he requests be told to him and interpreted. God reveals the dream to Daniel, and it is the vision of the "image" of the statue. The image-statue has layers of gold, bronze, iron, and feet mixed with iron and clay. Daniel tells Neb that he is the head of gold on this image.

Immediately, in chapter 3, we are told that Nebuchadnezzar set up an "image of gold." Hmmmmmm... we ought to say to ourselves. Where have we heard this before? It's almost like Neb stopped listening after Daniel told him that he was the head of gold. But Neb may also take the vision as some sort of directions from God/the gods. Who knows. But he nevertheless sets up this image, and we are ushered into the famous story involving the three friends of Daniel who refuse to bow before the image.

The last explicit reference to "image" in Daniel comes in 3:19, and it linguistically connects one last dot: after the three friends insist that they will not worship the gold "image" that Nebuchadnezzar has set up, the text says that "Nebuchadnezzar was full of fury, and the expression on his face changed toward Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego..." Literally, it says that he was full of fury and the "image" of his face changed... We've gone from the golden head on the image-statue, to the golden image set up to be worshiped, to the "image" of Nebuchadnezzar's face.

In other words, it appears that the text hints at what the the golden image looked like. It was an image of Nebuchadnezzar. It was his "image" that the three friends refused to bow down to and worship. And just to push this a little tighter, this is the aramaic equivalent to the same word (TSELEM) used in Genesis 1:27 to describe the relationship between God and man made in His "image."

It would have been right and proper for Daniel and his three friends to bow before Nebuchadnezzar as the king. He is an image bearer and their lawful authority. In fact, in the very last chapter, Nebuchadnezzar has bowed before Daniel and presented an offering and incense before him (2:46)! Furthermore, if Nebuchadnezzar is the new convert to the true religion, wouldn't this be a perfect opportunity to introduce the proper use of images into Babylonian worship? But bowing to images of images is forbidden (Ex. 20:4-6). We may not bow before images that are not alive because they are false in so far as they are lifeless.

One last item to note is the fact that after Neb throws the three friends into the furnace, a fourth "form" appears in the furnace with the three friends. The fourth form is like "the son of God." Whatever this means on the lips of a Babylonian king, the son of God or the gods is something "angelic" (3:28), and given the context, the "son" is one who represents the father-god, an image-bearer, frequently having a close resemblance to the father, like Adam, the first son of God, the first image bearer. Thus, Nebuchadnezzar is answered image for image, a golden lifeless icon cannot compete with the living icon of God, the son of God who comes to deliver His servants.


Matthew N. Petersen said...

Hmmm...I don't think that an argument that in the Old system images were forbidden can refute an argument that says that images in the Old system were forbidden because Christ hadn't come, but now that He has, they aren't. That iconodule argument might be problematic, but it can't be refuted by reference to before Christ.

Toby said...

Hi Matt!

While I know that the transition to the NT and the incarnation in particular is thought to bring changes to how we understand the 2nd commandment, part of what I'm suggesting here is that actually the iconodules need to prove far more. That is, the principle in the OT is not "no images." The principle is rather (positively) only "living images" are allowed (Gen. 1:27); the prohibition is against carved, painted, or molded images (Ex. 20:4). Carved, painted, or molded images are lifeless; God always requires living images, living icons. Adam was a living image, and Christ of course fits the bill perfectly. But carved, painted, or molded images are still insufficient before and after the incarnation. A picture may be a helpful and even glorious reminder, but it may not be venerated like the living images that touch, see, hear, taste, and smell.

I hope that helps a little.



Anonymous said...


As icons are best understood in their liturgical context, I doubt any argument in favor of them outside their proper place is going to make sense or prove persuasive. Simply put, no iconoclast is going to be persuaded by iconodule arguments on the internet, away from the liturgy. "Why I Won't Convert" might be better titled "Because I Don't Consistently Attend."

Knowing is community. Knowing is doing. Knowing is haiku. Though I love typology dearly, the matter you're here interested in is bigger than even the best exegesis.



Matthew N. Petersen said...

Do you then object to (earthly) reverence being paid to earthly monarchs through images? When the Byzantines would bow before the image of the emperor, were they sinning? When a good Englishman would bow before an image of say Queen Victoria, were they sinning? I don't see how it could be a violation of the commandment because there is really no question of idolatry.

Similarly, do you object to reverence to the flag? If I used an American flag as my door mat, would you be bothered? If I gently bowed my head, would you be bothered? If I put my hand over my heart and said "I pledge allegiance to the flag..."