Monday, August 20, 2007

Daniel's Dragon

In Sh'vuot (29b) and Nedarim (25a), the Talmud records an interesting tale of a gigantic snake. The snake fed on human beings, and the people had no way to kill it. It was simply too vicious for anyone to slay. A savior came and prepared 13 piles of grain, with animals tied up inside, as well as smoldering coals. When the snake devoured the piles of straw, the coals burned it from the inside, and split the serpent open, dead.

Rabbi Epstein (in the Soncino translation of the masechta) mentions that this tale bears similarities to the dragon of Daniel. The book of Daniel has three apocryphal chapters that are outside the Hebrew canon. However, they are found in the Septuagint, and here are the relevant verses (from here):

23 And in that same place there was a great dragon, which they of Babylon worshipped. 24 And the king said unto Daniel, Wilt thou also say that this is of brass? lo, he liveth, he eateth and drinketh; thou canst not say that he is no living god: therefore worship him. 25 Then said Daniel unto the king, I will worship the Lord my God: for he is the living God. 26 But give me leave, O king, and I shall slay this dragon without sword or staff. The king said, I give thee leave. 27 Then Daniel took pitch, and fat, and hair, and did seethe them together, and made lumps thereof: this he put in the dragon's mouth, and so the dragon burst in sunder : and Daniel said, Lo, these are the gods ye worship.

Especially since left out of the biblical canon, it is interesting to see apocryphal stories seemingly remembered in the pages of the Talmud. These books were banned (according to some) as 'outside books' by the mishnah in Sanhedrin (10:1), ostensibly to protect faithful Jews from joining early Christains or other splinter groups, who used the apocrypha as proof of continued prophecy, or simply as holy books (See Rabbi Dr. S Leiman's thesis). However, the Rabbis did not mean to deny that any good can be learned from the apocrypha. Indeed, in Sanhedrin (100b), Rabbi Yossi states about the book of Ben Sira that, "The good in it we expound".

Interestingly, Rabbi Slifkin reminds us that the mishnah uses the term 'drakon' when referencing a specific image of idolatry that is designated for destruction. Perhaps the story of Daniel's dragon is an allegory that it is not enough to destroy the idols from outside, but we must go inside ourselves to root out any dangerous concepts of idolatry from within our own hearts. We must turn the spotlight on ourselves with as much scrutiny, if not more, than we use when examining others for faults.