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Daniel: Model of Jewish and Christian Prayer
"R. Ammi said: A man's prayer is only answered if he takes his heart into his hand [note: he feels deeply what he prays], as it is said, Let us lift up our heart with our hands [Lam 3:41] (Ta'an. 8a).1
Daniel, with his arms raised in prayer, is one of the most frequently represented figures in early Christian art. According to the Bible, Daniel is thrown into the lions' den for refusing to worship idols and God delivers him from death (Dan 6:16; 14:31). In nearly all the early representations of Daniel he is shown as an Orant, standing with hands raised in the traditional Jewish attitude of prayer and praise which was later adopted by the Christians.
From the Bible it is made clear that Daniel would lose his life rather than omit his prayer. After an edict passed by King Darius forbidding petition to any god other than himself under pain of death, Daniel continues his daily prayer. "He went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open towards Jerusalem; and he got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously" (Dan 6:10). So he is presented as a pious Jew whose prayer is typical of that of the people of his time.
However, it is always the episodes of Daniel in the lions' den that are illustrated. Both Jews and Christians portrayed Daniel in the same attitude of prayer. A fragment of a sixth century mosaic in the synagogue at Naaran 2 and several Jewish seals and amulets show Daniel with his arms raised in prayer between two lions.3 The earliest Christian representation of him is a fresco in the catacombs of Domitilla 4 dating from around the beginning of the second century. Though badly damaged, the figure of Daniel is clearly seen as an Orant. During the following three centuries representations of him became more frequent, and although details in the basic model evolve, he always maintains his posture of prayer.
The Bible does not refer to Daniel's praying in the lion's den; the early Jewish artists were inspired by other Jewish literature.5 The rabbis of the post-biblical period searched the scriptures, and from the resulting commentaries there emerges a more profound conception of Daniel as a man whose prayer to the Lord is the center of his life.
According to the aggadah, Daniel is praying the Shema in the den. In the Midrash on Psalm 64, which the rabbis interpret as a prayer by David on behalf of Daniel, it says:
. . . King Darius signed the writing and the interdict (Dan 6:9a, 10). And when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went into his house; his windows being open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed (Dan 6:11) saying: Hear my voice, 0 God, in my prayer; preserve my life from the terror of the enemy (Ps 64:1). When they sought out Daniel, they found him as he stood praying, as it is said Then these men came tumultuously, and found Daniel praying and making supplication before his God (Dan 6:12). . . . (Surely if Daniel did what he did for the sake of a prayer which a man may omit without fear of being cut down by heaven or being put to death by a court, how much more ought we to heed other obligations for whose neglect we are liable to be cut down by heaven or put to death by a court!) . . . Then the king arose very early in the morning, and went in haste unto the den of lions . . . he cried with a pained voice: . . . 0 Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions? (Dan 6:20, 21). And though Daniel heard, he did not answer because he was reading the Shema. Then said Daniel unto the king: 0 king, live for ever! My God bath sent His angel, and bath shut the lions' mouths (Dan 6:23)6
Elsewhere in the aggadah a similar scene is described:
Though the order did not require Daniel to commit a sin, he preferred to give his life for the honor of the one God rather than omit his devotions to Him. When his jealous enemies surprised him during his prayers, he did not interrupt himself. . . . Early in the morning Darius went to the pit of the lions to discover the fate of Daniel. The king called his name, but he received no answer, because Daniel was reciting the Shema at that moment, after having spent the night in giving praise and adoration to God.7
Daniel not only fulfilled the Law, he went beyond its requirements. The halakhah did not require him to sacrifice his life, and although it was permitted to interrupt his recitation of the Shema to reply to the king, he did not take advantage of this leniency.8
In praying the Shema, Daniel professes his Jewish faith; he looks to God as the redeemer and guardian of his people to whom he is always faithful. He hallows God's name by submitting to martyrdom, and his prayer unites him with those of his people who preferred death to infidelity to God. The rabbis' interpretation of these episodes from Daniel was no doubt inspired by the Jewish martyr Akiba (50-130 C.E.) who was condemned to death for his faith. As he was being brutally put to death by the Romans, he saw the dawn breaking, the time according to the Law to pray the Shema. He died proclaiming the unity of the Lord. Many Jewish martyrs died praying the Shema to sanctify God's name. Indeed, centuries after Daniel, R. Asher (1250-1327) gives advice in praying the Shema in his Rules: ". . . and when thou recitest the verse which bids thee love the Lord thy God, speak as one ready to deliver up life and substance for the sanctification of God, thus fulfilling the words of the Singer 'For thy sake we are killed all the day' (Ps 44: 23)."9
Just as Daniel inspired the Jews with his witness to the power of prayer and praise, so the early Christians saw in him an example to emulate. Their numerous depictions of him testify to his popularity in the early Christian community. At the beginning of his career as exegete, Hippolytus wrote a commentary on Daniel (202-204 C.E.) which is the most ancient Christian exegesis on this book to be preserved. Like the rabbis, he sees prayer as the center of the believer's life. He says that it is better to die than to submit to orders forbidding the worship of God and prayer:
We must contemplate the godliness of the most blessed Daniel. Although he seemed very involved in the king's affairs, he was none the less faithful to daily prayer, rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar's, to God that which is God's (Mt 22:21). Perhaps you will say to me: Well? Could he not have prayed to God during the daytime in the depths of his heart, and at night be secretly recollected in his house, as he desired, without putting himself in danger? Yes, but he did not want to, because if he had acted thus, the ministers and satraps would have been able to say: What is his fear of God worth since he is afraid of the king's edict and submits to his commands? And they were ready to bring an accusation against him, that of infidelity .. .10
The devil's art is always ingenious in finding ways of persecuting, oppressing and overthrowing the saints so as to prevent them from raising their holy hands towards God in prayer (1 Tim 2:8; 2:1-2), for he knows well that the prayer of the saints gives peace to the world and chastisement to the evildoers. Likewise, when in the desert Moses raised his hands, Israel prevailed and when he lowered them, Amalek prevailed (Ex 17:11). The same thing happens to us today: when we stop praying the adversary prevails over us, and when we cling to prayer the strength and the power of the evil one remain ineffective.11
As in the Jewish commentaries, Hippolytus stresses Daniel's going beyond the letter of the law. It is not surprising that the early Christians should have been inspired by this Jewish hero who trusted God enough to praise him in the face of great danger rather than deny him, and who was delivered from death by the Lord. He became a symbol of biblical prayer for these Christians for whom persecution and martyrdom were to be expected.
Miss Virginia Sharp A.L.A. has been in charge of the SIDIC Center library since 1970 and is responsible for the book lists on specific themes treated by the various issues of the journal.
1. Babylonian Talmud, ed. I. Epstein, London: Soncino Press, 1961.
2. E.R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, New York: Pantheon Books for Bollinger Foundation Inc., 1953-1968, vol. 3, fig. 642.
3. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 223.
4. G. Wilpert, Roma sotterranea; le pitture delle catacombe romane, Roma: Desclee Lefebvre et Cie., 1903, vol. 2, Table V.
5. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem: Keter, 1971, vol. 5, p. 1275.
6. The Midrash on Psalms, ed. W.G. Braude, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959, vol. 1, pp. 526-528.
7. L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1909 (reprinted 1968), vol. 4, pp. 348-349.
8. Ibid., vol. 6, p. 435.
9. A.E. Millgram, Jewish Worship, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1971, p. 429.
10. Hippolytus, 3 : 22a. See Hippolyte, Commentaire sur Daniel (Sources Chretiennes), Paris: Cerf, 1947 (traduit par M. Lefevre).
11. Ibid., 3 : 24.