Bel and the Dragon



Bel and the Dragon forms the third of the Apocryphal Additions to Daniel, and was written originally almost certainly in Hebrew, though none of the Hebrew original has survived. The other two Additions are the Song of the Three Children and Susanna. In the Greek and Latin texts the three Additions to Daniel constitute an integral part of the canonical Book of Daniel, and were recognized as such, and therefore as themselves canonical, by the Council of Trent. The Song of the Three Children is, however, the only one of the three which has a necessary connexion with the Hebrew canonical Book of Daniel, standing in the Greek and Latin texts between Dan. 3:24 and 25. The other two Additions are appended, and appear to have an origin independent of the book to which they are attached and also of each other, though in all three, as also in the canonical book, the name and fame of Daniel forms the principal theme.


In the Greek Codd. Bel and the Dragon stands at the end of the canonical Book of Daniel, bearing therefore no distinct title. In Codd. A and B of Θ1 it is, however, preceded by the words ‘Vision (ὅρασις) 12’; i.e. it forms the twelfth and last of the series of visions into which this enlarged Book of Daniel is divided. In the LXX it is called ‘Part of the prophecy of Habakkuk the Son of Jesus of the tribe of Levi’: see note on v. 1. In the Vulgate Bel and the Dragon forms ch. 14 of Daniel.

In Syr W (see § 3) the Story of Bel is preceded by the heading ‘Bel the idol’, that of the Dragon having at its beginning the words, ‘Then follows the Dragon.’

Bel and the Dragon is the title in all the Protestant versions of the Apocrypha, these versions keeping the books now known as Apocryphal apart as being, it was thought, deutero-or non-canonical. In a Nestorian list of biblical works mentioned by Churton2 it is called ‘The Lesser Daniel’.


The two stories as told in common by LXX and Θ may be thus summarized.

1. The Story of Bel, vv. 1–22. There is in Babylon an image of Bel (Marduk, Merodach) which Daniel refuses to worship, though no form of worship is mentioned besides that of supplying the god with food. The king, identified in Θ with Cyrus, remonstrates with the delinquent Hebrew, pointing him to the immense quantity of food consumed daily by Bel as a proof that the god thus recognized is a living, true deity. Daniel denies that the food is eaten by the god, and asks permission to put the matter to a test. This request being granted, he is shown the lectisternia, the sacred tables, covered with food which it is alleged the god will consume during the night. It is agreed that the doors of Bel’s temple shall be closed and sealed for the night after the departure of the priests. But in addition, Daniel takes the precaution of having, without the priests’ knowledge, the floor of the temple strewn lightly with ashes. When the morning breaks, the doors are still closed and the seals intact, but the food has disappeared, evidence, the king thinks, that it has been consumed by Bel. Daniel, however, points to the tracks of bare feet on the ash-strewn floor as evidence that the priests have entered the temple by secret doors and removed the food. Angered by the trick which the priests had played on him, the king has them put to death and the image destroyed.

On the word ‘Bel’ see note on v. 3.

2. The Dragon Story, vv. 23–42. There is in Babylon a great live serpent (dragon) worshipped by a large number of the inhabitants, who feed it lavishly. In the present case the god is represented by a living creature which can be fed and which needs feeding. Daniel refuses to bow down before the serpent, and throws out a challenge to the king, that, if permission is given him, he will destroy the creature alleged to be a god. Receiving the requested permission, Daniel makes a mixture of which pitch is the principal ingredient, and thrusting it down the serpent’s throat this creature bursts asunder and dies. Infuriated at the death of their god, the populace demand the death of this god-murderer. The king yields, and has Daniel cast into the den of lions, the usual punishment of persons found guilty of capital charges. But though Daniel remained in the company of seven lions for seven days, he suffers no injury. On the sixth day Daniel, being naturally hungry, is miraculously supplied with food. The prophet Habakkuk has prepared the midday (?) meal for his reapers, and is on the way to the field where they are. An angel arrests him, telling him he is to carry the meal to Daniel in the lions’ den in Babylon. On his alleging his ignorance of the location of the lions’ den, and even of Babylon itself, the angel lays hold of the hair on the crown of his head and conveys the prophet to the den, where, seeing Daniel, he hands him the food, and seems as safe among the lions as Daniel himself. The angel then restores Habakkuk to his Palestine home. Seeing that Daniel was preserved (the Habakkuk incident is an evident interpolation), the king magnifies God, sets Daniel at liberty, and substitutes for him in the den Daniel’s accusers, who are at once devoured by the lions.

The meaning of the worddragon’. The Greek word (δράκων) translated ‘dragon’ denotes originally a large serpent. Homer uses δράκων and ὄφις interchangeably without the least apparent difference. Even the drakōn of Greek mythology remains essentially a serpent. In the East the serpent came to be commonly used as a symbol of the principle of evil. In the LXX δράκων translates most frequently (twelve times) the Hebrew תַּנִּין (tannin), rendered in the A. V. generally (eight times) ‘dragon’, sometimes (thrice) ‘serpent.’ In two passages (Amos 9:3, Job 26:13) the usual Hebrew word for serpent (נָחָשׁ) is represented in the LXX by δράκων. There is no good reason for departing from the simple impression which the narrative gives that in the present tale the dragon is a live snake worshipped as a god. Perhaps such worship is to be regarded as a survival of totemism. There is abundant evidence of snake worship in various parts of the ancient world, and there is good reason for believing that it obtained in Babylon. (1) The god Nina was worshipped in the form of a serpent.1 (2) On Babylonian seals men are figured worshipping gods apparently serpentine in form, their lower parts consisting of serpent coils with worshippers in front. (3) Both Berosus and Helladius speak of gods worshipped as serpents in Babylon.2 (4) Jensen, quoted by Baudissin (PRE3, 5, p. 6), says there was a serpent god called in Sumerian Seraḫ. For traces of serpent worship among the Hebrews, see Num. 21:8 f., 2 Kings 18:4. There is no certain proof that in ancient Babylon the live serpent as in distinction from the image of a serpent was worshipped, but there is no conclusive evidence to the contrary, and the analogy of other countries favours a decision in the affirmative.

Fritzsche3 holds that the story was composed in Egypt, where serpent worship is known to have existed in early times, but that the author inaccurately transferred it to Babylon. But since Fritzsche’s time fresh evidence of such worship in Babylon has presented itself.

Modern writers generally maintain that the dragon in this story represents a mythical monster with a serpent’s head and neck, an eagle’s legs, a lion’s body, and a unicorn’s horn.4 In this or some similar form a very large number of Babylonian inscriptions picture this monster or other monsters (we can never be quite sure as to this) as in conflict with Marduk or some other Babylonian deity. The monster has been very commonly identified with the mythological dragon, but no decisive proof of the identity has been furnished. W. Hayes Ward has made a careful attempt to bring together the various forms in which the ‘dragon-myth’ has been portrayed on Babylonian-Assyrian inscriptions,5 and he assumes throughout that in all it is the Marduk-Tiamat conflict of the Babylonian Creation legend that is set forth, but he gives no proof of this, for the name Tiamat is not once connected with the representation. Indeed it seems now generally understood that Tiamat was a snake deity, and that the dragon of the story now under consideration is no other than Tiamat: so Sayce, Ball, Gunkel, Marshall, Toy.

The present writer ventures with Jensen and Baudissin to dispute and even deny this, and for the following reasons:

1. There is no evidence in the Babylonian-Assyrian inscription that Tiamat was conceived as a serpent. The serpentine forms pointed out cannot be shown to be intended for Tiamat.

2. Berosus does not once translate the Babylonian Tiamat by dragon or by any word denoting serpent. He uniformly transliterates the word, though not as we should do now, but as Thalatth.

3. The idea embodied in Tiamat differs from that of the dragon or serpent. In Babylonian mythology Tiamat stands for the female principle, expressing itself in darkness and disorder, older than the gods themselves, since the birth of the gods took place through their separation from the primaeval chaos (= Tiamat). Tiamat is usually identified with the primaeval ocean, wild and rebellious, needing to be subdued. We are probably to see a reference to it in the תהום rendered by English versions ‘the deep’: LXX ἄβυσσος: Vulg. Abyssus.

4. In the present story the dragon is a god alongside of Bel in the preceding story: there is not the remotest hint that he is regarded other than as a Babylonian deity worshipped in the form of a serpent or dragon.

The present writer would like to add that he does not now, as he once did (see Century Bible, Psalms, 2, pp. 50, 63, 112, 141, 177), agree with Gunkel and the bulk of recent Bible scholars in seeing reflections of the Marduk-Tiamat legend in innumerable passages of the O. T. Later writers have too blindly followed Gunkel (see his Schöpfung und Chaos).


1. Manuscripts. The…

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