Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on 17th November 2013, Second Sunday before Advent
Daniel 6 – Biblical Big Cats

In the 1960s, if you had gone shopping at Harrod’s, you would have found that they had an Exotic Animals Department. You may remember the wonderful story of the lion cub who was sold in Harrod’s and who became known as Christian the Lion. He lived in Chelsea with two young men who owned a trendy furniture shop, for a year before he got too big and was taken to Kenya to be released into the wild. There is a very sweet story about him meeting up with his former owners several years later, and fondly remembering them.

We tend to be rather soppy about cats – and that includes the rather daft idea that lions and tigers and leopards, big cats, are just that, big cats. If only they got to know us properly, we think, they would be just like big pet cats, with sweet, gentle dispositions, keen on sleeping and climbing under counterpanes on the spare bed when no-one is looking: happy to be stroked and to have their tummies tickled.

You will remember the famous zoo owner and gambler, John Aspinall, who kept tigers and encouraged his keepers to go into their enclosures with them, to play with them as pets. Unfortunately, those tigers didn’t know what Mr Aspinall expected of them, and on several occasions, they devoured their keepers.

The truth is that even domestic cats do not have entirely reliable tempers. My two Bengals are very good at rolling on their backs, purring and generally appearing very friendly, inviting you to tickle their tummies: but you should be aware that the height of ecstasy for both of them is then to grip your hand in their paws and give you a good bite! Nothing personal, of course. It’s just what cats like doing.

Which brings us to the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. There were several Persian kings called Darius, but most scholars agree that this was Darius I, who died in 486BC. He set up a complicated administration structure for the Persian empire. According to the Book of Daniel he divided Persia into 120 administrative zones, although the contemporary account in Herodotus’ Histories suggests that Darius only set up 20 regions, called satrapies, and his descendant, King Xerxes, increased the number of satrapies, perhaps indeed to 120.

It is possible that the Book of Daniel was written not just in order to tell historical stories – and indeed it may be that the history is a little bit shaky in places – but rather for prophetic teaching purposes, to demonstrate the power of God. So Daniel going into the lions’ den illustrates this. It is an escape story, just as in the earlier chapter, chapter 3, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three other Jewish exiles in Persia, in Babylon along with Daniel, were cast into a fiery furnace because they refused to worship a golden image which Nebuchadnezzar, the king before Darius, had made. And again, God saved them and they were unhurt, even though the fiery furnace was so hot that the people who were throwing them into it were themselves consumed by fire.

Daniel portrays Darius as a benevolent king, who was tricked into signing into law an edict, that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from him, the king, for thirty days – and according to the commentators, ‘prays’ should better be translated as ‘makes a request’ either of gods or of humans – that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from the king, should be punished by being thrown into a den of lions.

Interestingly, none of the historians can find any evidence that the Persians had dens of lions, or that they used them to deal with criminals as a way of execution. The Romans certainly did. They had a special expression for it, damnatio ad bestia, condemnation to the beasts. The main reason why the early Christians were martyred by being thrown to wild beasts was because they refused to worship the emperor; similar circumstances to those in which Daniel found himself.

There are a couple of other interesting things which we should note in the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. One is the way in which King Darius refused to contradict the law which he had made, the edict. The laws of the Medes and the Persians could not be changed. Indeed that expression, ‘The laws of the Medes and the Persians’, became synonymous with the idea of immutability, unchangeability in the law.

I think also that we are meant to understand that it was not one of those cases where the Israelites on the one hand were God’s chosen people, and on the other hand there were their oppressors, the Gentiles, the ‘nations’, people who didn’t believe in God and who were vastly inferior to them. In this case, the Medes and the Persians were decent people, who treated the Jews in exile fairly and well. One defining characteristic of the Medes and the Persians was that they recognised the rule of law.

As Lord Denning famously said, ‘Be you never so high, the law is above you.’ He was quoting Dr Thomas Fuller, who said this first in 1733. This is a hallmark of civilisation. This is something we look for today as a desirable feature in all countries. When we talk about ‘failed states’ – Somalia, perhaps Iraq, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier of Pakistan, the rule of law is said to have broken down.

So here Darius felt that, whatever he personally may have wanted to do in order to be compassionate to Daniel, he was not allowed to do, because there was a higher principle, the rule of law. And so he very reluctantly sealed the lions’ den with Daniel in it, with his own signet ring.

This is a terrible story. So often in ancient literature we don’t get the gory details. The King simply decrees that somebody should be done in, and he is: witness Herod with John the Baptist. But here, King Darius personally supervises his good friend and trusted minister Daniel being fed to the lions.

Clearly those lions were very fierce, because when Daniel’s story has had a happy ending, and Daniel has survived a night in the den without being eaten, King Darius makes sure that all the people that tricked him into making the law and putting Daniel in mortal danger by it, are themselves thrown into the den, with their children and their wives; ‘Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.’ So it’s not the case that the lions’ den had been filled with special soft lions like Christian the Lion. These were normal cats, and for Daniel to survive a night with them really was a tremendous miracle.

This is one of the great Bible stories, which I’m sure we all remember from Sunday School, from our earliest days. It’s right up there with Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories. But are there any lessons which we can learn from it as grown-ups today? What about the laws of the Medes and the Persians? Are there laws today which result in cruelty? Is there anyone like Daniel, who, despite being innocent, is being thrown to the lions? Can we by prayer, by relying on God like Daniel did, in fact negate the effects of these immutable laws?

I will leave you to ponder on that. There are 38 shopping days left until Christmas. It’s a fortnight until the beginning of Advent. Christian the Lion and his descendants are no longer available in Harrod’s. Perhaps in Advent there is another lion that we should remember. What about Aslan, the lion in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’? Now there was a Christian lion!