This small “book” of the Apocrypha is one of the three additions to the book of Daniel found only in its Greek translation (the Septuagint), but not in the original Hebrew‐Aramaic text; the other two are the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, and Susanna. Unlike Susanna, which is a well‐told, plausible story, these two tales of Daniel's detective work in exposing the fraudulent claims of the priests of Bel, and his destruction of the dragon (or, better, “snake”) are obvious polemical fabrications intended to demonstrate the foolishness of Babylonian religion and the superiority of the faith of Israel. The story of Bel is at least a good story, but the story of the dragon is so preposterous as to verge on the grotesque.
Bel, equivalent to Hebrew Baal, was another name for Marduk, the chief god of Babylon. When challenged by the king (Cyrus!) for his failure to worship Bel, who each day proves himself to be truly a god by the enormous quantity of food he consumes, Daniel undertakes to demonstrate that Bel does nothing of the kind. After the priests have set out the regular offering of food in the temple for the god's enjoyment, Daniel sprinkles the floor with ashes in the presence of the king alone. When they return the next morning, they see in the ashes the footprints of the priests and their families who had entered by a secret trap door during the night and consumed the food. The king then, acknowledging that Daniel was right, has the priests and their families executed, and gives Daniel permission to demolish the statue and the temple.
The other story tells how Daniel destroyed the living snake (the “dragon”), though there is no evidence from antiquity that the worship of live snakes was ever a feature of Babylonian religion. Daniel feeds the snake a mixture of pitch, fat, and hair (an unpleasant but hardly lethal concoction), which, it is said, causes the snake to explode. Under compulsion from the snake's worshipers, the king has Daniel thrown into a lions' den for six days (a device borrowed from chap. 6 of the book of Daniel). While there he is fed by the prophet Habakkuk, who is miraculously transported from Judea for the purpose. On the seventh day, an unharmed Daniel is released by the king, who immediately confesses that there is no god but the God of Daniel.
Like the other stories in Daniel 1–6, these two are examples of a partly satirical polemic against other religions, which must have been popular in the later Hellenistic period, when the attraction of Greek culture for Jews was strong. The strength of the appeal is illustrated by a passage such as 1 Maccabees 1.11–15, which describes the apostasy of a segment of the Jewish population of Jerusalem.
There is no external evidence as to the original language of the stories, but it was presumably Hebrew, less likely Aramaic. Palestine was probably the place of their composition, although one can point to no unambiguous clues. The time of writing is probably the second century BCE; the writer is, of course, unknown. Some critics profess to find in the stories faint echoes of the story of Marduk and his slaying of the monster Tiamat in Babylonian mythology, or of some early version of the story of Saint George and the dragon, but the points of contact are few and remote. The manner of Habakkuk's miraculous journey to Babylon is an outright borrowing from Ezekiel 8.3.
Robert C. Dentan