Reflecting on the reading in Daniel today, I found myself trying to remember the first time I heard this most powerful of stories: the casting of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the furnace. I managed a dim recollection of what felt like at least one of the first times I heard the tale. I could mainly recall the emotions this story provoked in my young and fertile imagination: absolute horror at a furnace large enough to burn a person; terror while picturing these three men cast into this roaring, searing firestorm; wonder upon hearing of how these three men emerged untouched.
Reflecting on my own early reactions to this tale gave me fresh empathy for the response of King Nebuchadnezzar. I have heard the tale of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego so many times since the first telling that I know the outcome well (including the details such as the memorable reference to the hair on the men’s heads not being singed.) This familiarity with the story’s outcome has perhaps made the king’s response of astonishment seem somewhat foolish to me. Indeed, I think it is quite easy to read the king as being, in addition to cruel, somewhat simple, an almost comical figure whose face distorts with rage, and who naively thinks he has the means to destroy these men of God simply by increasing the heat of his furnace. It is through trying to read this story from his perspective – imagining his deep, soul-shaking wonder at this seemingly impossible event – that his words take on more power and meaning: “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.”
My reflection on the importance of empathy continued as I read John. I was tempted on first reading to do something of a mental eye-roll, and to imagine Jesus doing the same, as I read of his encounter with individuals who questioned everything he said, sentence by blessed sentence. Of course, on closer reading, and with a determination on my part to bring my newfound empathy into action, I could at least begin to imagine how strange, if not downright ridiculous, each of Jesus’ pronouncements must have seemed: so strange that an attentive listener would have had little option to challenge them, in the style of rapid-fire debate perhaps seen on social media today.
Empathy, or an attempt to understand the motivation of individuals or groups, does not always come easily to me, especially when reading a text as familiar as the Bible. What it does do is help me read the text in a new way. It moves me from imagining the Bible to be a tale (nearly) exclusively of God to a collection of books that tell of people, and their struggles to understand signs and sayings that are in every way outside their lived experience and understanding of the world. God, or a godlike presence, may be seen occasionally; for the most part, biblical figures must decide among themselves what they are to do with the wonders they have seen and heard, and how they are to live in the face of evidence that everything they believed to be true is wrong. In this way, their story is our story; figures deserving of the same level of empathy that we hope future generations will show us when they consider our lives and how we responded to the signs and challenges of our times.