From Man to Ox

From Man to Ox

In the narrative of the fourth chapter of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar says that he built the great house of Babylon by the might of his own power, and for the honor of his own majesty.[1] The text says that when such words were still in Nebuchadnezzar’s mouth, a voice from heaven said the kingdom has departed from him, and that his dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. Nebuchadnezzar was then humbled and began to eat grass like oxen, as his hair and nails were overgrown. Scholars have pointed out that the idea of the wild man was a common trope in the mythic lore of the ancient Near East, such as the example of Enkidu in the epic of Gilgamesh.[2] In Mesopotamian magico-medical writings, Lambert reveals a similar passage which says, “I am an ox, I do not know the plants I eat.”[3] Additionally, long hair is connected to the multiplicity of sins in such literature.[4]

The narrative in the fourth chapter of Daniel sets forth an important scriptural motif that is repeated elsewhere in the Bible. Earthly kings rise to power over God’s people and set themselves up as gods. As seen in the example of Pharaoh, the pride of such rulers result in the hardening of their hearts and the departure from reason, which then provokes a response from God.[5] The ungodly then affirm the blasphemy, saying things like, “This is the voice of a god and not a man!”[6] and again they cry out, “Who is like unto the beast? Who is able to make war with him?”[7] It is precisely in these moments when God responds dramatically. The lofty and exalted beast is struck down to earth like Lucifer, having his wings torn off,[8] and cursed to a lifetime of groveling on the ground.[9] The beast is then consumed by worms,[10] and thrown into the fire.[11] The humbling of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel’s narrative reveals how the mighty kingdom of God is destined to conquer and supplant the bestial kingdoms of this earth.

God said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.”[12] The narrative pattern of the scriptures was always that of the Hebrew people forgetting the Lord and bringing judgment upon themselves for their lack of care for God. It comes as no surprise that such a pattern is expressly prominent within the exilic days of Daniel. The pattern of scripture itself reveals that when man acts like Nebuchadnezzar and puffs up his ego, he truly becomes like the beasts of the field. The entire book of Daniel is a reoccurring picture of the same proverb: “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”[13] One might read the book of Daniel and think that it is a story merely about the rise and fall of kingdoms aligned against Israel, however, the reality is that God keeps trying to show His own people that it is they who are being humbled through the exile caused by the Babylonian invasion.[14] They are Nebuchadnezzar, and God waits to restore them. In such exile, people will always cry out to God asking why such a thing happened to them, thus God repeatedly shows them the answer to the question. In other words, the book of Daniel is not the story of how many kingdoms rose and fell, it is rather the story of how one kingdom rose to forget the Lord and fell. Yet still, God waits to see repentance.


[1] Daniel 4:30-33.
[2] Hector Avalos. “Nebuchadnezzar’s Affliction: New Mesopotamian Parallels for Daniel 4.” Journal of Biblical Literature 133, no. 3 (2014), p. 497.
[3] W.G. Lambert, “Incantations,” 285.
[4] Avalos, p. 503.
[5] 1 Samuel 6:6.
[6] Acts 12:22.
[7] Revelation 13:4.
[8] Isaiah 14:14-15.
[9] Genesis 3:14.
[10] Acts 12:23.
[11] Revelation 20:10.
[12] Exodus 32:9.
[13] Proverbs 16:18.
[14] Daniel 9.

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