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A Hero's Journey Case Studies

Why do stories compel us? One reason is the journey. In this series, I'll look at famous examples, starting with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
A Hero's Journey Case Studies

Growing up, I didn't have a Bible in my house. I didn't attend a Sunday school at church. Which means I came late to stories of Biblical heroism: David slaying Goliath, Moses parting the sea to save his people from slavery, Gideon whittling down an army to merely 300 men to defeat a larger and better-equipped enemy with trumpets and torches.

But, the most compelling of the Biblical hero narratives appears in the third chapter of the Old Testament Book of Daniel.

In this new series, I will choose heroes and heroines from literature, movies, sports, and my own writing. Then I will apply a technique known as The Hero's Journey to their story (*).

Except, I'm going to apply the technique even more simply than others have before. Just two steps:

1. Hero meets obstacle(s).
2. Hero is changed.

Let's start with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Not in Kansas Anymore

The Book of Daniel begins with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, then a part of the ancient Kingdom of Judah. Like with imperial powers of any time, besieging the land of their enemies is not enough for the Babylonians. The Babylonian leader, King Nebuchadnezzar II, launches a strategic propaganda campaign to indoctrinate the people he's just conquered (something akin to: "You're actually quite lucky we took over your land; you'll see Babylon is so much better.").

To break the people's will to rise up against him, he takes their best and brightest, strips them of their Jewish identity, and reeducates them under his supervision.

The king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.

One of these men is Daniel, the book's protagonist (the guy who later survives being thrown in a lion's den). The others are Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, who are renamed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Imagine it. These four men had just watched their land stolen from them. Very likely, they had seen friends, family members, or neighbors slaughtered by their conquerers. Their Hebrew names, all with religious origins pointing back to who they were—their very identity—were replaced with Babylonian names honoring Babylonian gods they rejected.

This is the first obstacle.

Tensions Heighten, Flames Rise

For some time, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego go along with the king's orders. They meet and surpass his expectations. They are so exceptional in their study of Babylonian literature and philosophy that, at the end of their trial period learning under the supervision of his chief official, Nebuchadnezzar orders them to be brought to him.

The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.

Daniel stands out for his ability to interpret dreams, which elevates him to a place above most others in the royal court. The king is enamored with him. So Daniel requests his three friends also be appointed into high administrative positions within the kingdom. Three foreign captives rising up the Babylonian bureaucracy. On the surface, it's absurd. And it sets up the next conflict. The big one.

Burn Us Up, Oh King

After Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego rise to prominence, Nebuchadnezzar has a 90-foot-tall monument built out of solid gold and put on display in the province. It's intended to serve as an idol for religious worship. He orders every prominent government official of the kingdom come for the dedication ceremony. This is not an invitation. It is not a presidential inauguration in the West. It is the unveiling of a statue honoring the Supreme Leader in North Korea.

A royal messenger announces to the gathered crowd:

“Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”

Everyone goes along with the king's wishes, it seems. Until some religious figures within the kingdom step forward to denounce the Hebrews, who refuse to bow to the idol. It's possible, based on the next line in the text, that these religious leaders had been keeping an eye on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, likely jealous of the power the young Hebrews had accumulated in their land. They told Nebuchadnezzar:

"There are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.”

A furious king rushes to confront the friends. He threatens to have them killed on the spot. To toss them into the fiery furnace, if they do not worship his golden statue. But, the three young Hebrews refuse to heed. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stand up and declare:

“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

In other words: Go ahead and try to kill us. See what happens.

The day of their execution is a public spectacle. Nebuchadnezzar orders the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual. The three friends are tied up and clothed heavily to ensure they burn. The soldiers who accompany them to the entrance of the furnace are caught in the flames and die. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego tumble in. They should be killed instantly.

But they do not die.

King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.” He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!”
So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.

This story has religious implications. But, I want to focus on the storytelling.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are stripped of everything they know and love. They're forced to learn the ways of another culture. They're watched, closely, for who knows how long. It's easy to imagine they stewed. They were indignant, scared. They missed home.

At the same time, they are doing well in the land of their conquerers. Much better than some of the other Hebrews. They have authority. They live comfortably, eat well. Would it be impossible to imagine the friends acculturating to some extent, like the Catholic Portuguese missionaries in the film Silence who, when realizing the Imperial Japanese government will torture and murder their own people to ensure Christianity does not spread, abandon their faith and take on the customs of their captors?

Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego meet a challenge.

Their religion—probably the only thing, besides their friendship, tying them to their homeland—is tested. According to Jewish belief, they are not to submit before any manmade idol. But, they're not in Israel. They're in Babylon. They have targets on their backs, placed there by those within the kingdom who are skeptical and distrust foreigners rising through their ranks. To not submit to the golden idol is to die.

Yet they refuse. Do as you wish, king. Our God will save us. Then they amend the statement. In fact, even if He doesn't save us—even if we march to our own deaths—we still refuse to bow.

The arrogance. That's what Nebuchadnezzar must think. Ungrateful foreigners. After all I've done for you! You've signed your own execution papers. Go die, if that's what you wish.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego encounter three obstacles.

The first is their capture. They are physically changed; they're made into Babylonians. The second is the king's order for all to bow before his golden idol. If they weren't brave before, they became brave then. They stood up for themselves and for their people. The third is the furnace.

Here, I'll end with Nebuchadnezzar's own words:

Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”
Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.

Do you have a suggestion for a hero or heroine whose journey I should write about? Submit their name using this form.

*The development of the hero's journey technique in storytelling is credited to the literary historian Joseph Campbell. It was later simplified by Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty) into an eight-step storytelling circle.