The Three Hebrews in the Furnace by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

The Three Hebrews in the Furnace, c.250–300 CE, Fresco, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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A Baptism of Fire

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Found in the third-century Roman catacombs of Priscilla, this paleo-Christian wall painting shows the three young Hebrew men of Daniel 3 thrown into a fiery furnace by the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar. Their crime was refusing to worship an immense golden idol traditionally thought to represent the monarch himself.

Whereas the biblical account is full of detail, the mural is selective in what it shows. It gives us the faithful believers—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—but only a suggestion of the furnace flames and nothing of the servants who commandeered them, the courtiers who gathered to watch their incineration, or the emperor who ordered it. Instead, the focus is on those who risked death trusting in God for deliverance; who, even if martyred, vowed to obey the prohibition of the first commandment (Exodus 20:3): ‘Be it known to you, O king, that we will not worship your gods nor adore the golden statue which you have set up’ (Daniel 3:18 NRSV).

Interest in the Hebrews extends to their exotic clothing, which are itemized in Daniel 3:21. Although the exact meaning of the terms is debated, they are rendered in translation as tunics, trousers, hats, and ‘other garments’. Attention is also paid to their erect posture, open hands, and extended arms uplifted in the orant or prayer gesture. Might they together be singing the Benedicite thanksgiving hymn found in the Greek addition to Daniel 3 (Song of the Three Jews 23–68; Daniel 3:51–90 LXX).

The figures radiate a sense of calm, as if confident of their rescue. The fire in which they stand poses no apparent danger: it appears more like garden foliage than flame. Above them hovers a dove bearing an olive branch, perhaps a visual reminder of the Noah story and its deliverance (Genesis 8:11). In Daniel there is a fourth figure in the fiery furnace, who has (according to Nebuchadnezzar) ‘the appearance of a God’ (Song of the Three Jews 25; Daniel 3:92 LXX); here, however, that protective divine presence, otherwise taken to be an angel or Christ, suggests the Holy Spirit, who at Jesus’s baptism descends from heaven ‘like a dove’ (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22).

 

References

Walton, Ann. 1988. ‘The Three Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace’, in Medieval Mediterranean Cross-Cultural Contexts, ed. by Marilyn J.Chiat and Kathryn L. Reyerson (St. Cloud, MN: North Star Press of St. Cloud), 57–66


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