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).
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
3 King Nebuchadnezʹzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits. He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. 2Then King Nebuchadnezʹzar sent to assemble the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image which King Nebuchadnezʹzar had set up. 3Then the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, were assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezʹzar had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezʹzar had set up. 4And the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, 5that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezʹzar has set up; 6and whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.” 7Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden image which King Nebuchadnezʹzar had set up.
8 Therefore at that time certain Chaldeʹans came forward and maliciously accused the Jews. 9They said to King Nebuchadnezʹzar, “O king, live for ever! 10You, O king, have made a decree, that every man who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image; 11and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into a burning fiery furnace. 12There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego. These men, O king, pay no heed to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.”
13 Then Nebuchadnezʹzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego be brought. Then they brought these men before the king. 14Nebuchadnezʹzar said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image which I have set up? 15Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image which I have made, well and good; but if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace; and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?”
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezʹzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.”
19 Then Nebuchadnezʹzar was full of fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was wont to be heated. 20And he ordered certain mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. 21Then these men were bound in their mantles, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were cast into the burning fiery furnace. 22Because the king’s order was strict and the furnace very hot, the flame of the fire slew those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego. 23And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace.
24 Then King Nebuchadnezʹzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He said to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” 25He answered, “But I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”
26 Then Nebuchadnezʹzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego, servants of the Most High God, come forth, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego came out from the fire. 27And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their mantles were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. 28Nebuchadnezʹzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set at nought the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. 29Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.” 30Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedʹnego in the province of Babylon.
1 And they walked about in the midst of the flames, singing hymns to God and blessing the Lord. 2Then Azariʹah stood and offered this prayer; in the midst of the fire he opened his mouth and said:
3“Blessed art thou, O Lord, God of our fathers, and worthy of praise;
and thy name is glorified for ever.
4For thou art just in all that thou hast done to us,
and all thy works are true and thy ways right,
and all thy judgments are truth.
5Thou hast executed true judgments in all that thou hast brought upon us
and upon Jerusalem, the holy city of our fathers,
for in truth and justice thou hast brought all this upon us because of our sins.
6For we have sinfully and lawlessly departed from thee,
and have sinned in all things and have not obeyed thy commandments;
7we have not observed them or done them,
as thou hast commanded us that it might go well with us.
8So all that thou hast brought upon us,
and all that thou hast done to us,
thou hast done in true judgment.
9Thou hast given us into the hands of lawless enemies, most hateful rebels,
and to an unjust king, the most wicked in all the world.
10And now we cannot open our mouths;
shame and disgrace have befallen thy servants and worshipers.
11For thy name’s sake do not give us up utterly,
and do not break thy covenant,
12and do not withdraw thy mercy from us,
for the sake of Abraham thy beloved
and for the sake of Isaac thy servant
and Israel thy holy one,
13to whom thou didst promise
to make their descendants as many as the stars of heaven
and as the sand on the shore of the sea.
14For we, O Lord, have become fewer than any nation,
and are brought low this day in all the world because of our sins.
15And at this time there is no prince, or prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense,
no place to make an offering before thee or to find mercy.
16Yet with a contrite heart and a humble spirit may we be accepted,
as though it were with burnt offerings of rams and bulls,
and with tens of thousands of fat lambs;
17such may our sacrifice be in thy sight this day,
and may we wholly follow thee,
for there will be no shame for those who trust in thee.
18And now with all our heart we follow thee,
we fear thee and seek thy face.
19Do not put us to shame,
but deal with us in thy forbearance
and in thy abundant mercy.
20Deliver us in accordance with thy marvelous works,
and give glory to thy name, O Lord!
Let all who do harm to thy servants be put to shame;
21let them be disgraced and deprived of all power and dominion,
and let their strength be broken.
22Let them know that thou art the Lord, the only God,
glorious over the whole world.”
23 Now the king’s servants who threw them in did not cease feeding the furnace fires with naphtha, pitch, tow, and brush. 24And the flame streamed out above the furnace forty-nine cubits, 25and it broke through and burned those of the Chaldeʹans whom it caught about the furnace. 26But the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariʹah and his companions, and drove the fiery flame out of the furnace, 27and made the midst of the furnace like a moist whistling wind, so that the fire did not touch them at all or hurt or trouble them.
28 Then the three, as with one mouth, praised and glorified and blessed God in the furnace, saying:
29“Blessed art thou, O Lord, God of our fathers,
and to be praised and highly exalted for ever;
30And blessed is thy glorious, holy name
and to be highly praised and highly exalted for ever;
31Blessed art thou in the temple of thy holy glory
and to be extolled and highly glorified for ever.
32Blessed art thou, who sittest upon cherubim and lookest upon the deeps,
and to be praised and highly exalted for ever.
33Blessed art thou upon the throne of thy kingdom
and to be extolled and highly exalted for ever.
34Blessed art thou in the firmament of heaven
and to be sung and glorified for ever.
35“Bless the Lord, all works of the Lord,
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
36Bless the Lord, you heavens,
37Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord,
38Bless the Lord, all waters above the heaven,
39Bless the Lord, all powers,
40Bless the Lord, sun and moon,
41Bless the Lord, stars of heaven,
42Bless the Lord, all rain and dew,
43Bless the Lord, all winds,
44Bless the Lord, fire and heat,
45Bless the Lord, winter cold and summer heat,
46Bless the Lord, dews and snows,
47Bless the Lord, nights and days,
48Bless the Lord, light and darkness,
49Bless the Lord, ice and cold,
50Bless the Lord, frosts and snows,
51Bless the Lord, lightnings and clouds,
52Let the earth bless the Lord;
let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
53Bless the Lord, mountains and hills,
54Bless the Lord, all things that grow on the earth,
55Bless the Lord, you springs,
56Bless the Lord, seas and rivers,
57Bless the Lord, you whales and all creatures that move in the waters,
58Bless the Lord, all birds of the air,
59Bless the Lord, all beasts and cattle,
60Bless the Lord, you sons of men,
61Bless the Lord, O Israel,
62Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord,
63Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord,
64Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous,
65Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart,
66Bless the Lord, Hananiʹah, Azariʹah, and Mishʹael,
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever;
for he has rescued us from Hades and saved us from the hand of death,
and delivered us from the midst of the burning fiery furnace;
from the midst of the fire he has delivered us.
67Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his mercy endures for ever.
68Bless him, all who worship the Lord, the God of gods,
sing praise to him and give thanks to him,
for his mercy endures for ever.”