Reflections on Bel and the Dragon

One of my goals this year is to read through the Apocrypha. I was doing really good but eventually slowed down considerably. Part of the reason for that is I kept reading other material to help me understand what I was reading. This week I received the new CEB Study Bible. I got the edition with the Apocrypha and was inspired to start reading again. I thought I would start with a smaller portion so I picked Bel and the Dragon or Bel and the Snake as it is in the CEB.

I’ve been thinking through the reasons offered why the Apocrypha should not be considered part of the canon. Norman Geisler offers arguments in favor of the Protestant canon in his General Introduction to the Bible. I only want to focus on one of those arguments for the purpose of this blog. His second reason is stated as follows:

“Some of the Apocryphal stories are extrabiblical and fanciful. The story of Bel and the Dragon is a good case in point. In it, the pagan priests of Bel try to deceive Daniel by using a trapdoor to go in and consume the food offered to Bel to prove that Bel is a ‘living God’ who ‘eats and drinks every day’ (v. 6). So, in order to assist the ‘living God,’ Bel, ‘in the night the priests came with their wives and children, as they were accustomed to do, and ate and drank everything’ (v. 15). The same unauthentic ring may be heard in the other legendary books of Additions to Esther, Prayer of Azariah, and Susanna, as well as Tobit and Judith.” (173 Page reference is to the 1968 edition.)

I must say I’m not impressed with this. First, to call the story “extrabiblical” is question begging. That is to say it assumes the 66 books of the Protestant canon are “biblical” and so therefore anything not part of it is “extrabiblical.” To affirm that stories from Bel and the Dragon are extrabiblical is assuming what you’re trying to prove. Second, he describes the story in Bel and the Dragon as “fanciful.” How is this any more fanciful than Jonah and the big fish, a talking snake or the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal? These are but a few of the stories that liberals have long assessed as fanciful but Geisler would not consider them as such. Finally, he concludes that it has an “unauthentic ring.” This strikes me again as quite subjective and ironic in light of other stories from the Old Testament that Geisler readily accepts.

David deSilva says that “Bel and the Dragon is no longer regarded as a historical narrative. . . . Rather, this narrative is another manifestation of Judaism’s polemic against idolatry . . .” (Introducing the Apocrypha, 239).


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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2 Responses to Reflections on Bel and the Dragon

  1. Laura says:

    I just got a Bible with the Apocrypha in it also. It wasn’t a planned purchase, but it was a good price at my local used book store. This week I have to read though the additions to Esther for a church class, so it turned out to be good timing.


  2. Timothy says:

    I think the story of Bel and the Dragon must be understood by examining its literary form. The books of Tobit and Judith (as well as Esther and Jonah) have a similar literary style to them. The New American Bible Revised Edition has an interesting and helpful introduction to these books, which they refer to as Biblical Novellas:

    “The Bible conveys the Word of God in many literary forms: historical narrative, poetry, prophetic exhortation, wisdom sayings, and novellas (edifying stories). In the Constitution on Divine Revelation from Vatican II (Dei Verbum), the council fathers give instruction on how to approach this variety: “Attention must be paid to literary forms, for the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression. Hence the interpreter must look for that meaning which the sacred writer intended to express and did in fact express through the medium of a contemporary literary form” (DV 12).

    The Books of Tobit, Judith, and Esther are often grouped together. They are stories told to instruct the people concerning the ways of God, to encourage them in critical times, and to entertain. They are aids to the imagination. While they may contain kernels of historical fact, these stories are told primarily to illustrate truths that transcend history.”


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