Everyone knows that although the Christian Bible is a single volume, it’s actually a multi-genre library of between 66 and 81 books (depending on how one counts) written over a space of 1,500 years by numerous authors.
When you open a Bible, you’ll find poetry, history, epic narratives, moral treatises, spiritual tracts, law books, letters, legends and philosophy. Discriminating readers approach each one in a way that’s appropriate to it. We ought not to read legends as if they were history, for example, or law as if it’s spirituality.
I love the way the range of genres in the Bible make me feel connected with our ancestors. Just like us today, our forefathers and mothers were thrilled by epic narratives and legends, moved by poetry, and hungry for insight into the deepest questions humans ask.
There’s an additional usually overlooked genre in the Bible that bridges the centuries between us and them: Detective fiction. Like us, our ancestors loved a good mystery. Two first-rate stories of detection are found in the Hebraic Book of Daniel. They introduce us to a biblical private detective, none other than Daniel himself.
(If you’re not familiar with these stories, by the way, it may be because you’re a Protestant. These so-called deuterocanonical stories are in Catholic and Orthodox bibles, but were excised from Protestant ones by the 16th-century reformers.)
Daniel is one of the Hebrews carted off to Babylon after the conquest of Jerusalem in 587 BC. A young nobleman “without physical defect, handsome and proficient in wisdom,” he’s assigned to serve the Babylonian king in his palace. While there, he interprets dreams, risks his life in defense of his religious beliefs, and experiences visions of the future.
But he also sets himself up as a consulting detective every bit as sharp as Hercule Poirot. One of the cases he sleuths (Daniel 13) involves a righteous Hebrew wife named Susannah. The other (Daniel 14) revolves around an idol named Bel.
Susannah, a “God-fearing woman,” was in the habit of bathing in the seclusion of her garden. One day two Hebrew elders spied her, lusted for her, and demanded that she lie with them. Otherwise, they threatened to falsely accuse her of adultery.
When Susannah refused to give in to them, the two elders followed through with their threat. Their joint testimony convicted Susannah, who was sentenced to death. But then Daniel stepped in, demanding to interrogate the two perjurers separately.
In what part of the garden, he asked each of them, did you see Susannah commit the adultery? Under an oak, one replied. Under a mastic, said the other. Because the two trees are wildly dissimilar, it was clear that the men were lying. Thanks to Daniel’s ingenuity, Susannah was saved.
His second bit of detective work involved exposing religious chicanery.
Daniel refused to worship the Babylonian god Bel, telling the king that he revered only Yahweh, the one “living God.” The king protested that he too worshipped a living god because the enormous food offerings laid at night before Bel’s statue were gone each morning. The only explanation, the king insisted, was that they were devoured by Bel.
Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Daniel persuaded the king to scatter ashes on the floor around the statue. The usual food offerings were then placed and the temple door locked. Sure enough, the next morning the food was gone. But there were footprints in the ashes that led to a secret door. It turned out that Bel’s priests had been sneaking through it each night to steal the food offerings for themselves.
These tales demonstrate two qualities that fans of detective fiction love: Cleverness in sleuthing and the triumph of truth. They bring the ancient world, and the Bible, just a bit closer to us.
Fr. Kerry pastors Holy Spirit American National Catholic Church in Montandon.