The Queen, the Memory-Keeper (Women in the Book of Daniel, part 1) by Liz Cooledge Jenkins

Note: This is the first in a two-part series reflecting on women in the biblical book of Daniel.

I recently had the chance to take a deep dive into the biblical book of Daniel. I think it’s the first time I’ve read the whole book of Daniel since I’ve started intentionally attending to the questions of feminist biblical interpretation: Where are women present? Where are women absent? What are they doing or not doing—perhaps prohibited from doing? How does this passage move its readers toward—or away from—gender equity and women’s empowerment? How does it speak to—or deny—women’s full humanity?

            The absence of women in most of the book of Daniel feels glaringly obvious to me.[1] The main characters include the Hebrew exile Daniel, Daniel’s three (male) friends, King Nebuchadnezzar, King Belshazzar, and King Darius. The angels look like men. The divinely appointed eschatological authority figure is described as being like a “son of man.” The particularly oppressive king who desecrates the temple, abolishes the ritual sacrifices, and sets up an “abomination that causes desolation”[2] is definitely male.

Where are the women?

            It took me two reads through the book, but on my second read, I noticed two women. For some reason, they did not stand out to me on the first read. I was focusing on other things; I’ve been conditioned to pass over female characters as if they are not particularly important, just because they often don’t get as much air time as their male counterparts. But feminist biblical interpretation insists that women are important. And so I don’t want to overlook these women—even if their roles in the overarching narrative seem minor compared to a Daniel or a Nebuchadnezzar.

            The first of these two women is the queen, who appears in Daniel 5:10-12. Scholars have often considered her to be the mother (or even the grandmother) of King Belshazzar, not his wife. This queen was nowhere to be found when the king and his nobles, wives, and concubines were feasting and drinking wine from the golden goblets plundered from Jerusalem (Dan 5:1-4). This act of drinking from the stolen goblets prompted the shocking appearance of a human hand, writing words on the wall, leaving the king terrified (vv. 5-6).

Where was the queen? Was she perhaps skipping out on the banquet, knowing it was full of depravity, wanting no part in evil acts? Did she feel remorse rather than pride that her people had ransacked Jerusalem and destroyed it, taking what was valuable and using it for their own feasting without shame? Did she have mixed feelings about her involvement in this violent, oppressive empire, perhaps married off into the royal family against her own will?

I don’t know any of these things. But they don’t seem like impossible—or even particularly improbable—possibilities.

            The king, in his terror, calls in all the astrologers and diviners he can find, offering rich rewards for any who could explain the mysterious and terrifying writing. No one can. And the king just keeps getting more terrified (vv. 7-9). The narrator tells us, “his face grew more pale” (v. 9)—and that’s after his legs had already become weak and his “knees were knocking” (v. 6, NIV).

            At this moment, finally, the queen steps in. From outside the banquet hall, she heard the king and his nobles talking, all of them completely and utterly “baffled” (v. 9) by the writing on the wall. The queen had no supernatural powers. She didn’t know what the writing meant, either. But she knew what to do. As angels often greeted people, “do not be afraid”—and as Jesus told his followers many times, “peace be with you”—so too the queen, in this moment of terror and confusion, said, “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale!” (v. 10). She saw the whole room’s bafflement and fear and spoke directly to it. In effect: It’s going to be okay. I know this is terrifying, but there’s something we can do.

            And then she offered a solution. “There is a man in your kingdom,” she told the king, “who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods” (v. 11). When everyone else had forgotten Daniel and his amazing dream interpretations from a previous generation (chapters 2 and 4), the queen remembered. And in so doing, she joined the far-reaching ranks of women through the ages who remember the stories important to their people when many have long forgotten.

Maybe the stories of Daniel had circulated among women for decades as they did their work together. Maybe the Babylonian women wondered together about the God Daniel served. Maybe they saw in Daniel a different kind of power from the power they saw in the violent kings who ruled over them—a kind of power that was attractive to them, a kind of power mixed with wisdom and compassion, a kind of power they wanted to embody for themselves.

            The queen remembered, and she shared with the king what she knew. “Call for Daniel,” she said. “He will tell you what the writing means” (v. 12). The king followed her recommendation, and it was exactly as she said. Daniel interpreted the writing that no one else could make any sense of.

            So, where are the women—and who are the women—in this story? This particular woman, the queen, is the memory keeper. She is the wise counselor. She is the problem solver. She is a source of wisdom; and not just that, but she is wise enough to know the limits of her own wisdom, to know when (and whom) to ask for help. She is the voice of reason in a time of collective confusion. She remembers and passes on the stories that might otherwise be forgotten. She speaks peace. She shows the way forward when there seems to be no way. If not for her, the story would have ended with the writing uninterpreted, the whole royal court baffled, the pilfered golden goblets half full of wine—and Daniel nowhere near the scene, blissfully unaware that any of this was happening.

(Male) Bible commentators may gloss over the queen—and we in our own androcentric conditioning may be tempted to do the same—but we can choose to see her. We can choose to wonder about her. We can choose to honor her. We can choose to remember her, as she remembered Daniel.

Part 2, tomorrow

[1] I learned recently that Catholic Bibles include two chapters of Daniel that Protestant Bibles do not: chapters 13 and 14. Chapter 13 centers a woman, Susanna, in a fascinating story that deals with sexual assault and victim blaming. Since I speak from the Protestant tradition, I won’t address chapters 13-14 at this time.

[2] Generally thought to be Antiochus IV Epiphanes, whose second century BCE reign of terror and persecution likely sparked the writing of Daniel in the first place

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