Question: "What is Bel and the Dragon?"

Answer: Bel and the Dragon is one of several additions to the book of Daniel. The original book of Daniel ends after chapter twelve. The extra material is found only in translations, such as the Septuagint, but not in the Masoretic Text. Bel and the Dragon is a later addition most likely derived from various legends and folk stories about Daniel. This non-canonical material includes chapter 13, known as the “Song of the Three Children”; chapter 14, known as “Susanna”; and chapter 15, known as “Bel and the Dragon.” The fifteenth chapter is a single narrative in three parts.

According to the text of Bel and the Dragon, Daniel is honored above all others by the new Persian king, Cyrus. The king asks Daniel why he does not worship the statue of Bel, to which the people have been offering great quantities of food every day. Daniel replies that he does not worship false gods made with human hands but only the living God. Cyrus claims that Bel is a living god, since all of the food offered to him disappears each night—eaten, he claims, by the idol. Daniel repeats his belief that his God is superior to Bel.

In a rage, Cyrus pits the Persian priests against Daniel. If they cannot prove that Bel eats the food, they will be executed. If Daniel cannot prove someone else is eating it, he will be executed. The priests ask the king to place the food himself and then seal the room with his own signet. Without telling the priests, however, Daniel spreads ashes in the idol’s chamber, as the king watches. The idol and food are then sealed in the room overnight.

The next morning, the king breaks the seal and sees that the food has been eaten. He begins to praise Bel when Daniel points out the evidence in the ashes. There are footprints of men, women, and children leading to a secret door in the wall. The seventy priests and their families have been sneaking in nightly to eat the idol’s offerings. Cyrus is furious and orders the priests, their wives, and their children killed. He gives the idol of Bel to Daniel to be destroyed.

The second part of Bel and the Dragon involves an actual living dragon, which Cyrus again tells Daniel to worship. Since the dragon is flesh and blood, Cyrus claims, it is superior to Bel and should be honored. Daniel again claims to worship only God and says he can kill this dragon without weapons. The king agrees to Daniel’s demonstration, and Daniel poisons the dragon with a mixture of tar, hair, and ashes. This causes the dragon to burst open, proving it to be an inferior creature and not a god to be worshiped.

The final part of Bel and the Dragon is a re-telling of Daniel’s experience in the lions’ den. Angry that Daniel destroyed the idol Bel and the living dragon, the people of Persia demand Daniel be handed over to them. King Cyrus is afraid of a revolution, so he agrees. Daniel is thrown into a den with seven lions for six days. These lions were typically fed two human corpses and two sheep every day, but, to make them more ferocious for Daniel, they are starved.

According to the story, God provides for Daniel through the prophet Habakkuk. God does this by sending an angel to carry Habakkuk from Judea, by his hair, and holding him over the den so he can drop food to Daniel. On the seventh day, Cyrus sees that Daniel is alive and well. He orders the ringleaders of the people thrown into the lions’ den instead, and they are immediately devoured.

The book of Daniel is inspired, but Bel and the Dragon, as an addition to the inspired text, is not considered part of the biblical canon. It is included in some apocryphal Bibles and in Catholic versions of the text.