Tuesday, February 5, 2013


DAY EIGHT: Prison Diary January 10, 2013 Solitary Confinement Okaloosa C.I., Crestview, FL


One of my favorite books of the Bible as a child in Sunday School was Daniel. It had such exciting stories, like the three young men surviving the fiery furnace they'd been thrown into without so much as a blister, the mysterious handwriting on the wall, and, of course, my hero, Daniel, in the lions' den. In years to come, I could relate personally to Daniel's story. Unlike Daniel, who spent the night in a den of hungry lions, I have lived in the lions' den for many years, yet I have survived, by the grace of God.

As a child, I saw things with a child's eye and a child's understanding, but becoming a man, I looked at things and understood them differently. So it is with the Bible. Many Bible stories are multi-layered, with the surface features presenting a straightforward narrative that satisfies and explains the events in a simple style that most anyone can understand and appreciate, but with deeper levels of meaning available for those who seek them. The fiery furnace, the writing on the wall, and the lions' den, according to scholars, as well as most every other part of Daniel, are fertile subjects of intense study and meaning.

I'm not a Bible scholar, but going to prison for life has a tendency to change the way one looks at the world, and studying the Bible is a busy occupation for many, especially with all the well-meaning Christians whose mission is to bring light to the darkness of prison. This starts in the county jail with preachers and volunteers passing out New Testaments, literature, and simple Bible studies to captive audiences behind the bars. Once you get to prison, it is more organized, and certain churches and other groups have prison ministries with weekly programs that may last for years.

With the educational levels of most prisoners being fairly low (70% of Florida prisoners are functionally illiterate), it would be wasted effort to teach religious subjects at too high a level. Many of the Bible studies available to prisoners are what I call the "Fill-in-the-Blank School of the Bible."
for example: "For God so loved the  (blank) that
                      He gave his only begotten  (blank) , so
                      that whosoever believeth in  (blank)
                      shall not   (blank)    , but
                      have everlasting  (blank)   ."  John 3:16
Fill in the blanks, earn a certificate, congratulations.

Even with the low average educational levels, there are still a number of high school- and college- educated prisoners who are unsatisfied with the simplistic studies and seek courses with more substance and intellectual challenge.

I was fortunate in the mid-1980's to be at Zephyrhills C.I. when Professor Bob Loeffler came to the chapel with an offer we couldn't refuse. He taught Bible classes at Trinity College in Dunedin, whose graduates received divinity and theology degrees. A well-off elderly lady felt moved to pay the college tuitions of a class of prisoners who wanted to take college-level Bible courses. Professor Loeffler asked if we could come up with twenty-four prisoners who could meet Trinity College's enrollment standards. We could, and did. He offered to teach a class twice-weekly, three hours a night, at the same intense level he taught at Trinity. The men responded to his challenge.

In the two years the program continued, I learned a tremendous amount from Professor Loeffler, and developed a confidence in my Bible knowledge that I would never have gained on my own. We learned about the historical perspectives of the various books, when they were written and by whom, and what was going on in the surrounding world at the same time, in addition to the inherent messages of the works.

There was a King Nebuchadnezzar, a Chaldean who ruled Babylon, a mighty kingdom at the time, and he did besiege and capture Jerusalem, the capital of the Jews. There are independent historical records that confirm many of the events in Daniel.

Daniel recounts the story of the First Exile (605 B.C.), a deportation of captives taken to Babylon across 500 miles of desert, along with much of the temple gold and treasure. The king ordered that a number of young men from the royal families were to be trained and taught the language of the Chaldeans, so they could serve the king. The classical literature of the Chaldeans, which predated the Hebrews by centuries, was written in Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform, a complicated syllabic writing system. But Babylon was a multi-racial society, with all the military successes bringing in merchants and slaves from distant locales, and the language of normal communications was Aramaic, with an easily-learned alphabetic script. The captives from Jerusalem spoke their own language, Hebrew, with its own script.

You'll have to read the book to get the whole story, but after the first deportation in 605 B.C., a second one, in 597 B.C., included the prophet, Ezekiel. In 586 B.C., when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, the third deportation occurred, and many more were enslaved.

The city of Babylon was built astride the Euphrates River The Tigris River was about 100 miles further east. Babylon was in the middle of the Fertile Crescent, what has been called Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, now Iraq.

Classical writers recorded glowing accounts of the splendor of Babylon. The high hundred-gated walls were so wide a four-horse chariot could turn around atop them. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Newcomers to Babylon gawked at a staged temple-tower 295 feet high, and several colossal gold statues weighing tons each.

That was where Daniel and his friends went to work. In the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, it says they worked under the "chief of the eunuchs." That most probably meant that all the royal captives chosen to work in the palace were castrated (ouch!), a subject that is not further discussed. Old King Neb didn't want any young, virile foreign slaves sneaking into the harem. In the New International Version (NIV), a modern translation in language we can better understand, the word, "eunuch," is nowhere to be found. Instead, Ashpenaz is described simply as chief of the king's court officials, perhaps sanitizing the account for the more squeamish modern reader.

Back to the lions' den. Daniel lived a long time, and because of his success interpreting dreams, he rose to prominence as chief of magicians. By now Darius, the Mede, was king, and some jealous officials falsely accused Daniel, manipulating the king to order Daniel cast into the lions' den, albeit unwillingly on the king's part, where he spent the night. In Hebrew, "Daniel" means, "God is my judge," and during that long night, Daniel's God judged him worthy. Daniel told King Darius that God sent his angel, who shut the mouths of the lions. They did not hurt him because God found Daniel innocent in His sight.

This is the part I like: at the king's command the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions' den along with their wives and children. That was the custom of the time, perhaps just a little harsh. The Hebrew law prescribed something similar for false accusers in Deuteronomy 19: 16-19, "If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse a man of a crime,
                                        the two men involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the
                                        Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time.
                                       The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be 
                                        a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he
                                        intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from among you."

That part of the story had a quick resolution and a happy ending. My own experiences with false accusers have gone on for over a generation, and continue to this day. I was thrown into the lions' den of prison by false accusers,and I have no doubt that the lions' mouths have been shut by angels. I wonder if those who continue to lie and condemn me would fare as well.

Daniel was still alive in 539 B.C., when Cyrus established the Mede-Persian Empire (present-day Iran), which is the date of the fall of Babylon. Other books of the Bible recount when King Cyrus freed the captives in 537 B.C., and very possibly an elderly Daniel saw the exiles return to Judah. To this day Iran covets Jerusalem, Israel, and the land of Babylon, present-day Iraq, and would probably like to march the captives across the desert into slavery again.

All that's left of ancient Babylon are bits of rubble in the desert, south of present-day Baghdad. But the book of Daniel lives on, with its plethora of messages for modern Man.


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