Bel and the serpent are two episodes involving the biblical prophet Daniel and Cyrus, the king of Persia, who became king of Babylon as well. Scholars suppose the stories were composed around the second or first century BCE.
In the story, one of the idols worshipped by the Babylonians was Bel, a statue that was clay within and bronze outside. It stood in a beautiful temple and was serviced by seventy priests, their wives and their children. A huge amount of food was placed before Bel every evening together with wine, and each morning when the priest opened the temple doors, people saw that the food and drink were consumed.
King Cyrus liked the Jew Daniel, considered him to be a wise man, and asked him why he did not worship the Babylonian god Bel. Daniel said that Bel was not a god, simply a statue made by human beings. The king replied that the fact that Bel consumed food and drink every evening proved that Bel was not a mere statue and must be a god.
Daniel suggested to the king that they arrange a test. Food and drink will be placed before Bel, as in the past, the temple doors would be closed ad sealed with the king’s signet ring. The king and Daniel would return in the morning and see if Bel ate the food. The priests agreed to the test and added, if Bel ate the food, Daniel should be killed for maligning the god. If, on the other hand, Bel did not eat and drink what was left, the priest would be executed for lying to the king and the Babylonian people.
What did Daniel do? When he was alone with the king, he had ashes sprinkled over the entire temple. That night, the priests and their families came up to the temple floor though a trap door and ate and drank what was left for Bel.
The next morning, Daniel came with Cyrus and saw that the king’s seal was unbroken. When the king saw that the food and drink were gone, he cried out, “Great are you Bel, and in you there is no deceit.” He was convinced that Daniel was wrong.
Daniel held the king back from moving forward and pointed to the floor. The king saw it immediately. Over the ashes, were the footprints of the priests, their wives, and children. A search soon revealed the trap door. The priests and their families were arrested and executed. Cyrus gave the idol Bel to Daniel who destroyed it together with its temple.
The second story, also dealing with Daniel and King Cyrus in Babylon, is similar to the Bel tale. The Greek word in the original version translated by many scholars as “Serpent” is translated by other scholars as “Dragon.”
Once, King Cyrus said to Daniel, “Surely, you must agree that the serpent is a living god. Bow down and worship this god.” Daniel said he could prove that the Serpent was not a god and was even powerless. He could kill it easily without a sword or staff. Cyrus agreed to the test. Daniel prepared cakes made out of pitch, fat, and hair and fed it to the Serpent. When the Serpent ate it, he burst open and died.
When some of the Babylonian people heard what Daniel did to their god, they were infuriated at both Daniel and the king. They felt certain that Cyrus had become a Jew. They threatened Cyrus that he either kill Daniel or they will assassinate him. Cyrus complied and had Daniel thrown into a lion’s den with seven hungry lions.
An angel came to the prophet Habakkuk in Judea who was preparing food to take to reapers in the field. The angel took Habakkuk and flew him to Babylonia to the lion’s den, where Habakkuk gave the food to Daniel.
Seven days later, the king came to the den and saw that Daniel was still alive. He realized that God had miraculously saved him. He ordered that Daniel be pulled from the den, and he threw the people who were trying to kill Daniel into the den, where the lions devoured them.
Why were these two tales not included in the Hebrew Bible? They are in the Catholic Bible. We do not know. But it is possible that they were excluded because (1) they were composed after the time when books that the Jews set for canonical books, or (2) because the books sound so much like fairy tales (a) similar to legends in their own and other cultures; a similar one was even told about the patriarch Abraham, and (b) has the number seven used often in such sagas repeated often, and (c) included an angel to save Daniel, which also appeared in other fables, and (d) added an unnecessary miraculous flight of a prophet from Judea to Babylon common in such imaginary yarns.