The Bible, as a Protestant, canon consists of 66 books and 1,189 chapters. However, some versions contain extra material. For example, the Catholic Bible, instead, consists of 73 books, and added chapters in other books.
The story of Bel and Dragon, or more properly, The History of the Destruction of Bel and the Dragon, is such a tale that is included in Catholic versions and certain apocryphal Bibles.
Though the book of Daniel originally ends after chapter 12, other versions add more chapters. It is in chapter 14 that we find the dramatic tale.
What Is the Story of Bel and the Dragon?
There are three parts to the story of Bel and the Dragon. They all take place under the rule of the Persian king Cyrus.
The Story of Bel: The first part concerns Bel. King Cyrus honors Daniel above all others but asks why Daniel doesn’t worship the statue of Bel. Daniel says he doesn’t worship false gods made by human hands, only the living God. However, Cyrus claims Bel is real because the food offered to him disappears every night, presumably eaten by Bel. Daniel still says God is superior.
Cyrus then sets up a face-off between Daniel and the priests of Bel. If they can’t prove Bel eats the food, they will be executed, whereas if Daniel can’t prove someone else is eating it, he will be executed. Food is placed in front of the idol of Bel, then the room is sealed overnight. However, without telling the priests, Daniel has scattered ashes across the floor.
The next morning, the food has been eaten. Cyrus begins to praise Bel, until Daniel points out footprints in the ashes, leading to a secret door in the wall. The priests and their families have been sneaking in to eat the food. Cyrus orders the priests and their families killed and hands the idol over to Daniel to be destroyed.
The Story of the Dragon: In the second part, Cyrus tells Daniel to worship an actual dragon (also translated as “serpent”). According to Cyrus, since the dragon is alive, it’s superior to Bel and should be worshiped.
However, Daniel says he will only worship God and says he can kill the dragon without weapons. Cyrus agrees to let him try. Daniel then poisons the dragon with a mixture of tar, hair, and fat, and it splits open, proving it to be an inferior being and not a god.
The Story of the Lion’s Den, Part Two: The final part is a tale of Daniel being thrown into the lion’s den, this time by Cyrus, not Darius, as in Daniel 6.
Daniel 14:28-29 (USCCB) says,
When the Babylonians heard this, they were angry and turned against the king. “The king has become a Jew,” they said; “he has destroyed Bel, killed the dragon, and put the priests to death.” They went to the king and demanded: “Hand Daniel over to us, or we will kill you and your family.”
According to the story, Cyrus gives in, and the people throw Daniel in the lion’s den. These lions were usually fed two corpses and two sheep a day, but they are denied this, left with only Daniel for six days.
However, God provides for Daniel through the prophet Habakkuk, whom he picks up by his hair and carries from Judea to Babylon to give Daniel bread and stew.
On the seventh day, Daniel is still alive and well, so Cyrus praises God, releases Daniel, and instead throws in Daniel’s accusers, who are immediately eaten.
What Translations Include Bel and the Dragon?
Bel and the Dragon was probably not included in the original version of Daniel, but rather in translations. Some scholars believe it was written in the late second century BC (Note that Daniel lived during the sixth century BC).
The first 12 chapters are generally believed to have been written in the sixth century BC, a few hundred years before the addition of Bel and the Dragon.
Bel and the Dragon is included in the Greek Septuagint. However, it is not included in the Hebrew Bible.
Why is it excluded? According to scholar Dr. Israel Drazin,
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. (Full article here.)
In short, the late date, questionable historicity, and fairytale-esque nature of Bel and the Dragon led to its exclusion from the canon.
What Can We Learn from Bel and the Dragon?
The tales of Bel and the Dragon may just be fun stories, but they’re similar to other historical accounts.
For example, though Daniel may have not proved the falsity of Bel, he and his companions did show the power of God by refusing to eat meat sacrificed to idols and subsisting on only vegetables and water (Daniel 1:8-16). They proved to be healthier and better nourished than those who ate the king’s sacrificed food.
Daniel may not have killed a dragon, but his three friends refused to bow to an idol and were tossed in a fiery furnace. They miraculously survived, demonstrating the power of the true God (Daniel 3).
Finally, Daniel really was thrown in a lion’s den and survived through the protection of the Lord (Daniel 6).
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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.