Friday, 16 October 2020

The Fourth Man in the Fire

For some reason, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego and the fiery furnace caught my attention recently (from the Bible, Daniel 3), I think because I came across the evocative expression "the fourth man in the fire". Now, I'm sure I don't really need to tell you how this one goes, but: 

Previously in the Book of Daniel: Nebuchadnezzar has made an enormous golden statue-thing, and requires everyone to prostrate themselves before it when they hear an oddly specific musical combo: "the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of musick". Wait for it... Too soon, that's a crumhorn, fool, not a sackbut! Now! So it's rather like a blend of the games Neduchadnezzar Says and Musical Idols, but with the forfeit that a failure to prostrate in a timely way will lead to you being cast forthwith into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. Everyone plays along nicely: well, you would, wouldn't you? Except for the three stubborn Jews, that is, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. Uh, oh!

Nebuchadnezzar is not best pleased, so – as the three continue to refuse to take a knee before his enormous golden object (the damn thing is sixty cubits high, i.e. the best part of 30 metres, or 90 feet) – he has the furnace cranked up to seven times its normal setting – you thought it only went up to eleven? hah! – and has them dragged off by his most mighty military men in order to be cast therein, as advertised.

However... The furnace being seven times extra hot and all, the most mighty military types themselves get burned up by it in the very act of casting in Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, whereas our stubborn, miraculously oven-proof heroes do not get burned at all, and in fact end up taking a casual stroll around inside the burning fiery furnace. WTF? Nebuchadnezzar is "astonied" (I thought he probably must have been) and demands: "Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God". Blimey!

So, yes, that story. I thought you probably knew it. Like so many of a dissenting Protestant heritage, I must admit I love the Old Testament. Aside from being a treasury of truly classy first names for your offspring, the King James Version is a bottomless pit of quaint and memorable locutions – Nebuchadnezzar is troubled by "the visions of mine head upon my bed" – and stories with much smiting and cursing, lions, the interpretation of strange, pre-industrial dreams, not to mention burning bushes, talking whirlwinds, floods and plagues, plus regular visits from the mysterious Watchers and the Sons of God, who were not entirely to be trusted around womenfolk. It seems God was going through an oddly interventionist (not to say exhibitionist) phase in those ancient times, and putting himself and his emissaries about a lot more than in these latter days. After all, if angels did still occasionally turn up this would surely make the evening news? Talking of which / whom, I'm sure that final "the" in Nebuchadnezzar's astonied rant should really be an "a", as in "a Son of God", one of those intermittent visitors from Heaven with some decidedly un-angelic proclivities. I suppose the King James Version translators couldn't resist slipping in that little trailer for the New Testament.

Anyway, here are some of the dozen or so pictures I've made so far. My original thought was to make a concertina book of about ten, each 30cm square, but then I realised that, with covers, that would open out to 360cm, or about 12 feet. Not quite a Nebuchadnezzar-scale of ambition, but still impractical. So I suspect this will end up as one of the many half-finished projects that clutter up my hard drive. It's fun playing with the fiery effects, though. And, yes, the similarity of these tableaux to a toy theatre has crossed my mind, and, yes, others have been here before.

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