Walter Brueggemann: Sleepless in Babylon

All around us we are watching the “hewing down” of statues of erstwhile heroes of our nation, notably Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson, and many others who have been deeply implicated in the long-running shame and disgrace of slavery. But what has especially drawn my attention to this subject is a chapter by Michael-Rolph Trouillot in his book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History.

Trouillot is a Haitian scholar who writes on the Haitian Revolution, the most dramatic and effective revolution in our hemisphere that ended French rule on the island. Trouillot completes his study with a review of the way in which Christopher Columbus was “produced” by the powerful to be made an untarnished icon, and then subsequently turned into an “American” whose “Day” we continue to celebrate. Trouillot shows how we have come full circle concerning Columbus, so that now we are witness to a sustained effort to remove his statues from places of public prominence. Well behind Lee and Jefferson, Columbus represents the imposition of white European power on First Nation Americans. Given that cultural reality, his positive “image” can no longer be sustained among us.

The dismantling of statues of erstwhile heroes has led me, inescapably, to the nightmare of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2. That powerful sixth-century Babylonian ruler, much despised by Israel had, it is reported to us, many sleepless nights, as he was “troubled” (Daniel 2:1, 3). In response to his nightmare, Nebuchadnezzar toys with his advisors. He insists they not only interpret his nightmare for him, but that they tell him the substance of his dream (vv. 3-11). But of course they cannot do it. They simply assert to the troubled king:

There is no one on earth who can reveal what the king demands! In fact no king, however great and powerful, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. The thing that the king is asking is too difficult and no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals (v. 11).

Because they cannot decode the imperial nightmare, the lives of the wise men are in jeopardy:

Because of this the king flew into a violent rage and commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed. The decree was issued, and the wise men were about to be executed; and they looked to Daniel and his companions to execute them (vv. 12-13).

But of course it is the Jewish exile, Daniel, to their rescue! Unlike the king who is “troubled,” and unlike the royal advisors who are under great threat, Daniel is calm, cool, and calculating (“prudent and discreet”), and has no fear before the raging tyrant. There is a pause in the narrative while Daniel establishes and practices his Jewish credentials as a sum of piety and faith (vv. 17-23). First, Daniel seeks “mercy from the God of heaven” (v. 18). His bid for mercy shows that he is a man of piety and faith, unlike Nebuchadnezzar, penultimate in his capacity, and that he is on the receiving end of the juices of a good life. His bid for mercy contrasts him with the Babylonian king who neither asks for nor gives mercy. While the narrative does not comment on his bid for mercy, it is obviously granted to him, as “the mystery was revealed” (v. 19). What has been withheld from the imperial experts is granted to the Jewish exile, a scenario that reiterates the wonder of the narrative of Joseph before Pharaoh (Genesis 41:12-45). To complete this pause for piety, Daniel breaks out in a blessing, rendering thanks and praise to “the God of my ancestors” (vv. 20-23). Given this pause for piety, Daniel is now fully ready and equipped to engage the troubled, sleepless, terrorizing king.

Daniel responds to the king by pointing out the deep contrast between the befuddled imperial experts and his own status before the God of heaven (vv. 27-30). What follows sounds like the bewildering complexity of a nightmare in which much is possible that would not occur in an awakened world of political realism. But of course that is why interpretation is required. First Daniel must report on the substance of the nightmare (which the royal advisors could not do). The great statue of royal power moves from the precious beauty of gold to the fragile feet of clay, all of which is “broken in pieces.” The statue is broken, moreover, by the “stone” and blown away by the “wind.” So passes the proud governance of the statue of beauty and splendor!

Daniel’s interpretation presents a sequence of kings that pass, one after another (vv. 36-45). The sequence begins in the fine gold of Babylon. Each successive regime is inferior to the preceding one, a second of silver, then a third of bronze and, finally, a fourth one of iron (vv. 37-40). But the feet of the fourth statue is only partly iron, but also partly clay:

As the toes of the feet were part iron and part clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. As you saw the iron mixed with clay, so will they mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay (vv. 42-43).

But then there is a counter-affirmation of another governance to the king:

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever; just as you saw that a stone was cut from the mountain not by hands, and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold (vv. 44-45).

Daniel’s interpretation moves from the description of the statue to the anticipation of the rise and fall of kingdoms and powers. Nowhere does Daniel speculate or become specific about the identity of the several kingdoms. That lack of identity has allowed great room for interpretation and identification of the several kings. It is plausible that the fourth king of iron and clay is that of Antiochus IV from the time of the writing of the Book of Daniel. But a focus too specific about the identity is sure to miss the point of the nightmare. The culmination of the dream is that the Kingdom of the God of heaven will ultimately prevail; all other pretenders will soon pass away and be forgotten. In the end none of the pretenders can stand before the force and will of the God of heaven who will prevail amid the historical-political process. Kingdoms come and go; they rise and fall. In a modern secular mode, Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, has traced the rise and fall of modern empires—Spanish, Dutch, English. His general thesis is that states “fall” when they have invested excessive amounts of money on the military that caused an economic imbalance. It requires little imagination to see that Kennedy’s “causation” is readily recast in terms of the hubris of self-sufficiency, a hubris often performed by the old empires in the time of ancient Daniel.  In either terms, modern-secular, or theological, empires rise and fall, prosper and then are forgotten:

Our little systems have their day;

They have their day and cease to _be;

They are but broken lights of thee,

And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

(“In Memoriam” by Alfred Lord Tennyson)

They cease to be! The would-be expansive rulers, in their hubris, are regularly shown to have “clay feet.” With their clay feet at their base, the exhibit of much splendid gold at the top of their heads is unsustainable. Thus Daniel, in his rootage in God’s “mercy,” was able to observe the short shelf-life of every pretender who would fall in the face of the uncompromising rule of the God of heaven.

In the United States we are familiar enough with “clay feet” that we often choose not to notice, that our vaunted “exceptionalism” is a quite short-run option. “Clay feet” turns out to be a major factor for even our most effective leaders:

…Thus Thomas Jefferson, for all of his eloquent wisdom, was an exploitative slave owner.

…Thus Abraham Lincoln, our wisest president, in his drive to secure “free soil” for yeomen like his father ruthlessly usurped Indian lands under treaty for the sake of white settlers.

…Thus Franklin Roosevelt, for all of his visionary passion, being blackmailed by a Southern Congress, permitted his great social legislation to be systemically racist so that government generosity was legally withheld from an important segment of a the population.

…Thus Lyndon Johnson, he of great social progress on civil rights, was deeply diminished by his willing but foolish investment in Vietnam, an investment that overshadowed his superb achievements.

…Thus Ronald Reagan, a most popular conservative, was deeply implicated in the Iran-Contra deal, a secret arrangement that cynically outflanked the legal permit of the president.

We do not know whether these several presidents slept well at night. We may imagine that they were “troubled” enough that “sleep left them.” We do know, from the many vexed photos of Lyndon Johnson in his “trouble,” that he was markedly disturbed and could not cope easily with the problem of Vietnam he inherited or with the problem he made there for himself. It is impossible to imagine that Johnson did not have sleepless nights in DC, even as we know that Richard Nixon before him stalked the White House in the night, surely “sleepless in DC.”

And now we have daily before us Vladimir Putin. We of course know nothing of his nights. But we can see, in broad daylight, the daring measure of his hubris. While Putin may in the end persist and prevail in Ukraine, we can see his clay feet in his gross miscalculation in Ukraine. We are free to imagine that he is “sleepless in Moscow.” Putin appears to proceed in his war as though he himself were ultimate and responsible to no one. Thus we may imagine, from our narrative text, that Putin, like so many others before him, has a head of gold in his bold violence, but stands on feet of clay.

The narrative of Daniel 2 has notably good outcomes. After the nightmare of Nebuchadnezzar and its interpretation two things happen. First, Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges his own penultimacy by presenting a grain offering to the God heaven and by voicing a doxology to the God embraced by Daniel:

Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery! (v. 47) 

Nebuchadnezzar made the same response in Daniel 4 when his sanity is restored to him:

I blessed the Most High,

and praised and honored the one who lives forever.

For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty,

and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.

All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,

and he does what he wills with the host of heaven

and the inhabitants of the earth.

There is no one who can stay his hand 

or say to him, “What are you doing?” (4:34-35).

Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven,

for all his works are truth,

and his ways are justice;

and he is able to bring low those who walk in pride (4:37).

We may judge that his “return of reason” was his recognition of his own
penultimacy. That is, sanity is to acknowledge one’s need to respond appropriately to the demands of holiness.

The second thing Nebuchadnezzar does in our chapter 2 is to promote Daniel, the exiled Jew, to be governor and leader of the wise who are skilled in statecraft. Thus while we mark the “conversion” of Nebuchadnezzar into sane responsibility, we should not fail to notice and appreciate the courageous and transformative work of Daniel. Daniel sought no place in the empire. He relied on the gift given him in his piety and his faith. In the end the proud empire of Babylon came to rely upon this exiled Jew for the wise practice of statecraft. Daniel conceded nothing to Nebuchadnezzar and remained knowingly and confidently embedded in his tradition and in his faith.

While we may ponder “sleepless in Moscow” and in every other venue of power, we may also consider the practical wisdom entrusted to the faith community. It is wisdom marked by mercy! Conversely, not all of the power, or might, or technical wisdom Nebuchadnezzar can muster is adequate for historical reality. The only reliable way through the life of the world is by way of mercy. Thus not only in Daniel 2:17, but also in 4:27 as well, Daniel commends the gold-headed monarch to the God of mercy:

Therefore O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy for the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged (4:27).

It turns out that mercy is the sine qua non for wellbeing in the world. Those who continue sleepless at night always keep relearning that truth, but always too late. By contrast there never was a time when Daniel and his ilk did not know that truth. Later, after Daniel, in his wisdom Jesus catalogued “the weightier matters of the Torah.” Among the big three is “mercy”:

You have neglected the weightier matters of the Torah: justice, mercy, faith (Matthew 23:23)!

Such neglect causes sleeplessness; every time!

Walter Brueggemann

April 7, 2022


Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.



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