We’re Thinking About: The Bible
Innocent as Serpents – A Very Early Detective Story

Priests of bel Penguin Crime mock cover

Tucked away in the additional chapters of Daniel (found either separately in the Apocrypha or in the main text in a Catholic Bible) is, to my knowledge, the first ever formal locked-room detective story.

Whilst exiled in Babylon, Daniel has risen through the ranks and become an advisor to the king, Cyrus. He refuses to worship Bel, one of the Babylonian gods that the king reveres. Every day, food is offered to the god – laid out in front of its idol – bushels of wheat, scores of sheep and gallons of wine. And, every night, the food is eaten – taken by the king to be proof that Bel is a living god, worthy of worship.

Living dangerously, when asked why he doesn’t also worship Bel, Daniel reaffirms that he only worships the “one true God who created all things”, and laughs in Cyrus’s face, mocking “the statue made of clay on the inside and bronze on the outside, that has never eaten anything”. Outraged by this blasphemy, the king summons the priests (all seventy of them) and demands to know what happens to the food, and a wager is set: the offering will be made as usual and the temple sealed in the presence of the king and if it has been eaten in the morning, Daniel will die, but if the food remains, the priests will gladly go to the same fate instead.

The king has the food set out before Bel but before the doors are sealed, Daniel has one request – in the presence of Cyrus alone, he scatters fine ashes all over the floor of the temple and then the doors are sealed and everyone retires to bed for the night.

In the morning, everybody gathers at the temple, the seals remain unbroken and when the doors are opened, the food has gone and Cyrus sings praises to Bel. It doesn’t look good for Daniel but again he laughs to the king’s face. “Look at the floor, whose footprints are these?” There in the ash on the floor are hundreds of footprints all around. Human footprints. Leading to a trapdoor used by the priests and their families to enter the temple in secret and feast every night.

The thoroughly discredited god and his temple are destroyed and the deceitful priests are taken away and summarily executed (as the evil-doers in classic detective novels often are). And Daniel lives to fight his God’s corner another day.

This post originally appeared on my work’s Facebook page and included the following plug of the stock:

For discussion of the treatment of religion in more modern mystery novels, Peter Erb’s “Murder, Manners, and Mystery” (http://tinyurl.com/rrc-search-murder) is well worth a look.