The lions’ den is one of the most well-known parts of the book of Daniel. Indeed, the episode has been taken up in contemporary culture as a metaphor for people in difficult, even dire, circumstances. Of course the metaphorical nature of this kind of talk (“that meeting was like being in the lions’ den” or “she barely escaped the lions’ den that time”) means that the circumstances aren’t literally as dire as they would be if, like Daniel, the speaker or subject was really facing real lions in a real lions’ den.
Interestingly enough, the way the lions’ den is described has led some scholars to wonder if even Daniel really faced real lions in a real lions’ den. We could begin with the notion of the lions’ “den.” Zoologically, lions don’t live in dens at all, but live outside, in the open. The only lions that live in “dens” are in zoos, and of course, the lions in Daniel are definitely controlled by the king. Unfortunately, we have no archaeological evidence for such zoo-like dens in the ancient world, and it is unlikely that a lion could survive for long in such a den—if by that word we imagine some sort of subterranean cavern or bottle-shaped dungeon (lions are mentioned in pits in 2Sam 23:20, 1Chr 11:22, Ezek 19:4, and Ezek 19:8, but in terms of hunting or killing them, not maintaining them). We do know that lions were kept by ancient Near Eastern monarchs at various times, mostly because killing them was deemed the sport of kings and proof of royal power. Indeed, ancient Near Eastern kings loved to depict themselves in battle with lions, and this image, along with the lion figure more generally, became a common symbol for royalty. The lions fought by these kings were typically corralled and caged, not encountered in the wild. That means, of course, that these lions would have to have been kept somewhere, so maybe Daniel’s “den” is better understood as a “pen” or “enclosure” of some sort.
But then there is the matter of the lions themselves. Although the story in Dan 6 gives every indication that the lions are real, it is worth noting that the ancient world also knew of the metaphorical use of the “lions’ den” motif, just as we do. So, for example, in a Neo-Assyrian letter from an ousted court official named Urad-Gula to King Ashurbanipal, Urad-Gula asks for financial assistance and, in the course of this request, describes the royal court metaphorically as a den or pit of lions. As with our contemporary use, then, this ancient letter employs the lions’ den as a metaphor for mean colleagues or wicked competitors.
Although we inherited our own metaphorical use of the lions’ den from Dan 6, the Neo-Assyrian letter, along with a few other pertinent and comparable texts, precedes Daniel, making it possible that the author of the biblical book borrowed the motif from still earlier ancient Near Eastern literature. What such borrowing might mean is a complex question that cannot be fully addressed here. Perhaps the author of Daniel misunderstood the metaphorical nature of the motif and “literalized” it. Then again, maybe it is no flat-footed misunderstanding at all but an intentional literary device demonstrating how, with God’s help, Daniel triumphed over all sorts of “lions”—the metaphorical ones in the Babylonian and Persian courts (Dan 1-6) and the real ones in the “lions’ den.”