“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst of it we hung our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs, and our tormenters mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps 137.1-3)
If Daniel were a jigsaw puzzle Part 3 drew our attention to the box top. The big picture of Daniel is the cosmic and longstanding confrontation between the City of God (played by Jerusalem) and the City of Man (played by Babylon). Nebuchadnezzar’s raiding of Jerusalem’s temple was another iteration of what started in Eden, when Adam raided the forbidden tree to be like God. “Babylon” is opposition to Jesus when and where we find it. “Jerusalem” is allegiance to Jesus when and where we find it.
God has already won this confrontation at the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Adam got us all exiled from God’s presence. Jesus reopened the way back to God’s presence (paradise) and the tree of life (cf. Rev 22.2). All those in Christ are now citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem wandering their way home by faith in Jesus.
In the meantime, God used Babylon to judge Judah for her idolatry. Judeans would be under the Babylonian thumb for 70 years (a round number, mind you). There were Jews who lived their whole lives more like Babylonians than Israelites.
The story of Daniel is one of a faithful follower of God who must live in Babylon. And if you are a Christian then that’s your story, too. We live as sojourners, aliens, strangers in a foreign land. Our hearts cry out with the Psalmist: “How can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps 137.3)
Nebuchadnezzar is king of Babylon and head of its army. He’s on a campaign to conquer the Mediterranean world which includes the little patch of Israel/Judah. He doesn’t want to waste undue resources on such a little enemy so he can go full throttle against Egypt. He chooses therefore to control Judah by indoctrination rather than military domination. He wouldn’t destroy everything in sight but use everything he could to spread Babylonian culture and influence. He does eventually wipe out Jerusalem in 587/86 BC but only after 15 years of diplomatic manipulation.
With the foundation laid let’s finish out chapter 1.
Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonization Campaign (1.3-7)
Nebuchadnezzar ordered his chief of staff to identify and relocate Judah’s most promising young (probably teenagers) leaders. They would live at Babylon HQ. In something a brilliant strategy, Nebuchadnezzar intended to quash any long-term pushback by those who could organize and lead opposition to him.
Just as he’d looted the temple vessels to use in the service of his gods, Nebuchadnezzar took Judah’s most promising young leaders to use in the service of his kingdom/gods. He would control Judah without firing a shot.
These kids were the cream of the crop: good-looking, sharp, carried themselves confidently and showed strong leadership abilities. Nebuchadnezzar would give them an Ivy League education with free room and board at his palace. This education undoubtedly included the “black arts” of astrology and divination and instruction in the occult. Nebuchadnezzar would provide them food from his personal pantry and wine from his vineyard. The king would wine-and-dine them rather than conscript them. Flattery, not slavery.
When he was done with them they would be, in effect, Chaldeans (a subset of Babylonian culture) and well-prepared to lead their fellow Jews into a new age and to new gods.
There were four notable young men in this bunch: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (v6). The first step to changing Judeans into Chaldeans was to change their names. Biblical history is full of name-changing because new names meant new ownership (cf. Gen 41.45; 2 Kgs 23.34; 25.17; Esther 2.7). It was a means of enforcing control.
These four promising upstarts would no longer go by their Yahweh-exalting names but would assume strong Babylonian names exalting Babylonian gods. Daniel (“God is my Judge”) becomes Belteshazzar (“Bel, Protect the king”). Hananiah (“Yahweh has been gracious”) becomes Shadrach (“command of Aku”). Mishael (“Who is what God is”) becomes Meshach (“Who is what Aku is”). Azariah (“God has helped”) becomes Abednego (“Servant of Nego”).
Daniel’s Famous Diet (1.8-16)
Despite being served the king’s finest cuts, Daniel and his sidekicks refused to eat the king’s food. Rather than eat Nebuchadnezzar’s T-Bones and drink his vintage wine, Belteshazzar (Daniel), Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego would eat only veggies and water.
Understanding this isn’t as easy as it seem. Daniel did not protest a 3-year degree in Babylonian Studies. He didn’t protest answering to a new name. But he did protest the king’s food because it would ritually defile him. Why?
Was it because of the Mosaic kosher food laws? Well, he did eat the king’s veggies and there was no Mosaic prohibition against wine in this case.
Was it because the food would’ve been sacrificed to idols first? Again, the same would’ve been true with the vegetables. And eventually Daniel did eat Babylonian food (cf. 10.3). After all, 70 years is a long time to eat only veggies and water. I wouldn’t go 70 minutes on such a diet!
In what way was the king’s food defiling that Nebuchadnezzar’s education and names were not?
Joyce Baldwin notes the only other place where “choice food” is used outside of Daniel 1 is in Daniel 11.26. There it connotes the idea of a union with whom you eat a meal. Many times a meal was a covenantal exercise (cf. Gen 31.24; Exod 24.11; Neh 8.9-10; Mt 26.26-28). Daniel will get the degree and answer to a new name, but he wouldn’t be in covenant with Nebuchadnezzar. This idea is supported by the fact that when Daniel suggested this diet to Ashpenaz (v10), the honcho in-charge, Ashpenaz refused to go along with it. Why? Because refusing the king’s hospitality was a treasonous act and Ashpenaz would lose his head over it. He wasn’t about to risk his career and life for some rebellious Jewish teenagers.
So this wasn’t about the diet per se but about what eating the food represented: dependence on Nebuchadnezzar. Yahweh would still provide for Daniel.
At any rate, since the commander refused to go along with Daniel’s request, Daniel went one step down to their handler who actually served the food (v11). Daniel cut his deal. He and his cohorts would eat only veggies and drink only water for ten days. If they looked any less healthy than the other plebes then the handler could do whatever he saw fit with them (vv12-13).
Their handler agreed and after ten days Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego appeared healthier and fatter (vv14-15). So, the overseer presumably kept us this diet for three years (v16)!
As the young men grew in stature they also grew in knowledge and intelligence. God gave them exceptional ability to learn and understand literature and Babylonian culture, which would’ve included the psychic arts (v17). God even gave Daniel the unique ability to understand and interpret visions and dreams. That was good because Daniel will see many visions and dreams over the next 70 years!
Commissioned for Service (vv18-21)
The first ever Jewish class of Babylon University earned their degrees in Babylonian Studies. There were no students more impressive than our four young men. When Nebuchadnezzar tested them he found them “ten times better” than any magician-priest and astrologer in his kingdom (v20). Therefore, they graduated summa cum laude, given top security clearances and were rewarded with top posts in Nebuchadnezzar’s administration.
This begs a question. Did God bless these young men with the ability of witchcraft? Were they warlocks, by God’s grace? Were these young men Harry Potters before Harry Potter was cool?
Not quite, but God did give them extraordinary abilities that he would inevitably use for his own glory in the middle of Babylonian occultism. We know Joseph used a divination cup while in Egypt (Gen 44.5). We should simply allow that God can co-opt any means he wants at any time to accomplish his purposes. It’s not not normative in Scripture that he would do so but it is documented. We shouldn’t expect God to give us “secret powers” or ESP or psychic abilities to really serve him but trust his ordinary means of grace.
Daniel held his post until the first year of Cyrus the king (v21). Cyrus was the king of Persia who would later overthrow Babylon in 539 BC. In other words, Daniel loyally served the Babylonian court as a faithful servant of Yahweh for some 70 years. He would outlast Nebuchadnezzar!
We’ll draw out some applications in the next installment.