by Ed Gallagher
In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.Daniel 1:20
Today the message that blares out at us from our culture is, “Be yourself!” “You do you.” “You’re perfect the way you are.” I think this is a new thing. When I was growing up, and I guess from all of human history before that point, the message was some version of, “You need to conform.” And now the message is, “Don’t conform.” Well, I should say the overt, stated message is, “Don’t conform,” but, you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I would say the requirement for conformity is perhaps now even greater with this new style of messaging, “don’t conform.” That is, the message “don’t conform” seems to mean “don’t conform to the attitudes you may have been taught, but do conform to what Hollywood thinks.” Now with Twitter rage, etc., it seems like the requirement for conformity is more intense than it’s ever been.
The Book of Daniel is a book about conformity, and the resistance to it. I guess we could say that Daniel and his friends embody the 21st-century messaging, “Be yourself” and “You do you” better than most anyone in the 21st century. From the very beginning of the book, when they are introduced to us as young men, probably teenagers, they resist the call to conform to the brave new world of the Babylonian court, which exercises its power with both a carrot (food and wine) and a stick (fiery furnace, anyone?). Despite the Twitter rage all around them, they commit themselves to living according to the ways of their God and let the chips fall where they may.
The Book of Daniel begins with a reference to the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and the Judean King Jehoiakim. The situation is the one we read about in 2 Kings 24–25. The Assyrian Empire has recently suffered the fatal blows inflicted by the Babylonians, so that the position of dominant empire has shifted now from Assyria to Babylon. A convenient date to remember in this regard is 612 BC, the date of the destruction of the city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. It had been Assyria, a century or more earlier, that had taken the northern nation of Israel (the ten tribes) into captivity (2 Kings 17) in 722 BC. Judah survived until the next empire, Babylon. When Nineveh was destroyed, the king in Judah was Josiah (2 Kings 22–23). He had three sons and a grandson that come to the throne.
- Jehoahaz (2 Kings 23:30–35). He reigned only three months following the death of his father. The king of Egypt held him captive and installed his brother Eliakim on the throne.
- Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:36–24:7). His name had been Eliakim (23:34), and the king of Egypt changed it to Jehoiakim. He reigned eleven years. He seems to have died of natural causes (24:6) right at the time that the Babylonians were getting fed up with him and made plans to attack.
- Jehoiachin (2 Kings 24:8–17), son of Jehoiakim and grandson of Josiah. He reigned only three months (like his uncle Jehoahaz). Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem, and carried off many of the temple treasures (24:13) and a whole bunch of people, including Jehoiachin, the king. In his place, Nebuchadnezzar installed Jehoiachin’s uncle, Mattaniah, on the throne. Jehoiachin lived in exile for decades and was eventually given a privileged position at the king’s table in Babylon (25:27–30).
- Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:18–25:7), the last king of Judah and the third and final son of Josiah to reign on the throne. His name had been Mattaniah (24:17) but Nebuchadnezzar changed it. He reigned for eleven years (like his brother Jehoiakim). He was not privileged to live out his days in peace, but rather he witnessed the Babylonian take-over of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple and walls, and the murder of his sons before his own eyes were removed (25:6). Apparently he died in exile in Babylon.
The capture of Jehoiachin and the first wave of captivity of the people of Jerusalem occurred in 597 BC. The destruction of the temple and the city occurred in 586 BC. This is the Babylonian exile. The book of Jeremiah also mentions a third wave of exile in 582 BC (Jer 52:28–30).
The Book of Daniel mentions a small-scale wave of exile in the third year of Jehoiakim, which would have been around 606 BC, right around the time that Nebuchadnezzar became king, replacing his father Nabopolassar (but most often Nebuchadnezzar’s ascension is dated to 605 or 604).1
It is important to note what the text says at Daniel 1:2.
The LORD let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his [= Nebuchadnezzar’s] power.Daniel 1:2
Lest we think that Nebuchadnezzar is in control, the text immediately assures us that he is not. Rather, it is the God in whom the Judeans had failed to trust who maintains control, even directing Nebuchadnezzar’s take-over of Jerusalem. Jeremiah the prophet had actually called Nebuchadnezzar the servant of the Lord on multiple occasions (cf. Jer 25:9; 27:6; 43:10).
By the way, the land of Shinar (1:2) is another name for Babylon (Gen 10:10; 11:2; Zech 5:11).
Daniel and Food
In this early wave of exile, Daniel was taken along with his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Dan 1:6). They had been a part of the upper classes in Jerusalem (1:3).2 Already at this time, they are described as “versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace,” in addition to being physically attractive (1:4). They were being trained for leadership in Jerusalem. They’ll get their chance in Babylon.
This group of friends refuses to eat the royal food (1:8). Why? According to Carol Newsom (p. 47), “Why Daniel should consider the king’s food defiling has never been definitively explained.” We can imagine some reasons. Perhaps the meat would not have been prepared in the proper way, with its blood drained, as prescribed in Leviticus (17:10–16). The word “defiling” points in this direction; it seems to indicate that it’s not just that Daniel and his friends didn’t want the food, but that it would render them unclean. But that reason wouldn’t really explain why Daniel prefers water to wine. The Bible describes no kosher method for producing wine.
So maybe Daniel’s refusal to eat the royal meat and royal wine wasn’t so much about adhering to a particular commandment in the Torah but rather was a way of resisting conformity to the ways of Babylon. Perhaps Daniel did not want to express complete loyalty to the king the way everyone else was doing. We know that benefits, gifts, often come with strings attached. When Vito Corleone gives you a gift, he’s going to expect loyalty in return. Maybe that’s what Daniel doesn’t want to get involved in. There is no doubt that Nebuchadnezzar’s plan is to turn these Judean young men into full-fledged Babylonians. So he teaches them the literature and the language of the Chaldeans (1:4), gives them a nice place to stay and great food (1:5). He’s getting them used to the lifestyle. He’s using the carrot to hasten conformity.
Daniel doesn’t want to conform.
So he picks his battle: food. That’s the part of his life that he’s going to control. Or, rather, that’s the part of his life that will be a sign to him and everyone else that he’s not just like all the other Judean youths soaking up their newfound privilege with the pagan king. Daniel’s aims are different; his life is dedicated to a different cause, to a different service. He won’t be a court prophet or court wise man. He’s going to be his own man, God’s man, not Nebuchadnezzar’s man.
Daniel wouldn’t conform to the dominant culture. Do we? How can we resist conforming to the dominant culture? How does the dominant culture want us to conform? Which parts should we resist? I can think of a few areas where we might want to think about our lives.
—Food. Daniel chose to resist the royal food. On a daily basis we probably eat about as well as Nebuchadnezzar. And our culture is paying for it in many ways. Maybe, like Daniel, we should turn over our eating habits to God. (I am not in any way promoting the Daniel Fast for health benefits.) On the one hand, the constant presence of food in our lives engenders food lust in us, constant attention to the desires of the flesh. On the other hand, our food industry is increasingly exploitative of both workers and land (cf. Mark Hamilton, p. 333; Norman Wirzba). Think Wendell Berry.
—Consumerism. The dominant culture tells us to spend all the money we make on junk and we’ll be happy. Jesus tells us to do other things with our money (Matt 6:1–4; Luke 16:19–310).
—Appearances. I don’t use social media, so I might be off-base. I understand that for many people social media is helpful to make and maintain connections and for sharing information. I also have heard that there’s a serious temptation to maintain a certain appearance on social media, to project a certain image about the kind of person you are, whether that means you’re the kind of person with perfect children, or you’re the kind of person who takes wonderful vacations, or you’re the kind of person who cares about the right causes. Jesus had some pretty negative things to say about the way his contemporaries projected an image of themselves (Matt 6:1–18).
I think it is fair to say that in each of these ways—and many, many more—the dominant culture in our day demands conformity. Daniel provides an example of someone resisting such conformity, even if in a small way. But Daniel wasn’t alone; he had his little community of friends. The church is supposed to be an alternative community, resisting the pressures of society and encouraging its members to do the same.
When the culture demands conformity, Daniel ate only vegetables and water. The church also needs to find ways to encourage one another to resist the demands of the dominant culture and submit to God.
Who is King Jehoiakim? What do we know about his reign? See 2 Kings 23:36–24:7.
Describe Daniel’s family background.
Why do the Babylonians give the Jewish boys new names?
Why does Daniel not want to eat the king’s food?
What effect does Daniel’s diet have on him and his friends? Why does it have this effect? Is it a natural effect or is it supernatural?
(1) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 10.186–88, associates Daniel with the reign of Zedekiah, apparently in response to the historical difficulty created by the book; see Jay Braverman, Jerome’s Commentary on Daniel: A Study of Comparative Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the Hebrew Bible (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1978), 64n54.
(2) In Daniel 1:3, the title of Ashpenaz could be translated as “chief eunuch,” as it is in Greek (both LXX and Theodotion). There is a prominent tradition in ancient Judaism and Christianity that Daniel and his three friends were made eunuchs at this time, in fulfillment of Isaiah 39:7. For references to this tradition, see Braverman, Jerome’s Commentary on Daniel, 53–66. For a fourteenth-century Latin Bible that contains an illustration (!), see here. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 10.186, states that some of the captives were made eunuchs, but does not say it specifically in reference to Daniel and his friends. For ancient traditions on the ancestry of Daniel and his friends, see Braverman, Jerome’s Commentary on Daniel, 66–71.