Lesson 1b (the second half of Lesson 1: Dan. 1:3-21)
II. When Pressured to Compromise (1:3-8)
A. Our Spiritual Heritage
The four young Judean captives are identified by their Hebrew names: Daniel (“God is my judge”), Hananiah (“Yahweh is gracious”), Mishael (“Who is as/like God?”) and Azariah (“Yahweh has helped”). They were described as being from “the royal family and nobility” (1:3). Note that all four had theophoric names (i.e., they were all compounded with God’s name plus a verb or noun). That would seem to indicate a godly heritage and upbringing while they had lived in Jerusalem.
These young men stood out in other ways as well. The fact that they had naturally good looks and general physical prowess suited them well for leadership in the civil service of Babylon. Furthermore, they had “an aptitude for …learning, [were] well informed, [and were] quick to understand” (1:4).
The four were turned over to “Ashpenaz, chief of [Nebuchadnezzar’s] court officials” (1:3), who was given the oversight of the men with authority to respond to the requests of those under his tutelage. The name “Ashpenaz” is attested as an Aramaic name in an incantation bowl from around 600 B.C. His name may mean “lodging” or perhaps “Innkeeper,” but his title is even more significant in that he could make decisions on his own without appealing to a superior.
Ashpenaz began his reprogramming education of these four Jewish youths by changing their names. Accordingly, Daniel became “Belteshazzar” (“Bel [i.e., “Marduk,” the supreme god of the Babylonians] “protects his life”), “Shadrach” (“command of Aku” [i.e. Sumerian moon god]), “Meshach” (perhaps: “who is like/as Aku?”), and “Abednego” (“servant of Neg[b]o,” i.e., Nabu, the son of Marduk).
It was stipulated that their training period would last three years (1:5b). After the triad of training years, they were to enter the king’s civil service. Babylon was noted for being the center of wisdom. The men would learn the Akkadian cuneiform (wedge-shaped signs standing for multiple syllabic values), the Babylonian literature, along with the polytheistic worldview contained in what they were taught. But God protected their minds and hearts.
B. Our Resolve to Remain True
These men were up for the challenges of such an intensive learning curve, but they were not about to say “yes” to any compromise demanded of them. There came a place where they felt they they could go no further. Verse 8 declared that “Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.” It was not that these men just were teetotalers; instead, what is indicated here is that they, by a deliberate act of their wills, “drew a line in the sand” and said they could not participate in what was required of them; for the Hebrew text said, “Daniel set his heart” (1:8) “not to defile himself.” In their case, the royal food posed a problem for Daniel and his friends.
Just what the difficulty was is not easily determined, now that we are so far from the culture of that day. We can, however, make a number of suggestions as to what might have been troubling these four Hebrews. First of all, the law of Moses prohibited the conscientious Hebrew from eating certain types of food (Lev 11; Dt 12:23-25; 14). Since they could not be assured in advance as to what would be offered at their meals, this could have been a reason. However, wine was not prohibited by the law, so the inclusion of the wine along with the royal food in verse 9 does not make sense as the operating cause of their distress.
Another cause might have been that the food had been offered to an idol prior to its being served to them. But Daniel and his friends would accept vegetables, which also might have been offered to the idols along with the meat and wine. Certainly Daniel would have mentioned the issue of idols had that been the heart of their objection.
Therefore, it must have been the fact that Daniel interpreted the partaking of the royal food as a mark of formal allegiance to the Babylonian king, whereas Daniel’s friends show later in the narrative in chapter 3 that they accepted only the lordship of Yahweh and not that of the Babylonian king! However, even this reason is not as clear as it might at first seem, for Daniel and the other three accepted the king’s vegetables. That would lead us to refine this argument by saying that perhaps the four Hebrews wanted this trial by vegetables to be a means of demonstrating to the king that their physical stamina and appearance was due to the miraculous work of God and not the quality or the power of the royal food from the Babylonian palace. These men wanted it known that their reliance was on Yahweh for their nurturing and support even though some might wrongly conclude that Yahweh was no longer effective, since he had not kept these Hebrews from the horrors of captivity and subjection to a foreign political power.
This is an interesting case of how to relate our commitments to the Living God and yet be minimally involved in the culture. These men did not decide to simply adopt everything in the culture. However, they would make no fuss over the pagan names given to them, or over the studies they had to engage in; in fact they excelled in their studies over all their classmates.
III. When Pressured to Conform (1:9-16)
It is not always easy to determine what is trivial and what is of central importance for one’s own testimony. For example, during World War II, the wearing of a yellow Jewish Star, or the giving of a Hitler-salute during a parade, would not be classified as “trivial” in retrospect. Daniel and company accepted re-education, a re-naming, and the training in all the Babylonian curriculum, even as Moses did when he was in the palace of Pharaoh, but in this cross-cultural situation he knew he had to draw a line in the sand (much as the United States had to draw a line in the sand in the First Gulf War for the freedom of Kuwait) when it came to stating the One on whom each placed his dependence. These men resisted the temptation to go along with the crowd.
To demonstrate that God was still at work on behalf of these non-conforming men, for the second time the text says in verse 9 that “God had caused the official [Ashpenaz] to show favor and sympathy to Daniel.” Thus, God was not only demonstrating his rule over nations; he was also providentially ruling in the lives of individuals as well. Therefore, just as earlier in Israel’s history, Joseph “found favor” in Pharaoh’s eyes (Gen 39:4), and later in Israel’s history, Esther “won … favor” in her royal beauty contest (Est 2:9), so Daniel and his three friends found the same to be true here. God’s divine intervention on behalf of individuals is just as much part of this story as it is in his rule over Judah and the Gentile nations.
A. A Dare to Compare
The test was to last for “ten days” (12). This may have been a round number, but it certainly was for a fairly short time in which the suspicions of Ashpenaz’s superiors would not be aroused, yet it would supply enough time for any positive results to be observed. This test was indeed evidence of non-conformity at some level that affected the testimony of these four Hebrew captives.
Notice how careful the men were, so as not to show any open defiance of the king, yet they did not buckle-under and comply with most other aspects of the new culture into which they had been cast. Thus, the alternative to sustaining themselves off the king’s menu was to feed on a diet of vegetables and water, hence the “trial by vegetables.”
Daniel was polite and asked, “Please test your servants for ten days” (12). After these ten days had passed, Ashpenaz was to “compare [their] appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food” (13). This test would mark the separation of the four Hebrews from the otherwise prevailing Gentile culture. In this way, a “Diaspora theology” emerged as the Hebrews would distinguish themselves from the influences of a Gentile culture as advocated by the Babylonians, Medo-Persians or the Greeks in later years when the scattered Israelites found themselves in exile in foreign lands.
B. A Result to Acknowledge
God’s providential care was evident in their individual lives just as surely as it was seen in his rule over nations. God caused Ashpenaz to show favor (9) to these men as he had in the past shown favor to Joseph, who also “found favor” in Potiphar’s eyes (Gen 39:4), and Esther later “won…favor” with Hegai, as he instructed her how to prepare for her visit with the Persian king (Est 2:9). God’s intervention on behalf of the four captives was not a sidelight to the story, but it was the same theme that Daniel had established in his opening verses in this chapter. The four men emerged from their test of trial by vegetables “healthier and better nourished” than their competitors (15). So Daniel and his friends won their point and demonstrated the providential working of God on their behalf.
IV When Pressed to Produce (1:17-21)
A. Human Wisdom
For the third time in this text, it is emphasized that it was God who once more “gave” (17) something; this time it was: “knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning.” “Knowledge” pointed to academic learning and “understanding” suggested both an aptitude for study and an insight into exercising sound judgment in what they were learning. Here was living proof of the fact that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7).
B. Spiritual Discernment
When it came time for graduation of the four Hebrews, all of them were found to be “ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom” (20). The number “ten” is no doubt used here as a hyperbole, rather than an exact mathematical score (e.g., see Gen 31:41; Num 14:22; Ne 4:12). But the impression they made was certainly clear enough for them to merit introduction into the king’s civil service, for each received an administrative appointment in the “king’s service” (19). Out of the mercy and goodness of God, these men so excelled that they beat the other apprentices in the Babylonian arts and sciences” as they choose to depend on God and not on the occult arts of the non-gods and certain demons found in the Babylonian religion and used by the other classmates who were magicians and enchanters.
A final note appears in verse 21 illustrating the “staying power” of Daniel, for he came to his royal office in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar and remained in office even after the government changed into the hands of the Medo-Persians in the first year of King Cyrus in 539/8 B.C. This meant Daniel held his office for over sixty years in the royal courts. His longevity meant Daniel outlasted the Babylonian Empire, and it extended into the first king of Persia. Surely, God is the one who is sovereign over men and nations all over the world.
1. God can be trusted even when the circumstances appear to turn sour and not exactly what we would have planned for our lives.
2. To those who are faithful to their Lord, he has the power to grant knowledge, understanding and the ability to use that knowledge wisely.
3. Daniel 1 is about how God can work both within the lives of a few individuals as well as he can work in the history of nations.
4. Are our inner convictions strong enough to overcome the outer pressure to compromise and to conform to a hostile culture?
5. There is great value in pledging ourselves in advance to God and his kingdom so that we act on principle and not just on the spur of the moment.
6. When taking such stands on principle, we must do so gently, courteously and appealingly so as to win over the opposition rather than being merely confrontative in our stand.
7. Those who honor the Lord will be like a tree planted by the stream of water (Psalm 1:3) outlasting even whole empires.
By Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., PhD
Link to Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. website: www.walterckaiserjr.com
[I, the (usually) faithful Editorial Assistant, apologize to our readers, to Old Testament scholar Dr. Kaiser, and Tom Bradford for delay in bringing you the rest of these profound lessons—not published elsewhere—on the book of Daniel. The fault is mine. Our intention forthwith is to regularly provide lessons for the entire book, which will be archived for free use and study by visitors to our website. In the future, whole chapters of Daniel will be presented as single lessons. This lesson finishes the discussion of chapter 1 of Daniel already presented along with an excellent introduction to the book (taking issue with some contemporary interpretations). Point I has been already presented.]