Introduction: In Exile at Babylon U. (Daniel 1)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The Book of Daniel begins with the disaster that has finally ended the Jewish kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BC), the king of Babylon has conquered Jerusalem, deposed its king, and taken some of its royals and noble young men captive. As was typical in the ancient Near East, Nebuchadnezzar made sure to take vengeance on the gods (or, in this case, God) of the vanquished nation by plundering the temple and employing its former treasures to decorate the house of his own god (Dan. 1:1-3). By this we know that Nebuchadnezzar was an enemy not only to Israel, but also to Israel’s God.

Among the youth taken captive were Daniel and his companions Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The four were chosen for a select program, based on youth, aptitude, and appearance, to enter into training for a leadership position in the kingdom (Dan. 1:4-5). This presented both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity was to make good lives for themselves in a hostile land, and perhaps to bring God’s power and justice to their new country. The prophet Jeremiah was urging the Jewish exiles to do just that:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

The challenge Daniel and his colleagues faced was assimilation at the expense of loyalty to God and their people. The subjects they would have studied probably included astrology, the study of animal entrails, rites of purification, sacrifice, incantation, exorcism and other forms of divination and magic.[1] These would have been odious to the faith of devouts Jews, as some things at today’s secular universities might be for modern Christians. Moreover, Daniel and his friends had to accept changes in their very names that previously proclaimed their allegiance to God (the “el” and “iah” elements). Nonetheless, Daniel and his colleagues embraced the challenge, secure in the belief that God would protect their faith and loyalty. They enrolled in Babylonian education, but set limits to guard against actual assimilation into the pagan culture of their captors. Daniel resisted the rich diet that was required for all trainees, refusing to “defile himself” (Daniel 1:8). The text doesn’t make clear exactly what was objectionable about the diet.[2] Cultural traditions surrounding diet are strong, especially so to Jews whose food laws distinguished them sharply from the surrounding nations (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14). Perhaps keeping a separate diet gave Daniel a daily reminder of his allegiance to the Lord. Or perhaps it demonstrated that his physical prowess depended on God’s favor rather than the king’s dietary regimen. 

Daniel’s way of collaborating with his overseer is a critical part of the story. Some Christians, when asked to do something against their consciences, either go along uncritically or else take a confrontational stand that appears to make them “holier than thou.” Daniel found a third path, recognizing that his boss was sympathetic, but was in a difficult position. If Daniel and his friends lost vigor due to a lower quality of food--and in the overseer’s eyes, vegetables and water seemed inferior to rich food and wine--the overseer would lose not only his job but his life (Dan. 1:10). So Daniel asked for an evaluation—give us ten days, and if we are not healthier than the others, we will relent and follow your diet. When Daniel and his companions came out of the test after ten days healthier than the others, everyone was given Daniel’s diet, no doubt leading to another workplace challenge between Daniel and the Babylonian students!

In any case, the discussion of Daniel’s diet highlights a much deeper point: God has a hand in the events in Daniel’s life as well as in Nebuchadnezzar’s, in Babylon and in every nation. Chapter 1 reflects this at the outset by stating, “the Lord let King Jehoikim of Judah fall” (Dan. 1:2) and “God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion” (Dan. 1:9). Daniel and his friends exceeded the physical development of the other novitiates not because of their genius or their diet, but because “God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom” (Dan. 1:17). Daniel’s training by the king’s professors was clearly augmented with wisdom from God, for “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” (Dan. 1:20). This sets the pattern for the remainder of the book as time and again events display the superiority of Daniel’s wisdom — and more importantly, the power of his God — over the wisdom and power of the unbelieving nations and their kings (Dan. 5:14; 11:33-35; 12:3, 10). Likewise students today need to think beyond the curriculum, seeking insight from God about what they are learning.  

Christians in all kinds of workplaces today face similarities to what Daniel and his friends experienced at the Babylonian academy. There is no way to escape secular workplaces other than withdrawing to insular communities or choosing to work in Christian-only institutions such as churches and Christian schools. Many secular workplaces (but certainly not all) offer a variety of opportunities for personal gain, such as good pay, job security, professional achievement and stature, comfortable working conditions and interesting, creative work. In themselves, these are good things. But they tempt us with two serious evils: 1) the danger of becoming so enamored of the good material things that we become unwilling to risk these things by standing up for what God requires of us; and 2) the spiritual danger of coming to believe that the good things come as a result of our own labor or genius, or as a result of our service to some power other than God. Moreover, the workplace often demands accommodations that in themselves are not good, such as deception, prejudice, mistreatment of the poor and powerless, pandering to unwholesome desires, taking advantage of others in their moments of need and many more. In our times as much as in Daniel’s, it is difficult to know which accommodations are good and which are ill. Was it good (or at least acceptable) in God's eyes for Daniel and his friends to study astrology? Could they learn to use knowledge of the skies without becoming ensnared by the superstitions in which it was couched? Is it good for Christians to study marketing? Can we learn to use knowledge of consumer behavior without becoming ensnared in the practice of deceptive advertising or exploitative promotions? The Book of Daniel provides no specific guidelines, but it suggests some vital perspectives:

  • Christians can embrace education, even if it is conducted outside the bounds of Christian accountability.

  • Christians can embrace work in non-Christian and even hostile work environments, with suitable safeguards.

  • Christians who work or study in non- or anti-Christian environments should take care to avoid uncritical assimilation into the surrounding culture. Safeguards include:

    • Constant prayer and communion with God. Daniel prayed three times daily throughout his career (6:10) and with special commitment during difficult times in his work (Dan. 9:3-4, 9:16-21). How many Christians actually pray for the specifics of their work lives? The Book of Daniel constantly shows that God care about the specific details of daily work.

    • Firm adherence to material markers of the faith, even if they are somewhat arbitrary. Daniel avoided eating the king’s rich food and wine because it would have compromised his loyalty to God. We could argue whether this particular practice is universally required by God, but we cannot doubt that a living faith requires live markers of the boundaries of faithful behavior. Chick-fil-a draws the line at opening on Sunday. Many Catholic doctors will not prescribe artificial contraception. Other Christians find respectful ways to ask their colleagues for permission to pray for them. None of these can be taken as universal requirements, and indeed all of them could be argued by other Christians. But each of them helps their practitioners avoid a slow creep of assimilation by providing constant, public markers of their faith.

    • Active association and accountability with other Christians in the same kind of work. “Daniel made a request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over the affairs of the province of Babylon.” (Dan. 2:49). But few Christians have any forum where they can share concerns, questions, successes and failures with others in their field. How are lawyers to learn how to apply the faith to law, except by regular, intentional discussions with other Christian lawyers? Likewise for engineers, artisans, farmers, teachers, parents, marketing managers and every other vocation. Creating and nurturing these kinds of groups is one of the great unmet needs of workplace Christians.

    • Formation of good relationships with non-believers in your workplace. God caused the official overseeing Daniel’s diet to show him favor and sympathy (Dan. 1:9). Daniel cooperated with God by respecting the official and looking after his welfare (Dan. 1:10-14). Christians sometimes seem to go out of their way to antagonize and judge co-workers, but God’s command is, “If it is possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). An excellent practice is to pray very specifically for God’s blessings for those among whom we work.

    • Adoption of a modest life style, so that attachment to money, prestige or power do not stand in the way of risking your job or career if you are pressured to do something contrary to God’s commands, values or virtues. Despite reaching the pinnacle of Babylonian education, position and wealth, Daniel and his friends were constantly ready to lose everything in order to speak and act on God’s word (Dan. 2:24, 3:12, 4:20, 5:17, 6:1021).

Daniel managed to walk the tightrope of partial cultural assimilation without religious and moral compromise. The stakes were high. Daniel’s career and even his life were on the line as was the life of the chief Babylonian official, Ashpenaz (Dan 1:10). Yet by God’s grace, Daniel remained composed and maintained his integrity. Even Daniel's enemies would later admit that “they could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption was found in him” (Dan. 6:4).

John E. Goldingay, Daniel, (Dallas: Word, 1989), 16-17.

The food laws in their technical detail may not have been the issue since wine was permitted by Jewish law, and since later we learn that Daniel did find suitable meat to eat in Babylon (10:3). Nonetheless, there seems to be a hint of objection to the king’s diet, per se, reminiscent of the Corinthians’ qualms about eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1-13).  The best explanation is Daniel’s resistance to assimilation. For the assimilation view, see Goldingay, Daniel, 19; Collins, Daniel, 143; for refusal to commend the king’s diet, see Longman, Daniel, 53.