Over the next few weeks we’re going to be looking at the Old Testament book of Daniel (chapters 1-6; we’ll come back and do 7-12 later in the year). The first half of Daniel contains a number of familiar stories: Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, the fiery furnace, the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast, and Daniel’s visit to the lions’ den. All Sunday School favourites, despite the “mature themes” – mental illness, combustible henchmen, idolatrous orgies, and women and children being fed to lions. (Who needs Game of Thrones?) But what are they supposed to teach us? What are they doing in our bibles?
Today and tomorrow, we’re going to look at three stories that will help us answer this question over the coming weeks. One story is set in Babylon, in the sixth century BC. Another is set in Judea, in the second century BC. And the other – well, you’re living it at the moment. (Later on in the week, we’ll also briefly meet a fourth story that predates all of these.) Confused? Let’s get started!
The Babylonian Exile
In 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, besieged Jerusalem and eventually destroyed it, carrying off most of the population to Babylon (1 Kings 25) – the famous “Babylonian captivity” of God’s people. There, they would live for seventy years as exiles. It , until some started to return in the reign of Cyrus, king of Persia (Ezra 1:1-4).
Daniel’s own exile predates this by more than a decade. During the reign of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar invaded, taking away some of the physical treasures of Jerusalem, as well as some of the upper class young men (2 Kings 24:1-7). This is how the book of Daniel opens:
Daniel 1:1-7 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god. 3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— 4 young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. 5 The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service. 6 Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 7 The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.
This was a standard Babylonian tactic against the nations they had conquered – particularly those who had shown a propensity to rebel, like Judah (2 Kings 24:1). As well as showing the conquered nation who’s boss, it was also a way for Babylon to benefit from the talents of Judah’s “best and brightest,” and an opportunity to groom their future leadership to be sympathetic to Babylon and its culture. Note how they were to be taught Babylonian language and literature, eat Babylonian food, and even have Babylonian names. This was an attempt at cultural brainwashing.
For God’s people, this presented a problem. Their whole identity as a nation was about remaining separate from all the other nations (who worshipped idols, not the one true God). They ate different food as a symbol of their call to be separate. They lived by different laws, reflecting the character of God for whom they were to be a living “advertisement.” And they worshipped one God, not many. To belong to God’s people meant that you weren’t supposed to fit in with the other cultures of the world!
And yet here they were, exiled in Babylon, with a deliberate programme to eliminate their cultural differences and encourage assimilation. Their very identity was under threat – not to mention their worship of the one true God. How is a faithful Judean, like Daniel, supposed to act in this very difficult situation? Although the prophet Jeremiah told them to “settle down” for a long exile and make a life for themselves in their new location (Jer 29:1-7), how much should they truly “settle in” to an idolatrous, godless culture? In making their home in Babylon, how “at home” should they feel?
This is the problem facing Daniel and the other upper-class exiles at the start of the book, as they try to remain faithful to God and his people while being seduced by the culture of their conquerors. (And waiting for God to intervene and put things right.) We’ll see the first episode play out on Wednesday, in chapter 1.
To think about
How is our situation like that of Daniel and his friends? How is it different?
In what ways have you “settled in” and in what ways have you maintained your distinctiveness as a follower of the one, true God?