In our Daniel series so far, we’ve looked at three background stories: Daniel in exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC, Jews living under Greek rule in the second century BC, and us. Despite their differences, they all have something in common. They involve the the people of God facing the dilemma of how to remain faithful to God while living in a world that doesn’t acknowledge him.
Today, we look at the first story in the book of Daniel, where Daniel himself is confronted with this dilemma right from the get-go.
You might remember from Monday’s reading that Daniel, along with other upper class Jews, had been taken off to Babylon. There, these young men would be indoctrinated into Babylonian language and culture (including, most likely, astrology and forms of divination), and then enter the service of the king. They were even given Babylonian names: Daniel himself was to be called Belteshazzar.
This was standard Babylonian practice: Babylon got the benefits of the conquered nation’s best-and-brightest, all the while grooming the next generation of its leadership to be sympathetic to Babylon and its culture.
But it put the very identity of the people of God at risk. Their whole purpose was to worship only one God, unlike the other nations of the world. And many of their distinctive practices were difficult to maintain in a foreign land – like their food laws, which were designed to separate them from the idol-worshipping Gentiles both symbolically and practically. What’s a faithful Jew to do?
Daniel is forced to answer this right from the start, as the young men were told to eat the king’s food. It was good food; but it wasn’t kosher. So although the whole programme of assimilation would have made faithfulness to God tricky, to say the least, it seems that for Daniel, this particular aspect – violating the Levitical food laws – is a bridge too far. (We don’t quite know why this was his line in the sand. And why it also included wine, which wasn’t subject to any restrictions in the Law. It may have been connected to the offering of meat and wine to the Babylonian gods before they were eaten.)
At any rate, this is Daniel’s act of faithful resistance, and he asks for an exemption:
Daniel 1:8-10 But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. 9 Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, 10 but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you.”
Note the assumption here, as it’s important for what follows: eating the king’s food will, ordinarily speaking, make Daniel and his friends fit and healthy. So how will it look to the king when they appear weaker and less nourished than the others?
Daniel proposes a test:
Daniel 1:11-14 Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” 14 So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.
So what’s the result of the test? Just vegetables and water, compared with the rich, nourishing food of the king’s table – the best food available in the empire?
Daniel 1:15-16 At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. 16 So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.
After ten days, they’re healthier than the control sample! What’s going on? Is this a biblical vindication of veganism? Divine dietetics at work?
Rick Warren* has taken it this way in his diet method called “The Daniel Plan” (www.danielplan.com). Based on Daniel 1:8, it advocates health through eating whole foods from plants, rather than processed foods. It appears to be sound, nutritional advice – for a contemporary Western culture with an obesity epidemic; where the problem is that we aren’t active enough, and we eat too much. When teamed with the support of a group, and of God, Rick’s plan is probably quite a good one for weight loss. I have no problem with the plan. My problem is with the use of Scripture; because it’s the opposite of what’s going on here in the text of Daniel 1.
For a start, in the ancient world, most people didn’t get enough nutrients to sustain them. The poor could mostly only afford vegetables. And after working from dawn to dusk in the fields, they didn’t need a treadmill in their rumpus room to burn off excess calories. What’s more, the king’s food wasn’t exactly processed either; they weren’t dining out on Twinkies and Coke every night. They were getting quality meat protein, straight off the bone. Giving Daniel the king’s food was more like athletes bulking up to build muscle, rather than obese Westerners trying to fit back into last year’s trousers. The Daniel Plan unfortunately reads our own culture of diet and overeating back into sixth century Babylon.
But my main problem with it is that it misses the point of the story completely. It’s not a story about God giving wise, nutritional advice that seemed a bit counter-intuitive to his people. It’s about God working a miracle. That’s the point.
Although – humanly (and dieticianally) speaking – they should have ended up less nourished, God miraculously intervened. And through this, he demonstrated that he was the one nourishing his faithful people, not a pagan ruler. Faithfulness to him will be what gets his people through the exile, not compromise with Babylonian culture.
(And it matches the plotline of the other stories in Daniel 1-6, which involve God miraculously intervening to rescue his faithful people, doing the opposite what would be natural. It’s not as though Daniel 3 teaches that, contrary to the unscientific views of the ancient world, standing in fire doesn’t actually hurt you. Or that Daniel 6 proves that lions are really friendly if you just give them a chance. No, all of them are miraculous interventions of God, breaking the rules of nature to help his people: making fire not burn, making lions not eat, and making a poor person’s diet more nutritional than the best food the ancient world had to offer!)
What’s more, Daniel and his friends ended up earning the favour of the king in more than just their appearance:
Daniel 1:17-21 17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds. 18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. 21 And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.
Daniel’s stance on food demonstrated that he wanted to rely not on the king’s food, but on God to sustain him. It was a (mostly) private act of faithfulness that showed his allegiance to God, not the king; that his identity came from being part of God’s people, not Babylonian culture. And so God gave him not just better health, but superior wisdom and insight.
In the end, God is glorified. The sustenance and wisdom he gives surpasses even that of the most powerful empire in the world at the time. At this point, only Daniel and his friends know that God is the source – and, of course, the narrator, who pointedly uses their Hebrew names. But soon, others will find out…
For 2nd century Jews to think about
When placed in this difficult situation, Daniel doesn’t go all “death or glory” like some in the Maccabean times were advocating. He doesn’t resist the orders, and down fighting. But neither does he just give in and go along with it, to avoid making life difficult – or even to prosper, like those in Jerusalem who co-operated with the Seleucid rulers. He takes a quiet stand, knowing that if he stays out of trouble, it won’t be because he gave in to the opposing culture. It will be because God kept him out of trouble.
For us to think about
In a way, Daniel was offered the same shortcut to food (and power) that Jesus was when tempted in the desert (Matt 4:1-11) – but he refused to take what was on offer, and instead waited on God.
In what are you trusting to stay out of “trouble” with our wider society? Are there things you do simply to avoid our culture’s disapproval?
What kind of quiet – maybe even private – stand can you take, in order to show that you trust God to take care of you?
(For example: a commitment to give regularly to God, rather than spend money on the stuff that helps us look like we fit in better with our world.)
*This isn’t Rick-bashing. I don’t know him personally, but he seems like a really nice guy who’s done some great stuff for God. It’s his hermeneutics that occasionally make me wince. And those Hawaiian shirts. But if even 1% of those who read The Purpose Driven Life grasped his central concept that “it’s not about you” – it’s about God – then some net good for the kingdom was achieved.