The Story That Sets the Stage
Any initial direct reading of this first panel of scenes from the life of Daniel suggests that the subject is one of the hallowed themes of biblical religion: those who trust and obey God will be vindicated, and they will make it big, even in Babylon. This subject is summed up in verse 20 when, after they have survived the trial of a vegetarian diet and the rigors of a Babylonian court education, Daniel and his three friends from the land of Judah are personally examined by King Nebuchadnezzar and are found to be “ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were found in all his kingdom.” Yet closer reading reveals that the story is dealing with themes more subtle than either works-righteousness or reward-and-punishment. Watch how it works!
As it is in all of the tales which comprise Daniel 1-6, the setting of chapter 1 is Babylon in the days when the flower of Jewish youth (note that they are already “skillful … endowed with knowledge … competent,” v. 4) was brought into dramatic direct contact with the most important representatives of non-Jewish might and wisdom and there allowed to match their wits with the best of them. We cannot know if the person who wrote down this tale about Daniel and friends knew that thissetting was, as we now believe, fictional and that the story was told by no contemporary or eye-witness of the sixth century but rather in circles of pious Jews three or four centuries later. Whether the narrator took the traditional setting at face value or embellished it in the playful spirit of a storyteller also cannot be known. It hardly matters very much now, because the story has become part of a collection of six court tales, all of which offer stories which typify the experience of trusting believers with a trustworthy and effective God. The setting is important to such a function primarily as a means of heightening the tension, enriching the danger, dramatizing the risk which faithful people will experience enroute to their vindication by the God who has supreme power even in the hanging gardens of Babylon.
Every detail of the story is essential to its proper understanding. And if the story presents itself to us as a bizarre and time-bound “oriental court tale … full of miracles and what to us are glaring improbabilities” (Jeffery, “Daniel,” p. 359), so be it. That is the incarnate form in which the Word of God is witnessed to in Daniel 1. While we need to resist all interpretations which would bind the story in a needlessly rigid way to the alien world of third century b.c.. Palestinian Judaism, thus rendering it hopelessly unavailable to twentieth century believers for their theological needs, we need at the same time to treasure the vivid and authentic cultural details of the medium for the necessary part which they play in setting forth the message of this chapter.
As the story begins, conditions are favorable to Daniel and the three other noble, unblemished youths who people chapter 1. True, they find themselves in exile, a fact which ought to be regarded as a terrible one. Here, however, it is glossed over lightly: The exile happened simply because the Lord gave the king and the temple treasure into Nebuchadnezzar’s hands (v. 2). The writer is fuzzy on the details: Although Nebuchadnezzar’s move against Jerusalem may have begun in the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, it was his son and successor, Jehoiachin who was taken into captivity (cf. II Kings 24:1-17, but note that II Chron. 36:5-7 supports Dan. 1:2). Clearly the writer’s forte is narrative art, not historical detail! Nebuchadnezzar himself is presented as a powerful but benign tyrant and his officers, the chief eunuch Ashpenaz and the steward in charge of the youths’ upbringing, as men of eminent kindness and common sense.
Like Pharaoh in the days of Joseph, the king needs dream interpreters and sages; and his search for them among the exiles of Judah seems perfectly legitimate to all parties. (A number of scholars have suggested that the “letters and language of the Chaldeans” [v. 4] is a technical phrase meaning the omen-reading lore of the Babylonian astrologers.) It is really Daniel who thickens the plot by saying No to the largess of rich food and wine—but not to the free higher education (v. 17)—that is gratuitously offered him (v. 8). This magnificent refusal sets the stage for the contest or ordeal which intensifies the action of the story up to its climax (v. 15). Of course, this decision by Daniel involved considerable risk. Had the diet of “pulse” (KJV) produced the wan pallor that vegetarians are popularly supposed to have, he and his friends might have forfeited the remainder of their lives. The chief eunuch refused to take responsibility for acceeding to the exiles’ request on this very ground (v. 10), though apparently he was willing to pass the buck—and the danger—on down the line to his appointee, the “steward.” However, the observant Jew for whom the Book of Daniel was written, as well as devout readers through the centuries, would hardly have regarded the decision as a gamble. That the God of Israel was the true Lord of Babylon as well was a claim long established, so the outcome could hardly be in doubt. The decision not to “defile” himself was Daniel’s, it is true (v. 8), and no particular legal or moral justification is given for it. “Defilement” in this instance must have had something to do with the food itself, though exactly what cannot be shown. However, God supports Daniel in the decision, as is made certain by his vital intervention in the heart of the chief eunuch. God proves to be an active if silent participant in the plot as well, and that precisely—but not surprisingly—in Babylon.
The trial by vegetables seems to have been a private affair, and the Jews’ victory in that matter something known only in the household. However, further fruits of God’s faithful support of “the people of Israel” (v. 3) are publicly displayed in the magnificent professional success of Daniel and his friends as wise men (vv. 17-21).
To the degree that the story is about God, its theme is the familiar one of his trustworthiness. But this story is Scripture,and consequently it is about human beings as well. Daniel and his friends are meant to serve as paradigms, living illustrations of abiding truth claims. Readers need, therefore, to know exactly what the Jewish lads did, how their act of refusal was connected with God’s favor, and thus what the subject of the story is, humanly speaking. We need to be careful at this point, for it is here that historical readings of Daniel 1 have run amok and close attention to the canonical setting of the story may prove to be most helpful.
It is difficult to know exactly what an observant Jew of the third or second century b.c.., much less a contemporary of Nebuchadnezzar in the seventh or sixth, would have regarded as defiling in the king’s rich food or in the wine which he drank. Was the problem that it was rich or that it was the king’s? If the latter was the problem, was it because the king was a gentile or that a captive did well not to be indebted to the king and thus become corrupted? Especially because of Daniel’s revulsion and fear of defilement (v. 8), nearly all modern commentators assume that the issue with Daniel’s gastronomic scruples was directly related to that set of dietary practices characteristic of observant Judaism at least since the Maccabean period. Obviously any Israelite since at least the time of Deuteronomy and probably since the beginning of Israel would have pushed away a plate of the king’s rich food were a pork chop lying in the middle of it. But our text makes no mention of pork. Nor is the appeal to several other narratives contemporary with this chapter particularly helpful. Although in Tobit 1:11; Judith 10:5; 12:1-4; I Maccabees 1:63 and Esther 14:17, we see evidence of revulsion and fear of defilement in other cases of righteous refusal to eat foreign and royal food, the comparisons are flawed for two reasons: (a) the texts are contemporary with Daniel and cannot serve as evidence for the prior law or scripture to which Daniel was being obedient; (b) they are also not specific about what was wrong with the food. At the most, they seem generally concerned about meat from which blood had not been drained (a fundamental concern of later kosher slaughter). Neither the biblical nor extrabiblical texts allow us to conclude that Daniel’s refusal to eat the king’s rich food is an act of obedience to known law, not even the laws of kashrut which had not yet come into existence as far as we know. Nor does the term “defilehimself” (v. 8, here used reflexively for the single time in the O.T.) really solve anything for us. The most that can be said is that a person is “defiled” by blood (Isa. 59:3; Lam. 4:14; in Isa. 63:3, Yahweh comes from Bozrah with his own garments “defiled” by blood).
In one sense, we can be grateful that close examination of Daniel’s act reveals that it is not to be too tightly linked with any particular set of food laws, because to bind a story like this to its historical setting too rigidly renders it less, not more, available to us. By being left only indefinitely related to ancient taboos and prohibitions and by being made canonical Scripture, Daniel 1 is liberated from serving simply as a hasidic lesson on dietary discipline and the salutary effects of a vegetarian diet to serve as an abiding illustration, a permanent metaphor for the human experience of trusting in a trustworthy God.
What then is the reason for Daniel’s refusal to eat if obedience to dietary law, respect for blood taboo, and prudential health considerations are all left unsecured by the evidence? Joyce Baldwin (Daniel, pp. 82-83) invokes a possibility which, while still speculative, comes closer to what the canonical evidence permits. After arguing that “it is not immediately apparent why [the royal food] should have defiled them” and at the same time pointing out “all food in Babylon or Assyria was ritually unclean (Ezk. 4:13; Hos. 9:3, 4) and from that there was no escape” (and that presumably included vegetables), Baldwin takes her clue from Daniel 11:26, the only other text in which the rare word pat-bag, “rich food,” occurs. As that text makes clear, those who shared the king’s board also entered into a covenantal relationship with him; they became his courtiers, his shadow cabinet. Put another way, their freedom of action was preempted by the king. Baldwin concludes,
It would seem that Daniel rejected this symbol of dependence on the king because he wished to be free to fulfill his primary obligations to the God he served. The defilement he feared was not so much a ritual as a moral defilement, arising from the subtle flattery of gifts and favours which entailed hidden implications of loyal support, however dubious the king’s future policies might prove to be (p. 83).
This assessment of the problem of the king’s food takes seriously the problem of the lack of legal background within the canon for alleged dietary scruples of Daniel and his friends and takes seriously the evidence of Daniel 11:26. Even though itforces a slight reinterpretation onto the term “defile,” ignoring its usual association with blood and bloody meat, it remains the reading of Daniels refusal which is most respectful of the canonical situation of Daniel 1.
In the last analysis, the text enables us to speak only about the function of Daniel’s refusal (and its subsequent miraculous vindication), not about its motivation. Daniel’s act—whether one of obedience, prudence, political sagacity, or simply symbol—had the effect of setting him and his companions apart from the common run of aliens and other students in the Babylonian academy of wisdom. The refusal set out their individual identity in sharp relief, and because of their victory in the trial by vegetables, they became a distinct and special group. The theological significance of this sharp identity is explored below.
In a study of the intention and sources of Daniel 1-11, John Gammie concludes that the stories of Daniel 1-6, while not a commentary or midrash on Deutero-Isaiah, were probably told “to show how a number of the sentences of Deutero-Isaiah furnished examples of ‘prophecies fulfilled’ among Israel’s sons who served in foreign courts,” and how this service “included being a light to the nations (Isa. xlii 6; xlix 6) so that foreign monarchs might acknowledge Yahweh’s sovereignty…” (“On the Intention and Sources of Daniel i—vi,” p. 291). Such a conclusion bears on the story of Daniel 1 in several ways. Ostensibly written in the eighth-seventh centuries, in the time of Hezekiah, Isaiah 49:22-23 foresaw that kings would be “foster fathers” (Gammie, “tutors”) to Israel’s sons (and daughters); now in Daniel 1 (ostensibly written during the sixth century Babylonian exile), four noble Israelite youths enjoy the patronage and tutelage of Babylon’s king. Is the writer indirectly saying to his actual late third-early second century b.c.. generation, as Gammie believes, “In the success of Jews at living prominent and significant lives in diaspora settings while remaining uncompromised and undefiled is the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled”? If so, the connection is applicable to all six of the narratives in Daniel 1-6.
Perhaps even more significantly, the assertion of Yahweh’s sovereignty in Babylon, demonstrated in his ability to vindicate the discipline of Daniel and his friends even in the very innermost hearts of individual Babylonians (v. 9)—an exercise of divinepower surely far more significant and demanding than mere earthquakes or fire storms would have been, yet one which is repeated time and again in Daniel 1-6—is a narrative representation of Deutero-Isaiah’s sustained announcement of Yahweh’s lordship over all parts of the earth (Isa. 43:3-7), all the nations (40:15-17), all other gods who are nothing (46:1-11), princes and rulers of the earth (40:23-24), and specifically Cyrus, king of Persia (44:24-45:13). Of course, other exilic and early postexilic prophetic works such as Ezekiel and Isaiah 56-66 make the same claims for the universal sovereignty of the God of Israel; but given the other linguistic and theological affinities which obtain between Isaiah 40-55 and Daniel 1-6, we seem to be on safe ground in asserting that one function of the stories of Daniel 1-6 is to assure Jews that the visionary hopes and promises of Isaiah 40-55 were indeed capable of realization among the obedient and wise of Israel.
What is at issue in Daniel 1? What is the theological point of the narrative as it stands before us in its full canonical form? While various answers have been given to this question, one of the primary claims of the text is surely the general affirmation of the trustworthiness of God, even in the remote and difficult circumstances of exile, and the consequent basis for hope on his people’s part. A Jew who is true to his heritage and his God can make it big in Babylon, but the credit lies not so much with his refusal of the fancy lunches and the fat expense accounts of the day as with God’s ability to give “Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs” (v. 9). An exiled Jew can be a winner because the God of Israel is a winner!
However, even this theological truth claim, while significant and doubtlessly present in the text, ought not to be overly stressed if the story itself has more to say. After all, the theme of God’s absolute trustworthiness can be misleading if the pattern of danger-obedience-divine intervention-safety is understood to be predictable and inevitable whenever God’s people cry out to him in duress and exile. Jews were obedient and refused to defile themselves at Auschwitz, too, but they still went to the gas chambers, even though God was sovereign in that place as well. Christians, too, have been obedient in Nazi Germany and in the China of the cultural revolution and in the realms of Latin American dictators, but the goonsquads have not been prevented from coming to the door.
Therefore, while not denying the significance of the claim of universal divine sovereignty and trustworthiness for a world still emerging from the notion of tribal and national gods (or for our world, for that matter), we turn again to the behavior of Daniel and his friends as another substantive theological value of this passage. The text enables us to speak not about the motivation of Daniel’s refusal but rather its function. The reader cannot finally say why Daniel did what he did. Perhaps the act was one of obedience to God-given law, and this had to do with the presence of too much blood in the king’s rich morsels of meat; or perhaps it was prudential and thus pointed toward the need for an unencumbered, unco-opted, and clear mind. Perhaps it was an act of political sagacity or one of symbolic resistance. Perhaps; all we can know for certain, however, is that the lads of Judah said No to the menu at the high table. The food was fit for a king, but in Daniel’s judgment it was not fit for a servant of the King of kings. The effect set the Jews apart in sharp relief from the common run of aliens and novices at the Babylonian academy of wisdom. In that sharp identity lay strength: the Jews were going to have to be reckoned with! A Yes at this point would have resulted in a significant loss of identity for a man undefiled and obedient to the God of Israel: he would simply have been another man with a price. In Daniel’s No lay his own sharp focus, his own clear identity, and, as events proved, the key to Israel’s identity as a special and divinely elect people.
The case can be made that chapter 1 and the other stories of Daniel 1-6 all provide components of an interim ethic, an answer to the question: Given our strong conviction that God will vindicate himself before the whole world at the end of this age and at the inauguration of his new era, how shall we who trust him live our lives in the meantime? That part of the answer which Daniel 1 provides says, Live vigorously, carry your trust into the very heartland of your oppressors, with God’s help beat them at their own games of wisdom and understanding, contribute significantly to the safety of your people, and glorify God in your faithfulness. And above all, remember that in order to say Yes to this great challenge, you will have to say No to all the compromises that would blur your focus, co-opt you, and destroy a little bit of your true identity. Maintenance of sharp identity, uncompromised, unencumbered, and ramrod straightin the presence of the oppressive powers of the world, will prove to be a salient feature of the interim ethics to be practiced by the saints before the great day of vindication comes and the kingdoms of the world become that single kingdom in which integrity such as theirs prevails forever (2:44; 7:27).