The Beginning of Daniel’s Captivity
Daniel 1 describes the beginning of Judah’s Babylonian captivity. A century earlier, the northern kingdom of Israel had also been enslaved. Located between two empires—Egypt and Assyria—Israel and Judah often sought alliances with Egypt to resist the northern threat. But these coalitions proved unfortunate for both kingdoms. In 722 B.C. Assyria, ruled by Sargon II, invaded Israel, deported the Jews, and repopulated it with Assyrians. With the first wave of exile, ten of the twelve Israelite tribes assimilated into the Assyrian Empire. In 605. B.C. the Chaldeans defeated Egypt at Carchemish and subjugated the kingdom of Judah—the remaining tribes. Nebuchadnezzar rushed back to Babylon via the shorter but trying dessert road in order to secure the throne after his father’s death. A group of captives accompanied him on this difficult journey (likely including Daniel and his companions), with more to follow on the regular route.[i]
Uprooted and exiled, the Jewish minority was bound to lose its identity completely. This threatened not only the survival of the nation but the deliverance of the world through Messiah—foretold as a descendant of David. The Babylonian captivity had both physical and spiritual consequences, both local and cosmic implications.[ii] Yet in the midst of calamity and despair, God’s providence was at work to secure the fulfillment of His word from the very beginning of the exile. While the introduction to Daniel describes the deportation, the return from captivity is already hinted at in verse 21 with the naming of Cyrus, the Persian king who reversed the Jewish exile in 538 B.C. Daniel “saw within the compass of his own time the rise, reign, and ruin of that monarchy”[iii] which enslaved his people, and prophesied historical events with implications far into the veiled future. The Bible gives us more details about the beginning of this prophet’s life than about any other prophet, so let’s dig in.
God at Work
Eleven characters populate this short chapter: God, three kings (Jehoiakim, king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and Cyrus, king of Persia), Ashpenaz (the commander of the officials), the four young men (Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah), the captive youth, and the overseer. As expected, Daniel is the main character, being mentioned most times. The second most mentioned character is Ashpenaz. Given that the introduction describes the beginning of Daniel’s experience in exile and Ashpenaz was his chief superior, it is no surprise that his role is so important. What Daniel asks upon his arrival is of consequence to his entire stay at the court, but what the commander of the officials decides is equally important. It is in this context that the writer mentions God working on behalf of His people. If in verse 1 we learn that “the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into [Nebuchadnezzar’s hand], in verse 9 we read of God granting “Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the commander of the officials.” The reversal of the punishment is already at work as God begins to carve a path for His people.
Foreteller of the Future
Along with his three companions, Daniel is bound to undergo a complete transformation with the purpose of becoming fit for service at the royal court. Having been counted among those with “no defect,” “good-looking,” “intelligent in every branch of wisdom,” and “endowed with understanding and discernment,” (vs. 3-4), he was about to enter a three-year educational program in which he would learn “the literature and language of the Chaldeans.” Jacques Doukhan explains that “it required a minimum of three languages to function as a scribe: Sumerian, the traditional sacred tongue written in cuneiform signs; Babylonian (or Akkadian), the national dialect of Semitic origin, also in cuneiform; and finally, Aramaic, the international language of business and diplomacy, written much like the letter forms that we encounter in modern Hebrew Bibles.”[iv]
The educational curriculum was aimed at turning the Jews into priests. Obsessed with predicting the future, the Chaldean clerics specialized in astronomy and astrology, their name itself, derived from “kaldu,” alluding to the “the art of constructing astronomical maps.”[v] Daniel, therefore, was on track to becoming a scribe and astrologer—a foreteller of the future at the Babylonian court. But God had a different prophetic ministry reserved for him. Complete dedication was necessary for Daniel to be used as God intended, and the young man demonstrated his allegiance early on. This was most evident in the dietary aspect.
As part of his education, Daniel was to indulge in the best food at the court – the “king’s choice food.” Repeated five times, this key phrase alludes to more than just physical food. As a good Jew, Daniel no doubt wanted to keep the dietary laws, and since he had no control over the source of his food, being vegetarian[vi] was the way to go. But in Babylon food was also a matter of allegiance. In their religion the king was god, and the cultic consumption of meat and wine was not only nourishment but primarily a proof of loyalty to the god-king. Daniel’s desire to not be “defiled” (v. 8) goes beyond his concern with physical health. His request shows respectful resistance to identity conversion—particularly the spiritual aspect of this identity.
Interestingly, his language echoes the creation story: “the same Hebrew words appear with the same associations: ‘vegetables,’ ‘given,’ ‘to be eaten’ (see Gen. 1:29). In reformulating the same expression, Daniel is affirming that his God is the Creator and not the king.”[vii] It is also notable that the verb used in reference to the king appointing the menu only occurs in reference to God in the Bible, and then only in reference to creation.[viii] By recreating the identity of the captive Jews, the king seeks to usurp the place of God as Creator. This is also evident in the renaming of the deportees, which indicates to whom they belonged:
- Daniel (“God is my judge”) becomes Belteshazzar (“may Bel preserve his life,” Bel being a name of Marduk, the main Babylonian god).
- Hananiah (“grace of God”) became Shadrach (“order of Aku,” Aku being the Sumerian moon-god).
- Mishael (“who is like God”) becomes Meshach (“who is like Aku”), and
- Azariah (“YHWH has helped”) becomes Abednego (“servant of Nego,” Nego deriving from Nabu, the god of wisdom).[ix]
Babylon as Usurper
The theme of Babylon as usurper extends beyond the book of Daniel. Not only does the name Babylon come from Babel—to which the writer alludes with the mention of Shinar in verse 2—in the Bible, it signifies the spiritual counterfeit of Jerusalem. From Genesis to Revelation it stands as a symbol of “the world below usurping power that belongs exclusively to the one above;” of “the forces of evil that oppose God and seek to possess divine prerogatives and privileges.”[x] As noted earlier, the conflict between Babylon and Jerusalem is not only local but universal, given the spiritual overtones of these two cities.
The development of the conflict is evident in the spatial markers, which take us from Jerusalem, to the land of Shinar, to the house of Nebuchadnezzar’s god, to the treasury of his god (vs. 1-3) No other spatial markers are present in this episode. The emphasis is on the movement from Jerusalem to Babylon and on Nebuchadnezzar’s appropriation of God’s dedicated people. But alongside faithful Jews, he also brings to Babylon vessels dedicated to God.
The opening of the book references two things that were carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon: captives, and temple vessels. The mention of the temple plundering is not arbitrary, especially since the details are provided early on in the story. Entrusted to the priests for safekeeping, these brought the plundering upon themselves with their iniquity. From serving in the house of God as daily reminders of divine grace and a plan of salvation, the temple vessels ended up serving as conquest trophies in the house of the Babylonian gods to whom Nebuchadnezzar attributed his victory.
Ironically, the appropriation of the temple utensils already alludes to the downfall of the captors described in chapter 5, when God punished the profanation of the Chaldeans as they were making us of these holy objects.[xi] By seizing temple items, Nebuchadnezzar tried to show the superiority of his gods over the God of the Jews. Yet his vanity was ignorant, for it was God’s own judgment upon the unfaithful Judah that had brought its ruin and the exile. But God is not only just in judgment, But He is also relentlessly merciful and refuses to give up on His chosen people even when betrayed and rejected.
God’s Unceasing Grace
Life in exile is not desirable, but this book shows that when we allow God’s purposes to transcend our own, when we see life as service to God above all else, His grace flows through us in rivers of blessing for others. Such was the life of Daniel, who determined early on to put God first, do all within his power to remain devoted, and let God do the rest. And so it was. His request for a vegetarian diet—with spiritual implications of worship to God alone—backed by God working on his behalf (v. 9), enabled one of the most inspiring collaborations between God and human beings depicted in the Bible. Wisdom was already evident in Daniel when he suggested a test. Understanding the hesitation of Ashpenaz who feared for his life, he appealed to the overseer who agreed to ten-day testing period.
The temporal marker “ten” is a frequent word in this passage and it refers to two things: the number of days the four Jews were tested (vs. 12, 14, 15, 18), and the number of times they were found wiser than “all the magicians and conjurers who were in all [the] realm.” (v. 20) It is obvious that the latter designation is symbolic, simply indicating the superiority of Daniel and his three companions. And while the test lasted for ten literal days, it wasn’t merely diet that enabled them such advantage after three years of education. Certainly, a proper diet has tremendous effects upon the mind, for we are holistic beings intricately interconnected. But the Bible clearly states that, “as for these four youths, God gave them knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom; Daniel even understood all kinds of visions and dreams.” (v. 17)
If in the beginning, God gave Judah, along with the temple vessels, into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, He was soon working on behalf of His chosen people by granting Daniel favor in the eyes of Ashpenaz, and by giving the four young men special wisdom and understanding. To physical and spiritual beauty was added knowledge and intelligence, so that they developed harmoniously, by all appearances in service to the king of Babylon, but in reality, for the much higher calling of servants of God.
An Inviolable Consecration
The few props in this story seem to have a common element that points to a connection between them. First, we learn of the vessels of the house of God, which are brought to Jerusalem. Then, we read about the king’s choice food and wine, the daily appointed portion for the youth who entered a re-education program. Lastly, Daniel requests vegetables and water instead. All these props refer to food and drink—to diet. But as we saw earlier, it wasn’t merely physical diet that was at stake. The veneration of God was implied in what the exiled young men ate. In reverence to the Creator God, they chose to not defile themselves with unclean food and unholy worship. That is because the daily temple sacrifice had pointed them year after year to a unique kind of food: a body that would break for them and blood that would spill for them—the sacrificial death of the Messiah which atoned for their sins.
The temple vessels were not the only dedicated things to go to Jerusalem. Four dedicated young men were to witness for God over and over again, choosing God over the fear of persecution and death. Dedicated vessels and dedicated people at the court of Babylon was not something Nebuchadnezzar expected, but as this book amply shows, God is vastly above human events and ambitions. Ultimately, His reign will include the whole earth. But for now, the principles of His reign are demonstrated through the presence of consecrated vessels and people at a pagan court. Despite the intense program of spiritual conversion and identity change, the captivity cannot erase such deep-seated consecration.
Secrets to Success
There is a saying that “when we do our best, God does the rest.” Daniel’s life is an example of a properly proactive approach. He did not expect God to do for him that which he could do for himself. Yet in asking Ashpenaz for a special diet, he also trusted God to work out things that may have been beyond his ability to influence or control. Indeed, God intervened and granted him favor. This collaboration between people and God, this working together towards a purpose blessed by God and in harmony with His principles, enabled the four young Hebrews to develop holistically and become successful young men fit for service not only before the most powerful king on earth but also before the all-powerful God of the universe. If we adopt the same attitude, we can successfully develop the gifts God gave us and achieve the purposes He has with us. Both external obstacles and internal hindrances can be overcome when we remain dedicated to God and when we trust His interventions.
[i] Jacques Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), 14-15.
[ii] Doukhan, 16.
[iv] Doukhan, 17.
[v] Doukhan, 17.
[vi] The Hebrew for “vegetables” implies “everything that grows on the face of the earth, including grains, fruits, and vegetables.” Doukhan, 23.
[vii] Doukhan, 19.
[viii] Doukhan, 17.
[ix] Doukhan, 18.
[x] Doukhan, 13.