Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Daniel’s Training in Babylon
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.
8 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.”
11 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.
15 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.
The Book of the Prophet Daniel is an interesting book, and it’s actually a little more exotic and mysterious that most Christians know. As kids, we had the story of Daniel in the lions’ den read to us, (and for that matter, probably colored pictures of the story in Sunday School). And somewhere along the line, we might have read the story about Daniel’s friends being thrown into a fiery furnace.
But there are things that are less well known about the Book of Daniel. Parts of it report prophetic visions that Daniel had – and in fact, some of the modern theology that shows up in the Left Behind books and movies is based on some quotes from Daniel. What’s more, when the Hebrew scriptures were translated from Hebrew to Greek in the centuries before Jesus, the translated version of Daniel had some additional stories in it, including one where he acts like an ancient version of Sherlock Holmes in defending a young woman accused of promiscuity by two elders who had been sexually harassing her.
Our reading for today is the first chapter of Daniel. It’s not as well known, but it has a couple of ideas that seem genuinely relevant to those of us trying to live as followers of Jesus in the 21st century. (That’s not to say that sexual harassment isn’t a live issue in our time and place, of course.)
Our story for today takes place in Babylon after the Babylonian army had invaded the country and besieged Jerusalem. But this wasn’t the big invasion that led to the destruction of the city and the exile of its people. It was an earlier invasion that was ended when the king of Judah agreed to surrender the city and accept the rule of the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar.
So for a while, the people of Judah lived under the authority of the Babylonian Empire. And like many empires throughout history – including the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire – the Babylonians brought in some of the best and brightest young people from the countries they conquered so they could be trained as officials of the empire. This practice helped to bind the empire together by giving promising young people a stake in its fortunes.
In today’s story, the king orders that the young trainees from Judah be treated very well, and even that they be given the same food the king ate. Nebuchadnezzar no doubt thought this was a real benefit of this training program, and young people from most cultures probably loved it. But from the Hebrew perspective, the royal food was not kosher. Eating it would make the young men ritually unclean. So they ask to be allowed to eat only vegetables and drink only water.
So the first point we’re meant to notice here, I think, is that Daniel and his friends are determined to maintain their identity as God’s people, even in the context of their captivity. The program was meant to make them think and act like Babylonians, but they continued to think of themselves as people of God’s covenant.
But notice that in asserting that identity as people of the covenant, the four young men were courteous and respectful of the Babylonian rulers. They didn’t call a press conference and issue demands, as people would in our time. Instead, the text says that they ‘asked permission’ to follow a vegetarian diet.
And when the royal official assigned to their care expresses some reservations about the young men’s request, Daniel and the others treat the official’s concerns as valid and reasonable. They offer to eat the vegetable diet on a ‘trial basis,’ then to respect the official’s decision about what was best. And when the trial ends, the Hebrew guys are healthier-looking than those who ate the king’s rich food.
In the New Testament, the apostle Peter writes that we followers of Jesus are supposed to live like we’re exiles in this world – we’re to obey its laws, but not to buy into its value system. And this story from Daniel provides an example of what that might look like.
Quite a few people who identify themselves as Christians today seem to be looking for things to complain loudly about in the culture around us. If they don’t get their way about something, even as trivial as store clerks saying ‘Happy Holidays,’ these Christians look for a chance to complain loudly. There’s a kind of self-righteous satisfaction that comes from beating your chest that way, but it seems hollow compared to what these four young men did.
I would suggest that Daniel and his friends behaved in a way that demonstrated a quieter, but stronger, faith in God. Their polite and respectful behavior expresses a quiet confidence that if they obeyed God’s commandments for them, that others would be led to see the value of that way of life. It also seems true that by training themselves to live in obedience to those commandments, they were preparing themselves to be strong in the face of life-threatening challenges in their future.
So that’s why I say that the example of Daniel and his friends can still be a useful model for those of us trying to live out our faith in the digital age.
Let’s pray. Lord, as we live in this world, help us to remember that our primary identity is meant to be as followers of your Son and citizens of your kingdom. Help us, like the young men in this story, to live with the quiet and respectful confidence that if we obey your laws and the teachings of Jesus, you will work out your purposes for us, and through us. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 124 and 145; I John 1:1-10; and John 17:1-11.)