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Mission in a Pagan Land: Daniel and Company

This week’s lesson takes the time-honored position that “from the beginning of their time in Babylon, the four young men resolved to stand for principle, no matter what the cost.” They are prime examples of those who compromise nothing for their faith. However, a close reading of the biblical story shows that matters are rather more complex than this.

The narrative gives a precise description of the young men before they arrive in Babylon. They are “without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight” (Dan. 1:4). Hebrew narrators are famously sparing in the amount of physical and personal description they give. When they do give such details, as here, we do well to pause and consider. Just like priests, they were “without physical defect.” They are also “handsome,” a characteristic of numerous members of the royal household. We can think of David, Absalom, Bathsheba, Tamar, and others. So these exiles have the characteristics of priests and royalty. One is reminded of the foundational verse, which sets out the characteristics of the true Israel, “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom (or ‘kingdom of priests’) and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). In other words, these exiles, like priests and kings, are representative Israelites. Among them are four friends who have the challenge of being true, representative Israelites in an alien land. How exactly will they go about this task?

On their arrival, they are enrolled in the University of Babylon, where they receive a classic Babylonian education. They become proficient in their understanding of the Babylonian scriptures, as well as their teachings regarding cosmology cosmogony theogony and the meaning of life. They are inducted into the significance of dreams, and the exegesis of symbols compiled in the dream manuals of the Babylonian sages. They develop expertise in the literary art and theological themes of Babylonian mythology. And they enroll for these courses using their new Babylonian names, which contain elements drawn from the names of Babylonian gods. In all of this, our four Jewish friends make not a word of protest.

But then they are asked to eat food from the king’s table. They refuse, requesting plain vegetables and water instead, for they do not wish to be “defiled.” Why they refuse, and how they might be defiled, has intrigued interpreters for centuries. Perhaps the food had been offered to idols—but then, all food at court was offered to idols, vegetables like everything else. Maybe they were staunch vegetarians—but true Israelites had a religious duty to eat meat on occasions (for instance, at Passover). Certainly they would want to avoid eating the unclean meats proscribed in Leviticus—but do they have to become vegetarians in order to do that? But more tellingly, if they are concerned about the laws in Leviticus, then why did they register for their first semester at the University of Babylon? Just about everything in that curriculum was condemned in Leviticus and other biblical books—subjects such as idolatry, wizardry, pagan theology, and mythology. Why didn’t they refuse to be educated by the godless Babylonian scholars and reject their reading lists? So a critical question is raised: in taking a stand for their faith on the matter of food from the King’s table, why do they draw the line here, rather than there?

There were probably several reasons for refusing the food, but perhaps the most important was this: eating food from a king’s table meant that you were accepting his overlordship and binding yourself to him in an act of covenant. Refusing to do so, therefore, could be very dangerous (see 1 Sam. 20:18–34 for the dire consequences of David’s absence from Saul’s table). Seen in this light, the young friends make a courageous stand motivated by their faith. They will accept Babylonian names, and be educated in the Babylonian system. But they will not give their unquestioning allegiance to the King of Babylon, because they have already committed themselves to the God of Israel. This is where they must draw the line.

Living in the alien world of Babylon, these young Jews realize that they cannot take a stand on everything. But equally clearly, they cannot compromise on everything either. They must make a principled decision on where to draw the line. For them, eating food from the King’s table was the line they would not cross. The Hebrew friends avoid the two extremes of those on the one hand who compromise on everything and those on the other who compromise on nothing. The former show they have no commitment, the latter that they have no moral discernment.

This episode exemplifies the dilemmas addressed by Richard Niebuhr, in his classic work Christ and Culture. How do we as Christians relate to our largely non-Christian culture? One option is to assimilate. That is the option chosen by the Jewish captives who ate from the king’s table, and bowed before the idol on the Plain of Dura. Another option is to withdraw from our culture. This reduces the tension, but produces a Christian ghetto in which mission and witness are not on the agenda. A third possibility is to engage with our culture. This is the option chosen by the four friends in Babylon, who lived in an alien culture, made some principled compromises, but knew where to draw the line.

And what was the result? Among the students at the University of Babylon, we are told, none was found like “Daniel, Hannaniah, Mishael, and Azariah.” They enrolled as students using their Babylonian names, but this assessment uses their Hebrew names. Why? Because in choosing where to draw the line they remain true, representative Israelites.

It’s instructive to compare the choices made by the four friends here with those of Esther—also a Jew living in a foreign court, who certainly eats from the king’s table. She chose to draw the line somewhat differently. The reasons for and implications of those differences could form the basis for a significant discussion on how we make ethical decisions.

Nevertheless, what this story of the four young friends invites us to consider in our context, reflecting on our own engagement with our culture, is whether we have drawn the line here, or there—or not at all.

Laurence Turner is principal lecturer in Old Testament at Newbold College, Binfield, Berkshire County, England.

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