Who are you when your world crashes around you? Where does our moral compass come from, and how is it revealed?
The account of Daniel and his companions is telling in this context. Just think about the back story for a minute. Jerusalem under siege. Broken defenses. Desperate defenders. Panicked citizens. Blood flowing. Rapes. Prisoners rounded up and chosen for execution or exile. It’s not pretty.
So, what have Daniel and his friends lost? The first Babylonian campaign was not a complete destruction. That would come later. But what was the last view of their parents? Their younger siblings? Their sisters? Whatever the specifics, the boys were now without their families and neighborhoods. And they have been scarred.
What remained of Judean history and culture? What civic and national treasures were left untouched by the demand of booty for the king and his gods? To say nothing of what was taken by soldiers greedy for loot.
Part of the booty was a select group of good-looking and intelligent youth, selected from the royal line and the nobility (Dan 1:3, 4) who were probably castrated. Josephus suggests as much. Remember when King Hezekiah was healed of a mortal illness, when the sun was turned back “ten steps” to reassure him that God could heal him (2 Kings 20:8–11)? Babylonian astrologers came to investigate, and rather than telling them of this God of grace and healing, Hezekiah was more interested in showing off his royal magnificence. As a consequence, Isaiah prophesied; “they shall take away some of your sons who will descend from you, whom you will beget; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon” (2 Kings 20:18).
The captive boys have lost everything: their families, their homes, their culture, their future (no longer possible for them to marry and have families) and their roots. Their renaming was part of this process, connecting them to the gods of Babylon and denying their connection to the God of their fathers. Finally, their long-term future had just evaporated. With Jerusalem conquered and overrun by gentiles, the promise of the coming Messiah no longer seemed possible. So, the boys are no longer Jewish but Babylonian. Well, that was the intention anyway.
There are not many options available to someone in such a desperate situation. It would have been very easy for them to give up and go with the flow, and apparently, that is what most of the captive youth decided. Who would be around to point the finger or tut-tut them? Nobody. No doubt there was a giddying sense of freedom, cleverly combined with plush and privileged surroundings—all designed to reprogram the young men and firmly anchor their allegiance to the young king Nebuchadnezzar, and his gods.
There are already hints of underground resistance by Daniel and his close friends. His own name, Daniel, means “God is my judge.” His new name was Belshazzar, which means, “Bel protect his life” (Bel was a title like “lord” given to Marduk, the chief god of Babylon). But Daniel corrupted it to the non-Babylonian, but similar sounding “Belteshazzar.”
His friends did similarly. Hananiah, which means “God is gracious”, became Shada Aku, a follower of the moon god Aku. He changed it to Shadrach, reducing the god Aku to just the letter k.
Mishael means “who is like God,” but he became Mushallim-Marduk, “who is like Marduk,” but the god Marduk is also reduced to a single letter, “k,” ending up with Meshak.
And Azariah, “God is my helper” became Ardi-Nabu, “servant of Nebo” the god of wisdom. When this is changed, again to spoil the name of the god, it ends up with Abednego. As Goldingay puts it, “Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are all grotesque, silly names, which make fun of the gods whom they are supposed to honor.” So the Babylonian gods lose their identity by a trick played on them by the four captives.
But even more provocative is the name change they give to the king. Both Jeremiah (sometimes) and Ezekiel (always) call him by his correct name, Nabu-kudurru-uṣur, or NebuchadRezzar, which means, “Nabu, protect my son,” but Daniel calls him Nabu-kụdanu-uṣur, or NebuchadNezzar, which means “Nabu, protect my jackass.” Whether Daniel and his friends devised this, or whether it was just common underground slang at the time is not known.
However, the issue of the king’s daily provision of food is of significance here—not only for reasons of health as we have been so keen to champion, but for other more subtle reasons. Participating in the meal provided by the king was not only a sign of allegiance to him, but also to the gods he represented, especially with the meat coming straight from the sacrificial altars in the temples around the city. Eating the sacrifice was a part of the worship of those gods. Furthermore, “meat and wine is festival food, and abstaining from it is a sign of mourning or penitence and would be appropriate in exile.” How appropriate would it be to party when your nation has been overrun by foreigners, your faith has been trashed, and you are stripped of all that makes you who you are? Daniel and his close friends simply could not do that.
Daniel and his companions had little choice over their new circumstances, but they could choose what, or what not, to eat and drink. They would deny all that they were if they just went along with the crowd. They simply could not do that. The fact that their supervising official went along with their suggestion of a different choice of food, says two things: first, God was in this; and second, Daniel was not an in-your-face offensive religious nut, imposing his views of right and wrong on everyone he met. Rather, he had the good sense to treat all people with respect and suggest ways to protect the interests of the steward so he would not be beheaded for violating the king’s orders.
There are a number of take-homes from this. Humanly speaking, there was no point in the four boys keeping their old identities. But they did, and the result was their being ten times wiser than their peers who blended in with the crowd. Their names are now lost to history, but certainly not so with the four. This clearly demonstrates to us that when we allow God to set our moral compass, we know who we are and who assures our future.
 Flavius Josephus, Steve Mason, et al., Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary: Judean Antiquities Books 8-10, vol. 5 (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 267–268. John Collins adds, “‘boys of unusual beauty,’ were often castrated and sold, ‘for the barbarians value eunuchs more than others since they regard them as more trustworthy,’” Herodotus 8.105 quoted in John Joseph Collins and Adela Yarbro Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, ed. Frank Moore Cross, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 134.
 John E. Goldingay, Daniel, vol. 30, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1989), 24.
 Jacques Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel” Wisdom and Dreams of a Jewish Prince in Exile (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), 18–19. See also Louis F. Hartman and Alexander A. Di Lella, The book of Daniel: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible vol. 23 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977), 130.
 Hayim Ben Yosef Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew (Brooklyn, NY: Ktav, 2009), 461.
 Goldingay, Daniel, 19.
David Tasker is senior lecturer at Avondale College of Higher Education in Australia. Prior to that he served as a church pastor in New Zealand, mission president in Solomon Islands, Dean of the School of Theology at Pacific Adventist University (PNG), Dean of the Seminary at AIIAS (Philippines) and Field/Ministerial Secretary for the SPD.
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