The prophet Daniel is best known for hanging out in lion’s dens, (where, presumably, he watched Detroit football games), but there is much more to him than that. He is similar to Joseph, in that he was an exile who rose to success working as a civil servant in the bureaucracy of a foreign king; but where the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis had a pretty unified narrative arc, the book of Daniel is episodic, a grab-bag of material, much of it weird.
Most of the book is believed to have been written in the Post-Exilic period, and a lot of it deals with the themes of maintaining your religious identity in an alien society. For this reason the very first story in the book is sometimes used as an example to young people leaving their religious homes for the first time and going out into the Big Bad Secular World of College. And whenever I undergo a major life change like that, one of the first questions I always ask is, “Is there anything to eat?”
Some time previously, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians and absorbed into that nation. Now Assyria had fallen, and Babylon and Egypt were fighting to fill the power vacuum, with Judah, the Southern Kingdom, in the middle. Judah picked the wrong side in the Battle at Megiddo between the Egyptians and the Babylonians, (That plain is where the word “Armageddon” comes from) and wound up having to pay tribute to Babylon.
As part of that tribute, King Nebuchadnezzar ordered some of the young men from the noble families of Judah brought to Babylon. This was not an uncommon practice in ancient times. To a certain extent, the men would serve as hostages, to ensure that their families back home would behave and not make trouble. But these young men were not just prisoners, they were investments. The ones chosen were not only healthy and handsome, they were also selected for their intelligence and aptitude for learning. These men were educated in the language and laws of Babylon so that they could serve in the Babylonian court; and in doing so, would eventually serve as emissaries of the king to their own people and would also represent their own people before the king.
Among these Best and Brightest of Judah were Daniel, and his three friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The Babylonians changed their names to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; presumably because they found their Hebrew names too hard to remember. Maybe they were right. The three friends get their own story later on, and are only remembered by their Babylonian court names; but Daniel’s new handle didn’t stick, and thankfully not. Who would want to read about Belteshazzar and the Lion’s Den?
Since these young exiles were being trained up to serve as royal courtiers, they were given the best of everything; including food from the king’s table. And this was a problem. Nebuchadnezzar didn’t keep a kosher kitchen. And much of the food that would have been kosher under the Mosaic dietary laws had been ritually offered to the gods first, making it all unclean. Daniel did not want to defile himself with the king’s unlawful victuals.
Fortunately, the court official in charge of the students liked Daniel and was sympathetic to his situation. But he had a responsibility for the young men’s well-being.
“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 me head because of you.” (Daniel 1:10 NIV)
Daniel offers a reasonable test. He suggests a ten-day trial period in which he and his friends go on a diet of vegetables and water. At the end of those ten days, the guard can compare their health and appearance to those of the other students.
We aren’t given any details of the diet. The King James version says “let them give us pulse to eat,” meaning beans and legumes, staple foods of the Fertile Crescent region.
Some vegetarians have used this passage to claim that the Bible endorses the vegan lifestyle. I think that’s stretching things; but in any case, whether Daniel’s diet really was healthy or whether God blessed his obedient servants, when the ten days were up, the results were plain to see:
At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead. (Daniel 1:15-16)
Daniel’s supervisor gave him no more hassles about following the official menu. Daniel and his friends continued their studies and, with God’s blessing, became quite adept in the laws, languages and sciences of Babylon, which included astrology and divination. Daniel in particular showed an aptitude for understanding visions and dreams, which became useful to him later.
In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better that all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus. (Daniel 1:20-21)