The Old Testament book of Daniel has a lot to teach us about resolving the tension of whether to resist or adapt as we engage with the culture around us.
On 19 September 1853, a young missionary by the name of Hudson Taylor left England for China. His approach to mission would be like nothing the world had seen before.
Taylor abandoned his western clothing and hairstyle, and put his hair in a pigtail and took on clothing the same as the locals. Echoing the words of the apostle Paul, Taylor said, ‘Let us in everything not sinful become like the Chinese, that by all means we may save some.’ Other missionaries thought he was odd. They thought he should remain distinct and not blend in, but Taylor knew he would have more chance of influencing the Chinese people for Christ if he became one of them.
Hudson Taylor had to navigate the same tension followers of Jesus have to navigate today. How are we to be in the world, but not of the world? How are we to remain loyal to God and distinct from the world, yet be in a position where we can influence the world for God?
It is this tension we shall explore as we look at the first six chapters of the book of Daniel.
Here we meet four remarkable young Jewish men who came face-to-face with a pagan world and questions like ‘just how far should we immerse ourselves in this world, and on what issues do we need to stand apart?’
Those four young men were Daniel, Mishael, Azariah and Hanniah. In Daniel chapter one we learn life for them was completely turned upside down when Nebuchadnezzar, King of the Babylonian empire, forcibly took them and many others from their home in Jerusalem, to his home in Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar was a clever and powerful man, and he had a plan. His empire covered a huge area and was made up of many different people groups, so to help keep things under control Nebuchadnezzar took the cream of each group back to Babylon where he could re-educate them and then employ them in his service. They would then be accepted by their own people, yet be working for him. A cunning plan indeed!
Daniel and his friends were young, good looking, intelligent and from important families—the perfect candidates for the king’s programme. If Nebuchadnezzar could turn them into good Babylonians, he reasoned they would be a huge asset in keeping the Jewish population under control.
Nebuchadnezzar’s re-education program consisted of a three-year intensive cultural immersion course—essentially a degree program. The course included education in Babylonian language and literature. That involved becoming completely immersed in a world very different from the culture the four Jewish men had been brought up in.
The Babylonian world was a superstitious, polytheistic world. Understanding it meant learning about omens, magic, incantations, prayers, hymns, myths and legends belonging to a pagan religious system.
The four seemed to have no problem accepting this pagan education. This is puzzling!
The four also seemed to have no problem having their Jewish names changed to Babylonian ones. This is even more puzzling! In the ancient world, names spoke of ownership. The Hebrew names of the four each connect them to their God: ‘Daniel’ means ‘God is judge’, ‘Mishael’ means ‘who is like God?’, ‘Azariah’ means ‘Yah (short for Yahweh, an ancient name for God) is my help’, and ‘Hanniah’ means ‘Yah is gracious’.
Their Babylonian names were a symbol of new ownership, erasing the four’s connection to the Hebrew God, and in three cases connected them with other gods. Daniel was renamed Belteshazzar, which means ‘Bel (the Babylonian god) guards his life’, Azaruah’s new name of ‘Abednego’ seems a deliberate corruption of ‘Servant of Nabu’ (another Babylonian god), and Hanniah’s new name of ‘Meshach’ includes reference to the Persian god Mithra.
This is not just puzzling, it’s disturbing. We expect the heroes of the Bible to be loyal to God and different to the pagan cultures that surrounded them—not to blend right in!
Perhaps they had no choice. Perhaps it was accept the Babylonian education and names, or die? But as we’ll see when we look at chapters three and six of Daniel, they did have a choice and weren’t afraid to face death. Yet here, in chapter one, they didn’t protest. At least not on these issues. But they did quietly make a stand on another issue.
During their three years of training, the four were to be given a daily amount of meat and wine from Nebuchadnezzar’s table. But the youths refused to take these provisions and came to a special arrangement where they were given vegetables and water for a 10-day trial. Scholars are not exactly sure why the friends would accept their re-education and new names from the king, but take a stand on this.
Daniel 1:8 tells us Daniel felt taking the king’s provisions would have ‘defiled’ them. By avoiding the king’s meat and wine, they remained distinct and holy, different to the world. So, how might the meat and wine have caused defilement? The most obvious answer is that Jewish law forbids eating certain foods. But Jewish law didn’t forbid the drinking of alcohol, and Daniel 10:3 indicates that Daniel, at some later point, returned to a normal diet with no restrictions. So, this argument doesn’t stack up.
Perhaps the foods had been offered to a pagan deity first. Bible scholar Leo Oppenheim believes that ‘food would be offered to the gods, and… whatever was left would be brought to the king’s table.’ But the vegetables would also have been offered to the gods, and Daniel ate those, so this does not answer our question either.
Another suggestion is that meat and wine was ‘festival food’, so it wasn’t appropriate to consume this while in exile. Exile was a time for fasting and mourning, not partying. This argument falls short for the same reason as the first—Daniel eventually returned to a normal diet even though neither his circumstances nor the Jewish dietary laws had changed.
In the end, we don’t know why the four Jewish teenagers refused the meat and wine, which is frustrating!
For whatever reason, Daniel ‘resolved’ not to take the king’s provisions. ‘Resolve’ means ‘he set it upon his heart’. In other words, this was a personal decision. It was a choice made according to his conscience, not a set of rules.
While we may never know exactly why Daniel’s heart directed him in this way, the remainder of chapter one shows us that God supported Daniel’s decision. God enabled the four to look even healthier and better nourished than the other trainees who had been fed from the king’s table.
And not only that, God gave the four the wisdom they needed so they excelled in their training, graduating top of their class. They were ‘10 times better than all of the other magicians and enchanters in the whole kingdom’ (Daniel 1:20). As a result, Nebuchadnezzar kept them on at his palace.
And so now the scene is set for the rest of the book of Daniel. We have learnt how Daniel and his friends came to be in Babylon, how they came to be in influential positions in the king’s court, and how they navigated what it meant to be loyal to the God of the Jew, while living in a very non-Jewish world.
There are more lessons in this chapter than that we should eat our vegetables (although we should do that too). It is a reminder that life on this world is not always clear cut, that we can’t always fall back on a list of rules to make decisions for us, and that some of our decisions won’t be understood by others—but that’s okay because they are between us and God, and God knows the intention of our heart.
by Carla Lindsey (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 12 August July 2017, pp20-21
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Read Daniel chapter 1
• What do you think it means to be ‘in the world but not of the world’?
• Why do you think Daniel and his friends accepted the Babylonian education and names? Do you think they put limits on how far they would go with the education? If so, in what and how?
• Are there Christians in your life who have made decisions about their involvement in the world that disturb you? Will you bring these concerns to God today, and ask for God’s guidance for you and them?