gate panels with relief of striding lion
Something Daniel might have seen in Babylonia

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, January 7 is Daniel 1:8-21. This is the first in a series of four texts from the book of Daniel that are coming up in future Sundays. Here are my notes on the text:

First impressions: Not that many Biblical passages describe controlled experiments (vv12-15)! But maybe this one shouldn’t surprise us, because the text emphasizes wisdom, and wisdom relies heavily on empirical observation and experience. Daniel resembles Joseph in Egypt – another “wisdom” figure. God is a direct participant in the text; God makes the court official view Daniel and his companions favorably, and gives special gifts to the Judean youths, which increases their favor with the king; so, God is pulling strings. Who is the “they” in v18 – all the recruits, or the Judeans? The context of v19 suggests it must be all the recruits, since the Judeans exceed the standard set by “all of them.”

Context: The book of Daniel; so, in our time, the context is “a book people argue about.” Scholars and study Bibles give it a “late date” of composition – probably sometime between 167 and 164 BCE, during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV, a really bad time for the Judeans. Various folks on the internet bitterly dispute this, and argue for an earlier date (closer to the time of the book’s narrative setting, in the late 6th century/early 5th century BCE). The internet enthusiasts argue it is not fair to make the circular argument that Daniel presents a record of prophetic visions, which if they describe events in the 2nd century BCE are very accurate up to about 164 BCE, so they must really have been written after the fact, because prophecies before the fact are never that accurate. I agree that is circular reasoning. I still lean towards the scholars and study Bibles, mainly because I just do, but also because I read that the book of Sirach, composed around 180 BCE, doesn’t mention the book of Daniel – and since Sirach is a wisdom text, we’d expect it to mention this wisdom text. That suggests pretty strongly that Daniel was written after Sirach, which strengthens the 167-164 BCE date of composition hypothesis.(*)

The book falls into two parts, a narrative portion and an apocalyptic portion. The stories in chapters 1-6 are “court tales” that recount episodes in the court of Babylonian and Persian kings. They dramatize Daniel’s and his companions’ exemplary devotion to the God of Israel and their observance of God’s Torah (there’s that wisdom theme again, since God’s Torah, “instruction,” is the epitome of wisdom). Then chapters 7-12 present visions of end times – which might be the Maccabean period of the mid-2nd century BCE, but that brings us back to the disagreements between different sorts of Bible readers.

In the context of the book as a whole, this week’s text is the first story, so it sets the stage and the tone for everything else.

Our text doesn’t include vv1-7, but those verses set the narrative context for what follows. King Nebuchadnezzar besieges Jerusalem – Rashi suggests the text means the third year of Jehoiakim’s rebellion rather than his entire rule; God gives Nebuchadnezzar success (sometimes God has to do what God has to do). Some key elements are introduced and put in place: the “palace master” Ashpenaz (literally the “chief eunuch,” who will later be called the “prince” of the eunuchs); the instructions to gather a class of educated (in wisdom) and promising Israelites for palace service, and train them for three years in “the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (v4) – Chaldean, again, having some association with wisdom; the food and wine rations (or perhaps “delicacies”); our heroes Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (v6), who are renamed Belteshazzar (Rashi says this means “Bel” – the god of Babylonia – plus the Aramaic term for wisdom, “teshazzar”), Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (v7).

Analysis: Daniel in this narrative makes decisions (v8), asks or seeks things from people who have control over the conditions of his life (vv 8, 11), lays out detailed instructions – for a controlled experiment, no less, which we might want to identify as a wisdom procedure – and then prospers. Daniel and his companions turn out to be “ten times better” at advising the king than the rest of the staff.

The palace master/“prince of the eunuchs” is mentioned five times in the text; he is the first object of Daniel’s request for special favors; he is an object of special favor from God, who gives him chesed and rachamim, loyalty and compassion, which we often think of as divine attiributes, towards Daniel; he explains his position to Daniel, and ultimately brings Daniel and the others before the king. It seems God has given Daniel some hesed and rachamim as well, or perhaps we should conclude that living in God’s way conduces to these attributes, because the experiment Daniel proposes is designed to respond to the palace master’s concern for his own safety, so Daniel seems to be taking that concern seriously.

It’s a little unclear (v11) whether the palace master is or isn’t aware of the experiment from the start, since Daniel gives the protocol for the experiment to the “guard” (literally, the meltzar – but no one seems to know what this term means, really; “guard” is people’s best guess) who was appointed by the prince of the eunuchs. So, does the experiment begin with or without the higher official’s knowledge? It depends on how we envision the scene.

It’s not explicit why the royal rations or delicacies would “defile” Daniel and his friends. People suggest that they wouldn’t be kosher (according to Leviticus 11 & Deuteronomy 14), or that the food would have been offered to idols before being served. (The reasons for Daniel’s decision might have been obvious to readers in the time of the Maccabees, whether or not this is when the book of Daniel was composed, since they were struggling against a foreign ruler who was reportedly trying to suppress Jewish practices like observing the dietary laws.) The “vegetables” Daniel proposes for the experiment are sometimes translated as “pulses,” i.e., beans, peas, and lentils. Contemporary nutrition experts would presumably approve of the Daniel diet, although whether 10 days is a fair length for the trial might be arguable. Rashi suggests that the guard/meltzar benefits from the experimental arrangement, too, and from the institution of the special diet, because he keeps the royal rations for himself when he “withdraws” them (v16).

God gives “knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom” following the dietary experiment. Is this specifically significant? That is, is this divine favor a consequence of the young men’s compliance with God’s ways? Daniel is special, even among his group, for insight into visions and dreams. This may become significant later (in chapter 7 and beyond).

There are two specific occasions for “comparison” in the story: at the end of the ten day dietary trial (v13, v15), when our heroes look on the outside better fed than the others, and then again in v19, when the royal examination reveals that what is inside them – their grasp of wisdom – is also superior to that of others. The others, by the way, are presumably also Israelites – see v3 – but ones who accept the Babylonian food assigned to them. So part of what is going on in this text is an exercise in wisdom: what do our [wise] heroes accept, what do they not accept, in interacting with a foreign pagan culture? Their course of action, which presumably exemplifies wisdom, involves accepting the assignment of new names that eliminate references to the God of Israel, and applying themselves to their Chaldean studies, while not eating the Babylonians’ food. What makes that course of action wise? What would be the equivalent set of practices for us, in our own time? [There is an interesting discussion along these lines at Theology of Work.]

(*) Some people on the internet seem to have a BIG problem with thinking that any part of the Bible is fiction, apparently on the premise that fiction is equivalent to “telling a lie,” while the Bible is supposed to be telling the truth. As someone with a degree in humanities, I feel strongly that these people don’t take nearly seriously enough the profound ways works of fiction, like novels, plays, and some poems, tell the truth – or at least, can. Nor do they take seriously enough that understanding the truth presented in the Bible – or at least, parts of the Bible – is less like understanding the truth presented in, say, your car’s owner’s manual and more like understanding the truth presented in, say, Huckleberry Finn.