Getting into Daniel: Five Notes on Daniel 1

daniel05This month our church begins a new sermon series on the book of Daniel and Daniel is also the book of the month for the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan. With both of those things in mind, I will begin today to post a few notes from each chapter in Daniel, starting with Daniel 1. As with the notes I wrote for Joshua, these notes will primarily be theological in orientation. Yet, because good theology depends on good grammatical and historical observations, they will also tap into various literary issues in the book of Daniel.

As we read /preach through Daniel, if there are observations or questions you have, please leave them in the comments. For now, here are five introductory notes on Daniel 1. There will be more to come.

Five Note on Daniel 1

1. Daniel highlights Israel’s captivity and release.

1In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. . . . 21And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus. (1:1, 21)

Daniel 1 begins in 605 BC, when Nebuchadnezzar first raids Jerusalem and plunders the temple and takes the leaders from the royal family (see vv. 1–3). Daniel 1 ends in 539 BC, with a mention of the first year of Cyrus (v. 21), king of Persia (6:28). Cyrus would eventually grant Israel the right to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (see Isaiah 44:28; 45:1ff.). In Daniel 10:1, he is mentioned again in association with Daniel’s vision.

It is noteworthy that Daniel 1 includes Daniel’s entrance and exit from Babylon. The former sets the context for the whole book—God’s people in exile in Babylon. The latter flashes a light of hope, that the exiles will be released from bondage. Captivity is not the final word for Israel, and the inclusion of Cyrus in the first chapter speaks to that. The mention of Cyrus’s also indicates that the book is written after the exile and after Cyrus sends Israel back to Jerusalem.

2. Shinar is a theological term, not just a geographic location.

2And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. (1:2)

The mention of Shinar harkens back to Genesis 11:1–11 and the Tower of Babel. Shinar is mentioned again in Genesis 14:1, 9, when it was one of the places involved in the warfare between the kings of Canaan. It is also mentioned in Joshua 7:21 as the place from which the “beautiful cloak” and silver came. Achan stole these things from Jericho, proving that Jericho was in league with the people who built a tower to God. The theological significance of Shinar can also be seen in Zechariah 5:11, when Wickedness, a woman in a basket, is sent to Shinar where a house will be built for her (cf. Isa. 11:11).

With these few references to Shinar, it is important to see that Daniel is not simply identifying a place. It is associating Babel with a spirit that pervaded the hearts of those who built the tower of Babel. (Notice Zech. 5:11 again focuses on a house built for evil). In other words, Shinar suggests a people who trusted in themselves, who sought to make a name for themselves, and who went to warfare in order to protect and promote themselves.

This spirit continues to be present in the world today, because it is present in every nation—to a greater or lesser degree. It is the human spirit, which trusts in self and makes city-building a religion. In Daniel, we discover how every king of Babylon demonstrates this type of spirit. The story of Daniel is one that shows the greater power and authority of God, over the most powerful kings in the world. Indeed, the competition (which is no competition) that rages between Yahweh and the kings of the earth is not merely a matter of power. It is also a spiritual warfare.

3. Daniel and his friends are presented as royal priests.

3Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, 4youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. (1:3–4) 

In Daniel, we find a host of cultic imagery (i.e., language and motifs that come from the temple). As Winfred Vogel (The Cultic Motif in the Book of Daniel (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), 15) notes, the author of Daniel “links his book to the priestly traditions” by means of using cultic imagery. This occurs throughout Daniel, but it begins in chapter 1 as Daniel and his peers are introduced as unblemished sons exiled in Babylon “from the royal family” (Dan. 1:3–4). This reference to royalty and “without blemish”—a word used to describe priests (Lev. 21:17, 18, 21, 23) and sacrifices (Lev. 22:20, 21, 25)—sets up Daniel 1 in terms of royal priesthood.

This continues when these sons of Judah are “educated for three years” in order to “stand before the king” (v. 5). Because priests are often depicted as servants who stand before God, when these royal heirs are brought to stand before Nebuchadnezzar, who likened himself to a God (see chs. 3–4, esp.), we can see how Daniel portrays them as royal priests.

Even more, as Daniel 1 unfolds a competition of clean and unclean food, we are led back to the food laws of Leviticus (11:1–47; cf. Deut. 14:3–20) and the greater wisdom of God (cf. Deut. 4:6–8). Throughout the book, many of Daniel’s actions are best understood as a royal priest to the nations (cf. Ex. 19:6), serving the Most High God (Dan. 3:26; 4:2; 5:18, 21) in the courts of Babylon. Certainly, Daniel can be understood without this theme, but when the lens of royal priesthood is applied to Daniel, we see how more clearly how Israel relates to the nations. Moreover, the royal and priestly themes will continue to surface in places like Daniel 7:13–14 and 9:24–27. More on that to come.

4. There is no such thing as the Daniel Diet in Daniel.

5The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. . . . 8But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. . . . 11Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.” 14So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. (1:5, 8, 11–14)

In 2013, Rick Warren teamed up with three doctors to write a book on changing his diet and yours. The title: The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life. While the book is not really about Daniel 1, its name comes from this chapter. Yet, Daniel 1 is not a chapter which prescribes vegetables for dinner; it is not a chapter that denies the place of eating meat (cf. Gen. 9:3; Acts 10). Rather, as the verses indicate, it is competition (a test) between the ways of God and the ways of Babylon. As the introductory chapter in a book that will compare and contrast the sovereignty of Yahweh with the sovereignty of the world’s strongest nations/rulers, this “test” of food will pit four royal sons against the Nebuchadnezzar’s servants.

In greater context, we discover that the food assigned to Daniel and his three friends was meant to initiate them in the ways of Babylonian culture and ritual. In the Law of Moses, strict laws were given, so that Israel would stand apart from the nations. In every culture, eating a meal together is a way of communion and fellowship. Covenants often included meals (see Gen. 31:53–54; Exod. 24:9–11), and when opposing parties ate a meal together they were pledging peace to one another.

In the Law, God assigned food laws to protect Israel from mingling (and merging) with the nations. Creating and consecrating Israel as a distinct people meant that their culture could not mix with others. Israel is the only God-given culture in history. In the Law, we find a template by which every other culture is judged, including Israel. And when Israel, under God’s judgment, arrived in Babylon, one of the first and most effective ways to annihilate this God-given culture was for the sons of Israel to partake of Babylon’s delicacies. Thus, in their education process, Daniel et al. received word to eat food that would have violated the law and their consciences.

That food laws are at issue here is evidenced by the language of defilement (v. 8). Daniel recognized that eating meat from the king’s table would defile him. Borrowing from Paul’s language to the Corinthians; Daniel saw that this meat had been offered to idols (or contained blood in it or violated some other Law of Moses). To eat of it would render him unclean and unfit to serve God. Thus, he with the others refused and sought to be tested. And this testing is what the chapter turns on.

Importantly, this testing does not mean that eating vegetables is always better. That is not the point of this chapter; the issue is cultic not caloric. And thus naming a diet plan after this chapter is misleading. It’s not to say God doesn’t care about diets or being good stewards of our bodies, he does. He cares about all aspects of life. But Daniel 1 does not provide a secret code to healthy living. It is showing how God’s people, when they follow him, can trust God to fight for them, even in hostile places.

5. God was with Daniel and his friends in Babylon.

9And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, . . . 17As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.  

When we read Daniel we find God’s people inhabiting a foreign land. Exiled because of covenant unfaithfulness, they are experiencing the judgment foretold by Jeremiah. The connection with Jeremiah is made explicit in Daniel 9, when Daniel reads the words of the prophet and recognizes the timing. Interestingly, Daniel 9 is the only place where the book of Daniel speaks of “Yahweh.” In every other chapter, Israel’s God is Elohim or described, usually by the Babylonians kings, in some other way.

Such an absence of God’s name is reflective of way God’s name functioned in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 12 the LORD says he will put his name in a particular place. “But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go” (v. 5). In time, this place would become Jerusalem, the place where David and Solomon would bring the ark and build the temple, respectively.

In addition to a theology of God’s name, there is a theology of God’s place, and in the Old Testament, God dwelt with his people in a particular place. First it was Sinai, then the tabernacle (a portable Sinai), and finally it was the temple in Jerusalem. For the faithful Israelite, the loss of Jerusalem and the temple meant the loss of God’s name and God’s presence. To review, God’s presence is associated with his name and his name is associated with his temple. Thus, to lose the temple is to lose his presence, his name, his glory, and his blessed presence.

Daniel reflects this absence of God’s divine name, for Yahweh is overwhelmingly absent. Nevertheless, the book proves that Yahweh remains sovereign—ruling over all the earth, even in a place like Babylon. The competitions between Nebuchadnezzar (ch. 2–4), Belshazzar (ch. 5), and Darius (ch. 6) make this evident, for in each case the kings confess the greater power of Israel’s God, even though they don’t know his name. But also in the very first chapter, we have the explicit testimony that in Babylon, God is going to be with Daniel. We see this in God’s two “gifts” mentioned in Daniel 1: (1) God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of his captors (v. 7), and (2) God gave Daniel and his friends learning and skill in all that they studied (v. 19).

In this way, God proves himself to be faithful to his people in a foreign land. Much like the way God was with Joseph in Egypt, God would now be with Daniel in Babylon. This does not change the name and place theology of the Old Testament, but it does modify any misunderstanding that God can only reign in his temple. While God’s name is missing in Daniel, save Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9, he is present to help his people during this difficult time. Indeed, God is always with his people, whether we feel it or not. And often when God feels most distant, he is working behind the scenes and preparing for his next move.

The mention of God’s grace to Daniel prepares us to see this aspect of God’s character and action, and it set us up for reading the whole book of Daniel with expectations for seeing God in his providential workings.

To that end, let’s read Daniel and consider how the sovereign God is present with us in a world that often feels like his rule is absent and attacked. As Daniel and the rest of the Bible teaches, God is not far from us, for those who fear the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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