Finding the Structure of Daniel 1: Two Complementary Approaches

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Whenever I preach, the first thing I do is outline the text. Or better, I seek to find the author’s intended organization of his passage. Believing Scripture to be divinely-inspired and deftly-written, I assume every passage in Scripture has a Sprit-given shape. This doesn’t mean I will be able to discern perfectly the author’s literary structure, but in order to hear what the author is saying and to see what he is stressing, I begin by looking for literary clues (e.g., key words, repeated words, clausal connections, etc.).

Sometimes this is easy; sometimes this is hard. And sometimes a passage can be organized in different ways, especially when we look at it from different heights. This doesn’t mean that the author has multiple messages in mind—although sometimes we find the overlapping of literary devices. It means, that like differing microscope lens might reveal different details, so various readers (or one reader) may see multiple organizations to a singular passage. Such is the case with Daniel 1.

In what follows, I offer two approaches to reading Daniel 1. These are not two competing ways to see this chapter. Rather, they provide two complementary lens to see how this chapter works. The first compares the offer of food, education, and title (or Table, Teaching, and Title) to Daniel and his friends. The second provides a literary arc to the chapter, with Daniel’s faithfulness centered in the middle. Let’s look at each.

Do Not Be Conformed to this World: A Comparative Reading of Daniel 1

The first approach shows how three themes of table, teaching, and titles are introduced in verses 5–7, which are also the last three verses of the introduction (vv. 1–7). Then these three themes repeat in order in verses 8–20. Importantly, this approach turns on the way that Daniel stands up and rejects the food offered to him. This rejection is where the action takes place in Daniel 1 and sets up a strong contrast between what is offered to him and what God gives him. You can see this in the chart below.

INTRODUCTION (Daniel 1:1–4)

TABLE Daniel 1:5

5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank.

Daniel 1:8–16

8 But 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. 9 And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs 10 and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.” 11 Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12 “Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then 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.” 14 So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. 15 At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food. 16 So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.

TEACHING Daniel 1:5–6


They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. 6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah.

Daniel 1:17

17 As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.

TITLE Daniel 1:7


7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.

Daniel 1:18–20


18 At the end of the time, when the king had commanded that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar. 19 And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king. 20 And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.

CONCLUSION (Daniel 1:21)

So this is the first approach to Daniel 1 and it provides a strong contrast between the wisdom and ways of God, communicated to Israel in the law, and the wisdom and ways of Babylon.

Dare to Be Like Daniel: A Chiastic Approach to Daniel 1

The other approach to Daniel 1 comes from my friend Mitchell Chase and his commentary on Daniel (Mitchell Chase, “Daniel,” in Expository Commentary, 7:27). I actually think his chiastic reading of Daniel 1 does a better job with the literary structure than my reading.

As he will explain, his chiasm attends to the narrative arc of the chapter. It introduces the scene, raises the conflict, pinpoints the stress on Daniel’s faithfulness, and then resolves the matter with Daniel and his friends as they stand before the king, demonstrating that their wisdom is ten times greater than that of the Chaldeans.

All in all, his outline reveals more detail in the chapter than my own. You can see his outline and explanation below.

A Babylon Besieges Jerusalem in the Third Year of King Nebuchadnezzar (1:1–2)

B Time of Babylonian Education Begins (1:3–7)

C Daniel Asks Not to Eat the King’s Food and Wine (1:8)

D God Gives Favor in the Sight of the Chief of the Eunuchs (1:9)

E Chief of the Eunuchs Speak to Daniel (1:10)

F Daniel Suggests a Ten-Day Test (1:11–13)

E’ The Appointed Steward Listens to Daniel (1:14)

D’ God Gives Favor in the Sight of the Steward (1:15)

C’ Steward Removes the King’s Food and Wine (1:16)

B’ Time of Babylonian Education Ends (1:17–20)

A’ Daniel Serves Babylonian Kings until the First Year of Cyrus (1:21)

This outline is structured as a chiasm, or a series of inclusios (a literary device where the beginning and end of a text mirror one another). As with most chiasms, the stress is in the center and here that center points to the bold faithfulness of Daniel. Explaining his outline, Mitch Chase goes on to give a brief description of each inclusio.

The opening and closing verses of this section form an inclusio, as A and A’ both name a king and a year of his reign. Both B and B’ mention a time of education, the King’s command, the importance of learning and skill in literature and wisdom, the chief of the eunuchs, the names of Daniel and his friends, and the event of standing before the king.

The main drama in Daniel 1 is verses 8—16. Sections C and C’ match: in the former Daniel requests not to defile himself with royal food or drink, while in the latter the steward removes the royal rations from all the youths. In D, Daniel is shown favor in the sight of Ashpenaz, the chief eunuch, and in D’ he and his three friends seem better in appearance than the other youths. In E the chief of the eunuchs speaks to Daniel, and in E’ the appointed steward listens to Daniel.

The turning point of the chapter (F) is Daniel’s request to eat only vegetables and water for ten days, so as to avoid defilement with the king’s food and drink. He leads the steward to believe their appearance will be more pleasing than that of the other young men. The center of the chiasm highlights Daniel’s faithfulness and boldness. (Mitchell Chase, “Daniel,” in Expository Commentary, 7:27–28)

As you can see, this chiasm provides a smooth narrative arc for the chapter.

The Value of Different Outlines

It would certainly be possible to select one of these outlines instead of the other, but reader may benefit from reading both of them together. Again, our interpretive outlines are not inerrant. They are always provisional. They are not equally valid; one is usually more detailed than another. Yet, when employed together they may help to see different aspects of the passage.

In this case, Mitch’s outline provides the literary arc of the narrative in Daniel 1. As I mentioned, it is more detailed and more closely connected to the contours of the chapter. Moreover, because chiasms structure the whole book of Daniel, it is likely that he has discerned the mind of the author in his outline.

At the same time, my outline helps stress the conflict and competition between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of Babylon. It doesn’t deny the chiasm, but it highlights the ways in which Daniel and his friends are being tempted to compromise their faith, but don’t!

Ultimately, both approaches stress the faithfulness of Daniel and call the reader to ask themselves: Who is feeding you? Who is teaching you? Who is naming you? Will you risk your life, your status, and reputation in order to follow God?

Daniel shows us how to stand firm in the Lord when a delicious place in the world is offered. To be sure, this chapter lends itself to moral example and stimulus for doing good works. The gospel as defined by Christ’s work on our behalf is not found in this reading of the chapter, unless we make Daniel a type of Christ and his obedience. But keeping our focus on the believer here, does not deny the gospel in Daniel—Before we leave Daniel 2, we will see a direct promise of God’s messiah coming to defeat the kingdoms of this world—rather, it calls for God’s people to deny themselves and trust God for their salvation. There is gospel truth in that!

Letting the text drive our applications, Daniel 1 calls us to be like Daniel, to exercise faith that puts us at risk with the authorities. Indeed, we can risk in this life because of God’s ever-present aid (Daniel 1:9, 17) and because of the promise of resurrection (cf. Daniel 12:1–3).

Also, as Daniel 1 shows, sometimes the rulers of this world grant favor to those who put their faith before their food, their education, or their reputation. This occurred with Daniel and it gives us one more reason to not hide the light of God and his gospel. For indeed, as the book of Daniel concludes, those who will be raised in light, will shine their light even now. The four sons of Judah do this in Daniel 1 and we see from both outlines how this is the main point of the chapter. That is the value of finding the chapter’s outline—it leads us to see what the Scripture is saying to us!

May God give us light to see his light, so that we can be children of light, shining in a dark world.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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  1. Pingback: Dare to Be A Daniel (Remixed): A Sermon on Daniel 1 | Via Emmaus

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