When you consume the culture, the culture consumes you.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Daniel 1
In this introduction to Daniel, we learn the kind of integrity Daniel and his friends had -- carefully and thoughtfully looking for ways to maintain their relationship with God while still living and working where God had placed them. They did it, and they thrived. No matter how antagonistic our culture gets, we can (and must) do the same.
Among all of them, no one was found equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (1:19)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Hardest Part about Being a Young Person Today
This week, we are being introduced to Daniel and his friends -- young Jews training to enter the king's service. They rejected the diet they were offered because of their conscience. And that got me thinking -- what would be the hardest ways for young people today to maintain their Christian integrity in the working (or non-working) world?
For one, it's not the world that I grew up in. I graduated from high school in 1993. Back in those simpler times, there was a lot of drinking and swearing and carousing. That's apparently changed, according to Pew research.
Alcohol and drug use is down (marijuana use is up, but that's probably related to pressure and depression). Bullying is still a major problem (and not just online):
Gangs are not as prevalent as they were when I was in school (the numbers are half of what they were). Goodness, even teen pregnancy is down by two-thirds!
Rather, it seems that the biggest challenges to young people today more ideological than behavioral. In one psychologist's book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, the author agrees that greater exposure to social media has led to poor mental health, and that the greater emphasis on "tolerance and inclusion" has actually caused them to be less tolerant and more fragile, but she also says that more young people believe that the economy is "rigged" against them which has sapped their motivation.
(What I found the most interesting about a Yale professor's review of the book was the comment section, where the readers argued whether the point of the article was to pass value judgment on the differences between generations or simply to make older generations aware of the differences.)
The most fascinating article I read was from the NY Times:
This is a compilation of viewpoints from teenagers. Isolation. Discrimination. Conformity. Internet. Anger with older generations. Fear of people who think differently. Depression. Tribalism. Topics and attitudes that are straight out of an activist's playbook, except coming from 13 and 14-yr-olds.
Something I didn't read in the article -- anything about truth, conviction, religion of any kind, eternal perspective, grace, or compassion. (That may have a lot more to do about the NY Times than the entries!)
That sounds like the same world Christian adults live in, doesn't it? In other words, Christian young people today face the same challenges that us longer-tenured Christian adults face, except they have to do it as teenagers. That leads me into the second part of this introduction:
Where Is It Hardest to Maintain Your Christian Integrity as an Adult?
I remember when the quick and easy answer to this question would have been something like "my boss expects me to drink with him at the company party" or "one of my coworkers is angling for an inappropriate relationship" or "I'm expected to work more than is healthy for my family". Those things may still be true for you in your workplace! I certainly don't want to minimize them!
But it seems that we also have massive new challenges that are more ideological than behavioral. And I'm not just talking about the florist who refuses to do flowers for a gay wedding. Or the football coach who wants to pray on the field. Do you feel yourself "watching your mouth" more on certain topics when you're around certain people? Have you had acquaintances fired under a vague umbrella of "insensitivity"?
People in the social media world, emboldened by "cancel culture" are aggressively going after basic acts of Christian conviction. Consequently, we see Christians hunkering down, not wanting to draw attention to themselves. And it's not because they lack Christian conviction! It's because they don't want to bring the rabid hoard of culture police down on themselves and their families.
We don't face that so much here in Thomson, but Christians all over our state (and country) are dealing more and more with it. Where do you find yourself struggling to maintain your Christian integrity? What can we do as a church (or small group) to support and encourage you?
We're going to read the story of how Daniel navigated one such culture war, and I believe that his careful, thoughtful approach will be useful to all of us!
This Week's Big Idea: Introducing the Book of Daniel
Daniel is a favorite book for many Christians. Okay, very short sections of Daniel. Okay, not even that -- just the titles "the fiery furnace" and "the lion's den". Daniel is actually a very challenging book, but for all the right reasons. We only have 6 lessons in the book, but they will all be power-packed.
Who Was Daniel?
We don't know much about him. He was clearly of a noble family. We don't know how old he was when taken into captivity in 605 BC. A lot of Bible students think he is the same "Daniel" mentioned in Ezek 14:14, 28:3 (who was famous for righteousness), but we can't say that for certain. We do know that the Babylonians tried to remove his Jewish identity by renaming him (Belteshazzar) and teaching him Babylonian ways, and he indeed was a high-ranking official for the Babylonians and later the Persians. But what he is now renowned for is despite all of that, he never gave up his faith in God or relationship with God.
About the Book
Daniel has a very clear structure:
Daniel and His Friends in Babylon (1-6)
Daniel's training in the court (ch 1)
Interpreting a dream (ch 2)
The fiery furnace (ch 3)
Another dream (ch 4)
The writing on the wall (ch 5)
The lion's den (ch 6)
Four Apocalyptic Visions (7-12)
The four beasts (ch 7)
The ram and goat (ch 8)
The seventy sevens (ch 9)
Wars to come (chs 10-12)
There is a clear distinction between the two parts -- so much so that some scholars have suggested they were two different books later combined. The first part are stories about Daniel and his friends written in the third person. The second part are first person visions (with a third person introduction). The events mentioned in the book give an obvious timeline from the first conquest of Jerusalem by Babylon (605 BC) to soon after the conquest of Babylon by Persia (537 BC), spanning the entire exile.
Skeptics' concerns with authorship are (1) that Daniel could not have been active as a prophet for so long (more than 70 years) and (2) that Daniel could not have so accurately predicted the future in those visions. Do those concerns bother you?
The form of the book we have today does seem to be edited. I have no problem with that. Either Daniel left the equivalent of a diary (most likely), or someone interviewed him, and a later editor compiled everything. That would not be dissimilar to how the Gospels came to be. Note how the first part of the book only covers six major events; we can all be sure that Daniel was a part of many more interesting events than those! Someone had to identify those six as the ones they wanted to write down.
That simplified outline does not do the book of Daniel justice. So much goes on in each of those chapters! Here is the Bible Project summary:
And here is the timeline I shared when we started with Ezekiel.
What to Know
Just read the first few verses of the book. When the Babylonians conquered a people, they took the "best and brightest" of the youth both to improve the king's court and also to "brain drain" the conquered people. Daniel and his friends would have been surrounded by bright, strong, and good-looking young men from around the empire (like Google headquarters except at gunpoint).
There were three waves of exiles from Jerusalem, each getting progressively worse. This first one, in 605 BC, took the "best" Jews (including Daniel) but was also the least destructive. The second, in 597 BC, followed a revolt in Egypt that got the Jews' hopes up (bad idea). Ezekiel was taken in the second exile. The third, in 586 BC, followed a final ill-conceived revolt that resulted in the utter destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
The first four stories happen under Nebuchadnezzar, one of the most important rulers in all of Bible history. The fifth story involves Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon. The final story involves "Darius the Mede" (more about this at the bottom).
The connecting tissue for each story is a very simple truth: regardless of major world-shaping events, God is the One who is actually in control of human history. Further, Daniel and his friends serve as proof that God's people can thrive in any culture without sacrificing their relationship with God.
Part 1: A Commitment Expressed (Daniel 1:8-10)
8 Daniel determined that he would not defile himself with the king’s food or with the wine he drank. So he asked permission from the chief eunuch not to defile himself. 9 God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch, 10 yet he said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and drink. What if he sees your faces looking thinner than the other young men your age? You would endanger my life with the king.”
You probably know the story well. Daniel and his friends were to "become Babylonian" so they could serve the king well. This included learning Babylonian (Chaldean) language and wisdom, and also adopting Babylonian culture. The king graciously fed all of these exiles from his own table in preparation for their royal service.
As part of the "assimilation" process, the Jews were renamed. Daniel ("God is my judge") became Belteshazzar ("protect [the king's] life"). Hananiah ("the Lord is gracious") became Shadrach ("command of Aku" [a god]). Mishael ("who is what God is?") became Meshach ("who is what Aku is?"). Azariah ("the Lord has helped") became Abednego ("servant of Nego" [a god]). The biggest function of that was stripping away their old "gods" and replacing them with new Babylonian ones.
The problem is that I think we've skimmed through these verses so many times that we now overlook them and jump to our preferred applications and miss what's really going on. We focus on the externals, two in particular: (1) Daniel rejected Babylonian culture (and so should we), and (2) Daniel rejected a meat and wine diet for vegetables and water (and so should we).
Y'all, that's missing the point. Daniel was much more worried about his "name" (i.e., his relationship with God).
A lot of very careful thought went into Daniel's decisions, and if we want to apply this chapter to our own lives, we need to understand what he was doing.
(1) Daniel was not rejecting Babylonian culture. He still learned the language and the customs. He still read the literature and became familiar with Babylonian ways of thinking. That's how he was able to rise so high in the ranks! (If you remember what I've said about culture in the past, "language and literature" are the primary building blocks of it.)
And that was not unique to Daniel. Consider this letter that Jeremiah sent with the second wave of exiles:
4 This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Find wives for yourselves, and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. 7 Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive.” (Jer 29)
Settle down in Babylon. Make a home for yourself there. (Remember that many Jews decided to stay in Babylon rather than return to Jerusalem!)
(2) Daniel was not rejecting a meat and wine diet. On the one hand, we know that meat and wine were common in Israelite eating (what is the centerpiece of the Passover meal?). And on the other hand, we know from Daniel 10:3 that Daniel himself eventually adopted the royal diet of choice meats and wine.
So, what was Daniel trying to do?
He was trying to figure out the same thing we are: how to be in the world but not of the world.
He was asking the same questions that we should be asking:
How can I fit in to this new community setting?
How can I succeed in the task I have been given?
How can I distinguish myself for future advancement?
How can I do all of these things without compromising the fundamentals of my identity as a Jew?
Let's start with the diet.
A lot has been made of "The Daniel Plan" for eating (more on this below). But let's take a look at Daniel's thought process:
Daniel did not know how food was prepared in the Babylonian court. For all he knew, they strangled animals to keep the blood in it. (Cf. the very clear command in Gen 9:4.)
Daniel did not know if the food was sacrificed to idols, and he cared about his perception in the court.
Daniel may not have even known what all of the foods were that were brought out. (The list of clean and unclean foods was very clear, like Deut 14, if you could recognize them cooked and in a bowl.)
Daniel could have easily seen with his own eyes that older Babylonian courtiers tended to be, well, pudgy (this is actually documented).
Daniel was looking for what he could still control in his life.
I personally think that the last one is the most important. As I said before, changing his name was intended to be the ultimate display of control. "We give you a name. We give you a job. We give you a culture. We give you an identity."
I think a lot of careful thought went into his decision. Rebelling against his clothes would be too obvious. Rebelling against his language and learning would be counterproductive. But perhaps he could keep control of his diet. Does that make sense? It wasn't that the diet was choice meat and wine -- it's that it was The King's choice meat and wine. When he eventually eats vegetables, it's still vegetables from Babylon, right? And later, after he had clearly distinguished himself as a faithful Jew, Daniel had no qualms with that meat and wine (perhaps he had a personal cook who prepared his food his way). But here at the first, he was not going to take in any more "of Babylon" than he had to.
Note how respectful he was about it. He had worked hard to develop a good relationship with the chief official over him (a eunuch). He cared about him. He knew that he was just doing his job. And he wasn't trying to be ungracious toward the Babylonian court who was feeding him and educating him (remember -- Babylon thought they had conquered Jerusalem by their own power, so it was perfectly customary for them to take captives and assimilate them). He was, as Paul would later say, just trying to live peaceably with his neighbors (Rom 12:18).
The king's official was worried about appearances (which should only make sense). Let's be honest -- the king didn't care what his courtiers ate; he cared if they looked healthy and impressive. And if the king thought that the official was improperly feeding the courtiers, the official could be in trouble. Daniel didn't want anyone to get in trouble by his actions, so Daniel came up with a proposal (more on this in the next section).
The lesson plan breaks here, so let's start with this question:
We are constantly consuming the culture we live in. How do we know when we've consumed too much?
Certain parts of our culture are unavoidable, but what can we control? What parts of our culture can we choose not to consume?
We have more control than we might think. Note that I'm not talking about exposure -- we can't prevent our eyes from seeing advertisements, we can't help having to purchase goods from stores, and we have to know what's going on in the world enough to be a good employee. As Martin Luther famously said, "We can't prevent a bird from flying over our head, but we can prevent it from nesting in our hair."
I'm talking about consumption. What of the culture are you currently consuming that isn't healthy for you or isn't profitable for your walk with Christ?
Daniel was worried about literal consumption (again, more on this in the next section), but even then I think it was a spiritually-driven concern.
Part 2: A Test Passed (Daniel 1:11-16)
11 So Daniel said to the guard whom the chief eunuch had assigned to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then examine our appearance and the appearance of the young men who are eating the king’s food, and deal with your servants based on what you see.” 14 He agreed with them about this and tested them for ten days. 15 At the end of ten days they looked better and healthier than all the young men who were eating the king’s food. 16 So the guard continued to remove their food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables.
I've tried to be clear that Daniel's rebellion wasn't primarily about meat and wine. He had consumed choice meat and wine as a noble Jew (because they all did), and he would consume choice meat and wine again as a high-ranking Babylonian official.
No -- this was about carving out space for him to establish his unique identity and more importantly giving God that space to work.
Think about it. This is a very reasonable proposal. 10 days wouldn't be enough time for Daniel's appearance to deteriorate such that the official would get in trouble with the king. If the official noticed anything at all, Daniel would abandon his plan.
But the corollary is true. How long does it take to notice the effects of a diet in a person's face? Key word "noticeable" (to an outsider). Most dieticians say to give a diet at least 3 weeks before you start looking for noticeable effects. And the people Daniel was being compared against were also eating well, right?
Yes, somehow Daniel and his friends were clearly healthier after 10 days compared to people who were also young, healthy, good looking, and eating well. Again -- catch that -- clearly and obviously healthier.
(When I was in college, I don't think my roommates and I ate particularly healthy-like. None of us really exercised all that regularly. But when I look back at pictures from those days, "we look unhealthy" is never a thought that goes through my head.)
The only way we should understand this is that God worked in Daniel's life for Daniel's good and His own glory. Daniel's decision was such that only God could bring about that result. And Daniel had such a strong faith in God that God could and would act in this way. (Daniel's friends also had a very strong faith in God, but more about that next week.) This is less about the diet and more about Daniel allowing God to work.
Importantly, as we will see in the next section, what impressed the king was not how healthy Daniel looked but how wise Daniel was.
So, let's continue the questions we started in the last section:
Once you've changed the parts of the culture you're consuming, what differences should you be looking for in your life?
How do you know if you have made the right changes?
This is really where the rubber meets the road. On the surface, our passage is as simple as Daniel changed his consumption habits and his health improved. That's exactly what we should be looking for in our own life.
Remember when we studied Proverbs, we said that living by God's wisdom is good for us. It gives us fuller, healthier, richer, more useful lives.
(that post even mentions the connection between godly wisdom and healthy eating)
So? Are you living a fuller, healthier, richer, more useful life than the non-Christians around you? Can you even tell? How can you tell?
Here's an object lesson to help get where I'm going with this. Bring in a nice gift bag; even do the nice tissue paper on top. But fill it with trash (actual trash). Then, find someone in your group who doesn't read my weekly post (*heh*) and give it to them as a gift. The obvious point? It matters what's on the inside. Daniel looked great on the outside, but that's because he also "looked great on the inside".
When you're comparing your life with the non-Christians around you, you had better not get caught up with appearances. But it's a whole lot easier to compare appearances, right? I challenge your group to come up with some clear ways to evaluate how "healthy" you are living from God's perspective.
Aside: The Daniel Plan
I don't think I can supplement this lesson without mentioning this Saddleback product (and all of the copycat products that followed). The Daniel Plan is a health and wellness diet (or temporary "fast") based on a superficial reading of these verses -- that a diet based on vegetables and water is the most healthy diet (just ask Daniel). If you read these plans in full, you'll notice that all of them emphasize a healthy personal relationship with God, so that's good. And they all acknowledge that they're going beyond the words of Scripture (there's nothing in these verses about "herbal tea" or "lean protein"). They're simply using these verses as a springboard to promote their own diet.
I've already said that the diet itself is not actually the point of these verses. Those people who say that "The Daniel Plan is God's plan for healthy eating" are grossly overstating things. That said, do these modern "Daniel Plans" have value?
If you read the public evaluations, the answer is yes.
The word translated "vegetables" in our passage means anything "grown from a seed". This would include vegetables, fruits, and grains. Essentially, the Daniel Plan is a plant-based diet (think "vegan"). And there are absolutely health benefits to eating more vegetables and nuts and beans and whole grains (and eliminating sugar, refined grains, and processed food)!
(That healthline article linked above is thoroughly researched and claims to be medically reviewed. I'm not qualified to give diet advice. 😎)
Eating healthy is part of being wise. But I want to make sure that we all understand there is nothing magical about these verses. The Bible elsewhere endorses eating meat. And if Dr. Pepper existed in Old Testament times, I'm hopeful that it would also have been endorsed.
Part 3: A Recognized Difference (Daniel 1:17-21)
17 God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom. Daniel also understood visions and dreams of every kind. 18 At the end of the time that the king had said to present them, the chief eunuch presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king interviewed them, and among all of them, no one was found equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. So they began to attend the king. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding that the king consulted them about, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and mediums in his entire kingdom. 21 Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.
One thing that bugs me about the secular evaluations of the Daniel Plan is that they conclude that the diet is what made the four Jews wise. No, God made them wise.
That said, is there a correlation between healthy eating and mental performance? Absolutely. Ask any teacher who has kids who don't eat breakfast. If we eat properly, we will function better all around.
But God made Daniel and his friends supernaturally wise. Eating vegetables will not help you interpret dreams 😁! He also enabled them to become experts in "Babylonian wisdom". "Wisdom" was very important in Babylon. Babylonian documents 1,000 or more years older than Daniel are found with proverbs, religious myths, and dialogues (Dialogue between a Man and His God, Counsels of Wisdom, The Book of Enlil, etc.). In just three years, Daniel and his friends became experts in Babylonian languages, history, government, politics, and perspective on wisdom. Think you could do that?
After the three years, the official (whose name was Ashpenaz) presented them to the king, and they outshined everyone else the palace had trained. It was obvious to the king -- who had no love for Jews, mind you! -- that these four young men were vastly better-equipped to serve him than anyone else. That's an act of God.
We will learn in later stories (3:8, 6:4) that other advisors were jealous of Daniel and his friends and looked for ways to get them in trouble, but their personal integrity (when highlighted by God's miraculous intervention) always convinced the king to land on their side in the end.
The easy and obvious application is that godly wisdom is always superior to worldly wisdom. But the deeper application is that God-followers can thrive wherever God plants them.
So, the challenge is to apply this to your place of employment. Your boss (hopefully) won't ask you to interpret a prophetic dream. What kind of godly wisdom can you prove better than the worldly wisdom that is being used?
Closing Thoughts: What Do We Do with This Reference to King Cyrus?
I'm putting this at the bottom because a lot of readers probably aren't too worried about it, but it's an interesting question in historical study.
Daniel 1:21 mentions "the first year of King Cyrus". Daniel 5:31 mentions that "Darius the Mede took over the kingdom". What's the big deal? Well:
Nabopolassar (626-605 BC) -- overthrew the Assyrians
Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BC) -- led Babylon to greatest power
Abel-Marduk, Neriglissar (562-556 BC) -- weak sons
Nabonidus (556-539 BC) -- usurper
Cyrus the Great (539-530 BC) -- conquered the Babylonians
Cambyses (530-522 BC) -- son of Cyrus
Darius the Great (522-486 BC) -- emerged from messy succession battle
Xerxes the Great (486-465 BC) -- son of Darius
Nebuchadnezzar (mainly in Jeremiah and Daniel) and Darius (mainly in Ezra) are the only two kings specifically named in the Old Testament. Daniel specifically says that Belshazzar was the last king of Babylon. This has caused lots of scoffing among Bible scoffers. Plus, there is much scoffing that the author of Daniel confused "Cyrus the King" and "Darius the Mede".
Oh no, what do we do? There is so much scoffing!
We do what David mentioned in last week's sermon and let archeology prove the history of the Bible correct. Here's the interesting tale of Nabonidus: he had no claims to the throne, but his son Belshazzar led a coup and installed him as king. Nabonidus rejected Marduk (the primary Babylonian god) in favor of the moon god, Sin (this will be a big deal in early Muslim history 1000 years later). This apparently got him in hot water with the Babylonian clergy, so he spent a lot of his rule in Saudi Arabia with his son Belshazzar acting as his regent in Babylon. Eventually he began to fear his son's power in Babylon, so he returned just in time to prepare military defenses for the Persian invasion. However, the ruler who was ceremonially killed was Belshazzar, not Nabonidus. In other words, Belshazzar had been installed as "acting king" and apparently held on to that power through the bitter end.
Now, what about Darius the Mede? Darius the Mede who "took over the kingdom" and was also "king" during the lion's den episode (ch 6)? This is the detail that makes skeptics say that the book of Daniel is nothing but legend masquerading as history. Well, Cyrus conquered the kingdom of Media around 550 BC, and he used a Median general (Gubaru) to conquer the city of Babylon. In fact, Cyrus did not come to Babylon for public coronation for another 2 years! Maybe they gave this foreigner the Persian name "Darius" for propriety. Here's the interesting thing about the name "Darius" -- it's directly related to the Persian word for king, "dara". In other words, "darius" may not have been a name at all but rather a title like Caesar. It makes sense that this foreign general had to use an honorific in order to maintain authority while he ruled in Babylon at King Cyrus's behest. But we will talk more about this when we get to chapter 6.