Daniel: a man against culture or a light within culture?

I have always viewed Daniel as a hardnosed young man who stood steadfastly against all things Babylonian. After reading the first chapter of Daniel this morning, I am now changing my view of him. He appears not as a man against culture but a light within culture.

Daniel was among the first Israelites deported to Babylon, sometime around 600 BCE. It is reported that King Nebuchadnezzar gathered up a group of young Israelite men from the royal family and the nobility. He took these men into the palace for enculteration in the ways of Babylon. He commanded that the young men eat choice foods from the king's own kitchen. However, the story reports that Daniel refused to eat the king's food. Why?

I have thought, along with many other Christians, that Daniel did this because he refused to be made into a Babylonian. There may be some truth to this, but the text presents Daniel in a different light. Why did he refuse to eat the king's food? Because in doing so, he would defile himself (v. 8). Is it defiling to eat Babylonian food because it is Babylonian? Probably not, since that was the food God had provided to all Israelites who were now living in Babylon. Rather, it is probable that something in the king's food ran counter to God's laws about dietary restrictions. It was defiling because it offended God's law, not simply because it was Babylonian.

So we see Daniel taking a stand of faithfulness to purity under God's law. Does he reject Babylonian culture? No! He and his friends gained knowledge of all kinds of literature (v. 17), which included the literature of the Babylonians (v. 4). Daniel engaged Babylonian culture openly, and he behaved respectfully toward his hosts. He was unique in that he was very clear about who he was and what he would do (and not do).

Note that among all the Israelite men brought into the king's palace, Daniel is the only one who refused to be defiled by the king's food. He brought along with himself his buddies. Other than Daniel and his three friends, it appears all the young Israelite men ate the defiling food.

And note as well who God blesses. Daniel and friends stood out as having abundant wisdom and understanding (v. 20), and Daniel was also given the ability to interpret dreams and visions (v. 17).

The lesson here is to be respectful to those around us in our own culture, but not to defile ourselves by offending the way God has called us to live -- which starts with Jesus' call to love God and others. If we remain pure in this way, we will then be a light in our culture... just like Daniel.


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