This semester I am taking a course entitled, “Interpreting Daniel.” It is what you would expect–a verse by verse exegetical examination of the book of Daniel. The book of Daniel is a theologically rich and full book. Truly one semester is not nearly enough time to adequately pursue all of the issues in Daniel.
I wanted to share just one of the many things that have both alarmed and captivated my heart and spurred me to greater faith in Christ. This particular insight came from an unsuspecting place in Daniel.
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.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.6Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah.7And 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.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.–Daniel 1:3-8, ESV
Let’s break down what is going on here. The king of Babylon, who had recently conquered Judah and taken its people into exile, ordered Judah’s finest to be specifically brought to him. He clearly has a desire to assert his self-proclaimed glory by showing his dominance reaches to the heights of Judean society.
The king orders for “youths without blemish” from the Judean nobility to come to the king’s palace to be indoctrinated with the “literature and language of the Chaldeans.” They were ordered to eat specific food and drink specific wine, food and wine that came from the king himself. While this on the surface seems like a walk in the park compared to what the word “captivity” typically connotes, the next few verses highlight the sinister intentions of the king and his ruthless brutality. “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” (v. 7).
In years past, I would have thought very little about the brutality of this captivity, and surely would have belittled the significance of the name change. However, after further study it is clear that Daniel’s captivity was indeed as bad as one would assume, maybe worse.
Consider what Daniel and his friends likely endured as a result of exile.
1. Daniel and his friends were torn from their families
These young men were specifically chosen from Judah’s finest, and in the process were ripped away from their families. Being taken into captivity was like the Gestapo storming a Jewish home and dragging mother and daughter into one train car while throwing father and son into another.
2. Daniel and his friends were likely castrated.
The fact that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were among the “chief of the eunuchs” seems to indicate that they themselves had been made eunuchs. It was not uncommon for the king of Babylon to castrate men of conquered nations, so it is likely that Daniel and his friends were castrated when they were taken captive.
3. Daniel and his friends were robbed of their identity
Daniel, Hananiah, and Mishael, and Azariah had names that reflected their faith. Their identity was found in being part of the people of the one true and living God. When the king of Babylon brought Daniel and his friends to his palace, he not only had them trained in Chaldean culture, but he also renamed them, not simply because he didn’t like their names, but as an exercise of theological dominance. He renames these four Judean young men after his gods. He is essentially desiring to wipe out their religious affiliation. He wants their to be no semblance of the God of Judah. The king of Babylon had conquered God’s people and now he wanted to show that he had essentially conquered their God. He had no place in Babylon and the king wanted this name change to reflect what he arrogantly felt was a certain reality.
4. Daniel and his friends were teenagers
The king of Babylon called for those who were “youths without blemish.” Based on the historical context, conservative scholars have placed Daniel’s age at the time of being taken into exile at around 14. Daniel and his friends were barely teenagers when they were taken into Babylonian captivity. This is alarming and disgusting to think of fourteen year-olds suffering such cultural and theological dominance, and physical brutality at the hands of one of the most ruthless men on the face of the earth at the time.
So, to this point we are given a picture of four young teenagers who were torn from their families, castrated, culturally and theologically dominated, robbed of their identity, and treated as property by a ruthless king with uninhibited power. Yet, after all of this, we are told that these young boys were resolved to fully devote themselves to God. They remained faithful in the midst of severe persecution, suffering, and abuse in a place where their God was seemingly dominated by a ruthless human king.
If anyone had a reason to doubt God’s goodness it would have been these teenagers. However, Daniel and his friends clearly trusted the sovereignty and goodness God despite their circumstances. They did not “defile themselves” with the king’s food and drink. Even though they would have reasonably been broken down after what they had been through, they demonstrated strength in weakness that only God can provide.
These boys have taught me that our circumstances do not determine our attitudes toward God. God’s self-revelation determines this. God has declared himself to be good and sovereignly faithful to fulfill all of his promises to his people. We trust this because he has said it is so, not because our circumstances may seem to tell us otherwise.
The fact that Daniel unashamedly and boldly trusted God over and over again throughout Daniel after initially suffering such atrocities is truly amazing. I am amazed at his faith. I am amazed at his resolve. I am amazed at his unhindered trust in God. He did not allow his circumstances to dictate his theology. Instead, his theology rooted him in something much greater than his circumstances.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.