Daniel, of course, is best known for his survival of a close encounter with hungry lions – a story of a man who refuses to compromise his faith by praying to the king, even in the face of palace intrigue which should have cost him his life.
But Daniel’s story goes back a long way before the events of the lion’s den, and it’s a story which, while it might not have a lot of answers for us, does ask of us some difficult and provocative questions.
Daniel was a young man of the Jewish nobility when king Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and conquered the nation of Judah. We’re told in passing that the king took treasures from the Temple, and placed them in the treasuries of his Gods – as a declaration that his Gods were greater than the God of Israel.
And so Daniel and his friends were carried off to be educated in the court of Babylon, trained in their literature and language, to become civil servants, administrators of the Babylonian Empire, advisors to the king of Babylon.
A difficult position for a young Jewish man to find himself in – in the palace of the king who had destroyed your nation, defiled the temple of your God, and set himself and his Gods up for worship – but being well treated, educated, and offered a position of responsibility and authority in the empire.
What’s a devout, God fearing, Jew supposed to do?
As an educated Jew, Daniel would have been well versed in the Law of Moses. The problem is, most of that law made no sense in the context of Babylon. The law described how society should function, how just dealings should be observed, how wrongdoers should be brought to justice. But here in Babylon none of the same rules applied. Daniel was subject to the law of Babylon, and its system of justice.
And the law of Moses outlined religious observance based on the Temple and the priesthood, on the whole religious infrastructure of the nation. None of which was there, none of which made sense here in exile.
To live as a Jew in the Kingdom of Israel, when things were going well, was relatively easy: you lived according to the same laws as your neighbours, you lived as good citizens of the nation, you observed the same morality and ethical system as those around you, and, as part of the people of God, you were living, more or less, according to the Law of God.
In exile, Daniel and his friends had to figure it out for themselves.
Probably some of us feel a similar shift in our worlds. It’s not that long ago that most people in the western world identified themselves with the Christian faith; when it seemed as if living in accordance with the expectations of the society around us, living as good decent, upstanding members of society was more or less the same as living ethically before God. It may or may not have ever really been true, but that’s how it looked and felt. Everyone, more or less, was Christian, all babies were baptised, people either went to Church or felt bad about not going.
But if it ever was truly the case, now, of course, it’s not. It hasn’t happened with the drama of going into exile, it hasn’t happened with the rapidity of invasion by a foreign empire, but the world of Christendom, in the west, has come to an end. Fewer and fewer people identify as Christian, and for most the fact that they don’t attend Church isn’t even a choice – it simply doesn’t occur to them that they might.
The people of God are in exile. And so Daniel asks a question of us: how do we live as faithfully people of God when many, most, of those around us have no interest? How do we keep an identity, how do we manage to be distinctive without being weird, being ethical without being holier-than-thou, being faithful to the kingdom of God, while still being members of the world we find ourselves in?
How, in the words of Jesus, are we to be salt – distinctive, life enhancing, preserving – and light – truth shedding, freedom bringing, wrong exposing – in a world which often treats the Christian faith as an irrelevant anachronism?
Or how, Daniel might have asked, am I to continue to be a Jew in a world in which the God of Judaism is seen as defeated, in which the Jewish faith is the sidelined beliefs of a small, conquered, nation?
Daniel’s answer will not be our answer. But over the first three weeks in November, I’d like to explore, taking Daniel and the exiles as our guide, what their answer has to say to us.
Because the story of Daniel starts with Daniel making a crucial, life altering, decision. He has been brought here, a noble born son of a defeated nation, as the spoils of war. But as an educated man he is offered a new chance, a new life. The Babylonians didn’t get to be a great empire by being stupid. Their way to prevent revolt amongst the conquered nation was to bring the children of the elite into the system, to incorporate them into the Babylonian palace, to give them all the benefits of being part of the empire. Take the best and the brightest of the conquered people, and make them Babylonian, give them something to lose.
And the central decision of Daniel’s life is this: that he will remain a Jew. That though he is in Babylon, and though he is, in many ways, accepting of, and making the best of, that over which he has no choice, he will not become Babylonian.
He can’t worship at the temple. He can’t live according to the laws of society that were distinctively Jewish. So he picks one thing over which he still has control, as a statement, a declaration that he is still a Jew, still a follower of Yahweh. The dietary laws. Though he cannot live as a Jew in many ways, in this one, he will.
And it’s not an arbitrary choice. The meat and wine served at the palace were, in all likelihood, offerings made to the Babylonian Gods. Daniel’s declaration that he will not so defile himself is not simply a rejection of food, but of the worship of other Gods.
But it’s an interesting choice in other ways. The diet Daniel requests, and the way he requests it, is non-confrontational, and it doesn’t make life more difficult for others (when the palace master, responsible for presenting him in good shape, expresses his concern, Daniel proposes a trial period, after which, if he is not in good health, he will eat whatever the palace master provides for him). He doesn’t, as far as we are told, criticize others for their food choices.
But in what was essentially the Babylonian University it would also have been hard to miss that this group of four young men were choosing to live according to another set of rules.
And having made this choice, this statement of intent, Daniel and his friends work, they study, they excel. They become part of the machinery of empire, advisors to the king. Until the time comes when being still a Jew, and not a Babylonian, will be put to the test.
But that lies ahead of us. For now, a thought to take away and ponder.
How have you chosen to declare that, whatever the world around might think or say, you belong to the people of God. Is there something in your life that you choose as an identifying mark, a statement that while you might be a part of the empires of this world, your deepest citizenship is elsewhere? Something you do, or don’t do, out of your faith, that those around you would see and wonder about?
What makes you in this world, but not of it?