The overarching theme of the book of Daniel is that God is sovereign. One of the challenges we face in understanding God’s sovereignty is that God may allow certain things to happen that we do not understand, and we must reckon with how these things can become challenges to our faith and understanding of God’s power. This is the challenge that Daniel and his friends faced in Daniel 1:3-16 after they were taken captive and forced to serve the Babylonian king. The irony with the challenge facing Daniel and his friends was that they were in this position because God allowed the Hebrew people to be taken into captivity by their enemies as a punishment for the sins of the Hebrew people.
While in captivity, Daniel and his friends were offered the opportunity to serve in the king’s royal court. With this new opportunity to serve the king and experience preferential treatment came a challenge. The positions required them to adopt multiple aspects of Babylonian culture that conflicted with the teachings and beliefs they held most important, including having their names and their diets changed to reflect Babylonian preferences.
Changing their diets was not an insignificant act. Their God had clearly outlined what they should and should not eat and how foods were to be prepared. The food available to Daniel and friends would violate most of these prohibitions. Changing their names was also significant. In Hebrew culture, names represented identity, a parent’s hopes for a child, or was an acknowledgment of God’s past or future actions. It was rare for someone to change their name because it meant that expectations for that person were changing.
There’s an irony in the story. Daniel and his friends did not push back against having their names changed, but they did push back against changes to their diet. I think that Daniel was concerned about becoming ethically unclean before God. An important aspect of ethical cleanness was actively living in such a way that a person could enter God’s presence or be prepared to be used in service to God. I imagine Daniel thought that willingly giving in to all the king’s desires was akin to ethical uncleanness. Daniel and his friends could not resist every assimilation tactic the king instituted for fear of death, but they could be strategic in how they continued to live into God’s expectations for their lives.
Although our lives are not as dire as for Daniel and his friends, we face temptations to assimilate to a culture that often stands in opposition to how God calls each of us to live. Our assimilation is not forced upon us. Instead, it is offered to us, wrapped in packages that help put us at ease when we open them. Packages of comfort and stability, of progress and technology that will make our lives better, of financial security and fulfilling the American dream.
Sometimes we accept these packages at the sake of the calling God has placed in all our lives. The calling to stand within God’s sovereignty and to remember that none of these external things brings our lives meaning. As we think about Daniel’s simple stand against certain foods, may we learn to imitate his strategic rebellion against a culture that wanted him to forget his faith.