Exposition of Daniel 1:1-7 The unseen hand on history’s rudder

Daniel 1:1-7

1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.

3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the kings service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility 4 young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the kings palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. 5 The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the kings table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the kings service.

6 Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 7 The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.

While the Bible is designed to teach us about God, his kingdom and the salvation he offers, it always remains firmly grounded in history. God has no interest in some misty world of speculation; instead, he tells us what actually took place and reveals what he plans to do in days to come. For this reason, Daniel explains that in 605 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon besieged Jerusalem (Dan. 1:1). God had warned Judah over and over about their idolatry, but they lived in denial until the day of reckoning shattered their complacency.

Nebuchadnezzar had just demolished the combined forces of Egypt and Assyria at the Battle of Carchemish (MayJune, 605 B.C.), where the Euphrates River crosses from modern Turkey into Syria (see map in the Introduction). At that time, Judah was a conquered nation, subject to Egypt, and Pharaoh Neco had put Jehoiakim on the throne of Judah (2 Kings 23:34-24:6). Fresh from his decisive victory, Nebuchadnezzar rushed south to crush Pharaohs client Judah.

The Bible is not merely a history book, because it reveals things we could never discover without the Lord telling us. Conquerors had approached Jerusalem before and had been repelled by God empty-handed (Isaiah 36-37). This time the Lord delivered Jehoiakim and the city into Nebuchadnezzars hand (verse 2). Old Testament scholar John Goldingay points out that we are not given any description of siege tactics or negotiations; instead, There is no non-theological description of the fall of Jerusalem, only this theological one.[1] Further, Miller explains: The word translated Lord [in verse 2] is not Yahweh (represented in NIV by LORD) but adōnay, and this fact is significant. Owner, ruler, or sovereign is the meaning of adōnay … . By the use of this expression, Daniel was emphasizing the sovereignty of Yahweh, which is the dominant theme of the book.[2]

According to the custom of the times, holy items were taken from the temple of God and carried off to the temple of Marduk in Babylon (verse 2). The reader might think little of a detail like the temple vessels being removed, but Daniel is a very careful writer. Those vessels will resurface in Daniel 5.

To the uninformed ancient observer, it seemed that both Judah and Yahweh had been defeated. Old Testament scholar Leon Wood explains, Pagans evaluated any foreign deity in terms of the size of the country whose people worshipped him, the degree of prosperity of that country, and the size and success of the army.[3] Their opinion of Yahweh and Judah would have been quite low; only time would prove them utterly wrong. To the reader God reveals that this victory over Judah came through his decision, not the military might of Nebuchadnezzar (verse 2). As the story progresses in this and future chapters, the knowledge of Gods participation in these events will gradually increase.

Another hidden subtlety within verse 2 is that the phrase in Babylonia (NIV) is actually in the land of Shinar, a reference to the ancient land where the tower of Babel was built. Miller approvingly quotes J.G. Baldwin, who says, Shinar, site of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9; cf. 10:10), was synonymous with opposition to God; it was the place where wickedness was at home (Zech. 5:11) and uprightness could expect opposition.[4] This underlying revelation of Babylon as the seat of wickedness contrasts with its outward appearance of power, wealth, and concern with education of its leaders.

Preparing to serve

The story of Daniels selection and training to serve in the kings palace (verse 4) covers verses 3-7, and it is a formidable set of requirements. Verse 4 insists on candidates who possessed good health, pleasing appearance, and, above all, great intelligence. Scholars Tom Finley and Brandon Cash explain: Scribes had to spend many years in training in order to read the complicated Babylonian cuneiform, which consisted of wedge-shaped marks made in a clay tablet while it was still moist with a stylus. The resulting signs represented either syllables or entire words, meaning that there were hundreds of signs that had to be learned.[5] Since Daniel and his friends had to learn the language and literature of Babylon (verse 4), it is not surprising that this advanced training lasted three years.

Akkadian cueiform text
Akkadian cueiform text

Miller explains the importance of Babylon in relation to human knowledge: Babylon was the learning center of the day and had acquired the remarkable library left by the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal (669-626 B.C.).[6] Numerous cuneiform texts would have been used by the Babylonian wise men to study history, mathematics, medicine and myths, but a lot of the tablets recorded methods of divination and magic. Daniel had to be able to read this lore, but he clearly relied on God rather than the vast stock of Babylonian magic.

The induction of four young Judeans into the court of Nebuchadnezzar involved a change of identity. Miller summarizes, In each case the Hebrew appellation [name] contains a reference to the true God, whereas its Babylon counterpart involves an allusion to a pagan deity.[7] Wood explains how many names in the Hebrew Old Testament are constructed by saying, Daniel and Mishael both contain the element el, one of the [Hebrew] names for God; and Hananiah and Azariah contain the element iah (yah), an abbreviation found in so many Hebrew names for Yahweh.[8]

Daniel as a Hebrew name means God is my judge. There may be a note of divine irony in Daniels name, because analyzing it as an Akkadian name — since the Babylonian language is nothing more than a dialect of Akkadian — yields God is mighty.[9] Daniel will be used to show Gods might over and over. The Babylonian names given to the young men by the court official are less well understood, but they clearly refer, in part, to Babylonian deities.

The Bible says a lot about people who are living in difficult physical circumstances, but Daniel and his friends had the best the ancient world had to offer. Imagine how it would be to have room and board in a palace while attending the greatest university at no expense for three years. After that education, you would get a position in the most powerful kingdom on earth. But every rose bush has thorns that wound the unwary.

Copyright 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] John E. Goldingay, Daniel, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1989) 9.

[2] Stephen R. Miller, Daniel, vol. 18 of The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1994)58.

[3] Leon Wood, A Commentary on Daniel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973) 17.

[4] Miller, Daniel, 59, quoting J.G. Baldwin, Daniel (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1978) 78.

[5] Tom Finley and Brandon Cash, Daniel (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, in press) 7.

[6] Miller, Daniel, 62.

[7] Miller, Daniel, 65-6.

[8] Wood, Daniel, 35.

[9] HALOT, dāniyyēl, Daniel, q.v. (see etymology).

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