Monday of Week 34 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 1:1-6,8-20

For this, the last week of the Church Year, we will be reading the Book of Daniel. At first sight it seems to be a historical book but in fact it is placed among the prophetic books of the Old Testament. It consists of two principal parts: one of apparently historical accounts and the other with a number of visions.

The book was written during the period of persecution we were reading about last week in the Books of Maccabees with the intention of bolstering the morale of the Jews by reading about the heroic exploits of Daniel and his friends in a similar period of persecution about five hundred years earlier.

The book belongs to the prophetic genre because it is essentially conveying a message of hope and confidence in the ultimate victory of God and his followers. But it is also an apocalyptic book because its message is revealed in highly symbolical language, much of which would only make sense to initiates, and not to outsiders. In this, it very much resembles the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.

As we will see from the passages chosen for this week, it is a highly readable and even entertaining book, but this should not distract us from its serious underlying message. Especially because of the vision of the final coming of the Son of Man (to be read on Friday), this Book has been chosen for the final week of the year (as the Book of Revelation will be read in the same week of the Cycle II readings).

Today’s reading is from the introduction to the book and presents four young Hebrews who are brought to serve in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. The story begins by recalling the time when King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem during the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah (the Southern Hebrew Kingdom), in which Jerusalem was situated. This would have been in 605 BC. We can read about this in the Second Book of Kings.

Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiakim and the sacred vessels of the Temple back to Babylon (here called Shinar). He put his trophies into the treasure of his own gods. Those reading the story and living under the tyranny of Antiochus IV Epiphanes would immediately have seen the parallel with the plunder of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple which they themselves experienced under the Assyrians.

Daniel and his companions were in this first deportation to Babylon. The prophet Ezekiel was taken away in a second deportation in 597 BC. In a third deportation in 586 BC, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed.

From the Israelites in this first deportation, the king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to pick out a number of young men who were of noble descent. They had to be both physically perfect and intellectually outstanding to be suitable for service at the royal court. They were not then being chosen merely as pages. In eastern courts, those destined for the career of ‘letters’ (such as scribes, translators, archivists, scholars, astrologers) were trained from childhood. The emphasis on physical appearance may indicate that other personal services for the king were also expected of them. This would be quite normal.

They would also be taught to speak and write the Chaldaean language. This would include learning the classical literature in Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform, a complicated syllabic writing system. The language of normal communication in multiracial Babylon, however, was Aramaic, written in an easily learned alphabetic script and certainly known to the four young men.

They were to be given only the best of food, straight from the king’s own table. This, he felt, would help maintain their good looks. Three years of training were set aside before they entered royal service.

We are now for the first time told their names. They are all from the kingdom of Judah (the Southern Kingdom). They were Daniel (whose name means ‘God is my judge’), Hananiah (‘The Lord shows grace’), Mishael (‘Who is what God is?’), and Azariah (‘The Lord helps’). Our reading omits their also being given Babylonian names by the chief eunuch: Daniel – Belteshazzar; Hananiah – Shadrach, Mishael – Meshach, and Azariah – Abed-nego. These names will be used later in the book. It is clear that Daniel stands taller than his three companions and there are some clear resemblances between Daniel and Joseph, the son of Jacob who became a high official in the Pharaoh’s court.

There was one problem for the young men in this idyllic life: they were expected to eat food which was in violation of Jewish dietary laws. Daniel, who was anxious to observe the Law, asked the chief eunuch to be excused from eating food which his religion regarded as unclean. This was not only because the food was, by Jewish laws, “unclean” but, before eating, the Babylonians offered food and drinks to their gods. So, even otherwise clean foods could be unclean because they had been offered to idols or had been cooked on wood taken from a sacred grove. Some of the wine could have been poured over a pagan altar.

Unclean animals, like pigs, could have been used as meat, and even other animals might not have been killed and prepared in ways acceptable to Jewish law. For a devout Jew, to disobey the laws about food was equivalent to apostasy, and we saw in the readings from Maccabees how Antiochus was forcing the Jews to eat pork as a sign of apostasy.

The eunuch who, by God’s favour, looked kindly on Daniel’s request was at the same time anxious about the king’s reaction. The young men were being fed special food from the royal table and, if by not eating this food, the Jewish boys began to look thinner than the other young men, the king would not be pleased and the eunuch’s own head could be in danger for allowing this.

Daniel then asked the guardian appointed to look after them by the eunuch to allow them a 10 days’ trial just eating raw vegetables and water and, at the end of that time, see how they compared with the other boys. Raw vegetables and fresh water would be safe from any ritual uncleanness. The request was granted. The number ’10’ often had the symbolic significance of completeness.

At the end of the 10 days, the four Jewish boys looked fatter and healthier than those who had been eating from the king’s table and they were allowed to continue with this diet. Of course, from our better knowledge of food properties, we now understand it is possible that their vegetarian diet was actually much healthier than the rich diet that came from the king’s table.

In addition to their physical perfection, God gave the four young men knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and learning. This would mean that they mastered Babylonian literature on astrology and divination by dreams. In addition, Daniel had a special gift of interpreting every kind of vision and dream (in this he again resembles Joseph). But in the crucial tests of interpretation and prediction, which Daniel was called on to give later on, only God’s special revelation enabled Daniel to interpret correctly.

When the time of their formation was complete, the chief eunuch presented all the young men to King Nebuchadnezzar. He spoke with all of them, but was most impressed by the four young Jews. And so they became members of the royal court. Whenever the king consulted them, he found them ten times (perfection again) more reliable than all the magicians and soothsayers in his kingdom.

There are lessons flowing from this story, which does not have to be taken as literally true, although much of the background has a historical basis. It is an edifying story to encourage people living in difficult conditions in a much later age. The loyalty of Daniel and his companions to the requirements of their faith under difficult circumstances is presented as a model and an inspiration to their descendants. And, with God on their side, they were bound to succeed. The gods of Babylon were no match for the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses.

We, too, can be inspired by the integrity and courage of these young men. But, in our own Christian tradition, there are many other stories – strictly historical – of people who have not hesitated to give their lives, not just to keep external religious observances, but for much greater issues of Truth and Justice and the Kingdom of God.

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