13 March 2018

Food Offered to Idols (Daniel 1:8-16)

In courts of Babylon

Daniel was confronted with a predicament upon his arrival at Babylon; if he ate eat food provided by the king it might very well cause him ritual defilement (Daniel 1:8).
     One assumption is that Daniel wished to avoid eating meat classified “unclean” under the Levitical dietary regulations (Leviticus 11:45-47; Deuteronomy 32:38). Another possibility is that his objection was on moral grounds. Since the consumption of wine was not addressed by the Levitical regulations, Daniel decides to avoid wine out of moral concerns.
     There are problems with either interpretation. First, the wine was not something that caused ritual defilement under the Levitical code. Second, Daniel makes no reference to said dietary regulations. Third, the Hebrew term rendered “defile” or ga’al is not the same one used for “unclean” in Leviticus; ga’al occurs nowhere in the Pentateuch.  Fourth, the Aramaic term pathbag means “delicacies” and not “meat” specifically, though certainly, the royal provisions would have included meat. Fifth, Daniel expressed no concerns about drunkenness. The Torah does not forbid the consumption of wine or categorize doing so to be sin. Sixth, the second proposal does not explain Daniel’s refusal to eat the king’s food.
     An understanding of Babylonian religious customs suggests a different interpretation, one in accord with how the book of Revelation applies this passage (Revelation 2:10; 2:14; 2:20). At issue is not the consumption of ceremonially unclean food but participation in idolatry.
   The passage stresses Daniel’s concern both with eating food and drinking wine from “the king’s table.”  Either could cause defilement (“Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the king’s dainties or with the wine which he drank”).  Since wine was not included among ritually unclean foods, his concern was something other than eating “unclean” meat. The focus is on the source of the food and wine - the royal table.
     Daniel proposed a “test”:  for ten days he and his friends would only eat vegetables and drink water; then their Babylonian keeper could compare their appearance with that of others who did consume the king’s provisions (“let our countenances be looked upon and the countenance of the youths that eat the king’s delicacies”). The issue was not vegetarianism versus meat-eating; certain meats were forbidden in Leviticus that were considered ritually impure, not because they were unhealthy; the Mosaic dietary restrictions were concerned with religious issues, not healthy lifestyles.
     Idols played a key role in the Babylonian religion. It was believed a god was present in his or her image in its temple. The custom was to provide a god’s image with daily meals of food and drink, which became a part of the royal protocol. The king was expected to provide the required foodstuffs for a god’s “meal,” and no one else could eat before the deity was finished consuming his or her “meal.” The remaining dishes were then distributed for consumption at the king’s table. Thus the king’s provisions were linked with idolatrous practices [Joan Oates, Babylon, (London:  Thames and Hudson, 1986), p. 174-175].
Revelation alludes to this story in the “letter” to the church at Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11). It was to expect persecution; “you may be tried and you will have tribulation ten days,” an allusion to Daniel 1:14 where the Greek verb rendered “tried” in the Septuagint version, or peirazō, is the same verb found in the Greek text of Revelation 2:8-11.
     Christians in Smyrna were “blasphemed by them who say they are Jews and are not, but instead are a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). A consequence was that some saints found themselves “cast into prison.” Nevertheless, those who remained “faithful until death” were to receive “the crown of life and not be hurt of the second death.”
     This “blasphemy” or “slander” refers to false charges leveled against Christians before civil magistrates by Jewish leaders in Smyrna, probably for their refusal to participate in honoring the Roman emperor’s image.
     The situation from Smyrna echoes the story of Daniel’s three companions in Daniel 3:8-30, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and does so with irony. They found themselves accused before Nebuchadnezzar for refusal to render homage to an image “set up” by the king. “Certain Chaldeans came near and accused the Jews.”
     Revelation includes a wordplay from the Septuagint version of Daniel 3:8.  The Greek verb for “accused” in Daniel 3:8 is diaballō (“to throw through, accuse, slander), a term closely related to the name “Devil” or diabolos.  Thus in Revelation 2:9-10 we read of the “accusation of them of the synagogue of Satan…behold, the Devil (diabolos) will cast some of you into prison.” Gentile opponents accused the three Jews before a Gentile king, just as the Jews of Smyrna accused believers before pagan Roman authorities.
     The three companions remained faithful and consequently were “cast” into the fiery furnace (“be it known, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you set up”). Nebuchadnezzar then saw them “walking in the midst of the fire and they have no hurt”; they were miraculously delivered, then promoted to positions of rulership in Babylon.
     The same story is also echoed in Revelation 13:11-18 where the false prophet causes fire to descend from heaven to deceive the inhabitants of the earth from all levels of society to render homage to the image of the Beast, and to take its number, sixty-hundred and sixty-six. Likewise, Nebuchadnezzar caused men of every rank to render homage to his great golden image that measured sixty cubits high by six cubits wide (Daniel 3:1-7).
     In its “letter” to the church in Pergamos (Revelation 2:12-17), Jesus rebuked Christians that tolerated deceivers who taught believers “to eat things sacrificed to idols and to fornicate.” He labeled this, “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans.” Similarly, in the “letter” to Thyatira (2:18-29), the church allowed a false prophetess “to seduce my servants to fornicate and to eat things sacrificed to idols.” In Revelation “fornicate” is metaphorical for idolatry (17:2; 18:3; 18:9).
    The issue in Daniel was not a need to avoid ritually unclean meat but Babylonian idolatry. Likewise in Revelation, first-century Christians were to avoid participation in the idolatrous worship of “Babylon” or Rome. “Fornicate” and “eating meat offered to idols” are metaphorical for participation in the idolatrous rituals of the imperial cult.
    So also believers of later generations must refuse to render homage to the idolatrous demands of end-time “Babylon” when it demands that everyone must render homage to the Beast’s image.

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