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23 December 2018

In the Imperial Court (Daniel 1:1-21)

Neo-Babylonian Empire -

In the opening paragraph of the book of Daniel, Babylon is called the “land of Shinar.” This is a deliberate echo of the Tower of Babel incident in the Genesis and recalls the founding of Babylon. The Tower of Babel affair is reflected again in the third chapter of Daniel when Nebuchadnezzar gathered all nations to pay homage to the great image that he had “set up” in the Plain of Dura (Genesis 11:1, Daniel 1:1-2, 3:1-7).
The Neo-Babylonian Empire of Daniel’s time was not a new political creature; it had an ancient pedigree. The royal city in which he now stood was the latest incarnation of an imperial effort that had been underway since the beginning of human civilization.
In the Genesis story, God stopped the completion of a high tower in Shinar. This resulted in the diversification and distribution of language groups across the earth. The story provides the origins of the Babylonian Empire from a biblical perspective (Genesis 11:1-9).
The description in the opening paragraph builds on the Genesis story, the time when “the whole earth was of one language and one speech.” The descendants of Noah migrated to Mesopotamia to dwell “in the land of Shinar.” The name is probably the Hebrew equivalent of ‘Sumer’ (Daniel 1:1-2).
The people of Shinar began to build a city with a high tower to “reach the heavens and thus make us a name, lest we be scattered across the whole earth.” This parallels the Sumerian culture in which cities featured temples built on ziggurats, tiered manmade mounds of mud and clay that formed the highest points in a city. Dedicated to its chief deity, a town’s activities centered on its central temple.
God commanded Adam to ‘multiply, replenish and subdue the earth.” This same command was reiterated to Noah after the Flood. But, instead, humanity chose to move to Mesopotamia to build a new civilization centered in Shinar and to make a name for itself. In the Hebrew Bible, Babylon is characterized by presumptuousness (Genesis 1:289:1, Isaiah 14:13-1463:12-14Jeremiah 32:20).
If humanity united under one language, the wickedness of mankind would know no bounds. By confounding their languages, God caused the nations to spread throughout the earth and thwarted the first attempt to form a centralized world-power.
The Bible calls the city ‘Babel,’ the place where “Yahweh confounded the language of all the earth.” The name may be related to the Hebrew word balal or “confusion,” though in the ancient Akkadian language of Mesopotamia bab-ili or ‘Babel’ means “gate of god.”
In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar attempted to reverse God’s ancient judgment against Shinar. He gathered different ethnic groups, cultures, and nations to Babylon where representatives of each group were educated in the language and customs of Babylon, the tongue of the world-power current at that time.
Nebuchadnezzar was renowned as a builder who restored temples, constructed city walls and palaces, and erected high towers.  His claim to be the builder of “great Babylon” was not an empty boast (Daniel 4:30).
The story of Nimrod is found in the ‘Table of Nations’ from Genesis, a man linked to the origins of the Mesopotamian civilization and the founder of several chief cities (e.g., Babel, Asshur, Nineveh). He became “mighty one in the earth.” The “mighty men or name” or the gibborim who existed before Noah’s flood were men that established fearsome reputations through violent exploits (Genesis 6:4, 10:8-12, 11-13).
Nimrod, also, was a “mighty hunter before the face of Yahweh.” This denotes not God’s approval but Nimrod’s opposition to Yahweh. The name Nimrod is derived from the Hebrew word mārădor or “we will revolt.” He founded a kingdom in what later became Assyria and was possibly an early ruler of the city-state of Babylon.  Nimrod is used elsewhere to typify despotic rulers who oppress God’s people (e.g., Micah 5:6).
Parallels in Daniel
In the Tower of Babel story, the “whole earth spoke one language” when men began to dwell in Shinar. They built a city and tower of “great height” in the plain of Shinar to mark their achievements and prevent humanity’s dispersal. Likewise, in Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar brought captives to Babylon, the great city he that he had built, to be educated in the language of the Chaldeans to prepare them to serve in the administration of the empire.  Nebuchadnezzar accomplished what the earlier rulers Babel failed to achieve.
The king “set up” a golden image of exceptional “height” in the “plain of Dura,” then decreed that “all peoples, races, and tongues” should render homage to it.  He gathered representatives from every province and nation “to the dedication of the image.” The whole earth would be united under Nebuchadnezzar and his image. The parallels are deliberate.  Just as the earlier inhabitants united to build a city and high tower, so the king of Babylon presumed to unite all humanity under his authority and idolatrous image of great height (Daniel 3:1-8).
 Likewise, at the height of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar boasted how his own might “built” the great city, Babylon. Immediately, an angelic figure pronounced judgment for this presumptuousness. For “seven seasons” he was driven out from Babylonian society to live like an animal in the field. Only when he acknowledged God’s sovereignty was he restored to his throne (Daniel 4:1-37).
Overview of Chapter 1
The first chapter sets the chronological range of Daniel’s service in Babylon and presents the book’s key theological proposition:  God is sovereign and rules over the kingdoms of this age.  God is active in the affairs of nations and intervenes in the course of history to accomplish His purposes, though in unexpected ways. 
God placed powerless Jewish captives in the imperial court to achieve His redemptive plans. This first chapter introduces subjects that are developed in the rest of the book. For example, God gave Daniel the ability to interpret dreams. This anticipates his later success at interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.
The first verse of Daniel sets the stage:  in the “third year of the reign of Jehoiakim” or 605 B.C. The prophet’s career lasted until “the first year of King Cyrus” when Medo-Persia conquered Babylon, approximately 539-538 B.C. (Daniel 1:21). In 605 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem after his victory over Egypt and the Assyrian Empire at the Battle of Carchemish along the upper Euphrates River). At that time, he removed some of the Temple’s vessels from Jerusalem to Babylon and placed them in his god’s sanctuary (Marduk). The king also selected men from the Judean royal house to be educated in Babylon for governmental service.
Daniel’s ministry and civil service career spanned the same seventy years as Judah’s captivity in Babylon. Judean independence ceased, Jerusalem and the Temple were ransacked, and the upper echelons of Judean society removed to Mesopotamia. Thus, Daniel found himself at the center of the Empire (Jeremiah 25:1-14, Daniel 9:1-2).
God Enables Babylon to Subjugate Judah
In the opening paragraph, God “gave” the king of Judah and the vessels of the Temple into the hand of the king of Babylon. This was disastrous from a human perspective but in accord with God’s purposes. The Hebrew verb for “gave” (nathan) occurs three times in this chapter in reference to the divine ordering of events (verses 2, 9, 17).
Nebuchadnezzar took the vessels from the Temple to the land of “Shinar.” Like in the Tower of Babel incident, the new Babylonian king attempted to unite all people under one language, religion, and culture (Genesis 10:1011:1-9Daniel 1:43:1-5).
The Education of Daniel (1:3-8)
Daniel and the other captives were to be educated in the wisdom, literature, and the language of the “Chaldeans.” The latter term refers to the learned men of Babylon, who were well-versed in divination and astrology (Daniel 2:2-103:84:75:7-11).  In later history, “Chaldean” became synonymous with “astrologer.”
The Judeans selected for imperial service were males “in whom was no blemish” (m’ūm), the same ritual purity required for the Levitical priests of God’s Tabernacle (“No man of the seed of Aaron the priest that has a blemish (m’ūm) shall come near to offer the offerings of Yahweh” - Leviticus 21:16-21).
The Jewish exiles were “prudent” or “wise” (sakal), a characteristic noted of righteous Jews in the tribulations described in the later chapters of the book of Daniel (Daniel 11:33-35, 12:3).
The Jewish exiles were instructed in “the tongue of the Chaldeans,” an Aramaic dialect employed by the imperial government of Babylon. Fluency was necessary to function in the civil service.
The Hebrew name Daniel means “God is my judge.” Hananiah means “Yahweh is gracious,” Mishael ‘‘who is like God,” and Azariah means “Yahweh helped.” Their reassignment of Babylonian names was intended to honor the gods of the Empire. Belteshazzar (Daniel) means, “Bel protects.” “Bel” was the equivalent of Baal or “lord,” and it was applied to the Mesopotamian god, Marduk, the chief deity of the city. Shadrach may have meant, “the command of Aku,” the Sumerian Moon god. The meaning of Meshach is uncertain.  Abednego meant, the “servant of Nebo,” the patron deity of Nebuchadnezzar and the Mesopotamian god of wisdom.
Upon arrival in Babylon, the “king appointed them a daily provision of his food and of the wine that he drank to nourish them three years.” This was a great honor not to be rejected, at least, not without paying serious consequences.  Daniel was concerned that partaking of the king’s delicacies would affect his ritual purity. The precise reason for this is not stated. Possibly, he did not wish to eat meats categorized “unclean” under the Levitical purity laws. More probably, the issue was eating food offered to idols.
Wine was included in the king’s provisions and wine was not ritually unclean under the Levitical code. This points to the likelier concern about avoiding food and drink that had been offered to idols.  Food consumed in the royal court was routinely offered first to the Babylonian gods before it was served in the royal court.
The “Chaldeans”
“Chaldeans” were priests and officials educated in Mesopotamian literature, its cuneiform script, astrology, and other forms of divination. The term is applied elsewhere in Daniel to this group and is not used in any ethnic sense. “Chaldean” originally denoted a tribe from southeastern Mesopotamia that had migrated to Babylon (e.g., Jeremiah 24:525:1250:1051:24).
The “learning of the Chaldeans” included the ancient languages of Mesopotamia (Sumerian, Akkadian), astronomy, natural history, metallurgy, philosophy, and the sexagesimal or base-60 numbering system inherited from the Sumerians. Daniel demonstrates knowledge of the latter in chapter 3 when “Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold sixty cubits high and six cubits wide.” This background demonstrates that Daniel was familiar with the culture of Babylon from the sixth-century B.C. 
Daniel’s Test
God “gave” Daniel favor before the “prince of the eunuchs.” This official granted his request to abstain from the royal provisions for a trial period of ten days. Since meat and wine were offered to pagan deities before being consumed, to participate in religious-based meals would compromise Daniel in idolatrous rituals.
The positive response of the official was due to God’s intervention; He gave Daniel “kindness and compassion in the sight of the prince of the eunuchs.”  During the ten-day trial, the appearance of Daniel and his companions improved, in contrast to the other youths who did consume the royal provisions. Because of Yahweh’s gracious intervention, Daniel ate ritually pure food rather than any royal delicacies defiled through contact with idols.
God “gave” Daniel and his friends “knowledge and prudence in all learning and wisdom.” To Daniel, He also gave “understanding in all visions and dreams.” The ability to interpret dreams is demonstrated in subsequent chapters. Daniel becomes the pattern for people of discernment, they of “understanding” who would shine in Israel’s darkest hour. Nebuchadnezzar then examined the youths and found they excelled in “every matter of wisdom and understanding, even ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his realm” (Daniel 1:20, 11:33-3512:312:10).
Through His gifts, God’s exiled sons exceeded all the wisdom of Babylon. Although Daniel was educated in the ways of the “Chaldeans,” in the rest of the book, he is never classified as a magician, enchanter or astrologer. While the learned men of Babylon were stymied by the king’s dreams, God revealed their contents and meanings to Daniel.
And Daniel continued even unto the first year of King Cyrus.” The first year of Cyrus’ reign over Babylon began in 538 B.C.  This sets the range of Daniel’s ministry; from the third year of King Jehoiakim to the first year of Cyrus after the downfall of Babylon, 605-538 B.C. (Daniel 1:21, 6:28, 5:30-31, 10:1).
In the Book of Revelation
The book of Revelation alludes to this story in its letters to the churches at Pergamos, Thyatira, and Smyrna. Some believers were tempted to “eat meat offered to idols” and, otherwise, to compromise with idolatrous practices. The Christians of Smyrna refused to do so and were rewarded with further trials (Revelation 2:12-172:18-29).
The “Devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried; and you shall have tribulation ten days.”.  The Greek verb for “try” is peirazō, the same one used in the Greek Septuagint version of Daniel 1:12-14 (Revelation 2:10).
Just as Daniel was vulnerable in a pagan royal court, so the Christians in Smyrna were at the mercy of pagan magistrates. Rather than flight or armed resistance, they were exhorted to “become faithful unto death” and, thus, they would receive the “crown of life.” Daniel, thus, serves as a model of faithfulness for the churches of Asia.

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