The forbidden food (Dan 1:1-17)

When we are guests somewhere and our host presents us with food is it right to eat or right to refuse? In most cases, it is surely right to consume what is put on a plate before us. However unpalatable a meal before us may appear, good manners demands that we graciously eat what we are given.

In Botswana 2005 I was served Ox liver at a hospice lunch for guests and patients. At first appearances, it was definitely not something I wanted to eat – and that impression was confirmed after I had taken my first bite! Yet it was right to eat, and would have been wrong to refuse. Daniel in today’s passage faced similar dilemma but, unlike my situation, was right to refuse. He risked offending the king, but did the right thing before God.

But first let me set the scene, then we’ll look at the meal set before Daniel, and finally look at the God this passage sets before us…

Setting the scene

The book of Daniel records events c.600-530BC, when Jews (from the Southern Kingdom of Judah) were in exile in Babylon. Northern kingdom of Israel had already been invaded in 722BC, and its people dispersed, never to return.

These Jews from the south had recently lost their land, their city, their Temple, their freedom and their Jewish identity. As we see occurred to Daniel and his companions in our passge today, the exiles were re-named, re-educated, and forced to learn a new language.  Exiles were feeling sad, depressed, oppressed, and in spiritual crisis! Had God abandoned his people? Were the Jews finished – should they integrate into Babylonian society or remain loyal to the faith of their fathers?

Daniel himself a prominent Jewish exile, with intellectual, adminstrative and prophetic abilities. A man spotted for his gifts and fast-tracked to a prominent position in the Babylonian civil service.

The life of Daniel shows us how to live as God’s faithful people in a foreign land with different values and different ‘gods’. As Christians we are aliens in this world (1 Pet 2:11) and citizens of Heaven not earth (Phil 3:20). This is increasingly evident in our secular society, whose values are rapidly diverging from Judeo-Christian biblical ethics. 

The book of Daniel also contains passages that point us to Jesus (e.g. as the “Son of Man”) and includes some great stories (such as the fiery furnace and the lions’ den) which many of us have known since Sunday School!

The meal set before Daniel

In our passage today young Daniel refuses the King of Babylon’s food. He refuses the meal set before him by his emperor and his employer. Daniel and his companions resolve to take a stand, to draw a line in the sand, to refuse to compromise on the matter of meals.

But why meals? Why did they have an ethical objection to the king’s meat? Opinions differ amongst scholars, but there are three possibilities:

  • First, because perhaps to eat a foreign king’s food would have been to accept his authority and imply loyalty to him and his Babylonian regime. 
  • Alternatively, these men might have thought exile was a time to mourn and eat simply, rather than feast on rich meat (Isa 22:12-13). 
  • Alternatively, Daniel and his compansions may have considered meat unclean because it had been offered to pagan idols –  we just don’t know for sure.

But whatever the exact reason, Daniel had conviction that it was right not to eat meat. His conscience and sense of obedience to God demanded abstaining from the King’s food and eating vegetables instead.

Today, ourc ontemporary society and non-Christian peer pressure encourages us to do things like avoid tax, lie when necessary, speed when we can get away with it, shop ‘til we drop, engage in gossip, put our career before church – and certainly keep quiet about Christ. Yet we should not conform, we should not submit. Let’s abstain from the sinful ungodly beliefs and behaviour of society around us! Let’s resolve to do what is right, as Daniel did. Let’s have the courage to obey our God-given consciences and the ethics of the Bible. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 12, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world”, but instead obey God’s “good, pleasing and perfect will.”

The sovereign God set before us

Indeed, it is God, not Daniel, who is the true hero of this story. The Lord is the most powerful and impressive figure here –  even greater than King Nebuchadnezzar. God’s power and righteousness shown in several ways:

Firstly, it was God “delivered”  the temple articles to Babylon (v.2). Exile was God’s punishment for Judah’s sin and rejection of God (2 Kg 24, 2 Chr 36). Exile promised in Mosaic law (Lev 26:31-34; Dt 28:49-52) and predicted by prophets (e.g Isaiah, Jeremiah. Micah). Exile of Daniel and friends part of God’s plan. Babylonians only tools in God’s hand. Instruments of his good plan. He is the ultimate sovereign portrayed in this passage.

Secondly, we are told in verse 9 that God “caused” the official to show favour and compassion to Daniel. God can turn human hearts. Prayer for people is worthwhile because people’s hearts and minds are in his hand. So it is worthwhile to ask him to turn hearts of people who may oppose us and who reject Christ. 

Thirdly, God was also at work in the lives of Daniel and his faithful companions. God enabled Daniel and friends to remain vigorously healthy with vegetarian diet. God honoured their stand and did not let their physical condition deteriorate compared to their carnivorous peers. Today’s passage is a great advert for a meat-free menu!

Lastly, we see that in addition to physical fitness, God graciously “gave” wisdom, knowledge and understanding to Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. (v.17). It is a reminder that our own talents and abilities are also gifts from God, to be used with thanksgiving and  for his glory – in whatever career or walk of like we are called. As Paul writes in Colossians 3, “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Taken together, this passage presents God as the author of Daniel’s success. He is the one who orchestrated the sequence of events we see in today’s passage. God is in control and completely trustworthy. Daniel believed this and so should we. The sovereignty of God is a great spur to prayer, a fuel for our faith, a source of courage in the face of man-made opposition, and the basis of our hope for the future.