Dan. 1:8-21 centers on dietary practices as markers of identity. The opening chapter of the book introduces Daniel and his companions in exile and sets up the challenges they will face, trying to live faithfully as Jews in Babylon. This tale is the beginning, the first opportunity to practice resistance, holding fast to their identity rather than assimilating.
Diet is often an indicator of identity, given how central the matter of sustenance is to daily human life. What you do or don’t eat says something about where you came from, who you are, what you value.
Daniel’s rejection of the royal rations is as much about refusing to feast while in exile as it is about rejecting specific impure Gentile food. The palace master is sympathetic to Daniel’s request to be fed more simply, but he is also nervous that Daniel’s frugality will damage his health, getting the master in trouble with the king. So, Daniel proposes a trial of 10 days, during which he and his companions will eat only vegetables and water — poor people’s food. “You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations,” he says. The master agrees.
By divine sustenance, the men come out on the other end of this trial plump and rosy. And so the master continues to comply. In response to their faithfulness in this seemingly small matter, the refusal to assimilate to the expectations of the kingdom in which they reside, God grants them wisdom and knowledge.
Their refusal to adopt the practices of the nation in which they are exiled leads them to a place of honor. It would have been easier to feast on the royal rations, but they choose to remember who they are through their daily meals. They do not forget their God, and neither does God forget them, instead looking after them even as they dwell in a foreign land.
Dan. 3:19-23, 26-28 tells the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. In Daniel’s ongoing story of exile and resistance, these three refuse Nebuchadnezzar’s command that they worship an idol, and their defiance enrages him. They know Nebuchadnezzar has vowed to throw anyone who refuses to worship the idol into the furnace, but nevertheless when brought before him they declare their belief that God will deliver them — from the fire and from the king. They refuse to capitulate to an earthly king.
Their defiance stokes the king’s rage, and he orders the furnace turned up even hotter, so hot that the guards who threw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into it die. The bound prisoners fall into the furnace, where they are seen standing, unbound, with a fourth figure. Nebuchadnezzar is astonished and calls them out. They comply, and the king and his court see that the fire hadn’t harmed them.
It’s a strange story, on the one hand about people resisting earthly power, on the other about their resistance earning favor from those same powers. Much like in the previous story, from chapter 1, the men’s faithfulness to God — which was expected to result in punishment or death — leads to prosperity. This sort of good news is only temporary, though. A fickle king like Nebuchadnezzar will throw you in a furnace in the morning and promote you in the afternoon. Yes, Nebuchadnezzar praises their God, but he knows little of their faith.
What does it mean to hold on to one’s identity, to refuse to assimilate, while also settling in and dwelling in a strange place, receiving favor from leaders you never sought to please? There’s a risk in becoming too comfortable in exile. Perhaps that is why remembering the fire that preceded their prosperity — and their willingness to be subjected to it — remains so important for us.
Meghan Florian, of Durham, N.C., teaches writing at William Peace University. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.