1. Four Hebrew Youths in Babylon (Daniel 1)

Audio (18:22)

Daniel Refuses the King's Provisions, artist unknown, early 20th century illustration.
Daniel Refuses the King's Provisions, artist unknown, early 20th century illustration.

The overriding theme of the Book of Daniel is that God is sovereign over the kingdoms of this world. One nation rises, another falls, but Yahweh is Lord of All. The Book of Daniel begins shortly after the fall of the Assyrian Empire and the rise of the Babylonian Empire.

For the people of God who are exiled during this tumultuous time, it means being physically displaced and relocated in a completely foreign culture that doesn't honor the God of Israel, his law, or his people's customs. It is a time of learning to live faithful lives within a foreign culture and value system. That is the challenge we meet in chapter 1.

Nebuchadnezzar Conquers Jerusalem (1:1-2)

"1  In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2  And the Lord[9] delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god." (1:1-2)

Daniel's story begins in a troubled period in Judah's life. In 609 BC, King Josiah (640-609 BC) has just been killed in a battle with Pharaoh Neco of Egypt, a regional power that seeks to control the cities of Palestine and Judah. Josiah's successor, Jehoahaz, reigns only three months until Pharaoh Neco removes him (2 Kings 23:30-32), and replaces him with his brother Jehoiakim, who becomes a vassal of Egypt (2 Kings 23:34).

But Pharaoh Neco's influence in Judah is short-lived. Nebuchadnezzar, general of the armies of Babylon, defeats the combined forces of Egypt and what is left of Assyria in the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BC, signaling the end of Assyrian might and Egyptian intervention. Nebuchadnezzar II then succeeds his father as king of Babylon and reigns 605-562 BC.

James J. Tissot, 'Daniel and the Young Men' (1896-1903), from gouache original, Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'Daniel and the Young Men' (1896-1903), from gouache original, Jewish Museum, New York.

To consolidate his victory over Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar sends his troops south into Syria and Palestine to end Egyptian control of that region. Whether he actually besieges  Jerusalem with his massive army, or only threatens to do so, is unclear. The bottom line is that Jerusalem seems to have surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar with minimal resistance. Jehoiakim now switches allegiance from Egypt to Babylon and becomes Babylon's vassal.

This is the first of three waves of exiles deported from Judah to Babylon. This first group includes Daniel and his friends (1:1). Jehoiakim also begins giving tribute to Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BC (2 Kings 24:1). Babylonian troops remain in the area, invading Syria in 604, Ashkelon in 603, and clash with Pharaoh Neco on the borders of Egypt in 601.

Hebrew Youths Deported to Babylon (1:3-5)

Since Babylon forces Judah to become a vassal state, it is customary to extract tribute to be carried to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar takes plunder from the temple, and demands young men from the nobility and royal families to be deported to Babylon to be trained for service in Nebuchadnezzar's court. They probably also serve as hostages to ensure that Judah doesn't rebel against Babylon.

"3  Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility[10] -- 4  young men[11] without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king's palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. 5  The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king's table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king's service." (1:3-5)

Wise rulers who seek to control the world don't rely only on their own wisdom. They seek counsel from those who understand the lands they have conquered, who can advise them and become part of their diplomatic corps. Ashpenaz is looking for men with the following qualifications:

  1. Young men. We're not sure of the age, since the noun yeled is imprecise. They were perhaps around 15 or so, since Daniel lived through the entire period of the exile. Decades after this, Persian education began in the early teens and was completed by seventeen years of age.[12]
  2. From royal families or nobility. This would help them mix well in a court setting.
  3. Without any physical impediment.
  4. Handsome.
  5. Showing intellectual aptitude, well-informed, quick to understand.
  6. Ability to function in a king's court.

Daniel and his friends were from the noble and royal families of Jerusalem, and fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy to Hezekiah many years before:

"And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon." (Isaiah 39:7; 2 Kings 20:18)

Were they actually made eunuchs? Perhaps, but we don't know. The noun sārîs can mean either "eunuch" or, later, "official," depending on the context.[13] We do know, however, that in the ancient Near East, especially in Persia, eunuchs were considered to be more loyal servants to their master, since they had no families to support or in-laws to promote in court.

One feature of the JesusWalk Bible Study Series is discussion questions that draw attention to important points in the lesson. You'll learn best if you pause and take time to write out an answer to the question. If you lead a class or small group, these questions are designed to stimulate discussion and learning. If you study online, you can post your answers on the Joyful Heart Forum by clicking on the web address following the question. You can also learn from how others have answered. Just make sure that your postings are given in love. You can disagree with others, but must show restraint and love. Denomination bashing is prohibited! Okay, now attempt to write an answer to the question.

Q1. (Daniel 1:1-5) Have you ever made a rapid transition between your customary culture and a new and radically different culture? What did it feel like? Were you able to take your faith with you, or did it fade to the background during this time?

Names (1:6-7)

"6  Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.
7  The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego." (1:6-7)

One of the elements imposed on these four Hebrew young men is the imposition of Babylonian names, several of which include the names of Babylonian gods. For the Babylonians this is a matter of convenience rather than ideology, but for the Hebrews, who believed a person's character and future could be prefigured by their names, it is probably very difficult.

Hebrew Name

Babylonian Name

Daniel, "God is my judge."

Belteshazzar, "Protect his life" or "Lady, protect the king." Belet was the wife of Bel, a Babylonian god (4:8).[14]

Hananiah, "Yahweh has been gracious."

Shadrach, "command of Aku" (Sumerian moon god) or "I am very fearful (of god)."

Mishael, "Who is what God is?"

Meshach, "I am of little account."

Azariah, "Yahweh has helped."

Abednego, "Servant of the shining one," perhaps a word play that includes the god Nabû.

Q2. (Daniel 1:1-7) What changes did Daniel and his friends experience? What was their status in Jerusalem? In Babylon? What do you think was the effect of changing their names to Babylonian names? What impact might it have on them to be made eunuchs? Did they make compromises? If so, why?

Daniel Resolves Not to Defile Himself (1:8-10)

"8  But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. 9  Now God had caused the official to show favor and sympathy to Daniel, 10  but the official told Daniel, 'I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you.'" (1:8-10)

Daniel emerges as the leader of the four young men here. He is the one who comes to a firm conviction[15] concerning possible defilement, and the one who speaks to the official charged with their care.

Daniel and his friends have suffered deportation, change of their name, and education in the occult knowledge of Babylon. But when it comes to the food[16] they are given, Daniel balks. He is concerned with defilement.[17]

What defilement was Daniel concerned about? We aren't told, so there has been a lot of speculation. Here are the possibilities:

  1. Food offered to idols.[18] Baldwin notes that food offered to idols is a New Testament controversy that wasn't mentioned in the Old Testament. Additionally, the Babylonians offered every other kind of food to idols.[19]
  2. Eating unclean animals, such as pork or horse. Jewish law required draining of blood from meat (Leviticus 3:17; 11:1-47; 17:10-14). But, if this is the issue, why refrain from wine?
  3. Undue obligation to the king. According to eastern practices, to eat someone's food was to commit oneself to friendship, of covenant significance. Baldwin sees the necessary clue in 11:26 -- "Those who eat from the king's provisions will try to destroy him...." So some believe Daniel was rejecting dependence upon the king.[20]
  4. Honoring God. Longman suggests that Daniel is concerned to attribute good health to God, not to the king's excellent food.[21]
  5. Dietary guidelines. Some suggest that Daniel's diet is to model the superiority of a vegetarian diet and abstinence from alcoholic beverage, though later in life Daniel seems to have eaten meat and drunk wine, except when fasting (10:3).

Scholars I respect advocate for positions 3 and 4, but I'm not convinced. I think either concern about food offered to idols, or perhaps the kind of meat being offered (or both) would best explain Daniel's petition to have an alternate diet for the Jewish young men.

The chief official is sympathetic towards Daniel and his friends, but is concerned for his life, so he declines Daniel's petition.

Q3. (Daniel 1:8-10) Why do you think Daniel took a stand concerning being defiled by the king's food and wine? How do you think eating the king's food would cause defilement to Daniel's conscience? What does this tell you about Daniel?

A Ten Day Test (1:11-16)

But Daniel doesn't give up. Notice the wisdom with which Daniel approaches this problem. He doesn't go on a hunger strike. Instead he proposes an experiment, a test.

"11  Daniel then said to the guard[22] whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, 12  'Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13  Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.' 14  So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days. 15  At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. 16  So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead." (1:11-16)

The steward or guard assigned to them agrees to give it a try for 10 days, and after the 10 days, the Hebrew young men look more robust than the other young men in training in the palace.

Q4. (Daniel 1:8-16) What is Daniel's first approach to eat a different diet? What does he do when his first attempt failed? What is his demeanor towards those over him? In what ways do you think God affects the outcome of Daniel's request?

God-Given Insight (1:17)

Daniel and his friends are subjected to an intensive education. Their overseer is charged:

"... to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.... They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king's service." (1:4, 5)

When this course of instruction is complete, the young men are well-educated.

"To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature[23] and learning. And Daniel could understand[24] visions[25] and dreams[26] of all kinds." (1:17)

Notice that the narrator attributes their intellectual grasp and wisdom not to their education, but to God. "God gave knowledge and understanding...." I've personally spent many years in colleges and graduate schools. I've found that it is possible to educate people -- or indoctrinate them -- but it is not easy to teach them wisdom. The four Hebrew men are blessed with a command of all that the Babylonian empire can teach them, but they are also taught wisdom by God.

Daniel has all this plus a prophetic gift. He has the ability to "understand visions and dreams of all kinds." God gives him this ability so he can influence the kings he serves under, but also to see into the future to inform the Jewish people of what is to come, and to inform Christians concerning the Last Days, the resurrection, and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

The Hebrew Youths Begin their Service (1:18-21)

"18  At the end of the time set by the king to bring them in, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19  The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king's service.[27] 20  In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. 21  And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus." (1:18-21)

The writer informs us that not only were they educated, but they "graduated at the top of their class." "Ten times better" is a way of saying that they greatly excelled their peers -- a fact that caused jealousy and persecution later (2:49; 3:8; 6:3-4).

All four Hebrew youths enter the king's service and became part of the palace court. But Daniel, the writer tells us, serves so long that he serves not only in the Babylonian court, but also under the Medo-Persian rulers as well, as we'll see in chapter 6.

Lessons for Disciples

Daniel: Faithful Discipleship in a Foreign Land, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in book formats: paperback, Kindle, PDF

As we look for lessons we can apply to our lives as disciples of Jesus, we can see several:

  1. Though our lives may take wrenching turns (such as Daniel's exile), God knows these things and works through them to achieve his purposes.
  2. We must learn flexibility to live in the culture we are placed in, without being unfaithful to the Kingdom of God to which we pledge allegiance -- the fine art of compromise without capitulation.
  3. Daniel seeks compromise with gentleness, not confrontation. He suggests a limited-time experiment. Finding compromise involves discerning the interests of each party (in this case, the health of the young men, and faithfulness to their religion), and then finding a way to meet the needs of all, so far as that is possible.
  4. True education and wisdom, when aided by God, doesn't restrict us, but can cause us to have more wisdom and breadth than our peers.


Father, thank you for the example of Daniel in seeking to be faithful to you. Teach us wisdom so that we may live in this world but not be of this world. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God...." (Daniel 1:1a, NIV)

"Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine...." (Daniel 1:8a, NIV)

"To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds." (Daniel 1:17, NIV)


[9] "Lord" is ʾādôn, "Lord, master, owner." To avoid the risk of taking God's name (YHWH) in vain, devout Jews began to substitute the word ʾădōnā(y) for the proper name itself (TWOT 13). The proper name YHWH (Yahweh) appears only in chapter 9, in verses 2, 4, 10, 13, 14, and 20. ʾĀdôn is the normal word we find for God in this book.

[10] Partemîm, "nobles," a loan word from Old Persian, found only in Daniel and Esther (TWOT #1839).

[11] Yeled, "child, son, youth," from yālad, "bear, beget." Generally used for very young children but may refer to adolescents and sometimes even young adults (TWOT #867b).

[12] Longman, Daniel, p. 48, fn. 26, cites L.J. Wood, Commentary on Daniel (1973), who references Plato, Alcibiades 1:121, and Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 1.2.

[13] R.D. Patterson, sārîs, TWOT #1545.

[14] Baldwin, Daniel, p. 81, fn. 1, citing A.R. Millard, who draws on A.-R. Berger.

[15] "Resolved" (NIV, NRSV, ESV) literally, "purposed in his heart" (KJV), using the verb sûm, "put, place, set, appoint, make." The basic root idea of this verb is "to put, place something somewhere" (Gary G. Cohen, TWOT #2243).

[16] "Royal" (NIV), "royal rations" (NRSV), "portion" (KJV), is pat bāg, "portion (of food) for a king, delicacies (TWOT #1851). It also occurs in 1:16 and 11:26.

[17] "Defile" is the Hithpael stem ofʾal, , "defile, pollute," from a similar Aramaic root, "abhor, loathe." The pollution specified is from any breach of moral or ceremonial law (R. Laird Harris, TWOT #301).

[18] So Young, Daniel, p. 44, who cites Keil.

[19] Baldwin, Daniel, pp. 82-83.

[20] Baldwin, Daniel, p. 83.

[21] So Longman, Daniel, pp. 52-54.

[22] "Guard" (NIV, NRSV), "steward" (ESV), "Melzar" (KJV) is Hebrew melṣar, "guardian," a Babylonian title, whose meaning is uncertain.

[23] "Literature" (NIV), "learning" (KJV) is sēper, "writing, book," related to sōpēr, "scribe" (R.D. Patterson, TWOT #1540a).

[24] "Understand/have insight/have understanding" is bîn, "understand, consider, perceive." The Hiphil stem, as here, especially emphasizes ability to understand (Louis Goldberg, TWOT #239).

[25] "Visions" is ḥāzôn, "vision," from ḥāzâ, "look, see, behold, prophesy" (TWOT 663a).

[26] "Dreams" is ḥalôm. What Daniel is dealing with are revelatory dreams, in which God conveys information to mankind. In one sort of dreams the divine disclosure is through symbolic things, persons, and actions. The dreamer is puzzled and requires the aid of a human interpreter. The interpreter (prophet) is the primary agent of revelation, the dream being only the occasion (Robert D. Culver, TWOT 663a).

[27] "Entered the king's service" (NIV), "were stationed in the king's court" (NRSV), "stood before the king" (ESV, KJV), reflect the extremely common verb ʿāmad, "take one's stand, stand," here, "present oneself before in a palace" (as a retainer, courtier) (BDB 764, 1d).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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