I think there is much we can learn from Daniel in general, and particularly from the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity in Daniel 4, about how believers can live and work in a violent, dangerous, frightened, indeed, insane world. But it’s a little unnerving, to say the least…
Daniel Found a Way to “Fit In”
Of course, he had every reason NOT to fit in: this is the nation that brought his people into bondage, destroyed Jersualem, destroyed the temple, defiled the holy vessels and brought them to Babylon, to the temple treasury of a pagan god. Forcibly conscripted Daniel and others like him into the service of the king. As a sign of their subjugation, Nebuchadnezzar humiliated Daniel and his friends by giving them pagan names, names “after the name of my gods.” Daniel had every reason to be full of hate, vengeance and revulsion. He could justly abhor & loathe everything about Babylon, its people, and especially its king.
But he didn’t. Daniel didn’t make some artificial separation between the world of politics and the world of faith. He didn’t say “Well, states must do some things, but God’s people can’t be a part of that,” withdrawing in pious separation, lest he dirty his hands with the affairs pagan statecraft. After all, Daniel could have hurled Karl Barth’s “Nein!” or decided to be Stanley Hauerwas’s “little flock” or, take the quick exit and simply been martyred. Despite it’s high cost, martyrdom, as a decision is clear, simple and easy.
Instead, Daniel made a hard, complex choice: he chose to engage. We read in Daniel 1 that he took the classes at “Babylon University” in the languages and arts of Babylon. That would of course have included natural history, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, mythology. But such an education also included occult, astrology, divination, mediumship, oneiromancy. Stuff forbidden in the Torah (Cf. Deut. 18:9-14). Not only did Daniel not refuse those studies, in fact, he excelled in them! I»m still wrapping my mind around the Torah explicitly prohibits these things as abominations yet Daniel mastered them.
Like many who try to serve as Christians in realms sometimes decried as irredeemably beyond Christian values, such as (depending on your point of view) politics, the military, intelligence, and even for some, police work…Daniel had to live in a zone in which others could easily fault him, see him as compromising his ethics, betraying his heritage, denying his identity. Daniel the soothsayer, Daniel the medium.
In addition, Daniel doesn’t talk to Nebuchadnezzar about the covenant, the Torah, the Exodus, or Judaism. He doesn’t remind Nebuchadnezzar that he destroyed Yahweh’s temple and so, has little chance Yahweh will favor him with the answer to his enigma. He doesn’t demand Nebuchadnezzar be circumcised, become a proselyte.
Given his approved place in the canon, we can’t see Daniel here caving or being culturally co-opted into conformity. Daniel finds a way to adapt and be present within this alien, hostile, evil culture, in the midst of the (successful!) enemies of God. But Daniel fit in in such a way that he was in place when God needed a witness close to the King
I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I’m not saying sure, go out and take courses on the dark arts! We cannot just blunder into secular or pagan culture, take up all its worst features, be careless about things the scripture says are forbidden, and expect to be fine. This is very risky, very complex stuff. It is not for everyone, indeed, not for the vast majority. But God does not want the Nebuchadnezzars of this world to be without a witness, and the model of cultural martyrdom—total separation and abandonment of the culture—leaves Nebuchanezzar and all like him without a witness. So are we really surprised when the Nebuchadnezzar’s oppose a faith they’ve never really observed close-up?
Daniel Found a Way to Stand Out
Though Daniel learned to fit in, he did not become “babylonianized” or paganized. He never really became one of them, but manifests a distinctive identity, a striking presence, every time he enters the story. How did he do that?
We consistently read of Daniel that in the midst of this pagan environment, Daniel excelled. Excellence always stands out. He excelled in the performance of his duties, even though that likely raised a question in the minds of many of his Jewish friends. This meant that even in problems or situations that were mundane, matters of royal policy or practice, Daniel must have had a fine way of anaylzying problems and proposing solutions. But can you hear his pharisaical cultural martyr friends? “I don’t know how that Daniel can claim to be a good Jew and spend all that time with astrologers, sorcerers, necromancers, diviners…how could a real Jew who cared about Torah do that?” Daniel reminds me of Nehemiah, the cup-bearer of the Persian king. Nehemiah put his life on the line every day, tasting the king’s food to insure it was not poisoned! I doubt seriously he only tested the kosher food. So he risks his life every day for pagan king in a job that required he violate the Jewish dietary laws, so vital to Jewish identity in exile! And yet Nehemiah, like Daniel, became God’s point-man for a vital task.
Another key to Daniel’s fitting in but also standing out is that Daniel created boundaries for his own life. Chapter 1 tells a pecular story. The Hebrew captives arrive in Babylon and are given great accommodations as they start training for their court service. The palace staff roll into their suite a food cart loaded with the finest Babylonian foods and wines. By the way, we have scores of ancient recipes telling us of the sumptuous, exotic fare enjoyed by the Babylonian royals. (E-mail me and I’ll send you the info!) I can imagine these four Jewish guys looking at each other and saying, “Do any of you guys know if we can actually eat this?” And after a moment, someone says, “I don’t even know what this IS!” With no idea what to do, Daniel made a radical choice: they would eat only vegetables and drink only water! Note that nothing in the Bible even mandates or even advises vegetarianism. Nor does scripture demand abstinence from wine. In fact, no unclean wine is spoken of in the dietary laws to my knowledge. But Daniel knew that, immersed in a pagan world in their public life, they needed some kind of boundary, something daily, something intimate, something in their private life, something bound up with his very existence, to keep their spiritual compass pointing to true north. Food was the presenting crisis, so food became the p0int for drawing a personal boundary. So this man who had to live every day on the other side of a line clearly drawn in scripture realized that to survive, he had to draw some other lines in places where perhaps scripture did not draw them.
Also, Daniel manifested the presence, the reality of God in a way that his pagan colleagues and superiors could see. Nebuchadnezzar says Daniel is one “In whom is the spirit of the holy gods.” I don’t even want to begin speculating what, in his pagan, theologically chaotic mind, Nebuchadnezzar could possibly have meant by that expression. It wouldn’t have been pretty, I’l say that. His plural “spirit of the holy gods” I’m pretty sure was not related to a trinitarian view of God! Still, the pagan king could look at this Jewish man, member of a defeated race, a discredited religion, and say “Whatever I know is real about divinity, about the world of the spirit, this guy has got it…”
Beyond that, Daniel could see how God was working in the life of his pagan ruler. He could have so easily unleashed his anger: “King, your pagan mind is so full of error and idolatry, I can’t imagine how anything you’d dream could possibly be the truth!” Or even “Dream…ha! God, the true God, is your worst nightmare!” Then again, today, some theolgian might say, “Well, Nebuchadnezzar, unless you are part of a community of faith that together can define the meaning of your experience in light of a shared tradition, unless we can read in community, there really isn’t much I can say. You see things one way, we in our community see them another.” Or imagine a Christian post-modern theologian reminding Nebuchadnezzar that really all truth is socially constructed, that there is no single, unchanging truth, no metanarrative that we can actually turn to, so this dream can only reveal to Nebuchadnezzar more of his own social vision; it can only show him what his culture has already imprinted in his ideological consciousness. Thank God Daniel had not read Berger and Luckmann! There’s really nothing out there, nothing transcendent that might actually break into his mind from beyond… No. Daniel could read the eternal, unchanging truth of God in the story of pagan Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. A message utterly concealed to Nebuchadnezzar’s counsellors. A word of truth, from beyond. Way beyond.
(To be continued)