Daniel in Babylonian Court

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Men in the Bible


If Daniel and his three friends were taken to Babylon as captives, how did they end up in Nebuchadnezzar's court?


This question really needs to be answered on two levels. The first is the historical one; the second is more theological. Because on the style and vocabulary of the book, most scholars think Daniel was written around 167 BCE, give or take a few years. It is set, however, in the sixth century during the time of Nebuchadnezzar. This was a difficult and turbulent time. The Assyrians and the Babylonians had been skirmishing for centuries, mostly at the expense of Babylon. Finally, in 626 BCE, Nabopolassar marched on the Assyrian army in Babylon, defeated them, and declared himself to be king of Babylon. Try as they would, the Assyrians couldn't remove him from the city. In short order, the Medes were helping Babylon, and Egypt was on the side of Assyria. Then in 612 BCE, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh fell, never to be rebuilt. A few more battles ensued, but the Babylonians were clearly in charge and by 609 BCE, Assyrian rule had effectively ended.

The Israelites were not exactly innocent bystanders throughout this period. Indeed, Josiah tried to gain his independence when Assyria seemed weak. He attacked the Egyptian army that went to help Assyria in 609 BCE but was killed in the process. On the way back, the Egyptians chose which one of his sons would inherit the throne. His name was Jehoiakim. And even though Assyria had been effectively staunched, the battle between the Egyptians and the Babylonians was far from over. In 605 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar defeated them at Carchemish on the Euphrates. This was a huge victory for Nebuchadnezzar and made him the obvious choice to inherit the kingship of Babylon when his father died within a few months of that battle. After Egypt was defeated, all territories were under Babylonian rule, including Judah.

Some scholars think the very first deportation might have occurred at this time, roughly 604/605 BCE. Judah hadn't really done anything bad yet; in fact, the Babylonian Chronicles state that all the neighboring kings made an appearance at the Babylonian court in order to receive their tribute amount. There is no reason to think Judah was any exception. As part of this process, the best and the brightest of the various nations were offered a chance to serve in the king's court. Some scholars describe this as a possible "exchange program" or even a "scholarship program." Daniel and his friends were of the royal family and nobility, making them prime candidates. Upon their arrival, these young lads were given new names to signify new "ownership" and a new allegiance. They would have been schooled and inducted into the intellectual and cultural aspects of Babylonia. This would, no doubt, include Babylonian gods and ceremonies. The book of Daniel describes some of their experiences in the court.

Back home, Judah tried to rebel against Babylon on several occasions during the next decade, resulting in additional deportations and finally utter defeat and complete destruction in 587 BCE. But by that time, Daniel and his friends would have grown up in Babylon and risen to positions of some authority within the court. The book becomes important, then, for its message: How to live with integrity in a world where the imperial forces are trying to eliminate you. The main point, of course, is that they were not alone. God was with them the whole time achieving his redemptive purposes. They were always vindicated for their faithfulness.

Now fast forward a few centuries to the time of Antiochus IV. The Babylonians had been defeated by the Persians (539 BCE) who were, in turn, defeated by Alexander the Great (334 BCE). When Alexander died in 325 BCE, his empire was divided among his generals. In 301 BCE, they carved out four separate kingdoms. The Ptolemys were given Egypt and Palestine; the Selucids were given Syria and Mesopotamia. The Selucids were never happy that Palestine was part of the Ptolemys' control, but it took them almost a century to get it away from them. In the beginning, the people of Palestine thought this was a good thing. They were given the right to live by their traditional law; the state helped them support the cult; and all temple personnel were exempt from taxes. Indeed, the policies were so attractive that many embraced them for their social and economic benefits. Others thought this was a move away from their heritage and laws and customs.

To make things even more complicated, the Selucid ruler, Antiochus III, had challenged the Romans in 190 BCE. He was defeated, of course, and soundly humiliated. The Romans did not kill him but did impose a heavy indemnity, which was inherited by his son who came to power in 187 BCE. Desperate for money, Antiochus IV tried to get some of the money out of the temple in Jerusalem. Scholars think some pro-Hellenistic Jews might have encouraged him to do this – again for political or economic gain. The traditionalists, however, were able to thwart this attempt, which led to open hostility between the two Jewish groups. The prize, of course, was the high priesthood in Jerusalem. Antiochus finally resolved the matter by choosing his own high priest, an act which outraged the orthodox followers. Tensions continued to rise (as did Antiochus' need for more money) until, finally, he sent an army to attack Jerusalem and take over the temple in 167 BCE. After that, Antiochus outlawed all Jewish practices, such as reading the Torah, keeping the Sabbath, circumcision, dietary laws, and sacrifices in the temple.

This is when scholars think Daniel was written. An author used the stories of old to encourage people who were living in desperate times during the second century. It was never meant to be a historical book, though the stories might have been grounded in historical facts. The book has a theological premise. The main message is that God is always in control and caring for them even when it doesn't seem that way. The author(s) were probably loyal, orthodox Jews. They drew from wisdom traditions and used stories to tell of righteous men who were able to maintain their faithfulness to God. Even though they were in a foreign court, they would prevail and glorify God with their lives. This was a message that the people of the second century desperately needed to hear in order for them to live courageously and to move forward in faith.

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