Faith in the Midst of a Personal Crisis – An Excerpt from Hearing the Message of Daniel
Most sermons I heard on the first chapter of Daniel in my youth emphasized the negative refusal, the courageous stand of Daniel and his friends. The preachers and Bible study leaders never commented on the remarkable degree of acceptance that they showed. Three times they said “Yes,” before they said “No.”
In today’s excerpt from Hearing the Message of Daniel, author Christopher Wright challenges us–in light of Daniel’s experience in Babylon–to think about how we engage in our own secular culture.
FAITH IN THE MIDST OF A PERSONAL CRISIS (1:3–20)
The international crisis that had engulfed their world also hurled Daniel and his friends into a cultural and personal crisis that tested them severely, even though they were so young at the time. They had to face not merely the fact of living in Babylon but also the demand that they enter the service of its political administration. This was due to Nebuchadnezzar’s government policy.
Nebuchadnezzar decided to give a cultural re-education to the cream of the populations he had conquered and then employ them in the service of his new and growing state. It may have been rather like the way the British Empire provided English education for an elite among “the natives” in countries like India, so that there could be a class of competent administrators to cope with routine civil affairs under the imperial government. It sounds generous, and doubtless there were some (as in British India) who were grateful for the education and opportunities they obtained. At the same time, of course, it also created distance between the beneficiaries and the rest of the population; it was a subversively privileging tactic that the imperial power could exploit to its own advantage.
Nebuchadnezzar was specific about the kind of people he wanted. They would be physically and intellectually equipped for service. Daniel and his friends had those qualities—qualities that would have destined them for the service of God and the government in Jerusalem but now, by the cruel twist of history, were at the disposal of the king who was soon to destroy Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar’s government service diploma course lasted three years and involved four elements:
1. Education in Babylonian Language, Culture, and Learning
2. Maintenance by the State
3. A Career in the Political Administration of the Babylonian Empire
4. The Substitution of Babylonian Names for Their Own Ethnic Names
For young Jewish men brought up in Jerusalem, it called for a huge cultural change and re-orientation. They must have wrestled hard with their consciences as they came to decisions about how to respond. Could they accept these new arrangements? Would they be compromising their faith in Yahweh or even committing idolatry by submitting to such a programme?
Did they have a choice anyway? Well, yes. They could have chosen the path of total refusal, which might have ended in martyrdom. Then they might have gone down in history among the long line of those who have died for their faith and convictions. It wasn’t that they lacked the courage for such a course. We know that because later on, in Daniel 3 and 6, we find that all four of them on different occasions were prepared to die if necessary. But instead, we find that they accepted three out of the four requirements. Most sermons I heard on this chapter of Daniel in my youth emphasized the negative refusal, the courageous stand of Daniel and his friends. The preachers and Bible study leaders never commented on the remarkable degree of acceptance that they showed. Three times they said “Yes,” before they said “No.”
They Said “Yes” to a Pagan Education
They were to be taught all “the language and literature of the Babylonians” (Dan 1:4b). That is, they were to have a complete re-education in Babylonian culture and civilization. Now the Mesopotamian civilization was one of the oldest and most advanced of the ancient world. It had made great achievements in literature, mathematics, astronomy, and primitive science. But it was also riddled with all the features of polytheism, that is, a religion with many gods and idols. It was full of magic and occult practices. It was particularly obsessed with astrology and all the superstitions that accompany that ancient pseudo-science.
So a Babylonian education was definitely a mixed bag. Much of it could be accepted as positive human achievement, but much of it, from the viewpoint of Jewish monotheism, would have been distasteful to say the least and downright offensive and idolatrous at worst. Babylonian education was based on a religious-cultural worldview that was fundamentally different at many points from the faith of Old Testament Israel.
Yet these young Jewish teenagers not only applied themselves to the study of it but even gained distinctions and got higher final results in their oral examinations than their Babylonian peers! That was in itself an amazing feat. The Babylonian language used a cuneiform script with hundreds of stick-like symbols, far more complex than their own Hebrew alphabetic language. It would also have been spiritually challenging since many of the texts of Babylonian literature would have been religious, full of the gods and rituals of Babylon.
And yet, our text tells us that not only did they work hard in their studies but also that God himself gave them the understanding of all they were learning. That is also remarkable. God helped them to understand things that were actually contradictory to what their faith taught them about God! They needed to know what the Babylonians believed; they didn’t need to believe it themselves. There is surely a lesson there that speaks to the challenge of living as believers within secular culture. We need to understand the culture we live in without sharing its belief system.
The fact that in the following chapters we find them standing firm in their faith and resisting idolatry must mean that their childhood grounding in the faith of Israel was strong enough to cope with Babylon’s university course. They pursued their studies objectively and critically. They could learn all that it had to teach them, but they didn’t have to believe all it assumed. They could master its content without swallowing its falsehood. And the education they excelled in gave them access to positions in society and government from which they were able to have remarkable influence.
There is a line of thinking among some Christians that Christians ought to have a completely separate educational system. It is said that the secular, humanist assumptions on which our Western schools and universities are built don’t fit with a biblical view of truth. So we should either educate our children at home or establish Christian schools and universities where the whole curriculum would be structured on a foundation of biblical convictions. I know people who believe this and act upon it, and I respect their views. I’m sure there is a place for Christian schools, colleges, and universities, if they truly know what they are seeking to do. But I am not entirely convinced that it is the only legitimate way to respond to the increasing secularization (and paganizing) of the surrounding culture in the West. It seems to me that what really counts is not to protect young people from the secular paganism of our culture by withdrawing them from all contact with it, but rather to teach them to exercise informed discernment so that from a position of strong faith and biblical knowledge they can interact with it and distinguish what is good from what is evil. That is the job of the Christian home and the church (and Christian educational institutions where appropriate), a job in which we sadly often fail. For how can Christians make biblical truth relevant to the needs and questions of our pagan culture unless they understand that culture as well as the gospel? This is what John Stott used to call “double listening,” that is, we need to listen to the word of God and also listen to the world around us.
We listen to God’s word in order to believe it, submit to it, and obey it (or rather to obey God through taking heed to the Scriptures). But we also listen to the world, not in order to submit or conform to it, but in order to understand it so that we can meaningfully communicate and relate the gospel to it. I have always been grateful that our children spent part of their education for five years in Indian schools, rubbing shoulders with Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, and then the next part in a British sixth-form (the two years of high school prior to university), mixing with the usual crop of agnostics, skeptics, and atheists (pupils and staff!) that one finds in a sixth-form. They brought home many a question to hammer out over our evening meal. They had to defend their own beliefs and stand up for their own choices and moral values, but I think they became better aware of the surrounding culture and better equipped to be salt and light in our secular world than if they had had an exclusively “Christian education.”
They Said “Yes” to a Political Career
They knew that they were being groomed for government, but whose government? Not merely the government of a pagan nation, with its idolatry and its arrogance, but specifically Babylon, a nation which had already been the target of several speeches by Israel’s prophets predicting that it was heading for God’s judgment. They may well have heard the scroll that Jeremiah sent, predicting complete destruction for Babylon in due course, in Jeremiah 50–51! In particular, they would be serving Nebuchadnezzar, the king who had snatched them from home and who would soon attack Jerusalem again to finally destroy it altogether. How could they possibly betray their homeland and accept a job serving such a king and country? Yet they did. In fact, they were prepared to regard their service of the government as a way of serving God himself—as they later told Nebuchadnezzar to his face when he was threatening to cremate them alive…