Babylonian Education

The first hurdle for scholars in Mesopotamian schools during the era of Nebuchadnezzar was to master cuneiform, the system of writing that the scribes had been using for more than a millennium. Cuneiform was extremely complex, involving five hundred separate signs (1), many of which had multiple meanings (2).

The traditional curriculum focused on the lore accumulated by the Sumerians, whose civilization had flourished before 2000 B.C. A typical school text that students copied and memorized presented a cuneiform list of Sumerian words (all the kinds of trees, plants, tools, garments, stone objects, or government officials, for example) together with their translations in Akkadian, the ancient language of Babylon (3). In Daniel's day, however, even Akkadian was becoming a forgotten language. It was being replaced by Aramaic, the language of commerce throughout the Middle East (4). Sumerian had therefore receded from its former prominence in scribal education, and the new emphasis was upon the preservation of Akkadian. Many of the late Babylonian school texts found recently in the ruins of a temple were lists of Akkadian verbs (5).

The students in a Babylonian school had to master a broad range of subjects. Besides learning word lists, they studied moral fables, proverbs, and literary classics (such as the Epic of Creation and the Epic of Gilgamesh), as well as works on history, law (such as the ancient Code of Hammurapi), and mathematics (6). The Babylonians were proficient at solving problems in astronomy and engineering at a level comparable to modern high-school algebra. They solved them intuitively, however, without recourse to abstract equations (7). Much of what was taught in Babylonian schools would today be classified as occult science. The texts that students were required to read included many dealing with omens, astrological phenomena, or methods to combat evil spirits (8).

It is doubtful that Daniel and his friends could have become adept at reading and writing cuneiform with only a few years of training. Nor could they have learned much Sumerian. The education of a scribe normally lasted from childhood to young manhood (9). Yet in a few years, the four Hebrews could have learned enough Akkadian and enough cuneiform signs to read the standard school texts with the help of syllabaries and dictionaries. Perhaps they were permitted to read Aramaic translations in place of the originals. The likelihood that such translations would have been written on perishable materials explains why none have survived (10).

Usefulness of the Captives

Nebuchadnezzar found the captives useful for many reasons (11).

  1. They served as hostages. Judah would be less likely to rebel if, in punishment, the finest of her young men, including relatives of the king, might be killed. As it turned out, Judah rebelled anyway.
  2. He wanted them to grace his court, where they would serve as a constant reminder of his great military achievements. Imagine the effect of court pageantry upon any visitor. The spectacle of princes from all the adjoining nations paying homage to Nebuchadnezzar and doing his bidding would quicken the visitor's own reverence for the king.
  3. He intended to prepare a class of royal servants who were Babylonian in their language, education, and thinking and yet who retained a good working knowledge of Jewish culture. In days to come, such men might be useful in governing Judah.

An Old Prophecy Fulfilled

The removal of Daniel and his three friends from their homeland was the distant outworking of an incident about a hundred years earlier. The king of Judah at that time was Hezekiah, a man who served God so fervently and consistently that the verdict of Scripture is,

5 He trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him.

2 Kings 18:5

After fourteen successful years on the throne, Hezekiah fell victim to a deadly sickness.

1 In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came unto him, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.

2 Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the Lord,

3 And said, Remember now, O Lord, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore.

4 Then came the word of the Lord to Isaiah, saying,

5 Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years.

6 And I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria: and I will defend this city.

7 And this shall be a sign unto thee from the Lord, that the Lord will do this thing that he hath spoken;

8 Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which is gone down in the sun dial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down.

Isaiah 38:1-8

When Hezekiah pleaded with God to spare his life, the prophet Isaiah came as God's messenger and announced that the king's life would be prolonged fifteen years (v. 5). To confirm the word of the prophet, God caused the shadow of the sun to move backward on the sundial of the king (v. 8).

The sickness indeed departed from Hezekiah. Yet despite all the grace poured out upon his life, he soon fell into sin. The sin occurred when the king of Babylon sent ambassadors to congratulate Hezekiah on his recovery.

1 At that time Merodachbaladan, the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present to Hezekiah: for he had heard that he had been sick, and was recovered.

2 And Hezekiah was glad of them, and shewed them the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment, and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah shewed them not.

3 Then came Isaiah the prophet unto king Hezekiah, and said unto him, What said these men? and from whence came they unto thee? And Hezekiah said, They are come from a far country unto me, even from Babylon.

4 Then said he, What have they seen in thine house? And Hezekiah answered, All that is in mine house have they seen: there is nothing among my treasures that I have not shewed them.

5 Then said Isaiah to Hezekiah, Hear the word of the Lord of hosts;

6 Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store until this day, shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith the Lord.

7 And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, which thou shalt beget, shall they take away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.

8 Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, Good is the word of the Lord which thou hast spoken. He said moreover, For there shall be peace and truth in my days.

Isaiah 39:1-8

What exactly did Hezekiah do wrong? He offended God in two ways (v. 2).

  1. He failed to acknowledge God as the source of his wealth and success. He was guilty of boasting.
  2. He curried the favor of a pagan king. He sidled up to the world and sought the world's approval. Perhaps he was seeking to enhance national security by means of a political alliance with Babylon, whereas he should have trusted in God for protection.

God pronounced a twofold judgment upon Hezekiah.

  1. All the treasure accumulated by Hezekiah and his predecessors would be removed to Babylon (v. 6). Indeed, beginning in 605, the Babylonians stole the wealth of Judah. The pillage continued until the nation was left despoiled and desolate.
  2. Certain young men from his seed would be taken away to serve as eunuchs in the court of Babylon (v. 7). That they would become eunuchs is obviously part of the judgment. The word "eunuch" must therefore imply humiliation. It cannot mean a court official. Thus, it seems inescapable that, in fulfillment of prophecy, Daniel and his friends were actually made eunuchs.

Although these princely young men suffered for another man's sin, the reader should not feel that God was unfair to them. On the contrary, as pointed out by the prophet Jeremiah, their captivity was, in a sense, a particular blessing, for they were spared from the horrors that would soon fall upon Jerusalem (Jer. 24:4-10). Many of those left behind were destined to perish from starvation, pestilence, or the sword.

The prospect that all his wealth would go into the coffers of Babylon should have been appalling to Hezekiah. It should have been even more appalling that sons of a future generation would be disgraced by castration and made unable to perpetuate his line. Yet his last words in response to the judgment, "For there shall be peace and truth in my days" (v.8; abbreviated in 2 Kings 20:19), seem complacent or even flippant when taken alone. His true attitude is, however, clarified by his preceding words: "Good is the word of the Lord which thou hast spoken" (v. 8). These appear sincerely contrite.

Another account reveals that after the king recovered from illness, he fell into pride, provoking God's wrath on himself and his people. Only by humbling himself was he able to avert further trouble (2 Chron. 32:24-26, 31). The two accounts are likely parallel. The pride that the chronicler records was probably the same that Hezekiah expressed when he boasted before the Babylonians, and the chronicler's story of the king humbling himself probably refers to his contrite response when Isaiah rebuked him.

The fulfillment of God's judgment on Hezekiah is a fitting beginning to the Book of Daniel for two reasons.

  1. The record of this judgment, pronounced over a century earlier, shows that God controls the future, and teaches the reader to approach the prophecies of Daniel with a right attitude—with seriousness and respect, and with confidence that they will come to pass.
  2. The record of this judgment alerts the reader to several instructive contrasts between Hezekiah, the man whom God punished, and Daniel, the man whom God blessed.
    1. Hezekiah was a boaster in himself, but Daniel was not. Daniel never failed to give credit to the God of heaven.
    2. Hezekiah sought the approval of a heathen king, but Daniel did not. Daniel sought the approval of God alone, and to gain that approval he was willing to adopt a lifestyle of rigorous separation from all the defiling practices of the world. For example, he refused to violate God's law by eating the king's food (Dan. 1:8). We might think that he was making a fuss over a little thing. It was merely a question of what he would have for supper. Yet he refused to eat the king's food even though the scruple he would surrender by such compromise with the world was relatively minor, and even though the cost of obeying his conscience might be his own life.

Four Heroes Introduced

The captives included Daniel and his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (verse 6). Pairing these names with their meanings will make them easier to remember.

Among the Hebrews, a man's name generally incorporated one or both of the two principal divine names: Elohim and Yahweh (Jehovah). El-, the first syllable of Elohim, might appear in the name either at the beginning (as in Elijah) or at the end (as in Daniel and Ezekiel). Yah- (in English variously spelled Je-, -jah, or -iah), the first syllable of Yahweh, might also appear either at the beginning (as in Jehu and Jehoshaphat) or at the end (as in Hezekiah, Zechariah, Isaiah, and Elijah).

Any remaining portion of a Hebrew name—any portion that did not point to God—was also meaningful. So, the name as a whole was a condensed thought. For example, Ezekiel means "God strengthens" (12). The names of Daniel and his friends express important spiritual truths.

Daniel—"God is my judge" (13).

Hananiah—"God has been gracious" (14).

Mishael—"Who is what God is?" (15).

Azariah—"God has helped" (16).

In our culture we give scant attention to the meanings of names. As a result, few names among us fit the person. For example, my first name is Stanley, which means "stony meadow." But a stony meadow is not my birthplace, my present home, or where I long to be. Often in the Bible, however, a man's name gives a true picture of what he is like. It may tell the essence of his character. Daniel's name, meaning, "God is my judge," summarizes both his earthly conduct and his eternal standing.

  1. Throughout his life he never hesitated to do what God wanted, even though his obedience to God might incur the disapproval or wrath of men. He did not care what men thought. He only cared what God thought. So, he might say of himself, "God is my judge."
  2. God will indeed judge him. The last verse of Daniel's book speaks of him being raised at a day still future to appear before God and receive his reward for a lifetime of faithful service (Dan. 12:13).


  1. Joan Oates, Babylon (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979), 151.
  2. A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 235-238, 244-246.
  3. Oates, 252; Oppenheim, 246-247.
  4. Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Chaldea, Chaldeans," in The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, ed. E. M. Blaiklock and R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1983), 123; Xenophon Cyropaedia 7.5.31.
  5. D. J. Wiseman, Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon, The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy, 1983 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 87.
  6. Ibid., 86-89.
  7. Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (n.p.: George Allen & Unwin, 1964; repr., Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1966), 329-333; Oates, 184-187.
  8. Wiseman, 86, 88-90, 92-93; Oates, 178-183.
  9. Oates, 152.
  10. Wiseman, 1.
  11. Ibid., 81-82; John F. Walvoord, Daniel: the Key to Prophetic Revelation (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), 34.
  12. Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon with an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic (n.p., 1906; repr., Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979), 306.
  13. Ibid., 193.
  14. Ibid., 337.
  15. Ibid., 567.
  16. Ibid., 741.