Daniel's Moral Dilemma

What Daniel Tolerated

Daniel yielded without protest to many aspects of his new life.

  1. He did not object to the schooling he was to undergo. As shown earlier, he would be required to study mythology and occult science.
  2. He did not object to his new name, Belteshazzar. None of the Babylonian names conferred on the Hebrew captives has permitted scholarly consensus as to its meaning. Most puzzling are Shadrach and Meshach.1 Abed-nego appears to signify "servant of Nego."2 Nego, reference unknown, probably serves as a soundalike for Nabu, name of a Babylonian god.3 Belteshazzar apparently means, "His life protect," or "The life of the king protect,"4 but again there seems to be word play. The first letters of the word "life" also identify the person being addressed. He is Bel ("Lord"), a title of Marduk, who was chief among the gods of Babylon.5

What Daniel Refused to Tolerate

Yet though Daniel was submissive to every other requirement laid on the young captives, he drew the line at eating the king's meat and drinking the king's wine (v. 8). The word translated "meat" (vv. 5, 8) means rich food.4 Why did he object to the food and drink but not to his new name or to his schooling under the Babylonians? We can surely agree that the name and the education imposed upon him were not the best. Yet why were they not absolutely wrong? Why was compromise permissible in these matters but not permissible in the matter of eating and drinking?

Three Tests to Distinguish Right from Wrong

If we go through life thoughtfully, with our eyes open to moral questions, we will be careful about what practices we adopt. Any doubtful practice must be rejected if it fails any of three tests.

  1. Is it contrary to Scripture? In other words, is it expressly forbidden by Scripture or is it inconsistent with a moral principle based on Scripture?
  2. Is my motive pure?
  3. Will I and others escape defilement?

Scripture is silent concerning many modern vices, such as smoking marijuana and playing the lottery, because they did not exist in Biblical times. But they are certainly inconsistent with moral principles based on Scripture. One vice that has appeared only in recent history is the viewing of corrupt programs on TV. Nowhere does the Bible set TV off limits for the people of God. Yet the Bible does say,

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

Psalm 1:1

This and other passages undergird two moral principles that clearly expose the iniquity in much televised entertainment.

  1. We ought not to place ourselves on the receiving end of influence seeking to arouse our ungodly lusts, whether the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, or the pride of life.
  2. We ought not to participate vicariously in someone else’s sin, whether we meet it in the real world or in the world of fantasy.

Why Neither the Name nor the Education Was Unscriptural

The Bible does not prohibit the use of a pagan name. A new convert with such a name need not exchange it for one with godly meaning. A name like Diana (Roman goddess of the woods and mountains) or Thurston ("stone of Thor"; Thor was one of the chief gods of Norse mythology) is not the best, but is not so badly tainted that it implies tribute to a false deity.

Also, the Bible does not denounce the study of a false religion. Whether such study is justified depends on three considerations.

  1. Its purpose. The only legitimate purpose is to combat the false religion more effectively. Daniel's education in Babylonian religion and magic qualified him for a high position in the kingdom of Babylon. After attaining that position, he was able in uniquely dramatic ways to demonstrate the futility and worthlessness of any religion apart from the worship of the true God.
  2. Its intensity. It is most unwise to let an interest in false religion become an absorption or obsession. We must major in truth, minor in error.
  3. Its likely effect. The study of a false religion is wrong if we are not well enough grounded in the Scriptures to recognize and reject every falsehood gnawing at the truth. Daniel's schooling was acceptable only because he was not tempted to believe any of its pagan elements. What he faced in his education was, however, much different from the humanistic lies taught today in public schools. These lies are so plausible and so difficult to separate from the truth that few students can entirely shrug off their influence.

Scriptural Objections to the Diet

Many commentators have surmised that Daniel rejected the prescribed diet because the food and drink had been offered to idols. But in his book Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon, D. J. Wiseman states, "There is no indication that food from the royal table had previously been offered to idols."6 This book, published in 1985 under the auspices of the British Academy, is an authoritative summary of current knowledge concerning the reign of Nebuchadnezzar.

Daniel's objection to the diet was undoubtedly based on an explicit prohibition in the Word of God. He was surely well versed in the Scriptures available in his day. His early education probably emphasized the five books of Moses and the Book of Proverbs. The latter seems to have been passed down through the royal family for the instruction of young princes. Perhaps scrolls of these and other books of the Bible were tucked away in Daniel's belongings when his captors carried him to Babylon.

As Daniel searched the Scriptures in his possession, he found no statute that specifically forbids the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Yet he did find a strong warning not to indulge incautiously in the sumptuous fare of a king.

1 When thou sittest to eat with a ruler, consider diligently what is before thee:

2 And put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite.

3 Be not desirous of his dainties: for they are deceitful meat.

Proverbs 23:1-3

This passage taught Daniel that he should examine whether the rations from the king's table were fit for consumption. Elsewhere in the Scriptures, he found two injunctions clearly disallowing such food and drink.

1. The law of Moses forbids food derived from the flesh of unclean animals.

4 Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

5 And the coney, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

6 And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

7 And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be cloven-footed, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you. . . .

12 Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.

13 And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray,

14 And the vulture, and the kite after his kind;

15 Every raven after his kind;

16 And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind,

17 And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl,

18 And the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle,

19 And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.

20 All fowls that creep, going upon all four, shall be an abomination unto you.

Leviticus 11:4-20

The king's food undoubtedly included meat that the law designated unclean.

The eminent Old Testament scholar Robert Dick Wilson conjectured that the Babylonians were fond of drinking wine mixed with blood.7 Blood was, of course, a food altogether forbidden to the people of God (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 3:17).

2. The Book of Proverbs counsels against drinking intoxicating wine.

31 Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright.

32 At the last it biteth like an adder.

33 Thine eyes shall behold strange women, and thine heart shall utter perverse things.

34 Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast.

35 They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.

Proverbs 23:31-35

Why Daniel Could Not Accept the Diet with a Pure Motive

If Daniel took the king's food and drink, he would be choosing moral compromise in order to please the ungodly, especially the king himself, just as Hezekiah had curried the favor of the Babylonian king a century earlier. He would also be trying to win the esteem of the other boys. As a normal teenager, he must have felt some longing for a high place on their social ladder. To gain it would have required that he eat alongside them, join in their foolery and boasting, and compete in their bouts of eating and drinking to excess. Yet he suppressed all self-seeking motives and refused the king’s food and drink, recognizing that to raise no objection would be to seek the world’s approval through worldly behavior.

Defiling Effects of the Diet

Daniel understood that the king’s food and drink would do harm. He knew from the Book of Proverbs that intoxicating wine is defiling both in its moral and physical effects. Moreover, he undoubtedly knew that one reason for God’s stricture against unclean foods is that many are unwholesome. Otherwise, if he did not view the royal cuisine as a poor diet, why did he tell the king’s servant that within just ten days after being excused from it, he would look better than all the other boys? He asked to eat "pulse," which can refer to any vegetable food, including grains.8 Eating nothing but pulse assured that he would avoid all wine, unclean meats, and bizarre delicacies. Some of the dishes and beverages on the king’s table might have been acceptable, but he evidently believed that if he wanted to be healthy and morally safe, feeding himself with a few vegetables was far better than trying to pick and choose from the regular menu.

Daniel's Decision

Daniel purposed in his heart not to defile himself with the king's food and drink (v. 8). The Hebrew text says, literally, that he "laid" the decision to do right "upon his heart."9 In other words, he made the decision in his mind, and then, instead of allowing his emotions to get in the way, he marshaled them in support of his decision. The picture here is of a man who gathers up all his energies into a firm, unshakable determination to carry through a course of action to its conclusion.

Daniel knew very well that the conclusion might be death. No kindness or softness moderated the king's justice. Anyone who displeased Nebuchadnezzar could expect to die swiftly, and by a method of execution that was grisly in the extreme. When the king was enraged against the wise men of Babylon, he condemned them to be cut into pieces (Dan. 2:5). In other words, while they were still alive and conscious, they were to be dismembered limb by limb with an ax. When Daniel's three friends refused to obey the king's order to bow down before a great image, the king cast them alive into a fiery furnace (Dan. 3:15-20). He put away two false prophets who annoyed him by roasting them in the fire (Jer. 29:22). He punished the Jewish king Zedekiah by blinding him after he had witnessed the slaughter of his sons (Jer. 52:10-11).

We see how courageous Daniel was. He was no weak-kneed adolescent. He was a mature prince with an intrepid heart. We see why God was so pleased with him. How many young people today would have stood with Daniel?

His decision is even more remarkable when we consider that he made it all alone. He had no prodding from prophet or parent. He apparently had no encouragement at the outset even from his three friends. The record says, "Daniel purposed in his heart," and "he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself" (v. 8). There is no mention of the other boys. Evidently, they joined the protest later, under his leadership. But the initial decision to resist the king's order was made by Daniel on his own.

Ashpenaz's reference to the other boys in his reply, "For why should he see your faces worse liking than the children which are of your sort?" (v. 10), does not mean that the other boys were present during this conversation. The text names only Daniel when it tells whom Ashpenaz was addressing (v. 10). Nor does Ashpenaz's reference to the other boys necessarily mean that Daniel had presented himself as their spokesman. Ashpenaz probably said "your faces" instead of "your face" because, having discovered that Daniel's objection was based on a Jewish scruple, he guessed that the other Jews would also like to be excused from the king's diet.

Ashpenaz was afraid of a comparison between "your faces" and others "of your sort." The danger was not that Daniel and his three friends would become less attractive than the other Hebrew children. "Of your sort" is properly translated "of your age."10 Thus, the outcome Ashpenaz feared was that the Hebrew children would make a poor showing next to the captive children from other lands.


  1. James A. Montgomery, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Daniel, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1927), 123; Edward J. Young, A Commentary on Daniel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 43; H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Daniel (n.p.: Augsburg Publishing House, 1949; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1969), 65; Leon Wood, A Commentary on Daniel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), 36. In recent years the Assyriologist P.-R. Berger proposed for Shadrach, "I am very fearful [presumably, of some god]," and for Meshach, "I am of little account." These suggestions won the approval of several scholars. See Berger, "Der Kyros-Zylinder mit dem Zusatzfragment BIN Nr. 32 und die akkadischen Personennamen im Danielbuch," Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 64 (1975), 224–234; Millard, "Daniel 1–6 and History," The Evangelical Quarterly 49 (1977): 67–73.; Gerhard F. Hasel "The Book of Daniel and Matters of Language: Evidences Relating to Names, Words, and the Aramaic Language," Andrews University Seminary Studies 19 (1981): 213–214; John C. Whitcomb, Daniel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 29. But Lipiński and Wiseman have set aside his suggestions as improbable. See Lipiński, "Review of Le Livre de Daniel, by André Lacocque," Vetus Testamentum 28 (1978): 234; D. J. Wiseman, Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon, The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy, 1983 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 85–86.
  2. Montgomery, 123; E. Young, 43; Leupold, 65; Berger, 224–234; Millard, 72; Hasel, 213–214; Whitcomb, 29; Lipiński, 234–235; Wiseman, 85–86. Some critics say that Nego is a second-century misspelling of the god’s name. Yet the name Abed-nego has been found in papyri from the fifth century BC. See Gleason L. Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, revised ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), 397.
  3. Millard, 72; Lipiński, 234; Wiseman, 85.
  4. J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 732, 764.
  5. Wiseman, 85.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Robert Dick Wilson, Studies in the Book of Daniel, one vol. ed. (n.p.: By the author, 1917; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1979), 2:251.
  8. Leupold, 70.
  9. Jay P. Green, Sr., The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew/English, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1983), 3:2033.
  10. Ibid.