8 But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. 9 Now God had caused the official to show favour and compassion to Daniel, 10 but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your[a] food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you.”
11 Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” 14 So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.
15 At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. 16 So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.
It may seem that the story supports the view that if we eat only vegetables we will be healthier! This passage is in fact more about idolatry and kingship than about vegetarianism or even Jewish food laws. Jewish diets included meat and there were no prohibitions against meat per se, although pork was forbidden (Deuteronomy 14:8).
The Babylonians did eat pork so it is possible that Daniel rejected the meat because he did not know what it was. More significantly, he would not have known whether it had been sacrificed to idols, and therefore did not want to risk being tainted by unholy food. The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, reveals that the eating of food offered to false gods was still an issue in the first century ad.
He says, ‘Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.’ However, ‘if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.’ (1 Corinthians 8:8, 13). He could equally well be expressing the thoughts of Daniel, who needs to preserve his integrity not only for himself but for Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah..
Fit and clever members of the Israelite nobility, the men were taken from a besieged Jerusalem in 605bc to the heart of the Babylonian empire, ruled by King Nebuchadnezzar. Feted and well fed, the plan was to integrate and employ them in the king’s court. Not only were they prize captives but their submission would underline the absolute victory of the invader.
Thus, for both political and religious reasons, Daniel and his friends do not comply with every regulation imposed on them. In a daring move, they do not go on hunger strike but they use their diet as a means to resist complete assimilation into Babylonian culture. In doing so, they succeed both in impressing their masters and In keeping faith with God, subtly proving that they do not need the favours of Nebuchadnezzar but have a heavenly king who protects and prospers them.
The fact that they gain weight is therefore not a vegetarian manifesto but a demonstration of the power of God.
God of all creation, give us integrity and wisdom in the way we live our lives, in what we eat and drink, and in what we say and pray. Help us when we are weak, that in all things we may serve only you. Amen