In the first chapter of the book of Daniel we see an echo of a tradition which is still very part of our modern world. Driving through downtown Highland Park, NJ you first pass by Jerusalem Pizza before making it to a place where you can get kosher Chinese. Very cool - great food in Jersey. To walk with God in a foreign culture necessitated both cultural embrace and cultural distinction for Daniel and his friends. They were living in Babylon but they were not wishing to become full Babylonians. They had been enrolled in Babylon U to receive an education, they had been allotted the finest of foods from the King's table and they had been given Babylonian names. In Daniel 1:8 we see that they took a stand around an issue regarding food.
There is much scholarly speculation as to why they put their proverbial feet down regarding food. Some say that they wanted God to receive the credit for their good health and not the dietary program of the King,1 others claim they wanted to have their allegiance in God and were making a sort of a statement of political dissent.2 Others offer a fear of participating with food and drink offered in worship to Babylonian deities.3 Finally, and relevant to our current essay, the food would have impacted their consciences in relation to their worship of God.4 Let's look at the passage.
8But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself.
It seems like the issue they were actually concerned about was defilement. This term literally means to become religiously unclean or unholy before God5. Though it is likely that the exiled teens would have been unable to avoid all foods which would have defiled them, it seems this was the place they made their stand for the sake of conscience. As many people misunderstand the purpose for the Old Testament's dietary laws, I wanted to take a small bit of time and discuss this.
In the biblical book of Leviticus we find several injunctions by God as to what the people of Israel were and were not to eat. Now some may find this an arbitrary thing for God to do, after all what is the big deal about eating certain foods. Surprisingly enough, food is not the issue at all. Food was merely the means that God used to communicate something to his people and those in the tribes among whom they would live.
Food is one of the most common, yet most important aspects of human life. God created the world so that the produce of the earth would sustain our daily lives. Using such a basic and daily necessity such as food, God wanted to demonstrate something about himself to his people. This is clearly articulated at the end of Leviticus 11. It reads the following:
For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy."
God's purposes in the dietary laws for the Jews was to make them holy. We typically think of the word holy as being simply a sort of moral category, but in fact it means "sacred, consecrated, set apart for God." God intended his people to have a distinctness and as such he made them different down to the very food that they ate. Now it has been observed that to each Kosher is in fact quite healthy, but this was a gracious byproduct of the reason which God gave his people a special diet.
Furthermore, the faith of ancient Israel also included the sacrifice of animals to take away and pay for the sins of the people. This was in no way to placate or pacify a King Kong God, but a gift of grace to atone, reconcile and restore fellowship with God. Sin separates, sacrifice brought forgiveness for sin.
Yet the Old Testament did not complete the story of redemption of God's people. This religious diet, did not purify their hearts, it only set them apart in an external way. Furthermore, the sacrifice of animals was but a temporary solution for sin and had to be repeated year after year on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. This was a foreshadowing of the great need of all humanity. We needed to be made righteous and be reconciled to God at the level of the heart. We needed a lasting holiness and a sacrifice which would be given once for all.
The Old Testament pointed forward to a coming reality that would make many people holy before God. It would not come from external actions but would be accomplished by an action by God himself. In the New Testament Jesus, a Jewish man, taught us the following in Mark chapter 7:
14And he called the people to him again and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him."17And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18And he said to them, "Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, "What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
Our passage in Daniel teaches that God was the one who gave him favor as he made a stand to remain a person set apart, made holy, by God. We too need favor and forgiveness for our own hearts and attitudes towards God and others. God would do this for his people as he showed them grace and favor in Jesus. Today instead of animals being sacrificed for sin, we live in light of the sacrifice that Jesus gave once for all on the cross. Furthermore our "cleanness" before him is because of his righteousness counted to us by the free gift of God. So rather than a human making a stand for culinary cleanliness, we now eat of the Lord's Supper to remind us of the one who made a stand in the world for us. We do not make stands against defilement from culture alone; Jesus is with us each step of the way. As he has made us "clean" we can now follow in his mission to proclaim the saving good news to others who will find peace with God and forgiveness in him.
1. Longman, Tremper. Daniel : The Niv Application Commentary from Biblical Text ... To Contemporary Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1999, 52, 53.
2. Joyce G. Baldwin, Daniel (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1978) 83.
3. Stephen R. Miller, Daniel (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 66.
4. For a comprehensive listing of reasons they might have objected to the food see Goldingay, John. Daniel. Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1989, 18.
5. 7705קָדֹושׁ qā∙ḏôš) James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament), electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997).