The (Failed) Indoctrination of Daniel
Daniel is a book for our teenagers’ cultural moment. Most teens will tell you they feel lonely and displaced. They’re displaced from one another by the failing promises of social media; displaced from their emotions as depression and anxiety are increasingly medicated; displaced from their politics as parties look less and less like the good guys and bad guys they were told to expect. The book of Daniel is for this exiled teenage age because Daniel is a boy exiled and indoctrinated into a culture intent on keeping him that way.
Babylon was the superpower of Daniel’s day and it was massive. Babylon controlled Egypt, Syria Israel, Jordan, and huge parts of Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. As they expanded, one of the ways they colonized these new lands was to displace the majority of the population, especially the royalty and politicians, to their capital city. Daniel was the son of an Israeli politician, and he was abducted by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s forces and brought into his palace for cultural indoctrination.
Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding, learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. (Daniel 1:3–4 ESV)
Imagine being Daniel. You’re probably 14, 15, or 16. You’re scared. You’re in a new place, a new culture, a massive city. You’ve been separated from your parents. They’ve even given you a new name. They’ve scrubbed you of any ties to your past. And the most powerful man in the world assigns you tutors to teach you the “language and literature” of Babylon. Their job is to make you into a good Babylonian. You also know the king would be willing to kill anyone who doesn’t comply. You feel enormous pressure. But more confusing than that is that the King seems so generous.
The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. (Daniel 1:5 ESV)
You’re drinking his wine and eating his food. You’re being offered the best Babylon has to offer. The King is investing in and mentoring you and if you go along, you’re promised a position of power and influence in the greatest nation on earth. Yeah, you know he’s a tyrant. But wouldn’t you be able to do more good in the belly of the beast? Be honest, what would you do if you were Daniel?
I think most of us would only consider two options at this point.
- Reject. Resist. Kick. Scream. Fight. Don’t give an inch to this pagan, immoral barbarian. He worships false gods. He separated you from your family. Any culture that he wants you to be a part of or learn about should be rejected.
- Receive. Compromise. Adjust your beliefs and preferences to be inoffensive to the surrounding culture. Surely you can do more good if you’re not irrelevant or worse… dead. Eat the food. Drink the wine. Receive the language and literature of Babylon.
So what does Daniel do?
But 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. (Daniel 1:8 ESV)
Daniel rejects the culture. He stays true to his religious convictions. But look what happens next.
As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams. (Daniel 1:17 ESV)
Right after rejecting the king’s food, Daniel becomes an expert in the king’s culture. In fact, it’s God who gives him the ability to absorb the language and literature of Babylon. And after three years in the king’s university these four youths are found to be wiser, smarter, and more adept than any of the king’s best advisors. Daniel was able to stay true to his religious convictions, and at the same time able to occupy a coveted role in this godless government.
For the rest of the book of Daniel, this tension is tested. Daniel remains committed to God but the longer he’s faithful, the more intense the persecution and opposition gets. He’s thrown into both a fiery furnace and a lion’s den.
But persecution always leads to greater power and responsibility for Daniel in godless Babylon. And eventually, Daniel’s faithful presence points to something surprising – hope. After Daniel is saved from the Lion’s den, the Babylonian ruler creates a royal poem that must be read to all the people, nations, and languages of the earth. It’s a confession that Daniel’s God is real.
I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end. (Daniel 6:26 ESV)
While Daniel offers lots opportunity to talk about cultural winsomeness (Daniel has it in spades), what our students most need in their cultural moment of despair and exile is hope. Not a hope that we’ll one day be in charge of the culture and can reverse our exile – Daniel never did. But a hope that the darkness of our world just means resurrection’s around the corner. A hope that when we’re hovering over the lion’s mouth, that’s when God will shut it.
Daniel points us to Jesus, the “Son of Man” who will be crushed by vicious beasts but rise again and sit on his throne next to the Ancient of Days. Daniel tells our discouraged teens that Instagram influencers are not in charge of the trajectory of their lives; no president can limit Jesus’ power; every Youtube personality and Silicon Valley exec bow to him and – more expansive than Apple’s global reach – Jesus has been given dominion and glory and a kingdom that spans all peoples nations and language.
If our teens trust in him, their exile will be over.