The Book of Daniel opens with the soon-to-be king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, besieging the city of Jerusalem, the capital of the kingdom of Judah.
To put this in perspective, a little history is needed. For centuries before this event, the Assyrian Empire had cruelly ruled most of the Middle East, including the city of Babylon. It had conquered and destroyed Israel, Judah’s sister kingdom to the north, in 722 BC, had deported many of Israel’s inhabitants, and had largely repopulated that land with non-Hebrew people displaced during their other conquests.
Meanwhile, people from Chaldea, south of Babylon, had settled in the city of Babylon. Their leader, Nabopolassar, established himself as Babylon’s king in 626 BC, after driving out the brother of the Assyrian king who previously had been its petty king and the vassal of his brother. The Assyrian royal house then engaged in civil war between the rival brothers, so Nabopolassar found himself given a free hand to establish the Chaldean dynasty in Babylon and begin what was to become the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
The internecine warfare caused the once invincible Assyrians to fall into sharp decline. Barbarian tribes were making inroads on Assyria’s northern borders. At the same time, the Medes, a confederation of powerful nomadic tribes living in the land we now know as Iran, were on the offensive in the east. Nabopolassar, sensing the winds of change, allied himself with the Medes and, together, in 612 BC they sacked Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, once thought impregnable, and left it a wasteland. Just as the Jewish prophets Nahum and Zephaniah had predicted in 713 BC and 627 BC respectively: “[Nineveh] is empty, desolate, and waste!” (Nahum 2:10) and “a desolation, as dry as the wilderness!” (Zephaniah 2:13).
Jonah, of Jonah-and-the-whale fame, wrote of Nineveh as an “exceeding great city.” It lay on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in what is now modern-day Iraq, stretching for some 50 kilometers at an average breadth of 20 kilometers. A system of 18 canals brought water from the hills to Nineveh. After a period of decline, Nineveh finally fell in 612 BC, when it was attacked and razed to the ground by the Medes, Babylonians, and others. The Assyrian Empire shortly afterwards came to an end, the Medes and Babylonians dividing its provinces between them.
Around 400 BC, when Xenophon, the Greek soldier and historian, passed where Nineveh had stood, he made no mention of it. The city was buried, out of sight, never to rise from its ruins. In fact, the idea that there had ever been an Assyrian Empire was in doubt until recent centuries. Skeptics claimed that the stories of its greatness and the names of its leaders as recorded in the Bible were fables. Yet when the ruins of its great cities such as Asshur and Nineveh began to be uncovered in the late nineteenth century, the critics were silenced, and once again the veracity of the Bible was displayed.
The Assyrians were down but not totally out, and they had powerful allies. One of these was the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II, who in the spring of 609 BC marched north with his armies to aid them.
We are not told why, but Josiah, the king of Judah, known for his piety and restoring the Law of Moses to its prominent place in Judah, denied Necho passage through his territories on his way to the relief of the Assyrians. He met Necho in battle at Megiddo, a site that will feature in the great Endtime battle of Armageddon. Judah was beaten in battle, Josiah was mortally wounded, and the Egyptian war machine rolled northward to initially meet success against the Babylonians.
Leaving most of his army in the north, Necho marched south again to his homeland, in the process deposing and imprisoning Jehoahaz, Josiah’s son who had been installed as king, and replacing him with another of Josiah’s sons, Eliakim, whose name he changed to Jehoiakim. Necho also placed Judah under heavy tribute.
But the fortunes of war were to change again. Nabopolassar, now old and infirm, retired from the command of his armies and placed his active and capable son Nebuchadnezzar in command. Nebuchadnezzar won a major victory over the Egyptian and Assyrian armies at Carchemish and pursued the Egyptians south.
While the Egyptians retreated to their own land, Nebuchadnezzar stopped the pursuit to conquer the land they had vacated in Syria and Palestine. This brought him in 605 BC to the gates of Jerusalem. The siege does not seem to have been a long one. The people of Judah threw in the towel quickly as they were tired of Jehoiakim, the puppet of Egypt, and his constant demand for silver to pay the tribute demanded by Necho.
Over one hundred years earlier, Isaiah the prophet had told Hezekiah, then the king of Judah, that Babylon was going to conquer Judah and take all the treasure of the king’s house away. Hezekiah had foolishly shown the envoys of the king of Babylon, then only a minor city state and a vassal of the Assyrian Empire, all the precious items that he had in his house.
“At that time Berodach-baladan the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that Hezekiah had been sick. And Hezekiah was attentive to them, and showed them all the house of his treasures—the silver and gold, the spices and precious ointment, and all his armory—all that was found among his treasures. There was nothing in his house or in all his dominion that Hezekiah did not show them.
“Then Isaiah the prophet went to King Hezekiah, and said to him, ‘What did these men say, and from where did they come to you?’ So Hezekiah said, ‘They came from a far country, from Babylon.’ And he said, ‘What have they seen in your house?’ So Hezekiah answered, ‘They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing among my treasures that I have not shown them.’ Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the Lord: Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and what your fathers have accumulated until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And they shall take away some of your sons who will descend from you, whom you will beget; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon’” (2 Kings 20:12–18).
Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiakim captive and then hastened back to Babylon, as word had come that Nabopolassar had died. He carried away to his homeland, which is also called Shinar in the Bible, gold and other vessels from the Jewish temple, as well as a number of captives from the nobility of Judah, including “young men in whom there was no blemish, but good-looking, gifted in all wisdom, possessing knowledge and quick to understand, who had ability to serve in the king’s palace, and whom they might teach the language and literature of the Chaldeans.” Among these captives were four youths: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.
It was Nebuchadnezzar’s custom to take the idols from the various places he conquered and place them in subservient positions in the great temple of Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, probably to show their ineffectiveness vis-à-vis this chief god of the Chaldeans. Daniel writes that Nebuchadnezzar took vessels from the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and in the Second book of Chronicles we are told he “put them in his temple at Babylon” (2 Chronicles 36:7). It is assumed he did this because, unlike the religions of the nations around them, the Jews had no idol of their God, Yahweh, to transport there.
Nebuchadnezzar was by that time the supreme leader of a great and ascendant empire. Soon after he was crowned, he restored Jehoiakim to his throne, but only as a vassal of Babylon, to once again collect and pay tribute — but this time to be sent to his new master.
Meanwhile, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah began their training in the administrative corps of Babylon. This would include training in the scientific and magical arts, such as astrology and the divination of omens and signs. It was not without sacrifice. Men used in this capacity were usually made eunuchs, and Jewish tradition concurs that this happened to these four and thus fulfilled that portion of the prophecy of Isaiah mentioned earlier.
Having eunuchs in the role of palace officials has been customary even through recent times in many eastern countries. It had several advantages for the reigning monarchs. It provided administrators who would not be distracted by personal family matters. Also, most cultures in antiquity would not allow someone mutilated in this way — or any other way, for that matter — to become king. Therefore the king was freed from wondering whether a scheming official would try to usurp the throne. It also ensured that his wives and mistresses would not end up getting into dalliances with any of these officials, who often had the run of the palace.
It would also take a toll on these four young Jews’ religious lives and would ensure that they would not have a great interest in returning to their homeland. Eunuchs were not allowed to worship in the Jewish temple, and so they were permanently cut off from the gathering together with the other men of Judah in the collective worship that was at the core of Jewish religious life.
To add insult to injury, the four were also given Babylonian names, each of them having some connection to a Babylonian deity. Daniel was named Belteshazzar; Hananiah, Shadrach; Mishael, Meshach; and Azariah, Abed-nego.
The king offered compensations of sorts. The young trainees would be housed and trained in relative luxury and fed with food and wine from the king’s table. This point was, however, anathema to Daniel and company. The food from the king’s table was first offered to Marduk in his temple. Already suffering the unavoidable indignities of emasculation and loss of their Jewish identities, the four drew the line where they might have a choice. They declined to eat the food that had been first offered to idols as this rendered the food non-kosher, and therefore not able to be eaten by a Jew. Instead they insisted that they drink only water and eat only pulse (legumes), translated as vegetables in the New King James Bible.
The chief eunuch was afraid that this diet would diminish the health and good looks of the four and that he would incur the king’s wrath if he allowed it to happen. After all, two of the criteria by which they had been chosen were that they had no blemish and were good-looking. But Daniel persuaded the steward who had the immediate responsibility for their meals to test them on this water-and-pulse diet for ten days. After those ten days it was found that they looked better than any of the other trainees, and so it seems they continued with that diet for at least the following three years until they had completed their training.
At the end of their training, Nebuchadnezzar interviewed them and found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers in his realm.
Third or Fourth?
Jeremiah 46:1–2, states, “The word of the Lord which came to Jeremiah the prophet against the nations. Against Egypt. Concerning the army of Pharaoh Necho, king of Egypt, which was by the River Euphrates in Carchemish, and which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon defeated in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah.” This seemingly contradicts Daniel 1:1, which places the first siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, an event that happened in the same year he defeated Necho, in the third year of Jehoiakim’s reign.
This seeming discrepancy actually strengthens the case for the Book of Daniel to have been written by someone used to Babylonian usage and idiom rather than by someone living hundreds of years later in Israel, during the time of the Maccabees, as claimed by critics of its authenticity. The way Babylonians and Jews calculated the ascendancy year of monarchs differed. The Jews counted the calendar year that a king was crowned as the first year of his reign. The Babylonians, however, counted that year as his ascendancy year, and the first year of his reign beginning on the next calendar new year. So Daniel, having been schooled in all the wisdom of the Babylonians and being a high official in that empire, would very likely have written his account using Babylonian idiom, placing this siege of Jerusalem in Jehoiakim’s third year as king; whereas Jeremiah, and his scribe Baruch, would have written using Jewish idiom, placing it in the fourth year.