Daniel is the most famous person in the book of Daniel, followed by Nebuchadnezzar and Shadrach-Meshach-and-Abednego, but before he rises to fame, we encounter a number of his handlers. Chapter 1 introduces us to a cadre of officials with cameo appearances.
In verse 3 we meet Ashpenaz, the king’s head honcho. English translations aren’t quite sure what to call him: he’s the king’s “chief of officials” (NASB), “chief of court officials” (NIV), “master of eunuchs” (KJV), “chief chamberlain” (NAB), “chief of staff” (NLT), “chief officer” (JPS), and “chief eunuch” (ESV). In Hebrew, he’s the rab-sarēsim (rob sah-ree-SEEM, for those of you practicing your Hebrew pronunciation). Everyone agrees he’s the chief of something (that’s the rab part in Hebrew); it’s the sarēsim that keeps us guessing. (The NAB even keeps us guessing about the English: who even uses the word chamberlain anyway?) One commentator calls Asphenaz the major-domo, which I confess I had to look up on Wikipedia…where I discovered that a major-domo can also be called a chamberlain. Helpful.
The confusion over sarēsim is because it’s a word that changed meaning over time and across cultures. We know the word means “eunuchs” sometimes, and we also know that castration was common if you worked for an ancient Near Eastern king (eunuchs were thought to be more trustworthy—and less likely to cause, er, trouble in the palace). What we don’t know for sure is whether sarēsim meant “eunuchs” in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. Regardless of his exact title, Ashpenaz is the highest ranking official we’ll meet in Daniel except for the king himself.
In verse 7 (and vv. 9, 10, 11, 18) we meet the śar hassarēsim (sar ha-sah-ree-SEEM), another title that English translations stew over a bit. Many of them think this is Ashpenaz again, with a slightly different title (śar instead of rab). This time the confusion is less about the śarēsim-eunuch issue (the Hebrew hassarēsim of this title is just sarēsim with “the” on the front, so “the (guys that may have been) eunuchs”) than it is about the first word – śar in this title versus rab in Ashpenaz’s title. The question is whether a śar is the same as a rab. I’m in the minority, but I happen to think not, especially when the same author uses both of them in the same story. If we’ve already met Ashpenaz, the rab- śarēsim, in v. 3, why call him something else in vv. 9, 10, 11, and 18?
In verse 11 we meet one final guy on the king’s payroll, the guard/steward/overseer/warden in charge of the king’s captives-in-training (including Daniel & Co.). The King James Version reads the word as a proper name, Melzar, but nearly every translator since 1611 has decided it’s a common noun referring to the guy who took care of the captives. Happily, that’s the end of the confusion about him.
In verse 20, we meet a group of “magicians and enchanters,” but I think this riveting tour of the king’s court has gone on long enough for today. We’ll save them for another day.
To summarize, here’s how I see the king’s men in Daniel 1, though I’m hardly willing to burn at the stake for this view:
- Ashpenaz is the king’s right hand man, perhaps chief of all the king’s officials (v. 3).
- The śar-hassarēsim is the commander of the king’s honest-to-goodness eunuchs (vv. 7, 9, 10, 11, 18).
- The guard is specifically in charge of the group of captives in training to serve in the king’s court (vv. 11, 16).
I know you can hardly wait for the magicians and enchanters…