We have barely met Daniel (v.6) before we learn that his name is changed to the more Babylonian appropriate “Belteshazzar,” which probably meant something like “Bel (oh, great Babylonian god!), protect his life!” (v.7). Having informed us of this fact, the narrator immediately reverts back to the name “Daniel” (v.8). This narrator will have nothing to do with Bel protecting anyone, especially not the soon-to-be famous exile from Judah. The only God watching over Daniel is the God of Israel – and don’t you forget it!
And so Daniel finally moves to center stage in a narrative where, so far, he’s just been a pawn in the game of a foreign king. He hasn’t officially done anything yet – but several things have been done to him: he’s been brought in (v. 3), he’s been taught (v.4), he’s been trained (v.5), he’s had his name changed (v.7), and he’s been served from the king’s buffet (v. 5).
It’s on this last point that Daniel takes action. The King James Version renders it most famously: “But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank” (v.8). And all God’s people became teetotalling vegetarians. Oh, wait. That post is for another day.
Why has Daniel chosen this battle to fight? He submits to the name change and the indoctrination, but he fights back on food. The reason the text gives seems plain enough – or so many people have thought (including the authors of my NIV study notes): eating the king’s fare would defile him (that is, make him ritually contaminated) because it most likely would have been offered to idols and because the menu and its preparation would have no doubt violated Jewish food laws. So Daniel took his stand and said, “No thanks – pass the salad.”
The issue, though, isn’t quite so straightforward. For starters, notice that Daniel’s diet has changed by chapter 10 (v.3), where he goes into mourning and abstains from food he apparently ate regularly: “delicacies,” meat, and wine. If the king’s food violated food laws in chapter 1, wouldn’t it do so in chapter 10, too? Devout Daniel would hardly have changed his mind about something so contrary to the law of his God. Whatever is going on in chapter 1 is a temporary resolution – lasting the three years of the exiles’ training.
There are problems with nearly every suggestion commentators have come up with. (See here if you’d like the rundown.) But all these problems still leave us wondering what did prompt Daniel’s resolution? It’s possible he picked the stand he could feasibly take; namely, he couldn’t evade the indoctrination or the change of name, but there was some room to work with the food. Given this, perhaps the reason has more to do with who was feeding him than what they were feeding him. Tremper Longman nicely summarizes the situation of the four boys:
“Their minds as well as their bodies are being fed by the Babylonian court. If they prosper, then to whom should they attribute their development and success? The Babylonians. However, by refusing to eat the food of the king, they know it is not the king who is responsible for the fact that ‘they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food’ (1:15). Their robust appearance, usually attained by a rich fare of meats and wine, is miraculously achieved through a diet of vegetables. Only God could have done it” (53).
Maybe the purpose of Daniel’s resolution was less about “taking a (public) stand,” as we often think, than making a private decision to remember the real source of his life during the inherently defiling experience of exile (see Hos 9:3–4; Amos 7:17; Isa 52:11) and specifically during the three years of total immersion training. Every time the breakfast, lunch, and dinner bell rang, the exiles from Israel would remember that, although they had no choice but to live in Babylon and absorb its culture, they nonetheless chose to be nourished and cared for by the King.