Food Offered to Idols

SYNOPSIS – Daniel and his companions refused to participate in the religious rituals of the imperial courtDaniel 1:14

Augustus - Photo by Nemanja Peric on Unsplash
Daniel and his companions were confronted with a predicament upon their arrival in the imperial court of Babylon. If they ate eat food provided by the king, it might cause ritual defilement. One possibility is that these Judean exiles wished to avoid eating meat classified as “unclean” under the Levitical food regulations.

Another possibility is that they objected on moral grounds - Since the consumption of wine was not addressed by the Levitical regulations, they decided to avoid wine from moral considerations - (Daniel 1:5-17, Leviticus 11:45-47).
  • (Daniel 1:8, 12) – “But Daniel laid it upon his heart, that he would not defile himself with the delicacies of the king, nor with the wine which he drank,—therefore sought he of the ruler of the eunuchs, that he might not defile himself… I pray thee—prove thy servants ten days,—and let them give us vegetable food, that we may eat, and water that we may drink.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
There are problems with either of the preceding proposals. First, wine was not something that caused ritual defilement under the Levitical code. Second, in his comments, Daniel made no reference to the dietary regulations of the Torah. Third, the Hebrew term rendered “defile” or ga’al in the account is not the same one used for “unclean” in the Levitical regulations - ga’al occurs nowhere in the Pentateuch.

In the fourth place, the term pathbag - Sometimes rendered “meat” in English translations - more correctly means “delicacies.” Certainly, the royal provisions would have included animal flesh; however, that is not the point of the passage. Fifth, Daniel expressed no concerns about drunkenness from imbibing wine. The Torah does not forbid the consumption of wine, although the Old Testament does discourage drunkenness. In the sixth place, the second proposal does not explain why Daniel refused to eat the king’s food.

An understanding of ancient Babylonian religious customs suggests a different interpretation - One more in accord with how the book of Revelation applies this passage. The issue was not the consumption of ceremonially unclean food but participation in the idolatrous rituals of Babylon - (Revelation 2:10, 2:14, 2:20).

The passage stresses the concern of Daniel with both eating food and drinking wine from the “table of the king.”  Doing either could cause “defilement” - (“Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the king’s dainties or with the wine which he drank”).

Since wine was not included among any of the lists of ritually unclean foods, the concern was something other than eating “unclean” meat. The focus of the passage is on the source of the food and the wine - The royal table.

Daniel proposed a “test” - For ten days he and his friends would only eat vegetables and drink water; then, their Babylonian keeper could compare their appearance with that of other young men who did consume the king’s provisions - (“Let our countenances be looked upon and the countenance of the youths that eat the king’s delicacies”).

The issue was not vegetarianism versus eating meat. Meat from ritually unclean animals was forbidden in the book of Leviticus. The dietary restrictions were concerned with religious issues, not physical health.

Daniel in Babylon
Idols played a key role in Babylonian religious rituals. It was believed that a god was present in his or her image within its temple. Such images were provided with daily meals of food and drink. The king provided the required foodstuffs for a god’s “meal,” and no one else present could eat before the deity was finished “consuming” it. The remaining food and drink were distributed for consumption at the royal table. Thus, the king’s provisions were linked with the idolatry of the Babylonian temples – (Joan Oates, 
Babylon, London - Thames and Hudson, 1986, p. 174-175).

The book of Revelation alludes to this story in its letter to the church at Smyrna. The congregation was to expect persecution - “You will be tried and have tribulation ten days.” The clause alludes to the story from Daniel about eating the king’s food. The Greek verb rendered “tried” in the Septuagint version of Daniel (peirazō) is the same one found in the Greek text of the letter to Smyrna - (Daniel 1:14, Revelation 2:8-11).

Christians at Smyrna were “blasphemed by them who say they are Jews and are not, but instead are a synagogue of Satan.” Consequently, some believers found themselves “cast into prison.” Nevertheless, those who remained “faithful until death” were to receive “the crown of life and not be hurt of the second death.”

This “blasphemy” or “slander” referred to false charges leveled against Christians at Smyrna before civil magistrates, probably for their refusal to participate in the Roman imperial cult. This echoes the later story in Daniel about the three Judean exiles that were cast into the “fiery furnace.” They had been “accused” or “slandered” before Nebuchadnezzar by their Chaldean enemies for refusing to render homage to an image that the king had - “Certain Chaldeans came near and accused the Jews” - (Daniel 3:8-30).

Revelation includes a wordplay from the Septuagint version of Daniel 3:8. The Greek verb rendered “accused” is diaballō - (“To throw through, accuse, slander), a term closely related to the name “Devil,” or diabolos.  Thus, in Revelation 2:9-10, we read of the “accusationS (diaballō) of them of the synagogue of Satan…behold, the Devil (diaboloswill cast some of you into prison.” The Chaldean “wise men” of Babylon had accused the three Jews before a Gentile king, just as the Jews of Smyrna were accusing believers before pagan Roman authorities.

The three companions remained faithful and, so, were “cast” into the fiery furnace - (“Be it known, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you set up”). Nebuchadnezzar then saw them “walking in the midst of the fire and they have no hurt.” They were miraculously delivered. Afterward, they were promoted to positions of rulership in Babylon.

The same story is echoed in the book of Revelation. The “false prophet,” the “Beast from the earth” caused fire to descend from heaven to deceive the “inhabitants of the earth” and, thus, to cause them to render homage to the “image of the Beast,” and to take its number, “sixty-hundred and sixty-six.” Likewise, Nebuchadnezzar caused men of every rank to render homage to his great golden image, one that measured “sixty cubits high by six cubits wide” - (Daniel 3:1-7, Revelation 13:11-18).

Similarly, in the letter to the church at Pergamos, Jesus rebuked Christians that tolerated deceivers who taught believers “to eat things sacrificed to idols and to fornicate.” He labeled this, “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans.” Likewise, in the letter to Thyatira, the church was reprimanded for allowing a false prophetess “to seduce my servants to fornicate and to eat things sacrificed to idols.” In the book of Revelation, “fornicate” is metaphorical for idolatry (Revelation 2:12-17, 17:218:318:9).

The issue in the story of Daniel was not a need to avoid ritually unclean meat but not to participate in Babylonian idolatry. Likewise, in Revelation, first-century Christians were to avoid participation in the idolatrous worship of “Babylon” - Rome. “Fornicate” and “eating meat offered to idols” are metaphorical terms for participation in the idolatrous rituals of the imperial cult.

Likewise, believers of later generations must refuse to render homage to the idolatrous demands of end-time “Babylon, the Great Whore,” when she commands one and all to render homage to the “Beast” and to its “image.”

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