Food Offered to Idols

SYNOPSIS: Daniel and his companions refused to participate in the religious rituals of the imperial court

Daniel and his companions in the imperial court
Daniel was confronted with a predicament upon his arrival in the imperial court of Babylon; if he ate eat food provided by the king it might cause him ritual defilement. One assumption is that Daniel wished to avoid eating meat classified “unclean” under the Levitical dietary regulations (Daniel 1:8Leviticus 11:45-47).
Another possibility is that he objected on moral grounds. Since the consumption of wine was not addressed by the Levitical regulations, Daniel decided to avoid wine from moral considerations.
There are problems with either interpretation. First, wine was not something that caused ritual defilement under the Levitical code.
Second, 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 word used for “unclean” in Leviticus; ga’al occurs nowhere in the Pentateuch (the text of the first chapter of Daniel is in Hebrew).
Fourth, the term pathbag sometimes rendered “meat” in English translations more correctly means “delicacies.” Certainly, the royal provisions would have included meat; however, that is not the point of the passage.
Fifth, Daniel expressed no concerns about drunkenness. The Torah does not forbid the consumption of wine, though the Old Testament does discourage drunkenness.
Sixth, the second proposal does not explain why Daniel refused to eat the king’s food.
An understanding of Babylonian religious customs suggests a different interpretation, and one in accord with how the book of Revelation applies this passage. The issue was not the consumption of ceremonially unclean food but participation in idolatrous rituals (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 ritual 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 ritually unclean foods, his concern was something other than eating “unclean” meat. The focus 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 others 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; ritually impure meats were forbidden in the book of Leviticus. The dietary restrictions were concerned with religious issues, not physical health.
Idols played a key role in the Babylonian religion. It was believed that a god was present in his or her image in its temple. The image of the god was provided with daily meals of food and drink. The king provided the required foodstuffs for a god’s “meal,” and no one else 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 idolatrous Babylonian religious practices [Joan Oates, Babylon, (London:  Thames and Hudson, 1986), p. 174-175].
The book of Revelation alludes to this story from Daniel in the letter to the church at Smyrna. This congregation was to expect persecution; “You may be tried and you will have tribulation ten days,” a verbal allusion to the story of Daniel; the Greek verb rendered “tried” in the Septuagint version (peirazō) is the same one in the Greek text of the letter to Smyrna ( Daniel 1:14, Revelation 2:8-11).
Christians in 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” refers to false charges leveled against Christians at Smyrna before civil magistrates by Jewish leaders, probably for their refusal to participate in honoring the Roman emperor’s image by burning incense to it. This echoes the story of the three companions of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and it does so with irony. The three men were accused before Nebuchadnezzar for their refusal to render homage to an image “set up” by the king. “Certain Chaldeans came near and accused the Jews” (Daniel 3:8-30).
The book of Revelation includes a wordplay from the Septuagint version of Daniel 3:8. The Greek verb for “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 “accusation of them of the synagogue of Satan…behold, the Devil (diaboloswill cast some of you into prison.” Gentile opponents accused the three Jews before a Gentile king, just as the Jews of Smyrna accused 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, then promoted to positions of rulership in Babylon.
The same story is echoed in Revelation. The false prophet caused fire to descend from heaven in order to deceive the inhabitants of the earth from all levels of society and, thus, 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).
In its letter to the church in Pergamos, Jesus rebuked Christians who tolerated deceivers that 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, instead, not to participate in Babylonian idolatry. Likewise, in Revelation, first-century Christians were to avoid participation in the idolatrous worship of “Babylon” or Rome. “Fornicate” and “eating meat offered to idols” are metaphorical terms for participation in the idolatrous rituals of the imperial cult.
So also, believers of later generations must refuse to render homage to the idolatrous demands of end-time “Babylon” when it commands one and all to render homage to the Beast and its image.

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