In February 1887 President Grover Cleveland signed into law the Dawes Act which sought to assimilate Native Americans into the culture of the United States. It didn’t go well. Indians ended up losing 62% of the land they held before 1887. There remains much debate about how much people should assimilate into American culture. For a long time we Americans have likened out country to a melting pot rather than a salad bowl. In a salad bowl, each ingredient retains its difference and individuality. But in the melting pot, there is a melding, combining and loss of uniqueness. While America has never truly been a melting pot or salad bowl, Americans have long believed that some degree of assimilation is important and necessary for a healthy society. But as we’ll see, in at least one way of thinking, assimilation can be disastrous for Christians.
This fall we had a mini-series on Characters in the Old Testament. We met people like Jacob, Joseph, Samson and Ruth, all people who were flawed or in crisis, and yet God used them for his Kingdom. In this post we meet one last group who was also in crisis: Daniel and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
To begin, let’s try to locate the time period the story of Daniel occurs in Israel’s history. You might remember that the last character we looked at was David, and his battle with Goliath. Here’s what happened between the era of David and that of Daniel. David eventually became King of Israel, and then after his son, Solomon’s reign, the nation had a kind of civil war, which led to a North and South split. Ten tribes in the North are called Israel, and two tribes in the South are called Judah. Each nation has a series of kings and prophets and many ups and downs. Generally, the Northern kingdom of Israel chooses to turn away from obedience to God, and God allows them to be attacked and defeated by enemy nations. In the south, in Judah, however, there are many good kings who lead the nation to be faithful to God. But there are also wicked kings from time to time in the South, and eventually they, too, are attacked and defeated. That’s where Daniel story begins. Daniel was a young Jewish man living in Jerusalem when the powerful nation of Babylon defeated Judah. Feel free to pause this post and read what happened in Daniel 1:1-7.
It might be hard for people who experience peace or freedom in their lives to imagine what it would be like for Daniel and his friends. Their country destroyed and occupied. Ripped away from their families, carted off to a different land, with different customs, different language. This is a slavery story. A human trafficking story. But I think much more than that, it is an assimilation story, meaning that Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon wants to steal the best and brightest of Israel and transform them into his servants to benefit him. Nebuchadnezzar wants these Jews to assimilate into Babylon, to become Babylonians, to think and believe and act like Babylonians. So he puts them in a training program.
Would Daniel and his friends resist this forcible training program? Did they give up hope of returning to Jerusalem, to their families, to what was familiar to them? Were they battling with deep sadness and loss? Did they wrestle with God? Did they think, “God, why are you letting this happen? Why are you not being faithful to your covenant with your people?” Or did Daniel and his friends know that Israel had turned their backs on God, and thus they had this coming? Did they want to give up faith in God? Were they scared that they were going to be mistreated in Babylon? Put in prison? Killed? My guess is that they were wrestling with all these thoughts and more.
After they arrive in Babylon and are conscripted into the training program to serve in the king’s palace, it would become apparent rather quickly, I think, that they were in a fortunate position. Sure, if they wanted, they could really fight hard against the king’s wishes and refuse to participate in the program, maybe saying, “Send us back to Israel,” or something like that. If they choose to participate, however, it would seem that they could assume that they would be cared for quite well. Think about it, they were in a training program to serve the king. For foreign prisoners, it probably doesn’t get any better than that.
Daniel and his friends, while still likely sad about missing their family, friends and culture in Judah, could be wiping their foreheads in relief praying to God, “Thank you for taking care of us.” In many ways, for prisoners of war, it seems like they hit the jackpot. But surprisingly, Daniel and his friends don’t view it that way. Check back to the next post, to learn how they respond.