Almost a decade ago, I packed my earthly belongings and moved to Seattle to start a new adventure. I was already “culturally confused” to begin with - a term I came up with to attempt to explain the intricacies of being me. I was almost immediately at ease with my surroundings, and I happily embraced the new culture. I have learned that this phenomenon is called acculturation. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, acculturation means “cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture.” For me, my acculturation to the western culture is interesting, but not of grave consequence. For the people of Judah, it was a problem of utmost significance.
The people of Israel had a covenant with the Almighty God that started at the very beginning, at the dawn of their existence. It was simple, really. If the people of Israel obeyed the Lord’s commandments and served him only, they would prosper and be able to enjoy everything that God had in store for them. However, if they disobeyed the Lord’s commandments and chose to worship the pagan gods of the other nations, they would lose their land and their identity.
Acculturation to the cultures and faiths of other nations would break their covenant with God.
In the opening chapter of the book of Daniel, we are introduced to four teenage boys: Daniel, Azariah, Mishael and Hananiah. Babylonians conquered the kingdom of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had the best and brightest boys chosen and transported to Babylon so that they could serve him in his court. Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael were among the chosen ones. These chosen ones were taught the language and literature of the Babylonians. They were also trained and fed food from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years before they were to enter the king’s service. Part of their newcomer orientation included getting new names. Their original names were about God, while the new names that they were given were names that pointed to Babylonian gods.
This was the setting of the book of Daniel. Judah lost everything they held dear. Daniel and his friends became a foreign king’s belongings. They were in a foreign land, filled with foreign people who worshiped foreign gods. They were captives in a foreign culture.
Acculturation was still a bad idea, but perfectly understandable in light of Daniel and his friends’ struggle for survival.
Succumbing to the culture and faith of the Babylonians was understandable even when it went against everything they were brought up to believe. They were captives! They didn’t really have a choice. They belonged to the king. The king got to decide who they were, what they did, and how they lived their lives. They had lost everything, and it would have been very easy (and very human) to justify adopting the Babylonian religion as a means to survive.
This one statement presents to us the theme of the first half of the book of Daniel - God’s people being resolute about not adapting a culture that was going to take them away from their God. This statement was echoed in the face of the blazing furnace and with the threat of lions. Daniel, Azariah, Mishael and Hananiah resolved to not defile themselves with the offer of life without their God.
As followers of Jesus, we are all out of our element. We are thrust into a worldly culture, with worldly ideas and concepts trying to master us and make us worship things other than our God. As we talk about flourishing this month, it’s easy to imagine a beautiful plant flourishing in the perfect environment. The challenge that Daniel and his friends encountered - and one that we also face - is to flourish and become who God created us to be in an environment and a world that wants us not to. To flourish even when others think it’s understandable if we don’t flourish.
Setting boundaries.Daniel and his friends resolved not to eat the food provided for them. This was food that was made especially for the king. This was the best food made by the best chefs in Babylon. But this wasn’t what God had commanded they could eat. While having to answer to Babylonian names or dress like Babylonians or speak like Babylonians, Daniel and his friends drew the line at eating forbidden things. In Daniel 4, Azariah, Mishael and Hananiah drew the line at worshiping an image of gold instead of the One True God. Obeying God and keeping his commandments were non-negotiables for Daniel and his friends. As followers of Jesus, we are called to not conform to the patterns of this world. We need to set the boundaries.
Being faithful.In the midst of the discouragement of captivity, the uncertainty of their future, and the hopelessness that abounds, Daniel and his friends kept on being faithful to God. For Daniel, even when he knew that people were plotting against him, “he got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gas thanks before his God, as he had done previously (Daniel 6:10). For Daniel, it was business as usual. He had developed habits that brought him closer to God and he kept at it - even when it meant facing hungry lions. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be faithful, even when we are facing circumstances that would deem it understandable to be unfaithful to the Lord.
Never compromising one’s true identity.Daniel and his friends knew who they were. They knew what was required of them as the people of God. Even though they lived the rest of their days in captivity, they knew who they were. They didn’t consider themselves Babylonians. Maybe on paper and in their different positions they were part of the king’s men. But Daniel and his friends stayed true to who they were. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be in the world but not of it, staying true to who we are: citizens of heaven.
Daniel and his friends resolved. And they flourished. If we read the rest of the book of Daniel, we realize that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah found favor in the eyes of kings. Kingdoms come and go, but they still found favor and rose to high positions. They were respected by kings. But most importantly, they lived lives pleasing to the Lord.