sticking pointsThis series of posts on Daniel has been considering how Daniel’s education and tutoring in the wisdom tradition equipped him with the skills of a statesman/diplomat. We have been interested in puzzling out insights related to that role rather than to Daniel’s role as a prophet. So far, we have looked at several key narratives that show how Daniel gained and exercised exceptional diplomatic skill:

  • Daniel’s wisdom-based education in both Jerusalem and Babylon;
  • Daniel’s meteoric rise to renown in the Babylonian royal court as a devout Jew serving with distinction at the highest levels of government;
  • his irenic attitude and style of communication;
  • his respect not only for the king but for his Chaldean colleagues, including those advisers called astrologers;
  • and his esprit de corps with his Chaldean colleagues in government.

In these next posts I want to wrap up our time with Daniel the statesman/diplomat by considering:

  • Daniel’s non-retaliatory actions toward his political enemies;
  • how his wisdom-based way of reasoning bore fruit in political-religious controversies within the royal court;
  • and the different, possibly contradictory, sticking points between Daniel and his three Jewish colleagues in the Babylonian system.

Over the years, I have found it helpful to talk about these three features in the context of “sticking points,” so I will do that here. Knowing what one’s sticking points are in a given situation, and honest and open talk about them with others, is actually quite crucial because there may arise the mistaken notion that with wisdom “anything goes.” Not so. At the other extreme, there may be present arise a very real nervousness in which the word such as “compromise” and  “accommodation” seem like swear words to people who don’t swear.

There are of course compromises that are not wise. On the other hand, a wise compromise may never see the light of day because one of the parties is overly nervous about seeking any sort of agreement with the other. I hope that insights we gained from Daniel’s attitude toward the king’s menu have shown that you can have your sticking point yet still negotiate an acceptable compromise agreement. But the Daniel narrative offers us even more challenging insights about sticking points, which we will consider beginning in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Back on Wednesday

I have been out of town for a few days and will return to posting on Wednesday. Meantime, perhaps I could talk you into sending a comment to say what you would like to see discussed on this blog. Your comment will be kept private and not put on the blog. Hearing from you would help us to get more understanding about where we might take this still developing experiment. Let me know what you are thinking! Thank you, Charles


skill in wisdomWe have been considering a Daniel who was not trained in the prophetic tradition but in the wisdom tradition. The two traditions have different purposes, different functions, different styles of communication. Like the carefully tuned strings upon a fine instrument, tradition and tone must agree. Prophets often make absolute demands; diplomats negotiate.

Daniel was trained in the wisdom tradition as a diplomatic person. As such, his style of communication was consistent with that of a negotiator seeking to bring about policies for the common good. In that capacity he worked alongside his Chaldean colleagues in government. This a vital feature of what I call the “wisdom norm of skill” (skillful diplomacy, in this case), and it requires a manner of communication and behavior attuned to that norm. Daniel would have understood that from his education in wisdom, and we never see him abusing or breaking that norm.

Daniel’s style, tone, and behavior in the royal court speaks volumes about the wisdom norm of skill. Here, I just want to explore how it is a feature of wisdom that seems essential to the esprit de corps Daniel had with his Chaldean colleagues. (Several previous posts have discussed the wisdom norms of peaceableness, relations, and mutuality. Here you will find a brief description of what a norm is.)

Daniel’s role as a negotiator and peacemaker in the royal court continued after his schooling in many and varied ways. He is always shown as seeking peaceful resolutions to whatever contradictory person, situation, or predicament concerns him. I have written about this elsewhere. Here, I just want to summarize some insights into one hairy situation that I call “saving the political astrologers” – a narrative I also like because it utilizes some diplomatic humor.

Apparently, the incident takes place early on in Daniel’s career, at a time when he is not well known to the king. But that is about to change. The king, Nebuchadnezzar, has just awoken from a terribly disturbing dream. He can’t shake it and knows it is significant, but he hasn’t a clue to its meaning. So he assembles his Chaldean dream team to get the interpretation. Problem is, the king does not trust these guys. To him, the dream team are a bunch pragmatists seeking to manipulate the interpretation once they have the dream. So the king decides to ask the impossible.

Having assembled them, he demands an interpretation. No problem, O king. Tell us, what was your dream? (Seems a reasonable request.) But the king then declares that they must tell him what he dreamed, and then interpret it, and if they cannot do that, he says, it’s the firing squad for you guys. An argument that now erupts shows the utter disbelief of the dream team facing the adamancy of the king, whose word is absolute.

The dream team explain to the king why, according to their lights, his request is impossible: Only the gods could tell the king his dream, but, O king, the gods are not saying because they do not live among us. But the king just digs his heels in. No! Tell me my dream!

“There is not a man on earth who can do what they kings asks!” they reply. “No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. What the king asks is too difficult.” Their language, here, is embedded with a subtle insult: You’re stupid for requiring the dream because that’s impossible, as anyone in their right mind would know!

Mind you, they were, hehe, using diplomatic language! But the king sees through it. The hidden insult infuriates him and he issues his severe decree that “all the wise men of Babylon,” which included Daniel and his three friends, are to be put to death.

Some intrigue then takes place behind the scenes. Daniel, who for some reason was not among the assembled dream team, negotiates with Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, to buy some time with the king. That occurs, and during the night the mystery is revealed to Daniel in a vision. The next day he reveals both the dream and its interpretation to the king, who cancels the executions. (See Daniel chapter two for the entire story.)

The takeaway for us, here, is not the divine intervention, though there is that, but the human feature of Daniel’s esprit de corps with Arioch and especially with the Chaldean dream team. It ran so deep that it appears to have been quite normal for Daniel to negotiate to save their lives. (Echoes of the Joseph story in Genesis?)

light of wisdomYes, Daniel’s life was also on the line. But when Daniel eventually stands before the king, the text indicates that he prefaced his remarks with a skilled apologetic in defense of the dream team. It is the mediatorial Daniel, and it gets the dream team off the hook.

I remember when this became clear to me. Would prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, I wondered, who said condemnatory things about astrologers and like-minded others in “pagan” royal courts, have have defended this dream team?

This is normative behavior for Daniel, who is part of a shared diplomatic culture in which a sense of common purpose exists among officials in the royal court. Daniel received wisdom instruction not just in political methods and procedures but in conduct, attitude, norms of behavior, conflict management, and other essentials of diplomatic skill.

He is a career insider among the wise. He works alongside Chaldeans. It is a network of long-term pluralistic relationships within the state that requires a means of getting along with others for the sake of peace and common good. Using “wisdom and tact” (2:14; see Proverbs 16:23), Daniel therefore negotiates with Arioch to buy some time to resolve the crisis.

The agency of wisdom is provided Daniel with diplomatic skill, which we see him exercising consistently. There is no indication that Daniel ever uttered bellicose words or sought to alienate. Abusive speech increases the rift between parties. Diplomatic speech seeks to bring people together to find peaceable arrangements or agreements.

This is something we ought to give a great deal of serious thought to, given the name-calling, ad hominem attacks, bitter polemics, and demonizing of the other that is poisoning the blood stream of our national and international relations today, and which passes as wisdom to some.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Top image by Niels Linneberg (permission via Creative Commons)


wisdom of pulling togetherIf we think about their political or religious ideologies as individuals, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavaro live in three different worlds. It is hard to image them ever being friends who just hang out together. But when they are functioning in their roles as diplomats negotiating with one another, an esprit de corps exists among them as members of an elite international community. This too could seem rather surprising, actually, given that they are representatives of nations whose foreign policies often clash.

But this is part of diplomatic life on the international stage. We can see it in action in Daniel’s life as a statesman-diplomat. Although a devout Jew, his esprit de corps with his Chaldean colleagues in government is apparent. In previous posts we have seen a Daniel who, in the wisdom schools of both Jerusalem and Babylon, was tutored in a style and tone of communication and behavior to function as diplomatic official and negotiator. This, we saw, contrasted to the style and tone of someone functioning in the prophetic tradition.

Spokespersons in the prophetic style, at least in the Bible, were often sharply confrontative when speaking the truth to power. Unlike negotiators, the prophets do not seem to be interested in reaching midpoints conducive to common ground agreements across boundaries. One cannot imagine Elijah the prophet sitting across the table trying to find common ground with the prophets of Baal. “A sword against the Babylonians!” the prophet Jeremiah shouts (50:35), with an eye to its officials (śārîm) and wise men (hakāmīm), whose policies are arrogant and oppressive. That is hardly the cry of a diplomat. Examples such as these are easy to come by in the prophetic literature.

There is no negotiating with a prophet who is making absolute demands. But we never see Daniel doing that, and there is no indication in the book of Daniel that he ever would have done so in any of his roles as a government official in Babylon. Bellicosity just does not seem to have been part of Daniel’s DNA. It is not that Daniel does not hold strong religious convictions, or that he is a Caspar Milkquetoast, or that he is blind to the core differences between his worldview and that of the his Chaldean colleagues.

What’s the deal then? Look at it this way. “War of words” is not an image synonymous with the peaceableness of the wisdom tradition. Further, Daniel is in Babylon and he has been told by Jeremiah to seek the shalom of the city.

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace [shalom] and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Jeremiah 29:4-7

It would seem unlikely that Daniel had not read, or had not been apprised of, the contents of, that letter from Jeremiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon to seek the peace (shalom) of the city. Having been trained in wisdom, both in Jerusalem and in Babylon, Daniel would know exactly what Jeremiah was on about. And through his training in the wisdom schools he would know how to lead and model shalom in what for the Jews was nightmare situation (see the book of Lamentations).

Next time we will look at how Daniel’s esprit de corp with his Chaldean colleagues played a role in taking Jeremiah’s words to heart amid a life-threatening situation.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


moment of truthDaniel has been hauled off to Babylon from Jerusalem. He is now a scholar in a new school, the Chaldean Institute, being tutored for three years to become an official in King Nebuchadnezzar’s government. When we left off last time, Daniel was negotiating with Ashpenaz, the head tutor, to change his, Daniel’s, diet. Goodwill is flowing between both parties but no decision has yet been reached. And now things get tense around the table.

Our text is Daniel 1:8-16, and Ashpenaz is now explaining to Daniel why he is afraid to change the diet. Hey, look, I like you. You’re sharp dude and you’re being fast-tracked to serve in government, but it’s way too risky for me to change your diet. You trying to get me killed? The king will have my head on a platter if he sees you looking worse than the other pupils (1:10). What to do? We don’t see a Daniel who now goes at Ashpenaz with abrasive speech or by resorting to demands. Nor does he mount a learned attack on the educational system or slam “pagan customs” about eating food from the king’s table. He keeps negotiating. He stays at the table and suggests a closed-door experiment, a dietary test, for himself and his three Jewish colleagues (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah), who were apparently in on this, with Daniel as spokesperson for their side.

Ashpenaz agrees. Fast forward ten days. Daniel and his three friends have passed the test with flying colors and Ashpenaz has ordered their diet permanently changed. Looking back, it is tempting to see the whole process as a carefully orchestrated piece of negotiations by a budding diplomat, and Daniel won, right? But look closely. Daniel was being asked to risk his life too.

Negotiations, the art of diplomacy, always consists of more than one person, with a win-win outcome the preferred goal. Around that table were five persons, and Ashpenaz was being asked to risk his life by one of them. He needed a good and sufficient reason from Daniel before he would even think about agreeing to Daniel’s odd request to bend the rules. And even then he might not, since his life was on the line.

wisdomNegotiations include ensuring that the other side “gets” where you are at. Now Ashpenaz is a seasoned diplomatic figure, and the stakes are so high for him that he is going to make darn sure that Daniel gets that. What to do? By establishing the fact that he could lose his life, Ashpenaz skillfully puts the ball back in Daniel’s court. Suddenly Daniel is now faced with what for him, too, is a mortal risk.

The implied meaning in Ashpenaz’s position is that if Daniel wants to proceed with the dietary test, then his life will also be on the line. Daniel is being asked to meet Ashpenaz halfway. And what a midpoint! Perhaps Ashpenaz wanted to know just how serious Daniel was about this dietary business. As a skilled negotiator, he has now presented Daniel with a face-saving way out if he wants to take it. Daniel could now say, Right, this isn’t a mountain I’m willing to die on. And he could bow out.

Alternatively, Daniel would have to suggest a plan that they could both agree to act on. But that could only be proposed in good conscience by Daniel if this dietary business is a conviction he is willing to risk his life for. If Daniel can convince Ashpenaz that it is, and if Ashpenaz then agrees to act on the closed-door experiment (1:11-16), then the moment of truth as arrived for them both. It will either be a win-win or a lose-lose outcome. These guys were not playing softball.

Yes, it was a clever piece of negotiating by a budding diplomat, but a budding diplomat at the table with a master diplomat, who was tutoring Daniel in the art of negotiations and the wise style of communication that goes with it. Daniel was already proficient in wisdom and Ashpenaz was tasked with helping him to become skilled in wisdom. Apparently he did a superb job of it.

At the end of the three-year period, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were graduated with honors and presented to the king, who talked with them. “In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom” (1:20).

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


the thinerDaniel knows why he is being hauled off to Babylon from Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, he has been examined by Ashpenaz and passed the entrance exam to get into the elite Chaldean Institute of King’s College. Once in Babylon, at the end of the long arduous journey, his life will restart not only as an outsider in a different culture. He will be taking three years of postgraduate studies and then enter into the Babylonian king’s service (Daniel 1:6).

Think about it. Daniel, an Israelite and a devout Jew, knows that in the Chaldean institute of higher learning, and afterward as a royal court official, he will be thrust inescapably, like Joseph centuries earlier in Egypt, into long-term working relationships with all sorts of members of the royal court. Most of them will follow a religion that is quite different than his. And he will have to function amid networks of colleagues who have competing interests and agenda rivalries. There will be political enemies and power grabs.

I imagine a Daniel trudging along the road to Babylon pondering how in the heck he is going to safely negotiate the religious / political intersection of Babylonian diversity. He would have known something about that intersection and its challenges from his undergraduate studies in Jerusalem College, where he was also gaining diplomatic skills. He would gain more diplomatic skills at the Chaldean Institute, and he would need them in the royal court.

Interestingly, we get an insider-look at Daniel’s diplomatic skills early on, during a risky piece of negotiating he entered with Ashpenaz, his tutor. Not long after his tutoring begins, Daniel faces a tense situation that arose, of all things, his diet. There would have been more to the story, of course, than the abbreviated version in Daniel 1:5-16. Nevertheless, we are provided with some clues to Daniel’s wisdom-based diplomatic style.

From the word religious word “defile” (1:8), for instance, we have a big clue. I think we may safely assume that Daniel’s conversations with his don about getting off the royal food and wine of his diet would have included some heartfelt sharing on Daniel’s part about his religious beliefs and convictions, in hopes of convincing Ashpenaz to agree to the change of diet. Although the text at this point states that “God caused” Asphanez “to show favor and sympathy to Daniel” (1:9), the human element remains in play. If Daniel resorts to abusive speech or mocks the Babylonian religious system in hopes of getting his diet changed, no way that happens.

By this time, Daniel and Ashpenaz would have had months, at least, to get to know each other. It is likely that Daniel simply talked to Ashpenaz to explain that the royal diet violated the Jewish food laws as found in Deuteronomy chapter 14 and Leviticus chapter 11. I believe Daniel and Ashpenaz had some good dialogue about this, and I doubt if the topic surprised Ashpenaz. For we know from William McKane and other scholars that royal court officials such as Ashpenaz would have been required to have some working knowledge of foreign religious literature and beliefs.

Daniel’s goodwill and prudent speech toward this Babylonian official is also evident in another scene. And here is where things get tense. But we must pick that up next time.

(I have been advised by many “people in the know” to keep the posts short. If you prefer posts that are  longer, send an email or a comment to say why. Maybe the occasional longer posts is okay. I naturally think in long, compound-complex ideas, which is probably why I write books and struggle to condense how I think into short posts. Bit of an ironic way to stretch one’s thinking.)

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


old village lifeWe may perhaps first learn something about Daniel’s diplomatic skill by way of contrast to something we may be more familiar with. His attitude and manner of speech is quite unlike the way the biblical prophets typically communicated to rulers and policymakers. The prophetic literature of the Bible shows us prophets who are frequently confrontative and who often go for the jugular. The prophets aggressively publicly declare unjust policies, and it is not unusual for them to use scornful or inflammatory rhetoric to indict the leaders and decision makers who implemented the policies, as well as the populations who accept them.

Examples abound. Here is just one. Having first ridiculed the gods of Babylonia (chapter 46), Isaiah then turns his sights on the nation itself and its policies. This is about two centuries before  the time of Daniel. Toward one of the regions great powers, who apparently prided herself an empress, Isaiah’s language drips with sarcasm. To summarize Isaiah 47:1-10:

Come down off your throne; sit on the ground without a throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans. Take millstones and grind flour. Sit in silence and go into darkness, O daughter of the Chaldeans. No more will you be called queen of kingdoms, even though you said I will be a queen forever. Yet you are a wanton creature, lounging in your security. But widowhood and loss of children will overtake you on a single day. You have trusted in your wickedness; your wisdom and knowledge have misled you.

That is a pretty invidious comparison. It is difficult for us moderns to imagine how humiliatingly disgraceful the image would have been to Babylonian rulers. To feel its sting, imagine something like the Archbishop of Canterbury prophesying that England is to end in ruins and her queen will not only be sent from the palace but forced to live the rest of her life as the poorest of commoners, reduced to the condition of a slave grinding flour.

In short, the prophets do not seem to care about what diplomats care about, negotiations. Abusive speech, sarcasm, scorn, aggressively confrontational public rhetoric, and suchlike are not the diplomatic way. Diplomacy is the art of negotiations and wisdom is an agency of judicious speech (Proverbs 16:23). This befits diplomats and it is a skill we see in Daniel early on, during a risky piece of negotiations. We’ll explore this next time.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


Nobody would accuse the former president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of being diplomatic. His bombastic and inflammatory rhetoric toward, in particular, Israel and the United States, was meant to keep Iran’s alienation from those nations intact. On the other hand, not a few voices in America wisdom wayaccuse President Obama of being too diplomatic. This was especially true when he formally reached out to Iran in 2009, in an effort to start building bridges, and in 2013, when he chose diplomacy over military action to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

Ahmadinejad was following in the steps a long list of state ideologues who are blind to their coarse ignorance of the world. They have nothing to learn from adversaries. They know it all. For them it is: My way first, last, and always. End of story. When Obama reached out to talk in 2009, Washington and Tehran had not had embassy-level diplomatic relations with each other since 1979. Thirty years of formal diplomatic non-history is a “long time no talk,” and when adversarial states are not talking, gross misunderstandings arise.

So one of the parties chose to reach out diplomatically to get some face-to-face dialogue going to start clearing up misunderstandings. It was a wise gesture, skillfully done. Washington and Tehran still do not have an embassy in each other’s countries, but now that Obama has an interlocutor in the more diplomatic Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, we my be seeing at least some thawing of relations.

Diplomacy, and its most important activity, negotiations, dates back to times of villages and tribes, when, even then, spaces for cooperation and the exercise of goodwill between them had to be built. Treaties and other forms of agreement were needed, and then those had to be managed, adjusted, and sustained if conflict and war was to be avoided and trade promoted. Later, with the rise of the so-called great states of the ancient Near East, such as Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria, more formalized diplomatic relations developed. Although adequate to the times, we would see it as rudimentary, and perhaps not as developed as it could have been if travel and communications had been as easy as it is today.

Amarna letterNevertheless, a fascinating work of scholarship, Armana Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations, discusses an unusually large cache of diplomatic letters found in Egypt at the ancient royal city of Amarna. The letters detail a remarkably long period of cooperation among Egypt and other the great powers of the time, three to four centuries before the founding of the kingdom of Israel.

Today, as then, ambassadors, diplomats, negotiators, mediators, and relevant others need great skill in communications, a deep knowledge of each other’s cultures and politics, and a good handle on the actual problems if they hope to get the parties to Yes. They must, for instance:

  • exercise boundless sensitivity to the parties’ problems and exercise great tact and pacing when working toward an agreement of mutual benefit;
  • demonstrate a professionalism that submerges their own ideologies to the good of the negotiating parties;
  • show themselves evenhanded, gaining the confidence of all sides, while helping the parties see reality as it is and adjust to it;
  • help negotiations to reach midpoints that both sides can accept, often by challenging what has been called the parties “comfortable myths”;
  • show empathy for the suffering and needs of the parties, helping each side “get” the other’s grievances;
  • have enormous tolerance for frustration, take setbacks in stride, not make provocative statements, but stay focused and keep going.

In short, they must be diplomatic. Imagine, for instance, the disastrous outcomes if foreign minsters of adversarial states met in crises to vent polemically or demonize each other.

We do not generally explore the biblical text for diplomatic insights, but in this series of posts on the first half of the book of Daniel (chapters 1-6), we have been trying to do just that. As a high-level official in the royal court of Babylonia, Daniel’s political career takes places within the diplomatic culture of the great powers of the old-world Middle East.

Although the Daniel text does not show us a Daniel conducting negotiations for Babylonia with his counterparts in other nations, we have no reason to doubt that he functioned in that capacity from time to time during his decades of government service in successive Babylonian governments. What is explicit in the text, however, is Daniel’s diplomatic skill in the royal court, especially as a negotiator. These are skills he certainly would have taken with him on the road for the king, were he sent to negotiate treaties.

Key elements of Daniel’s skill as a diplomat and negotiator correspond to those in the above list. We have insights into them from his life amid the intrigue of the royal court. We will look at these in the next several posts.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer