DANIEL’S WISDOM EDUCATION IN JERUSALEM & BABYLON part 1 of 4

wisdom traditionDaniel, a devout Jew, held a highly distinguished political career in the nation of Babylonia. He served at the highest levels of that government throughout successive administrations and was numbered among an elite class of advisers to the king. These advisers were known as maskilim, which is the Chaldean-Babylonian equivalent of hakamim, a Hebrew word to designate “the wise.”

What I have seen in the book of Daniel is a Daniel with an advanced degree of skill in wisdom that enabled him to function consistently diplomatically with a peaceably relational approach to people and situations. This was true even when he faced political enemies and death threats. Here is a statesman / diplomat whose response to adversarial relations, injustice, and conflict was quite unlike what is typically heard in the polemics of a biblical prophet. It is certainly different than the polarizing rants, if not the demonizing of the other, that can be heard coming out of some quarters in America and the Middle East today. Daniel’s was a peaceable, albeit a personally challenging, wisdom. It gained him the respect and favor of the kings he served. And it was instrumental in effecting deep changes of mind in the kings and in some of their policies.

But Daniel did not become an elite adviser because someone waved a magic wand over him. He paid his dues. And what dues they were! They began with the privileged, wisdom-based education he received in the Babylonian royal court. Here are some facts about that, often glossed over or ignored because their implications are rather astounding.

In the opening scene of the book, Daniel and three other promising young Israelite scholars (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) are captives being taken into exile from Jerusalem to the city of Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. Immediately we learn that

The king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief officer, to bring some Israelites of royal descent and nobility – youths without blemish, handsome, proficient in all wisdom, knowledgeable and intelligent, and capable of serving in the royal palace – and teach them the writing and the language of the Chaldeans…. They were to be educated for three years, at the end of which they were to enter into the king’s service. (Daniel 1:4-5, Jewish Study Bible)

Here is my understanding of that text, starting with a word about “the Chaldeans.” Unlike the Jewish Study Bible, most contemporary English translations have “the Babylonians” in Daniel 1:4. This is unfortunate. Babylonia (the empire not the city) comprised a very heterogenous population, and the Chaldeans, like the Israelites and many others, had been absorbed by Babylonia when it was a regional superpower.

Daniel 1:4 is not about the Babylonian population in general, with its mixed and conquered peoples, although that is the context in places such as Daniel 5:30 and 9:1, where “Babylonian” is the correct word. In Daniel 1:4, however, the context is an elite group of Chaldean officials in the royal court. Thus “Chaldean” is necessarily used for this more restrictive sense to qualify the phrase “the writing [literature] and the language” (of the Chaldeans). What is being referenced is a class of priests and learned (wise) men, or magi, in the Babylonian royal court.

In our text, Ashpenaz is tasked with examining the four young Hebrew men to see if they qualify for what we could call the “Chaldean Institute of King’s College.” If admitted, they would enter an elite tutoring program leading to prestigious positions as the king’s councilors. The four budding scholars met the admission requirements for that higher education.

Question: How were they able to meet the requirements? Apparently their education in wisdom did not start in Babylon. We will consider why in the next post in this series, where we look more closely at Daniel 1:4.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

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