The question I want to begin with, here, is why did the four Jewish friends have a sticking point about the king’s menu but not about a change at the heart of their identities? That is, they accept radically different personal names (Daniel 1:7). This must have been a most distasteful compromise to these devout Yahwists, whose birth names are in various ways associated with characteristics of the God of Israel. But when they enter the Chaldean Institute their Hebrew names are formally changed to denote various pagan gods. Although some of these names have not been satisfactorily explained, the following indicates the enormity of the changes:
- “Hananiah” in Hebrew means Yah has favored [me]. His new name, “Shadrach,” means something like Command of Aku (Aku being a Mesopotamian lunar deity).
- “Mishael” means Who is what God is? His name is changed to “Meshach,” Who is what Aku is?
- “Azariah,” whose name means The Lord helps, gets saddled with the “Abednego,” Slave of Nego (or Nebo; Isaiah 46:1). (Some scholars believe that “Abednego” has a relation to “Aradnabu,” Servant of Nabu, who was King Nebuchadnezzar’s personal deity.)
- “Daniel” – God is my judge or God will judge or Judge of God – becomes “Belteschazzar,” a name similar to “Belshazzar,” a king of Babylon (Daniel 5). Both names stem from “Bel,” the chief god of the Babylonians, but it is unclear what “Belteschazzar” meant, possibly Bel is my prince or Protects the prince’s life.
Personally, I think I would have eaten the king’s food but put my foot down about being called Baalzebub or some such thing. But if these guys had any qualms about being identified with pagan gods, the text is silent about that. Although they submitted to radical changes of name, imagine what it would have been like to have been told – you a pious Jew – to walk around with one of those names and respond to it all the time in the royal court.
So someone asks Daniel, “What’s your name, sir?” To which he has to reply, “Bel is my prince.” Just think what that must have cost his soul as a devout Yahwist. Would it not have been a sticking point for many godly Jews of the time, for whom any association with the gods of the nations was a religious bugaboo? Yet Daniel, who is certainly aware of this deeply inbred religious antipathy, makes not a peep of protest. Apparently it is not a mountain that he, or his three friends, are willing to die on.
Although the text is silent as to why this was not a sticking point for them, we may assume that the changed names was not meant to wipe out their religious identity, for the text is clear that they remained free to worship Yahweh and that they did indeed do that. This, in fact, is consistent with a certain amount of religious freedom that the empire of Babylon was known for. Instead, the radical changes of name went to the heart of their Jewish national allegiance, and as such served a political purpose. As a political official of Babylon, no way would Daniel be permitted to answer his king or a foreign dignitary who asked “What’s your name?” with the Jewish implications of God is my judge.
If these four Jewish men, then, were to be fully integrated into the Babylonian government, if not into society itself, their allegiance to Israelite nationalism would have to go away, at least symbolically. As with Joseph in Egypt, they would need new names that matched their political status as Babylonian officials. Some scholars believe that the change of names was probably part of an official ceremony in which the four swore allegiance to Babylon as naturalized citizens.
In the next post we will look at two more controversial sticking points in the narrative of Daniel the statesman/diplomat.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Image by John Nicholls (used by permission via Creative Commons)