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)


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


wisdom traditionThis is the third of four posts that consider Daniel’s wisdom-based education in Jerusalem and Babylon. The approach I am taking is not that of “Daniel the prophet” but of “Daniel the statesman-diplomat.” In this post we will consider some little known, but highly significant, aspects of his wisdom-based training.

When people, especially Christians, think about how Daniel was educated they typically think “Babylon,” where his education would most likely have included gaining knowledge of what today we call occult, or esoteric, or irrational, beliefs and practices. In the old-world Middle East, professionals in astrology, divination, magical customs, and dream interpretation were integral to the royal court and its politics. Their opinions were turned in to the king as commonly and normally as any cabinet secretary today would send in his or her reports to a president or a prime minister.

This is not the place to enter into that discussion, except to acknowledge that an array of scholarship makes that conclusion credible. Apparently, then, Daniel and the three other budding Jewish scholars from Jerusalem were put through a course of studies in the Babylonian royal court that no card-carrying Evangelical today would entertain!

(The sarcastic polemic against the entire government of Babylon in Isaiah chapter 47 implicates the esotericists whom the king of Babylon relied on to shape the policies that Isaiah denounced. This indicates how systemic the irrational sciences were in the policies of that government.)

There is another view, which I have only heard from Christians. As devout Jews, Daniel and his three friends would never have allowed themselves to be taught “occult” subjects – given the stern warnings in the torah against such practices. But that conclusion is not supported by the Daniel chapter 1 text nor indicated by modern scholarship. This, I think, has to do with their sticking points, a topics to be explore in a future post.

The Jewish and Christian way to understanding this situation can be found in the fact that the book of Daniel never shows any of the four, at any time, practicing what their Scripture condemns. That is, it is one thing to know something about “the occult,” as many respected Christian apologists do; it is quite another thing to put what you know into practice as a believer in it. In short, as the book makes clear, Daniel’s guidance comes not from divination or the stars but from God. In other words, Daniel and his three Jewish friends did not have faith in the esoteric practices, as their Chaldean colleagues would have had.

What is not usually known, however, but what is in fact highly significant, is that their studies in wisdom, in both Jerusalem and Babylon, would have included foreign languages and literature and what today we call public affairs, political science, military history, international relations, and much more. Of course we cannot know infallibly what they were taught, but modern scholarship has reached consensus on a number of areas. We will explore these important areas of their wisdom education in the next post. Their relevance to today is pretty amazing.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


diplomacyIn this series of posts on Daniel we are looking not at “Daniel the prophet” but at Daniel as a devout Jew and statesman-diplomat in the empire of Babylonia. Here, I want to finish talking about the kind of wisdom education he received, which we began in the previous post. We know from the text that Daniel received three years of formal tutoring in the city of Babylon, and that it was overseen by Ashpenaz, who ran an elite school of Chaldean instructors for the king. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

But first a question: How was the new pupil, Daniel, able to meet the requirements? Most likely, their education in wisdom did not start in Babylon but in Jerusalem before their capture and exile to Babylon. Daniel 1:4 states that King Nebuchadnezzar ordered Ashpenaz “to bring [to Babylon from Jerusalem] some Israelites of royal descent and nobility [who were] 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” (Jewish Study Bible). Four such Israelites are then named in verse six: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.

A number of things are being indicated here. One is that they were “proficient” in wisdom before going to Babylon. They had to be, in order to get into the Chaldean school. Proficiency implies a thorough competence that has been learned by training and practice, such as when we think of someone who is proficient in a foreign language. Ashpenaz must have had some kind of test for that, and the four passed it. Where did these young Israelites become proficient in wisdom? We find a clue, I believe, in the phrase “of royal descent and nobility.”

According to modern scholarship, the royal courts of the old-world Middle East (in Egypt, Israel, Babylonia, and elsewhere) ran both temple schools and wisdom schools, the latter probably usually connected with the former. Not to draw too strict a line in this, but a temple school, as its name implies, educated students in a nation’s religious ritual and ceremonial life, while wisdom schools covered what today we might call the liberal arts, where one would become “knowledgeable and intelligent” in many areas. (There is some indication that a wisdom school would ensure that its pupils had some instruction in a nation’s religious beliefs and system, although they were not being trained for its priesthood.).

Further, enrollment in a wisdom school was typically limited to those with royal and noble blood. It seems likely that Daniel and his three Jewish friends were young wisdom scholars at “Jerusalem College,” where they did their undergraduate work. My guess is that in Jerusalem Asphenaz learned of them, tested them, and found them at the top of the class. He then took them back to Babylon with him for three years (1:6) of graduate studies in wisdom, which included the “writing [literature] and the language of the Chaldeans.”

Having accredited Daniel and his three friends as standout scholars from “Jerusalem College,” Ashpenaz admits them to a specialized course of studies in the Chaldean Institute at “King’s University” in Babylon. There, they would receive the specialized tutoring requisite for holding positions of responsibility and power in the state. It would be a move from being proficient in wisdom to being highly skilled in wisdom.

Next time we will finish our brief exploration of Daniel’s wisdom education in Jerusalem and Babylon by looking at what it most likely consisted of.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer