dominoesOne of the great tipping points in the history of ancient Israel was its choice to become a formal nation among nations (a monarchy among monarchies). Israel’s process toward national self-determination, to what today we call statehood, began with the establishing of organized settlements throughout the land of Canaan. The process culminated a few centuries later when Israel the people became Israel the state – that is, they became like the nations around them – a monarchy state – and Saul was made its first king (1 Samuel 8–10).

This historical tipping point affected the entire society, including, and perhaps especially, its domestic and international political life. Books have been written about this. But here I just want to consider an often overlooked fact. On becoming a formal nation, and to be accepted as such by the regional powers, it was necessary for Israel to make the kind of governmental changes whereby it could formally participate in the international system of the old-world Middle East. The newly established monarchy therefore had to enter into that international monarchial system, that is, into the established way that international politics and foreign policy was being conducted – think of how a new state today joins the United Nations.

By becoming a state (I’m using that term in a general political sense), old-world Israel had turned a political corner, one that demanded significant changes to its existing political structure. The new state established the governmental apparatus and bureaucracy necessary to gain an international footing and acceptance like the other nations.

This meant, for instance, enthroning a king, picking a cabinet, establishing a capital, and drafting and institutionalizing new domestic laws, such as for raising an army and the taxes to fund both it and the new and growing government bureaucracy. As William McKane put it: “Israel became a state with a new political structure which demanded the creation of a cadre of royal officials through whom the king governed this people” (Prophets and Wise Men, 42.) But it also entailed political changes whereby the new state could enter formal relations with the other regional powers, such as Egypt.

What needs to be recognized and acknowledged is that Israel the state could not create a foreign policy structure that was, so to speak, completely foreign to the existing international paradigm. Now that existing regional paradigm, of course, was not perfect, and the nations in it were often adversarial due, in no small part, to their conflicting religious-political ideologies.

But that international system was also hugely informed, as we noted in previous posts, by the wisdom tradition and the royal court officials who (prior to becoming government officials) were educated in that tradition’s peaceable way of reasoning. In other words, once Israel rounded the corner, it would be formally participating in an international system that had been in play in the region long before “Israel the state” entered it. We should therefore not be surprised to see many governmental similarities between Israel the state and the other regional powers.

UN meeting (UN Info Centers)Think of the founding of the United States. Although the nation was not established after the order of a European monarchy, but as a republic, it nevertheless had to function within the existing international systems of its period. To put it crudely, the United States could not say, We’re not going to play the game because we’re a republic and not a monarchy. The United States, then, beginning with its first president, George Washington, engaged in diplomatic missions, negotiations, treaty agreements, and so forth. These took place across the Atlantic in European and north African nations and in  islands in the Pacific, including Hawaii, with a view toward engaging with China.

So too with ancient Israel. There is a pretty solid consensus among scholars, for instance, that during the long reigns of Israel’s second and third kings (David and Solomon), “Israel was in the Egyptian … sphere of influence,” and that in the close relations between Solomon and Egypt, “we ought to seek there for the models of Solomon’s bureaucracy” (Ibid., 23.) Citing the period during Solomon’s commercial enterprises with Hiram, king of Tyre, and Solomon’s alliance with Egypt through marriage, McKane concludes that “the Israelite state was modeled on the great states of the ancient Near East and so acquired a structure similar to that of Egypt.” It was a “political structure” in which there was associated with the king “a class of royal officials who had to do with the army, finance, foreign embassies and administration. Such officials were a ‘people of the king’ and had a common interest with him in maintaining the regime and suppressing popular resistance and discontent” (Ibid, 43).

The wisdom tradition played a vitally huge role in all of this, especially internationally. We have already considered the significant point that the wisdom tradition was cross-cultural and transnational in the old-world Middle East. Further, it was taken for granted in the corridors of power throughout the region that royal officials, especially those working internationally, would have been educated in their countries’ wisdom traditions. This seems to have been such an accepted part of international political life that it was unquestioned. It was a given. I want to call attention to two upsides to this.

(1) A ruler such as a Babylonian or a Persian king could feel comfortable and confident to include religious outliers, such as a Daniel or an Ezra, in his government, even as an official at the highest levels. This was an accepted norm in the international system of the region.

(2) A believer in Yahweh, such as a Daniel or an Ezra, could serve in a “pagan” government with a clear conscience.

Neither of these facts may seem a big deal in the context of today’s western nations, in which people of different faiths may serve in their nation’s government. But it is not a universal international norm today. In many Middle East governments, for instance, such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, Jews and Christians need not apply.

In the next post I want us to consider this international norm in the life of Joseph, an Israelite who served as a high-level diplomatic official for many years in Pharaoh’s Egypt.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Great Beyond and UN Info Centres, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)


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


Ancient sagesI want to close this discussion on Daniel’s wisdom education by calling attention to what was most likely included in the tutorial process. I have found William McKane’s seminal, little book Prophets and Wisdom Men wonderfully helpful in this.

In his work, which includes the large and dense volume Proverbs: A New Approach, McKane has shown that Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Israelite political officials and advisers would have been trained in the wisdom tradition. And of the wisdom literature itself, McKane has concluded that it was for the most part “a product not of full-time men of letters and academics, but of men of affairs in high places of state.” Further, “the literature in some of its forms bears the marks of its close association with those who exercise the skills of statecraft” (Prophets and Wise Men, p. 44).

This is “particularly evident,” he writes, “in the case of the Egyptian ‘Instruction’ whose aim is to lay down the first principles of statesmanship and to define the fundamental intellectual attitudes which are [to be desired] for the aspiring statesman or administrator” (p. 4-5). That seems like an apt job description for Ashpenaz, the lead tutor in the Chaldean school of wisdom where Daniel (and his three Jewish friends) studied. Previously, we considered the likelihood that Ashpenaz would have first tested the four devout Jews in Jerusalem, to see if they had the “intellectual attitudes” essential in anyone aspiring to be a royal court official. When Ashpenaz found them to be budding scholars, he took them back to Babylon for three years of graduate studies in wisdom, which included the “writing [literature] and the language of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:3-6).

ancient wisdom schoolTo return to the Egyptian scene, McKane also found evidence that its wisdom literature was associated “with the practice of government.” This “is underlined by the circumstances that the authors of these pieces are sometimes represented as having spent a lifetime in the service of the state in the highest offices.” Further, the Egyptian system was largely a tutorial process conducted in government departments by senior officials who made “available a bank of practical wisdom accumulated from the experience of those have who have in the past shown themselves to be the most shrewd and perceptive men of affairs” (p. 45).

McKane and other scholars have also concluded that these schools were only open to the children of royal families and other elites. And the apprenticeships, to summarize McKane, included familiarization with the functions of bureaucracy, mastering competence in government administration, cultivating proper mores and intellectual attitudes, studying the cultures and politics of surrounding nations, and becoming skilled in protocol. It was through this educational process that “intellectual probity and fastidiousness and a maturity of judgment” was gained for dealing wisely with complicated domestic and international situations (p. 45).

McKane suggests that we envisage the kind of schools “where the fundamental disciplines of reading and writing were mastered” as well as more advanced institutions “where the various subjects of a more specialized higher education were pursued” (p. 39). And since this was not religious instruction per se, it was “not authoritative in the sense of recommending a doctrinaire approach to politics or in prescribing a simple set of rules” (p. 45).

The Egyptian history is significant. McKane sees Israel as taking some cues for its political bureaucracy from the Egyptian system, especially during the long reigns of David and Solomon (Israel’s second and third kings), when Israel was often closely in the Egyptian sphere of influence (p. 23). Citing, for example, Solomon’s alliance with Egypt through marriage, McKane writes that “the Israelite state was modeled on the great states of the ancient Near East and so acquired a structure similar to that of Egypt.” It was a “political structure” in which there was associated with the king “a class of royal officials who had to do with the army, finance, foreign embassies and administration. Such officials were a ‘people of the king’ and had a common interest with him in maintaining the regime and suppressing popular resistance and discontent” (p. 43).

All of this gives us a general idea of what the education of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah in Babylon most likely encompassed (this is supported by a host of other scholarship). It also gives further credence to the assumption we made, that the four devout Jews, who were from royal or noble blood (Daniel 1:3), were taking, or had finished, their undergraduate classes in wisdom education in Jerusalem to prepare them to serve as officials in the royal court of Judah (before Judah was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar’s army). Ashpenaz thus finds them “proficient in wisdom” (Daniel 1:4, Jewish Study Bible) and hauls them off to Babylon, where he admits them to a specialized course of studies in the “Chaldean Institute at King’s University” in Babylon. There, they received the specialized tutoring requisite for holding positions of responsibility and power in the state.

This educational regimen, from both Jerusalem and Babylon, was huge in the various kinds of skill in wisdom that Daniel acquired as a diplomat-statesman. Beginning with the next post we will start to identify those skills.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer