Daniel and the other three young men were brought to Babylon in the first deportation for the express purpose of being trained to serve the Babylonian government. The young men were from the royal family and nobility. According to Josephus, Daniel and the other boys were from the family of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. Although not specifically stated, there may have been other Judeans in this training as well as young men from other territory controlled by Babylon.
Why train young men from the nobility? Babylon wants to prepare administrators trained to rule the Jews in captivity. The goal is for the young men to become loyal to Babylon and dependent on the Babylonian government for everything. This training is an honor, even if it is an attempt to integrate the leadership of Israel into the culture of Babylon. Daniel and his three friends are the best that Israel has to offer, intellectually and physically, and as we will see, spiritually.
Another goal of the training is to separate them from their former life in every way possible. They are separated from their families and given new Babylonian names. The new Babylonian names were not intended to be degrading or humiliating, but their Jewish honoring the God if Israel is replaced by a Babylonian name honoring a god of Babylon. For example, the name Daniel means “God is my Judge,” but his new name is Belteshazzar, “Bel, Guard his life!” Hananiah means “God has Favored,” his new name Shadrach means” Command of Aku” (Aku is the Babylonian moon god). Mishael means “Who is like God?” but Meshach means “Who is what Aku is?” Azariah means “Yahweh has helped” but Abednego means “Servant of Nebo.”
Physically, they four were to be in the best shape possible. They are were “without any physical defect” meaning healthy enough they would be expected to serve the government for a long time.. Intellectually, they are to be superior and showed aptitude for every kind of learning. They are “quick to understand,” meaning they learn how to apply knowledge, perhaps “self-motivated” learner.
The education that Daniel receives is reserved for the elite of the society. They are to learn the “language and literature of the Babylonians.” The literature of the Neo-Babylonian period was extensive and would have included much of the earlier Assyrian and Mesopotamia culture. They may have been trained as scribes so they could read cuneiform legal documents, religious texts, fables, omen texts, astrological material, mathematical material, economic data and historical records.
This sort of training would have immersed the young men in the culture of Babylon. The literature of Babylon could claim to be as old, if not older than that of Israel, and it was certainly more extensive. It would have been a very attractive culture, one that conquered the known world and built the city of Babylon, the most beautiful city in the world.
Undoubtedly these young men experienced a clash of world views. When their Jewish culture was compared to Babylon, it quite likely they were impressed with culture and power of Babylon. It is also likely they could suffer from what is now called Stockholm syndrome. Often hostages form emotional bonds with their captors and begin to sympathize with them and begin to accept the captor’s way of thinking. In fact, Babylon expected Daniel and the three young men to be so impressed with Babylon they abandon their Jewish worldview and become as Babylonian as possible.
Will this Babylonian brain-washing work on Daniel and his friends? Will these four Jewish young men decide the worldview of Babylon is superior to that of the small, backwater worldview of Judea? Will they reject the traditions of their fathers in favor of the new world order of Babylon?
As is evident from the book of Daniel, there are some elements of culture Daniel is able to accept and he is able to have a long and successful career in Babylon. Yet there are clear lines drawn in Daniel 1 and later in Daniel 3 and 6. Daniel will not “defile himself” in some ways even as he learns the language and culture of Babylon.
In many ways, Daniel can be described as resistance literature outlining how the Jews adapted to the new situation of the diaspora. How can a Jewish person prosper in Babylon? Daniel outlines some principles of adaptation and resistance to whatever culture in which the Jews find themselves. They can really seek the welfare of the cities where they live in the exile (Jeremiah 29:7) while holding tenaciously to some traditions which are non-negotiable.
This is one of the most important applications of Daniel to the contemporary Christian reader. Like the Jews, global Christians do not live in cultures which are Christian. Many Christians live in countries where Christianity is not legal and it is dangerous to publically acknowledge their faith. Even in America, true Christianity is fast becoming a minority. How can the contemporary Christian adapt to an increasingly hostile world? What are the non-negotiable boundaries?