Daniel believes that eating the King’s food will defile him. Why does he think this?
The NRSV has “royal rations,” the NIV simply has “food.” The Hebrew here uses a Persian loan-word פַּתְ־בַּג (pat-bag), a word is used only here and 11:26 in the Old Testament. The Syriac cognate means something like a delicacy or rich food. Whatever it was, the food was the best quality, not only fit for a king, it was literally eaten by a king.
According to 2 Kings 25:29, King Jehoiachin was also ate the King’s food when in exile. There is nothing judgmental in the 2 Kings passage, although some detect an unfavorable comparison to Daniel here. While Jehoiachin ate the king’s food, Daniel refused.
Why does Daniel refuse to eat the King’s food? There are several possibilities. First, some of the food may have been forbidden according to Leviticus 11 or 17:10-14. Pig and horse was commonly eaten in Babylon (Baldwin, Daniel, 83), both would violate Jewish food taboos. Occasionally someone will claim the food is not kosher, but this is an anachronism since the kosher traditions followed today may not have been developed in 600 BC. Daniel also refused the wine of the king, although wine is never forbidden as unclean in the Law. It is possible the wine had been offered to the gods of Babylon, or that Daniel had taken a Nazarite vow.
A second explanation is the refusal is Jewish law forbids the eating of meat that is sacrificed to false gods. This is true later in history and it makes sense for Daniel 1. Eating meat sacrificed to idols is always a problem for Jews living in the diaspora and is a serious controversy in some of Paul’s churches (Romans 14-15, for example). But there is not much evidence it was a problem in the Old Testament.
Third, a better explanation is Daniel understands eating the king’s food represents accepting the king’s friendship and patronage. To share food is to commit oneself to a relationship (Gen 31:54, Exod 24:11, Neh 8:9-12). Remember King Jehoiachin accepted the king’s food implying his loyalty to Babylon. In fact, Daniel 11:26 warns against everyone who eats from the “rich food” of the king who is to come (repeating the word פַּתְ־בַּג, pat-bag).
Daniel does not refuse the training of the king or the use of a new name, but he draws the line at the eating the king’s food because it is a public declaration of dependency on the king. Daniel not rely on Nebuchadnezzar, but only on the Lord.
Daniel therefore resolves himself not to eat this food. This is literally “sets his heart” not to eat the food. Daniel understands the situation, and decides, in his heart, what is right and what is wrong, and choose to do the right thing. Once set, Daniel will not be moved.
His plan is to eat only vegetables and water so he will not defile himself. The word זֵרְעֹנִים (zērĕʿōnîm) refers to seeds and herbs, but it probably refers to food grown from seeds. Whatever the food was, Daniel chose not to eat the king’s food. (This is not a pro-vegetarian passage!) The chief does not think this is a wise idea, since he is certain that without the king’s food they four will be weaker than the rest, then he will get into trouble.
After Daniel determines in his heart not to eat the food, the Lord gives favor to Daniel and his fellow captives so that the guard accepts the alternate plan for a trial period. Just as the Lord was active in the fall of Jerusalem, he is active in the preservation of Daniel and his friends – they might very well have been executed for their refusal of the direct order of the king!
The text says that the boys are “fatter of flesh,” meaning healthier. This recalls Joseph’s vision of the “fat cows,” meaning very healthy, exactly the way you expect a prize cow to be. Here is means that the boys are visibly healthier than the other men in the king’s training.