Daniel 1:8-16 – What was Wrong with the King’s Food?

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.

15 thoughts on “Daniel 1:8-16 – What was Wrong with the King’s Food?

  1. I think the point about food indicating an acceptance of a particular relationship is very telling. Frankly, all of the various institutions that Jews practice now were not put into place until a much later time in history–such as the requirement to only commit oneself to food that is kosher. Even now, although most people do not acknowledge it, the act of eating food implies a great deal about community. For a rather pointed example, suppose I were to start spending time with a lady, and over the course of a few weeks, we grow rather fond of each other. The invitation to go “out to eat” actually carries a lot of weight. It is not simply a recreational activity that we would do for fun–although that is of course partially true–it is rather a symbol that identifies us as officially “dating”. Perhaps that is a bit crude to compare this example to the text about Daniel refusing the King’s food, but I think it clarifies my point. Jesus ate with “sinners” in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), and people found this to be rather offensive. Why? Because eating implies acceptance and relationship. If eating were merely a recreational activity, then the Pharisees would of had nothing to complain about. Daniel obviously understood this to some degree, but I wonder if his reaction to the King’s official was predetermined and intentional or merely intuitive. Either way, he obviously chose to do the right thing. Frankly, according to the context, I believe if he went with his gut, he would have devoured the food–as any teenage boy might do. Thus, before the request even came before him, he knew that he was going to refuse. This is a great lesson for us today. Our theology is not merely head knowledge, but it prepares us for very important moral decisions that we will have to make.

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  2. Compare Esther 2:6.
    Esther is distinguished in that while all the potential brides are supplied with cosmetics, Hegai “the guardian of women” gives her cosmetics and a ration. It’s a particularly interesting distinction, because her cousin Mordechai is identified as being among the exiles “who were exiled from Jerusalem … with Jehoiachin the king of Judah”.

    Maybe Mordechai’s family also received a royal ration, as part of Jehoiachin’s group of exiles and she was entitled to part of it? But if so, it would be hard to reconcile with the statement in 2:10 that she didn’t tell anyone her name or ancestry. So we have the virtuous Daniel, who stood out by declining the king’s rations; and the virtuous Esther, who stood out by receiving them. Consequently, I don’t think that we should understand Daniel’s refusal as being a mark of praiseworthy independence: the most parsimonious explanation is that Esther 2:6 is consistent with Daniel 1:8-16 and that it is refusing to eat the common diet that is a sign of piety.

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    • I think the reason most readers consider Daniel’s refusal is praiseworthy is the Book of Daniel presents it that way. But your comparison to Esther is fair, since in her case she was willing to become part of the harem of the Persian king (and accept all that comes with being part of the harem) rather than refuse these honors and accept death.

      A major theme of Daniel is resisting the empire (even to the point of death) but that is not the theme of Esther. The writers of the books are presenting a very different story. Food (or patronage) is not the issue in Esther…but it is disturbing that she hides her heritage. Is that ever condemned or praised in the book?

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      • A major theme of Daniel is resisting the empire (even to the point of death) but that is not the theme of Esther. The writers of the books are presenting a very different story. Food (or patronage) is not the issue in Esther…but it is disturbing that she hides her heritage. Is that ever condemned or praised in the book?

        Maybe it’s implicitly condemned in Esther 4:13-14 when Mordechai says “Do not imagine that in the king’s palace you will escape the fate of all the Jews”. If so, that underscores the contrast with Daniel who was also in the palace but didn’t try to conceal his identity. But Mordechai then goes on to suggest that there’s a reason Esther is there: so that she can be the agent of deliverance for the Jews. So my reading of the contrasting messages is that Daniel refuses to assimilate, as an act of piety, even when his life is threatened. Esther assimilates (at least outwardly) because her life is threatened, but at the critical moment she reveals her identity and intercedes for her brethren.

        I can imagine this as a dialogue among the exiled Judaean community: whether to proudly refuse to assimilate; or whether to go along with the dominant culture in public, while privately retaining a Judaean identity. People taking the second course would be able to say that by “fitting in” they could help their fellow exiles. I imagine there must have been a dialogue along those lines, but of course I don’t know whether it’s actually reflected in the texts.

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      • It is clear that Daniel refused to eat the food that the king’s servant offered him and over the years, people have stated various reasons for Daniel’s action. 1, Some argue that horse and pig meat was eaten in Babylon and this is why Daniel and his friend refuses to eat because that type of food was prohibited in the Jewish culture. 2, Others believe that the main reason Daniel and his 3 friends refused the food because the food that was being served to them was the meat of animals that had been sacrificed to Babylon gods, and knowing this, they did not want to be part of their acts. I strongly believe that all of these reasons are somewhat correct. We cannot know for sure what the main reason was, we can only assume.
        However, I strongly agree with the 3rd reason which is that Daniel did not accept the kings food because they did not want to build a relationship with the king and depend from the king. The 3rd reason sounds more accurate because in Daniel 1, we also see that Daniel also refused to drink the wine. Daniel and his friends did not want to depend from the king and that is the reason why they chose to eat vegetables only.

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  3. There are a lot of possibilities of why Daniel chose not to eat the king’s food: First, as you mentioned, he did not want to break kosher. The food of the pagan king could have been sacrificed to idols, and that would break kosher if Daniel ate it. His rejection of the king’s food could have also been a slight rebellion against the king, and the state that Daniel was put in. As you stated, “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 did not want to be seen as placing his trust in anyone other than the Lord. I would argue that it went even deeper than dependence on people, and Daniel did not want to be dependent on anything other than the Lord—including food. By giving up the food that was said to place him in “…worse condition than the youths…” (1:10) that were his age, he exercised his faith and dependence on the Lord as his Sustainer.

    Something that I have seen a lot of churches do—and have even participated, myself—is the Daniel fast. Fasting is a great spiritual practice that we should exercise regularly—to make sure we are not becoming too dependent on the external, earthly things. This can be applied to other areas than food—especially in our society. We, like Daniel, could all take a break from the things of the world that are considered “normal” and “expected,” and take time to refocus our hearts.

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    • I like that you listed out all of the different possibilities of the reasoning behind why daniel and the others did not eat the food that was given to them by the king. Whether it be the idea of it not being kosher, or the food was sacrificed for idols. But I think that you covered it when you said that you thought that it was how they were honoring God and trusting Him that he will provide enough for them to be satisfied. Daniel did not want to be dependent on any other god besides the true King Himself. I also shared some of the same content in my post but honestly, I think that you did a better job than I did with getting the message out of this passage. Daniel Fast has to be done with the right intentions. If you do the fast with the intentions that you want to lose weight then you are doing it completely wrong. The Daniel Fast is meant for you to learn how to trust that God will provide you with everything that you need and He will not leave you in the dust. If you look at Matthew 6:26-34 you will see that if God will provide for the birds and they do not go hungry then he will provide for you and ect.

      Overall, good incite by this blog post. Your post went into depth on what the Daniel Fast was really about and I admire the work that you put into it.

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  4. I will start by saying that all of these possibilities are very strong and that it could even be a combination of them that resulted in Daniel, Shad not eating the king’s food. While it is true that they would not have touched the pork or beef as stated in the article or the possibility that it was because the food was offered to idols, I still prefer the idea that they did it in order to show that they still depended on God for their everyday necessities. It reminds me of Psalm 145:15-16 which says, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.” These boys knew and trusted that enough to go against the king and risk the possibility of punishment or even death. Another thing that stood out to me as an example that they trusted God to provide was the fact that they gave up drinking the wine. It seems really small and when I first read that they refused the wine, it confused me as the wine was typically a way to kill bacteria in their water. However, I think this is another example of how much Daniel and his friends trusted God to provide. Even though they may have been putting themselves at a higher risk to get sick from the water they trusted God to keep them healthy and they obviously were as the end of the chapter shows that they were “fatter in flesh” than the others.

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  5. This passage in the book of Daniel is something that I have grown fond of. I believe that this passage can apply to us in today’s society and we can take what Daniel has done and apply it to ourselves. Sometimes we fall into the trap of fast food because it is easy to access and affordable. But we need to be strong because we know that it is unhealthy for us to eat even though it is instant gratification. We need to trust that God has provided a meal for us that is healthier for us and provided form Him. It states in the Bible, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”(2 Peter 1:3) This analogy is not only about food but in other areas too. One thing that I can not comprehend from the text, it says that the boys were “fatter in flesh”. How can teenage boys become fatter just from eating vegetables? Then I realized that there was more meaning behind them just eating their veggies. It shows that God will provide no matter what if you show that you are discipline to his work and trusted in what God had in store for them. Another way that the boys had to show that they had to trust God was the fear of death when they did not eat what the kind had provided for them. In some way that could have been shown as disrespect to the king. Yes, they did not eat the food from the king because they knew that God would provide for them but also, during this time period it could have been not kosher for them to eat pork or beef. Not only did they not eat the food that was provided for them from the king, but they also did not drink the wine. Overall I think that this passage was portraying that you do not need to be dependable on man but in God. When you depend on God alone then you will be provided for and also satisfied

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  6. What Was Wrong with the King’s Food?
    While I do think that the food itself had nothing wrong with it—it was probably very fancy and very delicious, it was what eating it meant and symbolized for Daniel and the others. By eating the King’s food, it showed that they were now fully depending on him and using his means to sustain themselves. Daniel did not want to give full authority to Nebuchadnezzar and his Kingdom. Daniel knew that his God would sustain him for everything he needed.
    Daniel made a proposal to eat only vegetables and drink only water. The people in the kingdom probably thought he was crazy for not eating the King’s food, and were certain that by the end of this they would surley be weaker than the rest and get in trouble. But Daniel was willing to risk it since knew how powerful and faithful his God was. At the end of the training period, the boys were “fatter of flesh” and much heathier than those that ate the King’s food. It just goes to show that in life we can put our full faith and life in God’s hands. He WILL sustain us through any trial we may go through. God can do far more than we could ever imagine.
    Now I do not think that anything was wrong with the King’s food, but I think Daniel wanted to make it a point that His God is mighty and powerful, and can sustain even the craziest of ideas.

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  7. Considering pork and horse was a no no for the G-D’s chosen people,there was a problem seeing it was worshiped to stone idols.Daniel knew his G-D better than us.And when G-d says don’t eat this or do that, he means for us to obey him, just as Joshua did when G-D told him to kill all the men, women, children and animals, he did as he was told, he obeyed.he didn’t question his G-D, we shouldn’t either. Have a blessed day.

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  8. Interestingly I saw a parallel with Genesis 1:17 ‘but of the Tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’,

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