March 16, 2016

Daniel 1: Exile Identity

There’s a great sketch on Aussie comedy show, Legally Brown by Nazeem Hussein.  Have a watch and have a laugh:

Funny eh?  And like all good comedy it’s able to get away with saying things with humour that are often hot button topics too hot to touch.

Now that Nazeem has take the heat out of the button, let’s touch it. The point is that the cards that would have won you the hand in the past, have suddenly lost their value. Those winning hands of the past just don’t cut it anymore.

Clearly our culture is in the throes of an identity values shift, and anyone or anything that was attached to the previous winning hand paradigm is viewed by the cultural narrative as bankrupt, or soon to be. Male, middle class and white and Christian better think twice before coming to the table to play.  And to be honest, that’s not all bad, is it? That doesn’t reflect the society we live in by and large.  But whether it is good or it is bad, one thing is for certain, it is. And Christians – all Christians – are going to have to deal with the lesser hand they now have.

Whatever you think of that shift in identity politics, it was nothing compared to the seismic shift that Daniel and his three friends were forced into when Babylon conquered Jerusalem. Daniel 1 recounts the story.

And just look how the cards in their hands suddenly lost their value:

  1. The cream of Jerusalem’s nobility charged with serving God’s people, now find themselves exiles, and commandeered to serve a pagan king.
  2. Their God appears to have lost the culture war with the pagan gods of Babylon, the loss exemplified by the spoils of the Jerusalem temple being placed in the temple of Nebuchadnezzar’s god in the land of Shinar, the same place the Tower of Babel was built.
  3. The names of Daniel and his friends are changed to reflect the new reality, with their Yahweh focussed names now replaced by names that reflect pagan gods.
  4. They are to learn the magic arts of Babylon, which replacing the law of the Lord as the operating system of this new reality.

So all in all, a total loss of identity.  Except, except, for this:

“But Daniel resolved…” (Daniel 1:8). The hinge on which this chapter turns are those three words.  Daniel resolves not to defile himself with the king’s food and wine.  yes he’ll have a name change, yes he’ll undertake Babylonian Studies 101 at the University of Bablyon, yes he’ll go into the service of a pagan king.

But he won’t eat the king’s food.  Daniel knows there is no such thing as a free lunch.  He is determined that even in exile; even with God seemingly on the retreat, if not downright defeat; even with Nebuchadnezzar domesticating the leaders of God’s people by seeking to making them more Babylonian than Jewish, Daniel will retain and reinforce his identity as part of God’s chosen people Israel.  It doesn’t seem like much of a card to hold, but hold it he will.

There’s a lesson for Christians who worry that we have lost the game. Daniel will go on to garner a greater identity in Babylon not by simply giving up and going with the new identity, nor by refusing to take part in Nebuchadnezzar’s scheme, but by practicing the art of cultural negotiation.

He is going to fulfil God’s mandate through the prophet Jeremiah who, in Jer29, tells the exiles to flourish in exile because the welfare of their exile city is where they will find their welfare.

It’s not a wave of the white flag, it’s a studied decision that God’s purposes for the world (and don’t forget, the exile seemingly threatened the Abrahamic covenant promise to bless the world through Israel), could still be achieved in and through the direst circumstances. In fact, as we read the subsequent chapters we see God’s grace of blessing extending to even the most despotic pagan kings, a proleptic enactment of what is coming to the whole cosmos one day.  Who would have thought?

And of course, it’s the fact that the sovereign God has his fingerprints all over Daniel chapter one. We see in turn:

  1. His righteous judgement of his sinful people by allowing Nebuchadnezzer to conquer Jerusalem (v2).
  2. His turning of the heart of the chief eunuch, whose favour and compassion allowed Daniel to refuse the king’s food with no penalty (v9)
  3. His equipping of Daniel and his three friends for the cultural negotiation task ahead of them, by granting them insight beyond their pagan peers (v17).

Most importantly, we see at the end of the chapter that the new hand of cards that wins the cash prize, soon loses traction itself.  Look what it says:

 And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus.(v21)

Babylon was gone a few short years later, and the winning hand was passed on to the Persian Empire and its king, Cyrus. And who lived to see that? Daniel.

Oh, and the sovereign Lord!  The whole point of the book of Daniel is God’s sovereign keeping of and care for his people in exile; in a land in which their captors seemingly held all of the cards.  Daniel soon learns that this is not true.

And that in fact, as we read chapter two of Daniel, and the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s crazy dream, we realise that this Babylonian doesn’t actually hold any cards, but he does have a house made of them. The winning hand belongs to God and to the king of his kingdom, a kingdom that will endure forever, a kingdom that has been inaugurated through the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of the Messiah King.

And that in itself ought to ensure we resolve, like Daniel, to maintain our identity, even as we carefully negotiate this fraught culture and the surprising, often shocking hands it plays.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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