Daniel and Three Friends

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Men in the Bible


In the Book of Daniel we read about three young Hebrew men held captive in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. Their Hebrew names are Mishael, Hananiah, and Azariah. But most of us know them by the pagan names given to them by the Babylonians – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Daniel is also held captive and given a pagan name – Belteshazzar. Yet, we know this man by his Hebrew name. Why does the Book of Daniel use Daniel's Hebrew name, but use his friends' pagan names?


The description of Daniel and his three young friends receiving their pagan names is in the very first chapter of the Book of Daniel. However, the Hebrew names of all four are actually used throughout the entire book at various times.

A little background on the Book of Daniel itself may be helpful. Although the events described in the book took place in the 6th century BCE court of Nebuchadnezzar, the book itself was probably written in the 2nd century BCE during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. It was probably written to comfort and encourage 2nd century BCE Jews, who were struggling with the effects of Hellenization and were surrounded by a foreign power, the Romans.

The story itself begins with the deportation of Daniel and his friends from Israel to Babylon, probably around 598 BCE. Most scholars consider this event historical. Just before this deportation, Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Assyrians and their Egyptian allies at Carchemish in Syria. This victory resulted in Babylonian control of Syria and all of Palestine.

On his way back to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and made the king an unwilling vassal. (Nebuchadnezzar did not attempt to conquer Jerusalem until 587 BCE.) He also took the "best and the brightest" back to Babylon in order to train them in Babylonian ways and use them for political gain.

Those taken were probably sons of noblemen or other elites. In fact, one tradition suggests the three Hebrew "boys" with Daniel were descendants of King Hezekiah. In addition to being of noble birth, these lads were also good-looking and very intelligent. They were given good positions in the royal court, and were expected to learn the language and culture of Babylon. Their training would last three years before they were put into full-time service.

All four of the young men were given new names signifying a new beginning in their lives and to help with assimilating with the Babylonians. Daniel (which means God is my judge) became Belteshazzar (which means May 'Bel' protect his life). Hannaniah (my God is gracious) became Shadrach (the meaning is unknown, but is possibly a reference to the pagan god Marduk). Mishael (who is what God is?) became Meshach (the meaning is also unknown, but possibly also connected with Marduk). Azariah (Yahweh has helped) became Abednego (Servant of Nebo). It is likely that all the names have some association with Babylonian deities in some way.

Usage of the Names in the Book of Daniel
It would appear that both their Hebrew and pagan names are used at various times in the story. This holds for Daniel as well as his three friends.

Throughout chapter one, all four are known by their Hebrew names (see vv. 11, 19) even though they are given new names in verse 7. It is only in the third chapter that the three boys are called by their pagan names, and Daniel is not involved in this story.

In the fourth chapter, Nebuchadnezzar also calls Daniel by his pagan name, Belteshazzar (see vv. 4:8, 9, 18, 19). The other three young boys are not part of this story.

Private References
We do not know how they referred to each other in their private moments. Since the intent of the story was to highlight how these four individuals were able to maintain their loyalty to God while serving in the Babylonian court, it is likely that they continued with their Hebrew traditions, including using their Hebrew names and worshiping the one, true God. So, it's not hard to imagine that in their "down" time they would use their Hebrew names for each other.

It is also interesting to note that there is an apocryphal book known as "The Prayer of Azariah." This book purports to be the prayer spoken by Azariah (aka Abednego) while the three young men were in the furnace.

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