What Were the King's Foods?

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament


I'd like to know what kinds of food were considered King's food in the story of Daniel and his three friends. What were they being offered? I'm sure it wasn't Twinkies! What was so offensive back then?


It helps to know a bit of the background as explained in Daniel chapter 1. Notwithstanding some of the historical inconsistencies of the text, it appears that the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, besieged Jerusalem around 600 BCE (give or take a few years). Around 597 BCE, he captured Jerusalem and took many of its people back to Babylon. Included in this captivity were the "best and brightest" of some of the young men of Jerusalem. The idea was not only to capture promising young men, but also to indoctrinate their hearts and minds.

The king brought into "his service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility—young men who didn't have any physical defects, who were handsome, showing an aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king's palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians" (Dan. 1:4). Some scholars think the ultimate plan was to prepare them for priestly roles excelling in the arts of divination, astrology, and magic. Others think they were to be groomed for offices and positions of a political nature. The thought was that they would become fully "Babylonianized" within a three-year period.

It is not at all clear whether these young men had any say in this process. The choice could easily have been "obey or die." Those who chose to cooperate were treated very well, receiving food and wine from the king's table. No doubt the majority of the young men agreed to these terms, knowing they were in a "probationary period" and wanted to stay alive.

Daniel, however, "resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way" (Dan. 1:8). The chief official was not interested in granting exceptions, but a lesser steward was sympathetic to his request. Daniel and his three friends were given a ten-day period in which to show that their vegetable diet would have no harmful effects. "At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food." (Dan. 1:15) They were able to maintain their diet, at least through their training period.

While the king's table might have consisted of daily rations of meat, fish, lamb, fowl, honey, barley, dates, wheat, lentils, peas, beans, olives, pomegranates, grapes and pistachios, poorer people subsisted mostly on bread and onions. It seems that Daniel and his friends ate the vegetables, but refused the meat and wine.

Scholars, however, have debated the nature of his "defilement." And it should be made clear that this has nothing to do with the modern considerations of the benefits of a vegetarian diet. In fact, scholars are pretty sure it isn't even about food. Considering that the book of Daniel was set in the sixth century, but probably written in the 2nd second century during the problems with Epiphanes Antiochus IV, scholars look to food customs from the second century. While it is true that by the second century observant Jews would have been loathe to eat foreign foods that might have been previously offered to idols or improperly killed, it does not explain their refusal to drink wine. Only Nazarites were forbidden to drink wine and there is no suggestion that Daniel ever identified himself in this way. Moreover, scholars point out that it is very likely that vegetables could also have been "blessed" or offered to idols.

Some scholars, therefore, think the issue is about power and control. These young men, apparently, had no scruples about learning the "language or culture" of the Babylonians. These were public acts. Choosing what to eat is a personal matter and, in this case, one that was handled privately and discreetly. In this one area they could maintain a semblance of control. Moreover, eating the king's food and drinking his wine suggested an acceptance of the king's fellowship and all that that might entail. Refusing to do so allowed the young men a measure of freedom and reminded them that the king was not all-encompassing in their lives. When they were found to be healthy and nourished after ten days, they knew God was providing for them, even in the king's court. This knowledge would help them maintain their devotion to God in later trials.

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