Why wasn’t Daniel’s name changed like that of his three friends?

Q. Why was Daniel’s name allowed to remain ‘Daniel’? His trio of friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah had their names changed to ones in the Babylonian language. Curious to learn. Thank you.

Actually, Daniel was given a Babylonian name himself at the same time as his friends. The book of Daniel tells us that when these four  were brought to Babylon and enrolled in training to become servants at the royal court, the official responsible for them “gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.”

However, the book of Daniel does treat its central figure differently in this regard from his three friends, and that’s probably what has struck you. It continues to call him Daniel in its own narrative, though it does note in three places that he was “also called Belteshazzar“; the Babylonian characters in the book also address him by that name. By contrast, the book calls his three friends by their Hebrew names only in the first episode and at the beginning of the second one; after that, even in its own narrative it uses their Babylonian names.

It’s not clear why this is the case. It’s possible that the third episode, in which the three friends are the central characters (it’s also the last one in which they appear), is based on a Babylonian source, which would have used their Babylonian names, and they have simply been carried over. While the second episode does use their Hebrew names at the beginning, it uses their Babylonian names at the end; this might be to help create continuity leading into the next episode. Daniel, on the other hand, might have been known so well by that name by the book’s intended audience that the authors or compilers might have supplied his Hebrew name when their sources said Belteshazzar, but kept the Babylonian name in an “also known as” parenthesis. However, this is speculative; we don’t know for sure.

Whatever the case, these names are not just a matter of historical curiosity. They have something to teach us about faithfully following God in our own day. As I observe in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation:

– – – – –

Daniel and his friends had to decide how much of the Babylonian
culture they could adopt without fatally compromising their faith. They
didn’t take an all-or-nothing approach. They didn’t say, “You’ve got to go
along if you want to get along,” and agree to everything the Babylonians
expected. They also didn’t say that everything Babylonian was evil and had
to be rejected. They diligently studied the “language and literature of the
Babylonians,” even though this literature centered around the exploits of
foreign gods. They also accepted new names that praised these gods instead
of their own God:

• Daniel (“God is my judge/vindicator”) became Belteshazzar (a
name that invoked the Babylonian god Bel);
• Hananiah (“Yahweh is gracious”) became Shadrach (“companion
of Aku”);
• Mishael (“Who is like God?”) became Meshach (again invoking
Aku); and
• Azariah (“Yahweh is my help”) became Abednego (“servant of
Nebo”).

Somehow these young men determined that what they were studying,
and the new names they were given, didn’t compromise the essentials of their faith. But they drew the line when it came to eating foods that God had told the Israelites, in the law of Moses, not to eat, because they had a distinct identity as his people.

– – – – –

After those observations, I pose the following questions for reflection and application in the study guide:

What kinds of situations might a person encounter today that
would challenge them to compromise their values and beliefs?

How can a person know where to draw the line in these situations,
so that they cooperate where possible but never compromise
essentials?

I hope these questions are of interest and use to you, and I thank you for your own question.

Daniel and his friends refusing to eat the King’s food, “early 1900s Bible illustration,” courtesy Wikipedia

Two questions from starting to read through the Bible in a year

Q. I just started reading through the Bible in a year with my church. There are things that have stuck out that I am needing to have answered. It’s like God is having me answer harder questions or address them.

1. At the beginning of Genesis, it says that the earth was formless and void and the waters … wait … the earth was there? Formless and void, and there was already water? Can you talk to me about this?

2. And what about when Jacob was fighting with the angel or God, and he couldn’t win, and then he wrenched his hip?

First, I commend you for going on the adventure, with others in your church, of reading through the Bible. I’ve heard other people say similar things when they’ve started reading continuously in the Bible: They notice all kinds of things they never saw before when they were taking a verse-at-a-time or chapter-at-a-time approach, and this has raised all kinds of new and challenging questions. But these are the kinds of questions that really help us go deep in our knowledge of God and his word.

In fact, my motto on this blog is, “There’s no such thing as a bad question.” (That’s why I call it Good Question.) So thank you for asking your questions here. Let me refer you to some other posts I’ve written that offer some thoughts in response to similar questions that others have raised.

1. Regarding your question about the water in the opening creation account in Genesis, please see this post:

Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?

In that post I suggest that we need to appreciate that for the ancient Hebrews, the watery ocean was the equivalent of “nothing.” Because they were not a seafaring people, they considered the sea a place of unformed and unorganized chaos. It was constantly shifting shape; nothing could be built on it; no crops could be grown there; and no one could survive for long on its waves. “The great deep,” the ocean depths, was the equivalent for them of “the abyss” or the pit of nothingness. So even though the concept is expressed from within a different cosmology, when the Genesis author says there was nothing but the waters of the deep, this is the exact equivalent of someone today saying that there was nothing, period.

As for your question about the earth, let me refer you to a post on one of my other blogs, Paradigms on Pilgrimage:

Day 1 according to ancient cosmology

There I suggest that saying that the land had no shape or contents is equivalent to saying that it had not yet been differentiated from the waters. It’s a kind of verbal shorthand, in which something the listener already knows to exist is described before it existed. It’s like saying, “The New York Yankees were called the Highlanders for the first few years of their franchise.” The “Yankees” were not really called the “Highlanders” then, because there were no “Yankees,” and never had been. What is intended is this: “The team that eventually became known as the Yankees was at first called the Highlanders.” In the same way, the Genesis account begins by explaining that what would eventually become the land had not yet been differentiated or populated. The case is the same with the sky, which will eventually separate the “waters above” from the “waters below.” Right now it’s just “waters” – “the deep,” covered in darkness But the Spirit of God is hovering over it all, sizing up the possibilities and making a plan.

2. Regarding Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord (who in some way seems to embody a manifestation of God on earth), please see this post:

Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?

In that post I suggest that God was trying to demonstrate something in this wrestling match by limiting himself to human powers. When he blesses and renames Jacob he says, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” So he had probably been giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout 20 difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him.

The thoughts I’ve shared in summary here are developed at more length in the posts I’ve provided links to.

Once again, I commend you for stepping up to the challenge and adventure of reading through the Bible. Hang in there, keep reading, keep asking your questions, and keep looking for the answers to them!

How can honestly seeking Christians come to different answers on important questions?

Q. How can two Christians honestly seeking God’s will come to two contradictory answers to questions about things like the age of the earth or whether women can be pastors?

Followers of Jesus who are people of good will and who have equal commitments to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures may still come to different conclusions about what the Bible teaches if they have different interpretive presuppositions or if they follow different interpretive methods.

For example, if their presuppositions are that the Bible should be interpreted literally, this may lead them to conclude that the earth is much younger than the scientific consensus suggests. On the other hand, if their presuppositions are that the Bible should be interpreted literarily, this may lead them to believe that an earth that is billions of years old can be accommodated within a belief that God created the world as described in the Bible. (Full disclosure: I am of the latter persuasion, as is clear from various posts on this blog and from all of my other blog Paradigms on Pilgrimage.)

Similarly, if a reader of the Bible believes that the propositional statements within it have universal force, then they may see Paul’s comment to Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man,” to be definitive on the question of whether women can be pastors. On the other hand, if a reader of the Bible believes that propositional statements should be understood and interpreted within their historical contexts, they may consider that such statements apply directly only to their original audiences, and that they must be applied to other contexts by inference and analogy. They would be read on a par with narrative and other genres, and not privileged because they are propositional. (Once again in the interests of full disclosure, I should make clear that I personally do not believe there should be any limitations on what women can do within the community of Jesus’ followers, simply because they are women. See the series of posts that begins here.)

So is there any hope that followers of Jesus who hold divergent interpretive presuppositions or who follow different interpretive methods can ever be brought to agree? Stated briefly, yes, I think that can happen. Specifically, I believe that over time our experience of God’s work in our lives and in the lives of others can make us uncomfortable with some of our previous conclusions, and this can challenge us to re-examine the presuppositions and methods that led us to them. In such a case we will ideally realize that it was not so much the Bible itself, but the way we were interpreting it, that led us to these conclusions, and we will continue to look to the Bible as a source of divine instruction, but we will do so in a new way. This has happened to me many times myself, and I’ve seen it happen for many others as well. Once this has happened, we not only come to see some things differently than we did before, we are also more accommodating of others who see things differently than we do now, and we can recognize more common ground between once seemed like contradictory views.

And while all of us are in this process, I think a good motto—found earliest in the writings of Archbishop Marco Antonio de Dominisis: “In essential things, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; in all things, charity.” (And if two interpreters disagree over whether something is essential or uncertain, well, that’s where charity comes in.)

Did God give the command not to eat from the tree only to Adam?

Q. Did God give the information about not eating of the tree’s fruit to just Adam, or was it for Adam and Eve? Or did Adam give the information to Eve after God created her?

As I read the narrative in Genesis, it seems pretty clear that God gave the command just to Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and that Adam passed this command along to Eve.

Specifically, it was only after God told Adam not to eat from this tree that God then said to himself, “It is not good for the man to be alone, I will make a helper suitable for him,” and God created Eve. There is no subsequent record of God repeating the command to her. But when the serpent asks her what God said about this tree, she doesn’t respond, “This is the first I’ve heard anything about that.” She knows that they’re not supposed to eat from it. We can only infer that Adam told her this.

Significantly, it appears that Adam actually added something to what God said. God only told Adam, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” But Eve tells the serpent that God said, You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it.” This is admittedly speculative, but we may infer that Adam was so concerned about the consequences of disobeying God that he figured, We better not even touch the fruit, and so that’s what he told Eve.

Later in the Bible there are warnings not to add anything to what God commands, and we can understand why. God gives us the grace to obey all of his commands so that they are not burdensome. But anyone who tries to require people to do more than God commands is asking them to do something they aren’t being given the grace for. Then it’s only too easy for someone else to come along and persuade them that they don’t have to do that. This was actually the serpent’s strategy—to persuade Eve that God had asked too much of her and that she didn’t need to obey. He just had a different version of too much,” initially. He asked whether God had really said, You must not eat from any tree in the garden.” Eve knew that God hadn’t said this, but she didn’t realize that He hadn’t actually said that they couldn’t even touch the fruit. And this gave the serpent something that could legitimately be contradicted, with tragic results.

So one lesson we can take from the story is that those who have the responsibility to communicate God’s commands to others need to be careful not to add anything to them. We may have a good motive, to keep people as far as possible from disobedience. But God’s grace can keep willing hearts obedient without that kind of assistance.

 

Are people dropping out of church because they were never saved?

Q. Why are so many people, even settled adults, dropping out of church? I recall a passage from 1 John which implies that those who remained are part of those who are saved, but those who depart were never really part of the kingdom. What is your take on this issue?

An excellent principle of biblical interpretation is that we first need to understand what a Scriptural passage was saying to “them then” before we can appreciate what it means to “us now.” (This principle is articulated in the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.)

I believe this is the passage you are referring to in 1 John: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”

When we investigate the meaning of this statement in light of the original context of 1 John—its historical setting and the reason why it was written—we discover that those who “went out” are people who left the Christian community that John was addressing because they chose to follow a false teaching: that Jesus hadn’t come to earth in a real human body. This teaching arose under the influence of the Greek idea that matter is evil and only spirit is good. The implications were that people could live in any way they wanted, since what happened in the body wasn’t important, and that there was no need to help others who lacked practical things such as food, clothing, and shelter, since those things only affected their bodies.

So what John says in this letter is that the Christians who have remained in the community, who have continued to have faith that Jesus became a real human being in order to become our Savior, shouldn’t be disturbed or shaken by the departure of many former members. Their immoral lives, lack of compassion, and denial of Christ show that they are indeed following a false teaching, and suggest that they may never have been saved in the first place.

To me this seems to be a very different case from people in Western countries (the church is actually growing vigorously in other parts of the world) not staying in church once they become adults, or never choosing  to attend church in the first place. The Pew Research Center has been tracking church attendance in the U.S. for decades, and it has found that attendance has been dropping steadily with each generation. I don’t think this is due to large numbers of younger Americans leaving the church to follow false teachings. Rather, I think it reflects the cultural shift from modernity to post-modernity and the fact that the church (which tends to change its own culture more slowly) has been scrambling to catch up with that shift. I think the church needs to find a way to “speak the language” of younger generations and to express how the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for them.

I must add that I know many younger Americans who are strong and vibrant followers of Jesus Christ. It isn’t automatic that a person in a younger generation will not find church participation meaningful or not be able to relate to the gospel as good news for them. But I do believe that the church needs to re-think itself culturally and learn to speak the new language of post-modernity if it wants to attract younger people in Western countries into the community of Jesus’ followers. This is a significant challenge, and your question points to it.

Should Christians today pay tithes?

Q. Should Christians today pay tithes?

My response to this question would be similar to the one I gave to an earlier question about whether Christians today should keep the Sabbath. In that post I said, in part:

– – – – –

The obligations of the Old Covenant are transformed into opportunities under the New Covenant. Tithing provides a good example of this. Under the Old Covenant, the people were required to give a tithe (that is, 10%) of their crops and other income to the Lord. But the New Testament never speaks of tithing as a requirement. Rather, it says things such as, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (Another way to put this is, “Don’t give if you wish you could keep it; don’t give if you feel you have to. God loves those who give because they want to give.”)

So the emphasis in giving is on the desire of the heart to honor and obey God. This doesn’t mean, however, that Christians shouldn’t tithe. Tithing is actually a very good spiritual discipline for us to adopt. A spiritual discipline is a structure that we build into our lives to make sure that we actually do what we want to do in our hearts. So by keeping track of our giving, and making sure that it’s at least 10%, we structure our lives in such a way that our good intentions are actually fulfilled. (After all, those who give because they want to can reasonably be expected to give at least as much as those who gave because it was a requirement.)

When we do carry out the desire of our heart to express our devotion to God in tangible ways, then we take advantage of an opportunity to do good. In the conclusion to the passage about the “cheerful giver,” Paul explains, “This service that you perform [i.e., your giving] is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people, it is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.”

– – – – –

So, at least as I see it, while Christians today are not required to give 10% of their income, setting 10% as a goal and using that for personal accountability is a good way to ensure that we do fulfill the desire of our hearts to be part of God’s work through generous giving. And in that sense, Christians today indeed “should” tithe.

Before Jesus came, where did people go after death?

Q. Where did people go after their death prior to Jesus being crucified on the cross?

As I say in this post in response to a similar question, the Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like about things like this. However, it does give us a couple of tantalizing hints.

Peter writes in his first letter, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit, in which also he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah when the ark was being built.”

This suggests that the people who had perished centuries before in the great flood had been kept “on hold” somewhere (it’s hard for us to imagine or describe exactly where), and that Jesus, between his death and resurrection, went in the Spirit and preached the gospel to them.  Perhaps these people, because of the great wickedness on the earth at the time when they lived, were considered not to have had a reasonable opportunity to respond to God, and so Jesus came and proclaimed the gospel to them in its fullness, in light of his just-completed death on the cross. We don’t know for sure, and we shouldn’t speculate too much, but as I said, there are hints like this in the Bible.

Paul gives us another one. He seems to suggest that some of those who heard the gospel under these circumstances responded positively.  In Ephesians he quotes from Psalm 68, “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train,” and then applies these words to Christ: “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the depths of the earth?”  The “captives” would be the souls whom Jesus led out of their “imprisonment” after they responded positively to the gospel when he proclaimed it.

Even though Peter doesn’t mention people from other historical periods (since his concern in this part of the letter is to develop an analogy between baptism and rescue from the flood in the ark), it’s possible that between his death and resurrection Jesus also proclaimed the gospel to other “imprisoned spirits” who had lived at different times.  Peter says more generally later in his letter that “the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regards to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.”

So perhaps the answer to your question is that people’s spirits were kept waiting somewhere (again, it’s hard to describe exactly where) to get the chance to hear the good news of Jesus clearly and to have the opportunity to respond. However, someone else might argue, appealing to other things the Bible says, that people who lived in the time before Jesus would have been sent directly to the place of their eternal destiny after they died, based on how they responded to the light they did have—that is, how they responded to the evidence of God in creation, the dictates of their conscience, and whatever they might have heard about God’s promise to send a Savior in the future. So I think your question is one we don’t have a clear and definitive answer to. Instead, we need to fall back on what the Bible does say unambiguously and clearly: that God is just and fair, and that God “does not want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance.”