Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Was Daniel a vegetarian?
Allow me to deal with the contextual issue present in Daniel 1:3-21, and in the process I’ll answer your specific question
The fall of the kingdom of Judah and the expatriation of many Israelites to Babylon exposed their faith to new challenges. They were in a land with a different culture and with radically different religious convictions, making it difficult for them to practice their religious faith.
1. Cultural Assimilation: The Babylonian king’s intent was to slowly shift the loyalty of the young Hebrews from their God to his gods, from Jerusalem to Babylon. That was the goal of the professional and psychological components of their training program.
First, their sense of self-worth was enhanced by taking them to the royal palace, where they were part of the intellectual elite. This could easily have created in them a sense of acceptance in a foreign land and gratitude to the king for trusting them.
Second, they were to be trained in the languages and literature of Babylon. Daniel may already have spoken several languages, but he would have had to learn at least Aramaic and Akkadian in order to communicate with others and read the literature that dealt with matters of science (e.g., mathematics, astronomy), music, and religion (e.g., mythology, divination, astrology), and be indoctrinated into the Babylonian worldview. The rest of the book of Daniel demonstrates that the indoctrination failed.
Third, cultural assimilation began with changing their identity by giving them names that included the names of Babylonian deities (Dan. 1:7). Their personal commitment to the Lord was threatened. Interestingly, the Hebrew spelling of the Babylonian names appears to have intentionally corrupted the original names, thus showing their resistance to cultural and religious assimilation.
2. Food Provision: The king determined the diet of Daniel and his friends. This would’ve been considered a privilege and part of the benefits of studying at the University of Babylon. The food was supplied by the king. We know that Babylonian kings not only provided daily rations to some of their officers but also housing facilities. The biblical text seems to suggest that the food given to Daniel and his friends was a portion of the food prepared for the king himself, the best Babylon had to offer. The king’s main interest would have been to assure that they looked well and excelled in their training.
But looking at this decision from a cultural point of view, we realize that the king’s intention was deeper: food determines identity; what we eat reveals our culture, even our religious convictions. The emphasis on food was part of the cultural and religious attempt to assimilate the Hebrews into Babylonian religion and culture.
3. Rejecting Cultural Transformation: Daniel “resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine” (verse 8, NIV). “Resolved” is the translation of the Hebrew phrase “place in his heart.” Daniel’s will and rationality were involved in this decision, probably based on the fact that the king’s food was offered to his gods before being brought to Daniel’s table. Most probably, this food was not prepared according to the biblical mandate (Lev. 17:10) and would have included unclean meats. These by themselves would have been valid reasons to reject the king’s food. But the fact that Daniel elected on this occasion to practice a vegetarian diet suggests a deeper issue. The king had taken upon himself to “assign” [yeman] them their food. The verbal form used here is employed in the Old Testament only for the activity of God (e.g., Ps. 16:5; 61:8; Jonah 2:1), suggesting that the king was taking upon himself a divine prerogative. For Daniel only the Lord could determine what he would eat. In that setting he went back to the original diet that excluded meat (Gen. 1:29; 3:18) and helped him be obedient to the Lord. And the Lord blessed his effort to serve Him. When he was in charge of his own diet he followed the levitical regulations (Dan. 10:3).
The threat of cultural assimilation is still with us. Like Daniel, we should resist it and stand by the values, principles, and teachings of God’s Word.