An Excellent Spirit

Posted on June 26, 2011

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Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a boy was stolen away from his family and grew to change his world. We have only a fragmentary record of him, apparently because he was not one to record his exploits but merely to set down revelations that affected the whole scope of mankind’s existence. As arguably the most respected political adviser for eight decades in the region that controlled the known world, he was retained as chief counselor by five successive conquering kings. Even in a highly combative, competitive, political arena, he was worth nearly as much as the conquered kingdom to the incoming king. How many incoming presidents keep the former president’s secretary of state, and not only keep him, but continue to keep him in the number one spot so many times in succession? I have been thinking more deeply about this early statesman lately. He seems a modern model of political excellence.

Daniel was a youth, probably conscripting age, when he was taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, likely in his first sweep through Jerusalem in 601 BC. Very possibly of a royal lineage, he was taken into the palace to be groomed for service to the Babylonian political/economic machine – a particularly wise policy on the king’s part. It was expected that the best of the best would contribute to the strength of Babylon, and so those abducted were groomed and treated exceptionally well. For most abducted peoples, it was the equivalent of being selected on The Apprentice. After the shock of relocation, it was a huge socio-economic step forward for most Hebrews.

However, a small group of devout Hebrews asked to set aside some of this fine treatment – in the matter of their food (symbolically establishing on the most basic survival level their dependence on obedience to a hard-to-keep law rather than an easy richness of personal sustenance.) Some background on their choice not to eat “the king’s meat” might help us more fully appreciate what Daniel and at least three of his friends were choosing.

For a Hebrew, only certain foods were considered clean, and even then, anything animal that was eaten must be prepared by fully bleeding out, as well as other specific handling until it was served. The Babylonians both ate animals the Hebrews considered unclean, and did not practice “bleeding out” even among the clean animals, often preparing dishes with the blood of the animal. This was considered gross sin for a devout Hebrew to partake. I’m sure all the abducted Hebrews initially recoiled.

Beyond this, any person who prepared food in any way that was considered unclean, became themselves unclean, and anything else they prepared was unclean, and the place where the food was prepared became unclean. An honest Hebrew could eat nothing prepared by a Babylonian, in a Babylonian kitchen. The only food available to someone who wished to continue to keep the sacred law, was grain and water, and they would have to prepare it themselves.

This was the first choice laid before him. Daniel could starve, or he could acquiesce. Go along. Try the forbidden out. After all, what could he do? He had no choice. He could be excused for not keeping the law, when it was impossible for him to do so. Yet Daniel found another way. As his first desire was to keep the law, he was blessed to find a creative solution, to have the wisdom to know to whom and how he should present it, to be supported in his efforts by God, and to have those in authority acquiesce instead to him.

From this courageous beginning, it was noted that he had “an excellent spirit.” His prodigious talents, coupled with uncommon humility and dependence on God, soon became apparent. Trial by trial, impossible situations were placed before him and he found a third option, as “outside the box” as it is possible to imagine. If anything, his excellent spirit drew increased antagonism from rivals, and multiplied his trials. Yet with each he grew more wise, more imaginative, more discerning, … more powerful.

Without some imagination, some time to ponder on these situations, these are flat children’s stories, morality tales meant to prove black and white principles. We can trot off confidently with the lesson without learning the lesson. They are too easy to set aside as adults consumed with a grey-toned world. Daniel’s world was gray too. He searched to find the black and white. When presented with a choice between the lesser of two evils, he still found the good somewhere else and made it the third option. And he did this not once, but repeatedly for 80 years. As an old man he still found himself spending the night with lions, who, as an aside, weren’t likely lying in his lap for a back scratch, but simply weren’t allowed to eat him. Nothing indicates they were any less inclined to demonstrate their preference to chew on him a bit.

Our world needs more Daniels. It is too easy to assume that we don’t have a choice in matters of morality and integrity. It is too easy to set aside our honor to keep all the commandments we know by justifying that our situation is unique, without challenging ourselves to find something other than the lesser of two evils. It is too easy to be distracted from the things that matter by the overwhelming nature of our circumstance. It is too easy to look outside ourselves for permission to say no. Babylon is a very comfortable place.

Integrity is a hard-won value, an excellent spirit grown within through a life of finding black and white in a world of gray, and choosing well. What a worthwhile hero to ponder.

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