Imagine the opulence, the splendor of the court of ancient Babylon. You're young, in your late teens or early 20s. You and three friends are captives, but your captors have selected you from among your people to serve at the court of the king.
Right now, though, you're hungry. The man in charge offers you all the rich, steaming dishes of the palace kitchen. But you realize you have limited choices if you want to obey what God says about what we should and shouldn't eat. The delicacies of the royal table are made with foods listed as "unclean"—unfit for human consumption—in the Holy Scriptures. And the royal steward believes you'll starve if you don't eat the meals provided by the king's command. What do you do?
If you're the young prophet Daniel of the Bible, you reject the palace foods, ask for vegetables and water, and trust God to give you the good health to succeed at court (read Daniel 1).
Have you ever wondered what people ate in ancient times? Historical references in Bible commentaries reveal that the royal Babylonian table would have many dishes stewed in a combination of fats, spices and blood to give intensity and richness. They ate many different kinds of meats, both of the biblically "clean" (allowed to be eaten) and "unclean" varieties. Pork was very popular, as was shellfish. Both of those are listed as "unclean" for food in the Bible (read the free online Bible study aid What Does the Bible Teach About Clean and Unclean Meats? to know more).
Many animals were slaughtered, cooked and eaten as offerings to religious idols. Animals weren't always well bled when they were killed, leaving blood in the body—which the Bible also forbids. Knowing God's dietary laws, Daniel and his three friends realized they couldn't easily sort out what was "clean" or "unclean" on the king's table. Instead, they chose vegetables, which likely included grains and beans or lentils, all things that grew from seed.
They also drank only water because beverages at the Babylonian court were primarily alcoholic ale and wine in large quantities. These may have been thickened or clarified with animal byproducts, potentially rendering them unfit for human consumption according to God's way. What a menu! But what we can learn from Daniel's experience?
1. Know what's in your foods and what choices are available
Daniel and his three friends Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael (renamed Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego by the Babylonians) learned that the foods available to them in the court of the king of Babylon were tainted. Perhaps they observed the kitchen staff at work, or quizzed the chief eunuch or royal steward about ingredients and preparation. Whatever the case, they knew what was in the food—and what to avoid.
We also need to learn what's in our food. This involves a bit of research like reading ingredient lists. A solid knowledge of the lists of clean and unclean meats (see Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14) helps us make proper judgments. Generally speaking, the fewer, less complicated-sounding ingredients there are, the easier it is to decipher the actual origins of a food.
Whole foods are easiest. An apple is an apple, a carrot is a carrot, and a beefsteak is, by grain, cut, and smell, relatively easy to distinguish from pork or horse meat (both of the latter are unclean by God's standards). Yet even meats clean by kind can be tainted, as noted later. Again, we need to know what we're putting into our bodies.
2. Know yourself, what foods make you feel well and what makes you sluggish or foggy-brained
Even if Daniel and his friends would have had clean foods available to them, they still may have avoided the palace foods. Ancient Babylonian recipes translated in the 1980s show a very rich and highly spiced cuisine. Beer was popular, as was wine. Meat dishes were fatty and heavy.
Such decadent fare would have been difficult to digest, and the quart to a gallon of beer a day consumed by the average person at court would have made the four young men sluggish at best.
The only thing between us and our food is—us. We are responsible for what does or doesn't go into our bodies. Knowing what makes you feel your best requires careful attention to your body's reaction to certain foods. Some people even keep track of any particularly unpleasant reactions.
Knowledge of personal health helps us to better submit to God's will for us. Health crises sometimes interfere, but striving to be fit and healthy servants of God makes us more productive. Our bodies are the physical vessels for God's Spirit, and we have a responsibility to keep ourselves in good order (see 1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
3. Obey God, ask and trust Him to provide you with good, health-building food choices and sources
Daniel requested of the chief eunuch that he and his comrades be given foods that wouldn't defile them, specifying vegetables and clean water. Vegetables included high-protein legumes. Rice, cultivated around Babylon at the time, combined with lentils or beans may have provided a complete protein.
The king's steward feared the effects of this diet on the young men's health. Yet God blessed them and granted them favor with the steward, and he allowed them to test their diet. They remained fit, well-muscled and healthier-looking than the other young courtiers (Daniel 1:11-16).
As at that time, we today need to educate ourselves on health issues and ask God for clean, health-building food choices. God is the Master Provider, and if we sincerely want to improve our health, He will provide what we need. (As our Creator, He certainly knows what's best for our bodies.) But beyond asking, we have to take action and, like Daniel, choose to eat the good foods.
4. Eat your veggies!
Another possible lesson from the four young Jewish men in Babylon is that a diet featuring vegetables can be a boon to our health. Some people have chosen, with success, to consume a predominantly vegetable diet while dealing with a period of illness or stress. While that choice is individual, it requires research and often the guidance of a professional. It's safe to conclude that a light, nutritious diet, focusing on the benefits of fresh produce, can be a tonic for a stressed body. (You should always inform your general practitioner of a serious change in diet.)
In contrast, the rich, alcohol-heavy, significantly unclean Babylonian diet was hard on the body. The toxins of unclean meats alone can be an immense stress on the body systems, but today we also have to be wary of toxins sprayed on or injected into foods, to say nothing of highly processed and genetically modified foods.
None of this means we should adopt vegetarianism, as God intends that we eat meat if it meets biblical requirements (see 1 Timothy 4:1-5). Yet edible meat must be in addition to other needed food, including vegetables, to give us a more balanced and nutritious diet. However, there may be times when eating just vegetables is the best option available to us, as with Daniel and his friends.
In any event, analyze what you eat carefully for what improves or damages your well-being. Seek out healthy food sources and ask God to provide. Like Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael, we have choices to make in a world that doesn't always have our good health at heart. By faith and obedience to His food laws, God can help us make the best of our health.