“But you are my witnesses, O Israel!” says the Lord. “You are my servant. You have been chosen to know me, believe in me, and understand that I alone am God. There is no other God—there never has been, and there never will be. [Isaiah 43:10 (NLT)]
After Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Judah, he returned to Babylon with the temple’s treasures and some of Judah’s nobility as captives. The best and brightest of the young men were to learn the literature and language of Babylon so they could serve the king. In spite of being captives, they were housed in the palace and given the king’s choice of food. While this would appear to be a pretty good gig for prisoners of war, the boys were probably castrated and made eunuchs as was typically done for palace officials (and prophesied by Isaiah in 2 Kings 20:18).
Among these captives were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all of whom were given new Babylonian names. Daniel, whose name meant “God is my judge,” became Belteshazzar, meaning “Bel protects his life” (Bel was another name for the chief Babylonian god Marduke). Hananiah, whose name meant “The Lord shows grace,” became Shadrach, meaning “Under the command of Aku” (the Sumerian moon god). Mishael, whose name meant “Who is like God?” became Meshach, meaning “Who is what Aku is?” and Azariah, whose name meant “The Lord helps,” became Abednego, “Servant of Nebo” (the god of learning and writing).
“What’s in a name?” asked Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” added the star-crossed lover. Romeo’s name made him an enemy to her family but his name was meaningless to Juliet. She knew a man’s name did not determine his value or character. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, thought otherwise. By changing the captive boys’ names, he wanted more than just their assimilation to Babylon; he wanted their allegiance. When he took their names from them, he also thought he took their God.
These young men lost their homes and families, their masculinity and their names. To further distance them from the God of Israel, as eunuchs, they wouldn’t be allowed to worship in the temple if they ever returned home. Nevertheless, they never lost their identity as children of the God of Israel and refused to defile themselves by partaking of the king’s food and wine.
Some think their decision was based solely on health and nutrition and now offer a wide variety of eating plans based on Daniel’s diet. Their refusal, however, probably had more to do with the youths’ attempt to regain some control over their lives and faith. The king’s meat would not have been butchered or prepared according to Jewish law and would have included prohibited foods like horseflesh and pork that had first been offered to the pagan god Marduk. The four friends refused it and, working out a compromise with the palace guard, agreed to eat nothing but vegetables and water for a trial period of ten days. Since they looked better nourished after that time, they were allowed to continue observing their food rules. Their fitness, however, had more to do with God’s promise of provision than their diet. God granted them not just health but special wisdom. In spite of their new names, they now knew that, by remaining faithful to God, He would be remain faithful to them. Found superior to all of the others in their group, they entered the king’s service in his court.
These four young men knew there was nothing in a name. What mattered was their character and their faith in God—a God who was judge, showed grace, and helped them in their troubles. They knew the Lord would honor those who honored Him and it was this knowledge that would carry them through their later trials in Babylon.