The “Daniel Diet” launched by Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Community Church has a lot of people talking. About a month ago, a national paper asked me to comment on this latest plan from a passionately creative Christian leader. It was the health editor. Never talked to a health editor before, ever. I rarely talk to a health provider. So besides unwillingness to criticize a brother in public over a totally unimportant issue, about which I knew nothing except for what the editor told me, I declined in short order.
Yet now here TIME magazine spotlights the “Daniel Diet”-and does such a good job with it, I thought, that something larger is worth bringing to the table (no pun intended). In a land where almost anything with the word “diet” in it sells, “spirituality” isn’t far down the list either. Together, the world’s their oyster. Now, if we can get sex, spirituality, and diet in the same program, I’m guessing we’d see that one at the airport.
What intrigued me about the TIME article was the author’s keen exegetical skills. I’ll explain in a minute.
When I was growing up, the Old Testament was a quarry from which to sculpt heroic examples to emulate. “Dare to Be a Daniel” meant something like “Man up-don’t be afraid of lions.” You do your part, and God will watch your back.
Still in that genre, the “Daniel Diet” focuses predictably on what obsesses most Americans today: obesity. Understandably. To badly paraphrase Isaiah, I am out of shape and dwell among an out-of-shape people. I have lost a few pounds, am back in the gym, but my wife keeps telling me that it’s not about fad diets but about daily decisions. “Just think about what you’re doing,” she tells me. The point is, I don’t need Daniel-or the Bible-to tell me I need to get fit. And a diet of seeds and water that Daniel and his Jewish compadres endured may not even be healthy.
It all goes back to the human-centered way of reading the Bible, as if God were a supporting actor in our drama, rather our being cast as beneficiaries of his bounty in Christ. We appeal to statistics to convince people that prayer makes us happier, healthier, and more fulfilled than non-prayers. Leviticus is relevant only if we can explain how the dietary laws somehow reveal secret principles of universal health, when that wasn’t the point of these laws at all. Their purpose was to separate Israel from the nations: the “clean/unclean” separation, keeping a pure line leading to the Messiah. That distinction was dissolved with Christ’s advent, as Peter was told by God in the dream in Acts 10:9-19. Pork is as acceptable as chicken now, just as in Christ believing Gentiles are co-heirs with Jews.
The problem with the moralizing interpretations familiar to us is not only that they focus the story on us rather than on God and his work in history, centering on Christ; it’s that precisely in making it about us, we trivialize the greatest story ever told. No wonder so many people assume that the Bible is simply a collection of tips for life.
Elizabeth Dias, the author of the TIME article puts his finger on the right issue: “But the historical context of the Book of Daniel suggests that the text in fact has very little to do with diet or health.” (Read more here.)
Appealing to Choon-Leong Seow, an Old Testament professor at Princeton Seminary, Dias notes, that “Daniel is less a story of resisting rich food than a story of resisting a foreign king.” “Daniel and his friends resisted the king’s table, Seow says, as a tangible expression of their reliance on God’s power instead of the king’s.” “If the text were actually about diet, Seow argues, there would be evidence that the king’s table violated Jewish food laws. A Jewish diet would have meant no pork, Seow notes, but most other meats, slaughtered properly, are O.K. Wine too is permissible. Nor does the text give any indication that the king’s food had been offered to idols, which is another thing that would have made it off-limits to the young Jews.”
Dias, who studied with Seow, points out, “It’s no surprise many people don’t realize this, since English translations sometimes miss the original emphasis the Bible places on contrasting what the king could give Daniel (earthly pleasures) and what God could give him (something much greater). ‘The point is not the triumph of vegetarianism or even the triumph of piety or the triumph of wisdom,’ Seow concludes, ‘but the triumph of God.'”
Wow! Talk about getting the point! Just then, though, Dias drifts toward another form of moralizing the story. Daniel’s actions were mainly about solidarity with his oppressed fellow-Jews. “There’s a lesson or two here for a modern culture in which the income and opportunity gap grows wider every day.” The Book of Daniel may not be about a diet plan. “Still, it’s the call for restraint, for choosing not to get drunk on excess, that may be the Book of Daniel’s most powerful message. Not only does this benefit the privileged, but also the needy, who may then have a chance to enjoy the choicest portions too, as opposed just society’s leftovers. That’s a message Daniel himself would probably celebrate and support.”
Predictably, evangelicals often use Daniel for personal well-being and moral uplift, while mainliners go for the social justice angle. In both cases, the story is about us and what we can use from it for our self-crafting and world-crafting projects. Yet something more wonderful is lying there in Daniel waiting to be discovered! Even in exile, God is faithful to his covenant people. The most powerful king in the region of that day is not Lord, as it turns out. Yahweh is. (That’s what the actions of Daniel and his friends, the fiery furnace, and the visions are all about.) With the vision of the four beasts (or kingdoms) in chapter 7, the message becomes crystal-clear: The Ancient of Days takes his throne in the courtroom and the “Son of Man” appears. All of the empires are shaken, but this kingdom that will arise has no end. “But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever'” (Dan 7:18). The prophecies go on to relate in apocalyptic imagery the triumph of the Son of Man over the earthly empires. God has the last word in the book: “‘But go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of days'” (Dan 12:13).
It’s this prophecy that Hebrews announces as having been fulfilled with Christ’s coming: Everything that can be shaken will be, “in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (Heb 12:26-28). In this version, God has the starring role. He is building his kingdom, installing his Messiah on his holy hill, and we’re recipients of the victory he has won-for us and for the whole world. Now that’s a headline story!