“The Liberal Arts in Babylon” – Dr. Steve Clements

November 07, 2016

Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief of staff, to bring to the palace some of the young men of Judah’s royal family and other noble families, who had been brought to Babylon as captives. ‘Select only strong, healthy, and good-looking young men,’ he said. ‘Make sure they are well versed in every branch of learning, are gifted with knowledge and good judgment, and are suited to serve in the royal palace.  Train these young men in the language and literature of Babylon.’” – Daniel 1:3-4

The character of Daniel from the Hebrew scriptures has been the focus of many sermons, usually emphasizing how Daniel and his compatriots—Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah—conducted themselves in Babylon, having been abducted following the 597 BCE siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II.  The stories of Daniel’s life make for terrific fodder.  Early on we see Daniel and his friends embracing vegetarianism and rejecting the food and drink of the King’s court.  Then Daniel’s dream interpretation ability lifts him to prominence.  Next, Daniel’s three friends refuse to worship the King’s golden idol, are cast into a furnace, but then emerge unharmed.  This is followed by further exploits under subsequent kings Belshazzar and Darius, including Daniel’s being cast into a lion’s den for refusing to pray to the King.

What caught my eye in a recent encounter with this book, however, were sentences near the beginning, where the Babylonian captors of the elite families of Judah map out a future for these young men, beginning with a high level education across the arenas of knowledge, wisdom, literature, and language of a great world empire.  In essence, Daniel and his young friends are educated so as to function optimally in the heart of the Babylonian culture, in the capitol city.  This learning, of course, would be layered on top of the Mosaic cultural and theological knowledge that they brought with them into captivity.  These young men, in other words, received the best “liberal arts education” that the ancient world had to offer, all in a cross cultural setting.

While it is certainly critical to view Daniel and the other Jewish refugees in Babylon from the standpoint of their faithfulness in worship and behavior to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, this element of the story is a useful reminder that their success stemmed not simply from obedience but from the foundation of a certain kind of formal learning that was critical to participation in the Babylonian culture of the day.  We should each remember this lesson as we make decisions about our own learning pursuits, as we seek to have lives of maximal impact.

CORNERSTONE:   Scripture

- Dr. Steve Clements, Dean of College of Arts & Sciences, Associate Professor of Political Science

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