Daniel: Notes for Bible Study Groups, Part 1

Small Group

Drawing from her own study of Daniel, the knowledge gained while serving as a teaching assistant for Prof. Iain Provan’s Regent College course on Daniel, and the insights gained through talks Carl Ellis gave at an InterVarsity conference, Kathy Cooper has compiled study notes for InterVarsity groups exploring Daniel. These notes are designed to be “plug and play.” While we’ll make some further study suggestions for those with extra time, these notes are designed to provide the basis for leading a thoughtful discussion about how Daniel applies to graduate student or faculty life even if a group has little extra prep time. These notes were designed for leading an inductive bible study discussion, but can be adapted for various bible study contexts. 

ESN is glad to share material by experienced InterVarsity staffers for campus groups this year; for more on what we’re sharing on the blog and why, see our fall blog lineup preview post.


Introduction: Why study the book of Daniel?

Daniel is a great example of integrity and witness among a culture that does not honor God. It’s the story of someone who is a minority—in faith and ethnicity and culture—in the midst of a dominant, oppressive culture. Daniel is a great example of a believer who is navigating cross-cultural relationships, especially among powerful people.

As grad students, you may discover that you have much in common with Daniel.

Daniel is about living as the people of God in a foreign land—expectantly and faithfully—whether as people in Babylon or anywhere in “exile,” under a rule which is not the rule of God.

Context/background information for the Book of Daniel:

The book of Daniel takes place during the Jewish Exile in Babylon in the 6th century, BCE. To back up a bit in history . . .

The people of God (Israelites) became a divided kingdom after the death of King Solomon in 931 BCE: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. While there were brief periods of faithfulness among the people and the kings of Judah and Israel, these centuries were predominantly a period of decline into various forms of idolatry and injustice. Despite God’s warnings over many generations through the prophets, the people of Judah and Israel continued to worship other gods, commit violence, and treat their neighbors unjustly.

In 722 BCE, the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, deporting its people to Assyria. The Assyrians imported people into various areas, with the aim of separating people from their culture of origin so that they would lose their identity as a people. The goal was to have them absorbed into Assyrian society. Tragically, this process worked and the 10 northern tribes of Israel lost their identities. They are called the “10 lost tribes”; they never came back to re-settle the land that they had lost.

By the 7th century, the Babylonians had conquered the Assyrians. Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon from 605-562 BCE. In 597/8 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, deported Judah’s king Jehoiakim as well as the prominent citizens of Judah (the best and the brightest) to Babylon, and stripped the Temple. Daniel was most likely among the Jews deported in this group (Daniel 1:1). Then in 586 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar systematically destroyed Jerusalem, deporting over 10,000 Jews into exile, dismantling the Temple, and destroying the city.

Reading Daniel 1

  • Read silently
  • Read out loud as a group
  • Discuss in groups of 2-3: What do you notice about Daniel and his circumstances? What do you notice or learn about God?

Textual Discussion Questions:

1. Let’s look at Daniel 1:1-2: Jerusalem is besieged; people and articles from God’s temple are carried off and put in the house of Nebuchadnezzar’s god in Babylon. 

1a. Try to imagine what this might have been like for the Jews to be in exile/deported to Babylon. What might this have been like for them? What might they have felt?

(Some possible ideas to explore: The experience would have been frightening and lonely; Jewish people like Daniel were in a foreign land and had lost their home/homeland; they were immersed in a new culture and language; they were now oppressed foreigners/ethnic minorities where they lived; they experienced the loss of what’s familiar, and likely a sense of powerlessness; they lost what they had attained in their prior life and were starting over again; they faced many unknowns, especially about the future; they had to think through a new identity where they were, with many unwelcome challenges; they may have been facing a faith/theological crisis as they questioned “where is God?” and “why did God not save us from exile?”)

1b. How does the author of Daniel describe this exile? What is the author’s perspective on these events? (Daniel 1:1-2)

  • “Shinar”: Any thoughts about this term? This Hebrew term for Babylonia is first used in the Bible in Genesis 11:1-9—the story of the tower of Babel. The author’s use of this word here is likely meant to evoke that story. Babel became a symbol of opposition to God. Zechariah 5:11 describes Shinar as a place where wickedness is at home. For the Jews, Babylon is the last place on earth they would want to live. It’s a dangerous place.
  • “the Lord delivered Jehoiakim . . . into his hand”: God is more powerful than Nebuchadnezzar. Yahweh is the king of kings—over all. An indication that God is still in control and working out his purposes in the world.

2. Exploring Daniel 1:3-7:

1a. What’s the king up to and why?

(Nebuchadnezzar seems to be instituting a sort of government youth training scheme, probably regarded by the Babylonians as a civilizing process for Jewish foreigners whom they believe to be “uncivilized.” The king is using the Jewish exiles to further his own power and kingdom. He is seeking to change their identities and allegiances through name changes and indoctrination, as the list of name changes below suggests. The king is also grooming Daniel and his friends for service in the king’s court/government).

Name changes in this passage:

  • Daniel: “God is my judge.” New name Belteshazzar: “Bel/Marduk protect his life!”
  • Hananiah: “The Lord shows grace.” New name Shadrach: “Command of Aku” (Sumerian moon god)
  • Mishel: “Who is what God is?” New name Mesach: “Who is what Aku is?”
  • Azariah: “The Lord helps.” New name Abednego: “Servant of Nego/Nebo”

1b. What might this experience be like for Daniel and his friends?

3. Going in depth on Daniel 1:8-21: How does Daniel respond to this program of cultural assimilation/education? Why do you think he resolved to not eat or drink from the king’s table?

(Daniel asserts his own identity. He picks his battles wisely. He’s subversive—he asserts his own power where he can and not where he can’t. He and his friends resist together.).

A bit of background info:

  • There’s some word play on the Hebrew word “yasem” in these verses. “Yasem” means to “set upon” or to “set one’s heart.” In Daniel 1:7, “the chief official gave (yasem—set upon) them new names.” In Daniel 1:8, “But Daniel resolved (yasem—set his heart) not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.”
  • In Daniel’s time, to eat someone’s food was to give your allegiance to him. Also, the book of Leviticus does not prohibit wine. So perhaps Daniel’s decision is more a matter of political resistance. Daniel was determined not to compromise himself by accepting his redefinition as a Babylonian.

4. Overall Questions for whole reading: What do we see and learn about God in this narrative?

  • God honors and vindicates Daniel and his friends as they live in allegiance to God.
  • God gives favor to his people—even in really difficult circumstances.
  • God is the source of wisdom and gives knowledge of all kinds of literature and learning.
  • God is sovereign and king over all—even over the seemingly most powerful and abusive kings of the earth.

Questions for application/reflection for our lives: (discuss in smaller groups and pray together):

  • What can we learn from this? How is God speaking to you through this scripture?
  • Are there ways you identify with an experience of exile or oppression?
  • Are there ways you feel that you’re being redefined at your educational institution in ways that aren’t good?
  • What might it mean for you to live with integrity, or to resist surrendering your soul while at your educational institution? How could you resolve (set your heart) to not surrender your soul to anyone or anything but God? Example: keeping the Sabbath is a radical, counter-cultural choice of allegiance to God. It’s trusting God for your success in grad school, rather than your own efforts and working 24/7 like everyone else.
  • Are there ways we could draw strength from each other by resolving to live for God together?

For Further Study

The source for most of the background history in this series is:

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Kathy Cooper

Kathy Cooper is the Director of Staff Training & Leadership Development for InterVarsity's Graduate & Faculty Ministries, and serves as GFM staff at Brown University Graduate & Medical Schools. She has a B.A. from Yale in American Studies (Literature) and a Masters of Divinity from Regent College (Vancouver). Kathy and her husband Keith live in Providence, RI. All 3 of their daughters are in college this year. She enjoys cooking, reading, walks with the family dog, conversation over a cup of good coffee, and gardening.

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