Imperial Idolatry

Upon his arrival in Babylon, Daniel was confronted with a predicament. If he consumed the food and drink of the king, it would impinge on his ritual impurity. While he might have wished to avoid eating “unclean” meats, more likely, his concern was that consuming the “king’s delicacies” meant participation in the idolatrous rituals of the Babylonian court and pagan religion.

Daniel objected to the “meats” and the “wine” from the royal table. But in the book of Leviticus, wine is not a cause of ritual defilement.

Augustus - Photo by Nemanja Peric on Unsplash
[Photo by Nemanja Peric on Unsplash]

Moreover, Daniel makes no reference to the dietary regulations in the 
Torah, and the Hebrew term rendered “defile” (ga’al) in the passage is not the same one used for “unclean” in Leviticus (the term ga’al appears nowhere in the Pentateuch).

  • (Daniel 1:8, 12) – “But Daniel laid it upon his heart not to defile himself with the meats of the king, nor with the wine which he drank, therefore, he sought the ruler of the eunuchs, that he might not DEFILE (ga’al) himself… I pray you, prove your servants ten days, and let them give us vegetable food, that we may eat, and water that we may drink.


The Hebrew term pathbag more correctly means “delicacies,” not “meat” or animal flesh, though it could include the latter. Consuming meat, clean or unclean, is not the point of the passage.

Babylonian religious customs point to a different conflict - participation in idolatrous practices. Daniel objected to consuming provisions from the “table of the king,” and the stress is on the source of the food - THE ROYAL TABLE.

Daniel proposed a “test.” For “ten days,” he and his friends would only eat vegetables and drink water, and afterward, their Babylonian keeper could compare their appearance with that of the other young men who did consume food from the royal table.

Idols played a key role in Babylonian religious rituals. It was believed the god was present in his or her image in its temple. Such images were provided with daily meals of food and drink. The king provided the required foodstuffs for the god’s “meal,” and no one else present could eat before the deity had finished “consuming” it.

Thereafter, the remaining food was distributed for consumption at the royal table. Thus, the king’s provisions are linked to the idolatry of the Babylonian temples – (Joan Oates, Babylon, London - Thames and Hudson, 1986, p. 174-175).


Revelation alludes to this story in its letter to the church at Smyrna. The congregation is told to expect persecution - “You will BE TRIED, and you will have tribulation TEN DAYS.” The Greek verb rendered “tried” in the Septuagint version of Daniel (peirazō) is the same one used in the Greek text of the letter to Smyrna - (Daniel 1:14, Revelation 2:8-11).

The church in Smyrna was being “slandered by them who say they are Jews and are not, but instead, are a synagogue of Satan.” Consequently, some believers were “cast into prison.” Nevertheless, those who remained “faithful until death” would receive the “crown of life and NOT BE HURT of the second death.”

This “slander” in Smyrna refers to false charges leveled against believers before civil magistrates, probably for refusing to participate in the Roman imperial cult. In Pergamos, Jesus rebuked church members who tolerated deceivers that taught believers “to eat things sacrificed to idols,” the “doctrine of the Nicolaitans.”

Likewise, in the city of Thyatira, the church is reprimanded for allowing the false prophetess, Jezebel, “to seduce my servants to fornicate and to eat things sacrificed to idols.” The term “fornicate” is used metaphorically for participation by believers in idolatrous practices - (Revelation 2:12-17, 17:2, 18:3, 18:9).

Thus, the issue in Daniel was not ritually “unclean” food, but participation in the idolatrous rituals of the Babylonian court. Likewise, in Revelation, the seven Asian churches were exhorted by Jesus to avoid the idolatrous practices of “Babylon,” that is, the Roman imperial cult with its veneration of the emperor.

In the same way, disciples of Jesus today must not render homage to the idolatrous demands of end-time “Babylonthe Great Harlot” when she entices one and all to give allegiance to the “Beast from the Sea,” or to its idolatrous “image.”