In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon besieged Jerusalem and took Jehoiakim and some of his princes into captivity (Daniel 1:1). While in exile, Jehoiakim ate every day at Nebuchadnezzar’s table in Babylon (Jeremiah 52:33; II Kings 25:29), but by the Hasmonean period: ‘Many in Israel took courage not to eat any unclean food, and they chose to die rather than be defiled by [unclean] foods…’ (I Maccabees 1:62-63). Gentile food had become suspect of being connected to pagan ritual, so it was considered preferable to suffer martyrdom rather than eat it (Efron 1987). The account of a controlled dietary trial in the book of Daniel thus reflects attitudes characteristic of this period (2nd–1st centuries BCE).
5 And the king appointed them a daily provision of the king’s meat, and of the wine that he drank: so nourishing them three years, that at the end thereof they might stand before the king.
6 Now among these were of the children of Judah, Daniel Hananiah, Misael, and Azariah:
7 Unto whom the prince of the eunuchs gave names: for he gave unto Daniel the name of Belteshazar; and to Hananiah, of Shadrach; and to Misael, of Meshach; and to Azariah, of Abed-nego.
8 But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine that he drank: therefore he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself.
9 Now God had brought Daniel into favour and tender love with the prince of the eunuchs.
10 And the prince of the eunuchs said unto Daniel, I fear my lord the king, who hath appointed your meat and drink: so why should he see your faces worse liking than the children which of your sort? Then shall ye make me endanger my head to the king.
11 Then said Daniel to Melzar, whom the prince of the eunuchs had set over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah,
12 Prove they servants, I beseech thee, ten days; and let them give us pulse to eat, and water to drink.
13 Then let our countenances be looked upon before thee, and the countenance of the children that eat of the portion of the king’s meat: and as thou seest, deal with thy servants.
14 So he consented to them in this matter, and proved them ten days.
15 And at the end of ten days their countenances appeared fairer and fatter in flesh than all the children that which did the portion of the king’s meat.
16 Thus Melzar took away the portion of their meat, and the wine that they should drink; and gave them pulse.
The book of Daniel is full of miracles and visions – Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the Three Boys in the Fiery Furnace, Belshazzar’s Feast – to name only the most familiar, so at first sight it may seem very strange that we should have here what is perhaps the first recorded example of a controlled experiment. But if we look at the additions to Daniel in the apocrypha, we find that we have another first – the first detective story, Bel and the Dragon, where Daniel solves a problem using logical thinking worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Thus the mixture of extreme rationality and divine miracle is quite typical of this book.
The Hebrew word ‘zer’onim’, literally seeds, has been translated variously as ‘vegetables’ in the New English Bible and as legumina – legumes or pulses – by Jerome in the Vulgate. Jerome was here, as elsewhere, clearly familiar with Jewish traditions, which specify that the seeds eaten by Daniel and his friends were pulses. Other Jewish commentaries on the Bible also say that when Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus’ harem and given all the food, perfumes and adornments she could want to prepare her for the king (Esther 2), she, like Daniel, refused the king’s foods and ate only pulses. Both Daniel and his friends and Esther presumably ate bread too, but because this was the basic component of everyone’s diet it is not even mentioned. Modern commentators take account of this episode when estimating the date of the book of Daniel. Earlier Jewish sources, while banning the eating of specific forbidden foods like pork, did not put a blanket prohibition on all gentile food.
The book of Daniel here stresses the miraculous nature of the events – in spite of not eating rich food and wine the Jews were even healthier than the others, as demonstrated by the ten-day experiment. Because they kept to their ancestral traditions, it is implied, they were rewarded by the special protection of God and looked healthier than others. But since we know that pulses, especially when eaten with bread, provide good sources of protein, we need not be surprised. Pulses were one of the commonest everyday foods in antiquity – from the ‘pottage of lentils’ for which Esau sold his birthright in the book of Genesis (27:29), to the luxury Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius, where the whole of one of his ten books is devoted to pulses. Eating what they were used to eating would also have protected Daniel and his friends against stomach upsets resulting from change of diet and gorging lots of rich food from the king’s table. The real miracle here, perhaps, was that Daniel and his friends were not harmed by drinking water instead of wine: in the ancient world water was often contaminated.
In considering the strengths and weaknesses of the controlled trial reported in the Book of Daniel, David Grimes (1995) has observed that the strengths include the use of a contemporaneous control group and independent assessor of outcome; and that the weaknesses include probable selection and ascertainment bias, and confounding by divine intervention.
The editors of the James Lind Library are grateful to Professor Micky Weingarten for introducing them to the author of this article, and for providing an image of the Hebrew text of the relevant verses in the Book of Daniel (see https://www.jameslindlibrary.org/daniel-6th-century-bce/)
Efron J (1987). Studies on the Hasmonean period. Leiden: 96-104.
Grimes DA (1995). Clinical research in ancient Babylon: methodologic insights from the Book of Daniel. Obstetrics and Gynecology 86:1031-1034.