Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. Daniel 1:3–7
What was wrong? The noonday sun shone high in the sky as I awoke. Why had we been permitted to sleep much later than in the preceding days? Should we be grateful or alarmed? Men were breaking up camp and falling into formation. Two hands had lifted me to my feet while another handed me a toughened barley cake, and now we were walking. It was wonderful yet totally bizarre in light of all we had experienced over the previous ten days.
Much had changed over the course of this time. Hills and valleys had given way to desert, and desert had given way to a wide plain under the dominion of the largest river I had ever seen. Its strength and supremacy transformed and populated the land until a verdant vitality filled our senses—the smell of wheat, barley, fennel, and cumin, the sound of men loading their barges, and the sight of people, all kinds of people, multiplying with every step. Above it all, as if springing from the din and the dust—a city, an enormous city. Things were moving in all directions. Carts and cries of innumerable languages, barges on our right or left and even below us, and cranes—a forest of cranes, scaffolding, and other machinery moving as if powered by the sounds, shouts, and chisels. Suddenly, it was all behind us and we stood on the smooth pavement of a stately room unchained, confused, and seemingly unattended.
“Welcome to Babylon, fortunate ones!” A tall, well-dressed man greeted us from a porch hanging from the second story of the room. “You are here for only one reason: the emperor’s will. He alone is your father, your shepherd, and your savior, and it is his wisdom and compassion that has chosen you and brought you here today.” He paused and looked slowly over the crowd before descending a staircase that led down to the room where we were standing. “You have been chosen to undergo three years of training that will equip you with every skill and secret that we can give you—the wisdom of the ancients at your command.” He had taken his place next to a scribe who stood beside a doorway. “Today your life begins anew. All of Babylon is before you to take and enjoy! Respond to her with an open heart and a willing mind and you will have all that you can hope for. Come, we will begin by giving you your new name.”
I was stunned. It was incredibly pleasing to the senses yet astonishingly bizarre. It was worse than bizarre; it was wicked. As the crowd advanced forward, I took a step back from the horror that had arisen before me. Yet the only way to go was forward, if it was forward. Young men passed me on either side as the river of compliance pulled us inexorably forward toward the official, his scribe, and the doorway. My gaze moved up above the doorway, above the porch, to a ceiling filled with gods and goddesses. My startled eyes closed shut. Out there—my God was out there, far above all this. My fingers had bound themselves into tight fists, holding tightly to something that wasn’t able to be held. With eyes set firmly upon Him, I whispered: “Here I am.”
Illustration by Kitti Touzeau