The Book of Daniel: Is It Really About Diet?

Why an ancient Jewish scripture has led 15,000 members of a modern megachurch to lose megaweight.

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The Bible is not a diet book. Study it as closely as you want, and you’ll never find anything remotely approaching “10 Tips to Drop 10 Pounds.” And yet that same Bible has helped 15,000 members of Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch drop a collective 260,000 lbs. The program the Saddleback members are following is known as The Daniel Plan, and in TIME’s health special this week (available to subscribers here), Jeffrey Kluger and I take a deeper look at just why it’s met with such success.

Throughout Judeo-Christian history, whole societies have shifted based not on the specific words in the Bible, but on the ways later generations understood them. It was interpretations of the apostle Paul’s teachings on the relationship between law and grace that led to the reformation that split Europe in the 16th century. It is Paul too, whose belief that homosexuality is a sin and that women should not speak in church, that has kept both women and gays out of the pulpit. In a far more benign way, it’s the Book of Daniel that has helped the Saddleback congregants drop 130 tons.

The book tells the tale of a boy who was taken with other young Jewish men to serve in the conquering King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace. Daniel and three of his friends accepted the king’s teaching and even new Chaldean names, but they refused the royal food and wine, choosing instead a diet of legumes (literally “seeds”) and water. “At the end of the ten days,” reads the scriptural passage, “they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.

So the Biblical message is to go vegetarian, right? Well, Daniel’s decision to forgo rich foods like cakes, meats, and wine, combined with New Testament passages calling the human body a “temple of the Holy Spirit” certainly seems to suggest as much. It is difficult to serve God, after all, if you are chronically ill and at risk of dying young.

But the historical context of the Book of Daniel suggests that the text in fact has very little to do with diet or health. Daniel scholar and professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary Choon-Leong Seow represents a school of Christian thought that says Daniel is less a story of resisting rich food than a story of resisting a foreign king. (Full disclosure: I took a class on the consequences of Biblical history with Seow when studying for my Masters of Divinity.) Daniel and his friends resisted the king’s table, Seow says, as a tangible expression of their reliance on God’s power instead of the king’s. “They needed to establish their own identity. They even accepted silly names Chaldeans gave them,” Seow explains. “The one thing they could reject was the privilege of the king’s largess.”

If the text were actually about diet, Seow argues, there would be evidence that the king’s table violated Jewish food laws. A Jewish diet would have meant no pork, Seow notes, but most other meats, slaughtered properly, are O.K. Wine too is permissible. Nor does the text give any indication that the king’s food had been offered to idols, which is another thing that would have made it off-limits to the young Jews.

“Whatever the reason,” Seow wrote in his commentary on Daniel, “it appears that, for Daniel, a diet of legumes … was one way to remain faithful in the face of the overwhelming power of the Babylonians.” It’s no surprise many people don’t realize this, since English translations sometimes miss the original emphasis the Bible places on contrasting what the king could give Daniel (earthly pleasures) and what God could give him (something much greater). “The point is not the triumph of vegetarianism or even the triumph of piety or the triumph of wisdom,” Seow concludes, “but the triumph of God.”

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Daniel’s message of resistance finds support from the story of another key Jewish forefather, says Seow — Joseph, of the amazing Technicolor dreamcoat. Daniel and Joseph were both young Jewish boys captured and sent to serve foreign kings. Both were tempted with the riches of the king’s court — Daniel with decadent food and wine, Joseph with the beauty of the king’s wife. And both rejected the privileges they were offered. Refusing to compromise God’s role in their lives, both Daniel and Joseph set themselves, and their God, apart for their new community to behold.

For Americans — and all other affluent cultures — there’s another, less-noticed implication of Daniel that Seow stresses. “Daniel’s determination to resist the temptation enabled him to be in solidarity with the wretchedness of the other captives,” notes Seow. “In his will to resist, therefore, Daniel identifies himself with others in their desperate straits.” There’s a lesson or two here for a modern culture in which the income and opportunity gap grows wider every day.

Even though Seow would not choose to use Daniel to preach about healthy living, he admits that an eat-vegetables-and-whole-foods interpretation is “not an egregious violation” of the text. “If you go throughout the history of interpretation you would get similar types of reception, people saying this has to do with the body,” he says, citing Reformation theologian John Calvin.

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Still, it’s the call for restraint, for choosing not to get drunk on excess, that may be the Book of Daniel’s most powerful message. Not only does this benefit the privileged, but also the needy, who may then have a chance to enjoy the choicest portions too, as opposed just society’s leftovers. That’s a message Daniel himself would probably celebrate and support.

Read the full story in this week’s issue of TIME, available to subscribers here.