Why Hebrew Captives Had Healthier Diet Than Their Captors
A new report on dietary “pulse” shows health benefits that certain captives enjoyed 2,600 years ago in what is now Iraq.
The old King James Bible account of the young men captured by the Babylonians for service in Nebuchadnezzar’s court talks about “pulse” in the diet (Daniel 1:7-16):
7 Unto whom the prince of the eunuchs gave names: for he gave unto Daniel the name of Belteshazzar; and to Hananiah, of Shadrach; and to Mishael, of Meshach; and to Azariah, of Abednego.
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 which 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 your drink: for why should he see your faces worse liking than the children which are 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 thy 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 which did eat 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.
We don’t often hear the word “pulse” in nutrition these days (it means “the edible seeds of certain leguminous plants, as peas, beans, or lentils”), but the word showed up this week in Science Daily: “Eating more dietary pulses can increase fullness, may help manage weight.” Eating these “pulses” can therefore aid your pulse (heartbeat), if you’ll pardon the pun. Researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital found more than just satiety coming from a diet that includes pulse:
- Pulses have a low glycemic index, reducing sugar highs.
- They can be used to reduce or displace animal protein.
- They can reduce or replace bad fats, like trans fats.
- They reduce bad cholesterol by 5%, reducing risk of cardiovascular disease.
- By providing a sense of fullness, they can help keep weight down.
- The satiety effect works across all age levels and body types.
These results are based on a meta-analysis of 2,000 papers and 9 clinical trials involving 126 participants.
But doesn’t the Bible story say that the Hebrew captives appeared “fatter in flesh” than the others? Analysis of near-eastern linguistic idioms is necessary when interpreting statements like this. It doesn’t mean “fat” like modern westerners think. Fat was a good word in that culture. The Hebrew word bariy‘ translated “fatter” can mean “fat, rank, fatfleshed, firm, fatter, fed, plenteous” — in other words, it could mean muscular, or endowed with good skin tone and firmness of flesh. Since the official had eyes for good health, we know he judged the physical fitness of these 4 Hebrews to be superior to that of all the others. It’s highly unlikely he was giving high marks for fat bellies! Pulses, like we see in the report, help reduce body fat and maintain good weight. Assuming all the captives received physical training as well as attention to diet and instruction, the Hebrew captives probably looked the healthiest to the official.
We’re not going to push vegetarianism here, but this is interesting, is it not? Daniel suggested a kind of science project, a controlled experiment, in a gracious, winsome way that let the official off the hook and removed his worry. How did the 4 Hebrew captives know that a diet of pulse and water would make them healthier than meat and wine? A couple of reasons: (1) They adhered to Jewish dietary laws, which abhorred drunkenness and eating blood—undoubtedly risks in the Babylonian kitchen. (2) They trusted that God, working through their diet, would reward them for their obedience—and He did. That’s really the point of the story. Better eat meat and wine with obedience to God than live on pulse and water in rebellion against Him. Notice also that it was God who put Daniel in favor with the official (v. 9). Daniel was known for his wisdom, but God used that wisdom on the official’s heart. This is a good example of the mysterious interaction of God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility: we should learn to be wise like Daniel and follow his example; but without God using and blessing our wisdom (which is from Him anyway), it is vain and ineffective.
Back to diet. If you want to live on the Nebuchadnezzar diet, be our guest. We’re not advocating torturing yourself with a diet of chickpeas and water. Maybe, though, you might want to think about adding some pulses to your diet, considering the scientifically-measured benefits listed above. They might even help you eat smaller portions of steak. Considering that the Creator made plants for human food originally (even though meat was sanctioned later, even by Jesus), it would be wise to consider including a variety of plant foods in a your diet (Editor’s experience here).