(A bas-relief from Nineveh, depicting three Israelite musicians among the prisoners taken by Assyrian King Sennacherib into exile.)
This might seem a small detail in the story of Daniel. It is when compared to his soaring visions of salvation history. But in my experience it is often overlooked and lessens our grasp of the spiritual pathos flowing through the book. Identity and backstory always deepen our ability to emphathize with a character.
This questions arises from the conflation of two passages. The parallel passages of 2 Kings 20 and Isaiah 39 recall a story from the life of King Hezekiah of Judah. The king has been saved by the Lord from the Assyrians and from a deadly tumor. The king of Babylon, plotting to overthrow the Assyrians as the regional superpower, sends envoys to Jerusalem to congratulate Hezekiah. He shows them all of the treasures of his realm, the wealth and glory of Judah. This is a foolish move on all accounts, which the Chronicler attributes to pride (2 Chronicles 32:25), and it causes the Lord to send Isaiah to the king with a prophecy:
“Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” (Isaiah 39:5-7, ESV, paralleled by 2 Kings 20:16-18)
So it was in 605 BCE, after the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, Nabopolassar of Babylon turned his armies against the Egyptians. Led by his son, Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish and gained supremacy in the region. They turned against Judea and Jerusalem, and Jehoiakim secured peace by paying as tribute to Nebuchadnezzar the wealth of his treasury, much of the treasury of the Temple, and the “best” of the noble youths of Judea. When Nabopolassar died in August of that year, Nebuchadnezzar ascended the throne and returned to Babylon as king.1
The first chapter of Daniel recounts the events this way:
"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... Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah." (Daniel 1:3-6, ESV)
Daniel is lumped together with the royal family and with the nobility of the tribe of Judah. There is some confusion over the precise translation of the second term “nobility,” but the point seems clear: he was of the royal family, the nobility.2 This group of noble youth were put in the service of the King of Babylon and emersed in Babylonian culture and education.
Was Daniel made a eunuch? The prophecy of Isaiah mentions this specifically, but are we to apply it Daniel? Our biblical historian in 2 Kings repeats it for good measure. It is true also that there is no mention of Daniel's wife or sons in the biblical texts, though silence is never proof. Some have appealed to Ezekiel 14:20 as proof that Daniel did have children: “Even if Noah, Daniel and Job were in [the land], they could save neither son nor daughter.” These would have us infer that Ezekiel is using Daniel because he had a son or daughter to save. I might think rather that the inference is to the righteousness of Daniel, and not his being a father. And it is debated whether Ezekiel's “Daniel” is the prophet Daniel.3
Later Judaism reflects some of the uncertainties, though it links Daniel to Isaiah 39 and generally concludes he was a eunuch. Josephus makes mention of the prophecy and seems to read it literally, that some of the sons will be taken away and made eunuchs, though he never explicitly calls Daniel a eunuch.4 The Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, however one dates the various sections of that text, labels the three companion of Daniel eunuchs, with some editions adding the name of Daniel to the three.5 The Talmud holds a debate on the matter. Rab holds to a literal reading of Isaiah 39 and its reference to the sons of Hezekiah being made eunuchs by the Babylonians. R. Hanina applies it rather to the sterilization of the idols of Babylon – the sons will be taken to Babylon and there they will prove that the idols of Babylon are impotent. All agree that Daniel and companions will prove the idols of Babylon worthless, but Rab is surely correct in reading Isaiah 39 in a literal fashion.6
That Daniel was of the nobility of Judah there should be no doubt. That he was of the family of Zedekiah, as Josephus concludes, is not as certain from the biblical text – one would think Daniel 1:6 would have made that connection perfectly clear if it was the case. Whether or not he was a eunuch is debateable, though the reference in Isaiah and 2 Kings makes it very probable.
What is certain is that he lived in a world of profound spiritual challenge. He saw the collapse of the monarchy, his own relatives, enduring the triumph of the house of Nebuchadnezzar over the house of David. He saw the looting of the wealth of Jerusalem and the Temple of God, the seeming triumph of the gods of Babylon over the God of Israel. Though Isaiah and Micah prophesied that in the last days Jerusalem would be the city to guide the nations spiritually and politically (Isaiah 2, Micah 4), he was taken captive to Babylon, to be trained as a statemen in the city that was in fact guiding the surrounding nations including Israel. The house of David destined to rule over the nations was reduced to the service of a foreign king. Had he been castrated, no wife would lessen his sorrow and fill his future with the hope of kids.
The faith of Daniel is dominated by resilient, stubborn hope. In spite of what his eyes see, he will choose to worship the God of Israel and resist the temptation of Babylon. Through him God will prove that he is indeed the true Creator God, that spiritual wisdom comes from Israel, and in particular through the house of David. And in apocalyptic visions, God will restate vividly his covenant with Abraham and his covenant with the house of David, set within the unfolding drama of human history.
1 Nebuchadnezzar would invade again in 598-597, taking more captives including the prophet Ezekiel. The final destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple came in 586. Though 2 Chronicles 33:11 mentions that Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah, was carried off in chains to Babylon by the Assyrians four decades earlier, the actual fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy came later in the days of Nebuchadnezzar.
2 The Jewish historian Josephus will infer from this that Daniel and his three companions were of the family of Zedekiah.The Antiquities of the Jews, 10.10. In this he shows some confusion here over the events of the last years of kings of Judah – Daniel went into exile after the victory at Carchemish in 605 BCE, as part of the tribute paid by Johoiakim. Zedekiah was not installed until 598-597. 2 Kings 23-24 does not recall the events of 605, and might have caused this confusion.
3 Note the overview and discussion by Daniel Wallace of the identity of Ezekiel's Daniel in his article, “Who is Ezekiel's Daniel?” (Bible.org, July 1, 2004).