Far from being a story that encourages us to put up our hands to say "no" to animal foods, Daniel's is a story focused on the miracle of his being kept alive and healthy-looking on a diet of pulse and water because of his unflinching obedience to the Lord. It is akin to the story of his friends being thrown into a fiery furnace and not being consumed. These accounts speak of God's intervention on their behalf, even mitigating and counteracting the very laws of nature. There are, imbedded in Daniel's experience, hints of the Lord's dietary standard. But it's not what you were taught by your vegetarian friends. It's something even more strict and exacting.
We have record of other exiles from Israel who faced the same dilemma as Daniel. The Book of Tobit 1:10-11 gives voice to one carried away captive from the Northern Kingdom, who states, "When I was carried away captive to Ninevah, all my brethren and my relatives ate the food of the Gentiles: but I kept myself from eating it, because I remembered God with all my heart." And in 1 Maccabees 1:62-63 we can read: "But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die." What was it about the food of their captors, the Gentiles, that made them believe they were breaking their covenants if they partook with them in it? Was it fatty and rich and laden with the flesh of animals? That doesn't make much sense considering that Daniel's people sacrificed lambs, goats, rams, bullocks and birds to the Lord and ate their portion.
It had been foretold what would happen to Israel if they departed from their covenant with the Lord, and it DID happen. Their cities were laid waste and I imagine it was the more righteous part of them were carried away by their enemies. Those who survived ought to have come to the realization that they needed to repent and be faithful to the Lord's commandments, and one of those major commandments had to do with idolatry. Not only were some of the foods offered by the Gentiles among the items forbidden by Mosaic law (ie. unclean animals or improperly prepared animals), but their food was consecrated to their false gods. They would offer a portion of the king's food as a sacrifice to idols, so that by partaking of what was offered them, they would also have been participants in the worship of false gods (Old Testament Student Manual, pg. 297-9).
"Meat" in this context meant "food that graced the king's table" (lds.org)
Daniel and his friends were faithful to the God of Israel. Instead of breaking their covenants by being participant in the idolatry of Babylon, they asked for pulse and water...prison food...wasting-away-in-a-dungeon type of food. So, of course, the king's servant was going to object to their request. He was a high-ranking officer of the king's court and not an unintelligent person; he knew what happened to people living off that kind of a diet. In the words of the ancient historian Josephus, Ashpenaz "suspected that they would be discovered by the king, from their meager bodies, and the alteration of their countenances; because it could not be avoided but their bodies and colours must be changed with their diet, especially while they would be clearly discovered by the finer appearance of the other children, who would fare better, and thus they should bring him into danger, and occasion him to be punished."
The miracle was that Daniel and his friends didn't become meager in body or sickly in countenance on their diet of pulse and water, a very non-traditional diet for them. It went against the natural laws of this telestial realm to be healthy-looking and to thrive on that type of fare, but the Lord blessed them and saved them. It is a truly great story. Daniel refused to sin even when his health was at stake.
If there is a dietary code evident in this story it is clearly not "do not eat meat" but "DO NOT EAT THE KING OF BABYLON'S MEAT." Do not participate in the worship of false gods and idols by what you eat. This is a much harder thing to do than being a vegetarian. What are some of its implications? Ancient Israelites would not eat an animal unless it had been raised and killed properly and prepared by the hands of someone keeping the Mosaic Law, not a stranger to God's law. I wonder if we can avoid the king's meat by making sure the animal foods we enjoy are raised and killed humanely and not prepared by strangers to God's law first given to Adam to be a righteous steward over the earth and all of its creatures. Who are modern-day "strangers to the law?" Anyone who disregards this mandate to care for God's creations: His animals, His earth, and especially His children.
Latter-day Saints tend to agree that materialism and money are false gods. Food corporations and "big agriculture" are not in business to keep you healthy but to make a profit, often at your expense. Money is not only their bottom line but their highest authority and, like King Nebuchadnezzar, they lay a portion of their profits down to false gods every time they pad the pockets of those holding positions of earthly governance to ensure their continued prosperity, often unethically.
We need a generation of young people who eat healthier food because they were fed healthier food...whole, real food that was prepared at home and not by food corporations who are, sadly, strangers to God’s common sense laws about how to raise and prepare food. In nearly the same breath, President Benson also urged us to become closer to our food supply. "Increasingly, the Lord, through His servants, is trying to get us closer to the soil by raising our own produce." (Read the talk in its entirety here)
When we talk about the Word of Wisdom and the use of meats and animals for food, I echo President Benson's words that "wisdom could be considered the proper application of true knowledge." This includes a true knowledge of what our bodies require to thrive in our current mortal condition. Daniel was spared miraculously from the natural consequences of his monotone diet of pulse in the same manner he was spared being mauled and eaten by lions, for reasons known to the Lord. It’s a running theme throughout the writings of Daniel. The next time you hear someone in Sunday School try to spin that the Lord is nodding His approval to meatlessness, I DARE you to do what Daniel does in that gospel art pic and just say “no.”
What say ye?