Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Life of the Exiles Part 6


Preston Manning, Senior Fellow

This article is the sixth in a series by Preston Manning on leadership lessons from the life of the biblical exiles. A member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, founder of two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance—and the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000, Preston works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy.

Cooperation and Compromise

Believers in exile such as Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—embedded in political systems and societies hostile to their faith yet effective in their political roles—must have had to integrate to some extent with those foreign cultures and cooperate in many respects with the political systems in which they served. At the same time they remained faithful to God and did not cross the line where cooperation becomes compromise and the starting point of unfaithfulness and spiritual decline. So what can we—believers embedded today in cultures and organizations indifferent or hostile to our faith, especially those of us operating at the interface of faith and modern day politics—learn from their experience? To what extent can we cooperate in order to be effective and influential for good? And what are the convictions and practices to which we must hold without compromise if we wish to retain our spiritual identity and a right relationship with God?

Of course it must be recognized that Joseph, Daniel, and Esther were literally “enslaved” in Egypt, Babylon, and Medo-Persia. So one might argue that they had little choice but to integrate and co-operate to a very large extent with the dictates of the cultures, laws, and rulers of those nations. Nevertheless it is worth noting the particulars of their integration and cooperation as specifically mentioned in Scripture, so that we can compare and contrast them with the particulars on which they refused to cooperate or to be compromised.

Cooperation in Egypt

In the case of Joseph, he fit in so well with the household of Potiphar and the administration of the prison in which he was unjustly incarcerated that in each instance he was entrusted with more and more managerial responsibilities. Eventually he even won the confidence of Egypt’s supreme ruler through correctly interpreting Pharaoh’s dream and prescribing a policy to cope with the famine that it prophesied. Pharaoh then rewarded him by putting him “in charge of the whole land of Egypt,”[1] giving him the Egyptian name Zaphenath-Paneah. He also provided him with an Egyptian wife, Asenath, the daughter of a priest of On (the Egyptian centre of sun worship)[2], and they had two sons.

By the time Joseph re-established contact with his brothers, he dressed like an Egyptian, spoke like an Egyptian, had an Egyptian family, and acted so much like an Egyptian that they failed to recognize him as either a Hebrew or a member of their family. On the basis of all external appearances, an outside observer might well have concluded that Joseph had allowed himself to be completely assimilated by the Egyptian culture and political system, in the process losing virtually all of the distinctives which would have marked him as a God-honouring member of the household of faith.

Cooperation in Babylon

In the case of Daniel and his friends, they were specifically enrolled as impressionable teenagers in a three-year educational program designed to immerse them in the language, traditions, and practices of their Babylonian captors. At the end of their training they were interrogated by the king himself to determine whether they were fit for royal service. The fact that they not only completed this training but also passed the exam with flying colors, would indicate that they must have absorbed and mastered a great deal of the culture and politics of Babylon at an early age.[3] Note also that at the very beginning of their training they were given Babylonian names—the message no doubt being, “You are no longer Jews; you are Babylonians now.”[4] Daniel in particular was given the name Belteshazzar which may have been particularly offensive to him since it was the name of Nebuchadnezzar’s god.[5]

According to Scripture, Daniel and his friends were, for the most part, successful in managing their relations with Babylonian rulers and in administering the public affairs and offices for which they were made responsible.[6] Successful management and administration in such situations requires a solid understanding of and identification with the political, bureaucratic, and cultural milieu in which one is operating. It also requires a willingness and ability to work cooperatively with subordinates, peers, and superiors. These Jewish exiles distinguished themselves from Babylonian and other foreign functionaries by the excellence of their public service. But apart from that it appears unlikely that an outside observer would have found much else to distinguish them from their public service colleagues, so thoroughly had Daniel and his compatriots adapted to the society and government of which they had become a part.

Cooperation in Medo-Persia

The orphan exile Esther rose to the position of Queen of the Medes and Persians. Of all the exiles, it is she who carries “cooperation” with her captors to the greatest extent, for the ultimate purpose, unknown to her at the beginning, of rescuing her people from genocide. Not only is Esther an orphan and an exile in captivity, but she is a woman at a time and in a culture where women are treated as the property of men.

When King Xerxes dethrones and banishes Queen Vashti for defying his authority, his nobles propose an elaborate beauty contest to select her replacement. Esther is enrolled by her uncle Mordecai and wins the favour and approval of everyone she encounters, including the king himself, who selects her as his new queen.[7]

To attain this position, Esther has had to completely and utterly subordinate herself to the mores and dictates of the culture, the kingdom, and the harem. As an exile and a woman she has no choice. Rather than being instructed by Mordecai to retain or display her identity as one of God’s people, he orders her to keep her Jewish identity a secret. Of all the prominent exiles in the scriptures Esther is the one most totally absorbed into the foreign culture in which she finds herself.

Where and how to “draw the line” between cooperation and compromise is of course a highly relevant issue for Christian believers embedded today in political and governmental institutions unsympathetic to our faith.[8] In fact there are still many Christians who do not believe it is possible to occupy such positions without compromising one’s faith. Hence they refrain from involvement in politics and government altogether and are highly suspicious and critical of professing Christians who do.

So, where and how did these believers in exile “draw the line” between integrating with the hostile foreign environment in which they found themselves imbedded, and compromising their faith and relationship to God?

Five Major Examples from the Exiles’ Experience

1.  Worship of the One True God
Daniel and his fellow exiles drew the line with respect to the object of their religious worship. They refused, at the risk of their lives, to forsake the worship of the one true God; they refused to bow down in worship or to direct their prayers to an earthly king. In particular, they refused to worship the state when it sought to claim the total allegiance of their minds and hearts.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, when ordered to bow down and worship the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar on the plains of Dura, simply refused, even when the King threatened to throw them into a fiery furnace. Their refusal was expressed in polite but emphatic terms and contains a declaration of faith in God’s ability to deliver them notwithstanding their uncertainty as to whether he would actually do so:

O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.[9]

When they were miraculously delivered from the fiery furnace, they earned this testimony regarding where they drew the line from no less than King Nebuchadnezzar himself:

They trusted in him (their God) and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.[10]

Some time later, when Babylon was overthrown by the Medes and Persians, King Darius the Mede was persuaded to issue and enforce an edict “that anyone who prays to any god or man during the next thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into the lions’ den.”[11]

And what did Daniel do, even though he held a high position in Darius’s administration and was well aware of the decree? “He went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.”[12]

Daniel was subsequently thrown into the den of lions but his life was miraculously preserved. And his “drawing of the line” with respect to worship and his ultimate allegiances prompted another decree from Darius, “that in every part of my kingdom people must reverence and fear the God of Daniel.”[13]

2. Faith in the Sovereignty of God
Whatever else the exiles had to surrender, they never surrendered their faith in the sovereignty of God—their belief that in the final analysis God was sovereign over their lives, their circumstances, and the kingdoms and political systems in which they were embedded.

Joseph, for example, clung to this belief throughout his trials as a slave and a prisoner when it would have been easy for him to succumb to the idea that God, like his own faith-based family, had abandoned him. He affirmed this belief in the sovereignty of God, even when he was a public official ostensibly under the sovereignty of Pharaoh, telling his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh … (and) has made me lord of all Egypt.”[14] Note that he attributes his political ascendancy to God and not to Pharaoh.

Likewise Daniel, while serving as an advisor to and servant of one of the most violent, unpredictable, and self-centered rulers of the ancient world—Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon—does not hesitate to declare his belief in the sovereignty of God over human affairs. He declares to the king himself, “… the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.”[15]

3.  Personal Moral Standards
In the case of Joseph, he refused to compromise his personal integrity and moral standards by succumbing to the sexual temptations of Potiphar’s wife. Notwithstanding the sexual mores of Egypt and his master’s wife, this is where he chose to draw the line—a refusal to compromise which cost him dearly, as her false accusations then resulted in the loss of his position and imprisonment.[16]

In the case of Daniel, as a teenager forcibly inducted into the Nebuchadnezzar School for Public Servants, he sought to be allowed to follow the dietary edicts of the Mosaic law to which he was personally committed, rather than to adopt a Babylonian diet. This might strike us as a rather strange place to draw the line in that there were undoubtedly many other aspects of the school curriculum (such as its teachings about the multiplicity and superiority of the Babylonian gods) which would be even more foreign and unacceptable to a believer in Jehovah.

Nevertheless diet was the issue on which Daniel chose to make a stand personally, and note the way and wisdom with which he went about it. He didn’t propose a compromise between the Hebrew and Babylonian diets nor did he go on a hunger strike. Instead he proposed a contest—let me and my three fellow exiles eat and drink what the Mosaic law prescribes, let the other students eat and drink what the Babylonian Food Guide prescribes, and then let’s see who is healthier at the end of the day. Most importantly, the point at which he chose to draw the line coincided, not coincidentally, with the movement of God’s grace on the heart of his Babylonian custodian who was led to accept rather than reject Daniel’s proposal.[17]

With respect to drawing the line on issues of personal morality it is important to allow that not all believers will choose to or be led to draw the line at the same place and we should be careful about “judging another man’s servant.” Where, for example, if anywhere, does Esther “draw the line”? It can hardly be in accordance with the Jewish laws governing sexual morality—she is an involuntary member of the King Xerxes’ harem. Nor is it in the area of diet, the point where Daniel and his companions first drew the line. She eats what they tell her to eat. dresses as they tell her to dress, conforms in every respect to the rules of the harem and the palace. In the end, however, she draws the line at the one point in common with all the other exiles we have studied—her willingness ultimately to identify with God’s people, even if it costs her life.

4. Identification With the Household of Faith
Although they were members of a tiny faith-based and ethnically distinctive minority in a hostile environment, the exiles faithfully identified with the household of faith when it was dangerous—even life threatening—to do so. In Joseph’s case he was willing to identify generously and openly with the household of faith to which he truly belonged, even when it was that household which had betrayed him. And he was willing to be publicly identified with the household of faith (his family) despite his awareness that the Egyptians generally loathed nomads, in particular shepherds.[18]

Likewise Daniel, throughout his life, continued to identify with the people of God and the household of faith and to be so identified in the eyes of the Babylonians. With three different rulers whom he served, he is always introduced or referred to as one of the exiles from Judah.[19] Daniel is in Babylon, immersed in the Babylonian culture and administration, but he does not disguise the fact that he is an “exile” and is willing to be known as such.

5. Speaking Unpalatable Truths to Power
On many occasions these Jewish exiles must have been sorely tempted to compromise the truth in providing advise and counsel to the foreign rulers whom they served—to tell those rulers what they wanted to hear, to flatter them or to sugar-coat the unpalatable, rather than to tell them what they needed to hear.  But to their immense credit the exiles “drew the line” at compromising the truth; they refused to do so. This is highly relevant since one of the most dangerous things for any leader in any era or system is to be surrounded by people who simply tell you what you want to hear.

Joseph told Pharaoh that mighty Egypt was to be brought to her knees by a terrible famine, something Pharaoh undoubtedly didn’t want to hear but needed to hear so that grain could be saved and stored away in the bountiful years that were to precede the famine.[20]

Esther had to tell King Xerxes that the man whom he had most trusted and exalted to the highest position in the kingdom, Haman, was an arrogant, vindictive planner of genocide, undeserving of his position or the king’s confidence.[21]

Daniel faithfully interpreted “Nebuchadnezzar’s Nightmare”—the dream which foretold that Nebuchadnezzar’s pride was going to bring him down from his exalted position as the supreme ruler of Babylon to that of an animal grazing on grass and wet by the dew of heaven.[22] And Daniel fearlessly interpreted the handwriting on the wall amid the drunken revelry at Belshazzar’s feast—the prediction that the kingdom would be overthrown because of Belshazzar’s arrogance and sacrilegious behaviour.[23]

What About Us?

When tempted and challenged to give our supreme allegiance to the systems in which we are embedded—the academy, the school, the company, the market, the charity, the NGO, the church, the team, the party, the department, the government—rather than to God, do we succumb or “draw the line”?

When adverse circumstances and misfortune overwhelm us—the crop fails, our project flops, we fail the test, we lose our job, we lose a loved one, the business goes belly up, the stock market crashes, we lose the election, we lose the war—do we believe that God has abandoned us? Or do we cling to the belief that He is still sovereign over the affairs of humankind and disposes of them as He sees fit?

When tempted and challenged to compromise our personal morals in order to “fit in,” do we succumb or “draw the line”?

When we are tempted and challenged to hide or blur our identity as followers of Jesus and children of the Father, do we succumb or “draw the line”?

When we are tempted to keep silent in the presence of evil or to substitute half-truth, near-truth, and compromised truth for the whole and unvarnished truth, do we succumb or “draw the line”?

In all these circumstances let us draw insight and inspiration from the lives of the exiles—believers embedded in cultures and systems indifferent or hostile to their faith—who served effectively while remaining faithful to the God who placed and sustained them there.


[1] Genesis 41:41-43

[2] Genesis 41:45

[3] Daniel 1:1-20

[4] “The chief official (Ashpenaz) gave them new names:  to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.” Daniel 1:7

[5] Daniel 4: 8

[6] Daniel 2:48-49; 3:30

[7] Modern readers of Vashti’s story in the first chapter of the book of Esther might well find themselves admiring her more than Esther. It is Vashti who defies Xerxes’ effort to treat and exploit her as a sexual object and who loses her position and influence as a result. Esther, on the other hand, submits to the male-imposed dictates of the harem but in the end uses her beauty and charm to win the favour of the king and save her people.

[8] The term “drawing a line in the sand” is frequently used to describe a declaration of principle requiring a decision to adhere to or to abandon or compromise it. While I use the term throughout this article, it has its limitations as an analogy since “a line drawn in the sand “is subject to alteration or obliteration by any wind that blows and therefore lacks both solidity and permanence as a guide to decision-making or action.

[9] Daniel 3:16-18

[10] Daniel 3:28

[11] Daniel 6:7

[12] Daniel 6:10

[13] Daniel 6:26

[14] Genesis 45:4-9

[15] Daniel 4:25

[16] Genesis 39:1-20

[17] Daniel 1:9

[18] Genesis 46:31-34

[19] Daniel 2:10; 5:13; 6:13

[20] Genesis 41

[21] Esther 7

[22] Daniel 4

[23] Daniel 5

Source: Marketplace Institute

comments powered by Disqus