What Ancient Hebrews Can Teach Today’s DC Interns

by
June 12, 2015

The prophet Daniel is best known for surviving a night in the lions’ den—as an octogenarian no less. Much earlier in his life, Daniel survived three years in a different kind of lions’ den: an internship in the Babylonian royal court. His courage and conviction in that setting offer useful lessons for young people thrown into a contemporary capital: interns in Washington, D.C.

Daniel and his cohorts came to Babylon, the capital city of the hegemonic Babylonian empire, by a different route than D.C. interns; rather than arriving in triumph as the conquering heroes of their high school academic and social circles, these Hebrew teenagers came as hostages of a conquering foreign power.[1] Yet in other ways, these two groups share much in common. The Babylonians selected their captives carefully, choosing “youths in whom there was no defect, who were good-looking, showing intelligence in every branch of wisdom, endowed with understanding and discerning knowledge, and who had ability for serving in the king’s court.”[2] They were, in many ways, similar to the undergraduate and graduate students who descend on Washington every semester: bright, intelligent, idealistic, yet also young, naïve, and impressionable.

These young Jewish men (historians estimate 50 to 75 of them[3]) were to be taught “the language and literature” of the Babylonians[4] in preparation for government service in the provinces. After their arrival, the young Hebrew men encountered a capital party scene characterized by excess and decadence. They were daily fed the “king’s choice food and from the wine which he drank.”[5] It was as though every meal was an open bar at a steakhouse, sponsored by a special interest group.

The Hebrew interns encountered a culture of indulgence and idolatry, fueled by imperial power and coerced tribute. Interns in Washington, D.C., today can find a strikingly similar environment. Hill interns achieve pop star status by embracing such a lifestyle—google Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy. In the words of one news report, “It’s a stylish life for an intern at Capitol Hill; so much so, the nightlife is often the talk of Washington DC.”[6] Life for many interns is “coffee, copies, and copulation.”[7]

The Hebrew “interns” faced an equally daunting challenge. The Bible tells us that four of the young Israelite men refused the sumptuous feast from the king’s table—four out of more than fifty.[8] Daniel and his three friends (we know them best by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, the three who survived the furnace after refusing to bow to an idol[9]) rejected the stylish but sinful life for a life in line with their principles.

This is yet another iteration of a clear Biblical principle: you become who you hang out with.[10] We know that Daniel and his three friends all had Godly names, suggesting they came from devout families.[11] And they grew up in Israel during Josiah’s reign, an age of great awakening prompted by prophets and the rediscovery of God’s word.[12] Transplanted to Babylon, they were stripped of their spiritual support structures. But they still had one another.

So find friends who share your values and your desire to get the most out of D.C. There are great churches in town. They know you’re only here for a few months, you don’t know lots of other folks, and you’re looking for fellowship and fun. They all have numerous opportunities to plug in, connect, and explore. Take advantage of them.

Washington is an awe-inspiring town filled with interesting people and innumerable things to do. Monuments and museums are only the beginning of what the city offers the curious, adventurous, and fun-loving. Plus, virtually all of it comes at the ideal price for a cash-strapped intern (free!). The Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center, jazz in the Sculpture Garden, or a bike ride on Roosevelt Island with your friends can be far more fun than yet another night of pitchers of Miller High Life and BBQ wings on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

Back to Daniel and his crew. Daniel did not want to defile himself with the king’s food for various spiritual reasons,[13] so he went to the king’s chief of staff. The Bible tells us, “God granted Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the commander of the officials.”[14] This approach suggests that you should pray for the people in your office, to show you favor, to be your friend and mentor (equally, we who work with interns should pray for them).

Notice also that Daniel went to the king’s chief of staff. Interns should respect but not fear the senior staff. In my experience, senior staff members rarely begrudge the occasional honest and earnest inquiry from an intern. Notice that Daniel, not the chief of staff, initiated the contact. Senior staff, especially in a place like Washington, are busy people with jam-packed inboxes. Rarely will they just stop by your desk, invite you into their office, and start a conversation. However, even more rare is the senior staff member who will spurn an email from an intern that politely seeks a half-hour appointment to discuss convictions and career. A short, respectful e-mail works nearly every time, and a hand-written “thank you” note afterwards will sometimes seal a mentoring relationship that could last an entire career.

In this case, the chief of staff turns down Daniel’s request out of fear of the king.[15] So Daniel turns next to his immediate supervisor. Daniel asked the supervisor to test them for ten days, feeding them nothing but vegetables and water rather than the royal food and wine. The supervisor consented, and “at the end of ten days their appearance seemed better and they were fatter than all the youths who had been eating the king’s choice food.”[16] So he permitted them to continue this diet for the remainder of their time in his custody.

The lesson is simple: if you can be reasonable, your internship supervisor can be flexible. If you want to do something particular, such as watching oral argument at the Supreme Court one morning, for instance, virtually every supervisor will assent—they understand that you want to get the most out of your short time in D.C.

This verse concerning the young men’s appearance prompts another observation: looking sharp is important in D.C. Particularly in the warm summer months, one cannot miss the scantily-clad female interns roaming the marble halls of Washington. Clothing choices reflect and perpetuate the hook-up culture. Though you don’t need to wear a Brooks Brothers suit every day, you will be treated like an adult and professional only if you dress like one.[17]

Our model Hebrew “interns” also prompt some reading recommendations. Daniel and his three friends were faithful, and God blessed them with “knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom.”[18] Interns who wish to grow in knowledge and understanding of how Washington operates should read the publications that the staff read, such as Politico’s morning e-mail newsletters like Mike Allen’s Playbook,[19] The Huddle (for Congress), and Morning Score (for campaigns and elections).

As the first chapter of Daniel draws to a close, so does the educational phase of the young Israelites’ residence in the royal palace. Finally, they reach the last day of their internship and get the “grip and grin” moment with King Nebuchadnezzar himself. The king chatted with all the young Israelite men, “and he found none equal” to the four we have been following.[20] “So they entered the king’s personal service.”[21]

Of course, not all D.C. interns get a job out of the experience, though certainly many do. According to one staffer, “When it comes to getting a job in Washington, I really can’t think of a better method than interning on the Hill.”[22] Stay in touch with your office—send a Christmas card, intern next for the district office, or set up a lunch visit on an upcoming trip to Washington for a conference or vacation. If you made a positive impression, people will remember you, and probably help you out in the future.

Daniel and his three compatriots all faced further challenges over the course of their careers in government. Daniel eventually rose to be prime minister of the Babylonian empire, and his three friends were made governors in Babylon.[23] Just as the four Jews’ experience in the Babylonian court prepared them for their later trials of furnaces and beasts, so the modern intern’s experience can be a test that prepares them for challenges throughout their careers. Young people who seek to emulate Daniel’s example, to make the most of Washington while staying true to themselves, may take inspiration from a gospel song by the American hymn writer Philip Bliss[24]:

Standing by a purpose true,
Heeding God’s command,
Honor them, the faithful few!
All hail to Daniel’s band!

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.

[1] Daniel 1:3. See also Isaiah 39:5-7 (“Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the LORD of hosts, “Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house and all that your fathers have laid up in store to this day will be carried to Babylon; nothing will be left,” says the LORD. “And some of your sons who will issue from you, whom you will beget, will be taken away, and they will become officials in the palace of the king of Babylon.”’”) and II Kings 20:16-18 (same). All translations quoted are from the NASB unless otherwise noted.

[2] Daniel 1:4.

[3] John MacArthur, “An Uncompromising Life,” Oct. 21, 1979, http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/27-03_An-Uncompromising-Life.

[4] Daniel 1:5.

[5] Daniel 1:5a.

[6] Nona Walia, “India shining at Capitol Hill,” The Times of India, August 17, 2004, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/delhi-times/India-shining-at-Capitol-Hill/articleshow/817496.cms.

[7] Carrie Lukas, “Coffee, Copies, and Copulation,” National Review Online, July 18, 2005, http://old.nationalreview.com/comment/lukas200507180808.asp. See “2005 Capitol Hill Intern Study,” the polling company, inc., July 2005, http://www.iwf.org/files/77c932bbf15c696398ce0a734ac7054e.pdf.

[8] Daniel 1:14.

[9] Daniel 3.

[10] See, e.g., Proverbs 12:26, Proverbs 13:20, Proverbs 27:17, 1 Corinthians 15:33.

[11] MacArthur, supra note 3.

[12] W. A. Criswell, “The Captives in the Court of Nebuchadnezzar,” February 11, 1968, http://www.wacriswell.org/PrintTranscript.cfm/SID/2136.cfm.

[13] See Matthew Henry, “Daniel 1,” Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible,” http://www.searchgodsword.org/com/mhc-com/view.cgi?book=da&chapter=001.

[14] Daniel 1:9.

[15] Daniel 1:10.

[16] Daniel 1:15.

[17] Betsy Rothstein, “The bad rap of Capitol Hill interns,” The Hill, June 21, 2005, http://thehill.com/capital-living/23860-the-bad-rap-of-capitol-hill-interns. See also Belle, “A Guide to Capitol Hill Intern Style,” Capitol Hill Style, June 1, 2009, http://capitolhillstyle.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/a-guide-to-capitol-hill-intern-style/ (“Many of the men on Capitol Hill refer to the summer months as ‘intern season’ because the majority of twenty-something interns tend to dress like New Jersey teenagers at a nightclub looking to get laid.”) and Dlat, “Hill Intern Hotties: Nominations Needed,” Wonkette, June 20, 2006, http://wonkette.com/181975/hill-intern-hotties-nominations-needed (“Summer spells hotness for D.C. — and we’re not just talking about the weather. Yes, that’s right: it’s intern season on Capitol Hill.”).

[18] Daniel 1:17.

[19] See Mark Leibovich, “The Man the White House Wakes Up To,” New York Times, April 21, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/25/magazine/25allen-t.html.

[20] Daniel 1:18-19.

[21] Daniel 1:19b.

[22] Eric Yoder, “Capitol Hill internships can kickoff careers,” WashingtonPost.com, June 25, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A49884-2003Dec9.html.

[23] Daniel 2: 48-49. They received promotions after their experience with the furnace. Daniel 3:30.

[24] Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions 80 (2nd ed., 2002).


Daniel Suhr
Daniel Suhr, a former Capitol Hill summer intern himself, has supervised and mentored interns for a think tank, a judge, and a governor. A version of this paper was initially presented to a class of D.C. interns from Hope College.