Nebuchadnezzar’s Madness, Belshazzar’s Feast and the Fall of Babylon
In a prophetic book of such striking imagery and dramatic scenes as that of Daniel, the accounts of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness, Belshazzar’s Feast and the Fall of Babylon to the Persians fully hold their own by comparison. Indeed, it has spawned a well used English expression – “the writing’s on the wall” – meaning something is doomed to catastrophic failure. These events or stories are recounted in chapters 4 and 5 of the Book of Daniel and need to be seen as twin stories with a moral purpose. Equally interestingly, until recently Daniel’s account of the Fall of Babylon was regarded by historians as a dramatic narrative but not one containing any historical value, until a recent discovery suggested otherwise.
Chapter 4 – Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream
In chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of the Babylonian Empire, has another dream in which he sees a great tree grow to overshadow the world, its top touching the Heavens, but then a heavenly ‘watcher’ (angel) comes to Earth and has the tree felled and chopped up, binding the stump with iron and bronze. The tree is given the mind of a beast, a situation which endures for seven years.
Daniel is called in to interpret its meaning, which is that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire has come to dominate the ancient world, but Nebuchadnezzar’s arrogance has upset the divine order and God commands him humbled for seven years, during which time he will be a madman, out of office and wandering the countryside like a beast, but he will then be restored to his sanity and kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar is given a chance to repent and rule justly, but does not, and then the dream comes true. He loses his wits and is out of office, wandering the countryside, until after the seven years (meaning just a long time) he regains them, repents of his arrogance and acknowledges Jehovah as the true God.
All-in-all it’s a fairly typical hubristic ruler – dream warning from gods which is ignored – nemesis – repentance-and-lesson-learned tale common in the ancient literature of many Near Eastern peoples, including the Greeks. However, there are several unusual features:
- It takes the form of a later royal proclamation of Nebuchadnezzar setting out the events in retrospect in the first person. This seems odd to us, but we know from epigraphic evidence that Nebuchadnezzar’s successor Nabonidus did record his dreams on public monuments.
- We now know Nabonidus also took himself off into the desert on religious sabbatical for the best part of a decade leaving his son Belshazzar as co-ruler in charge of the Empire, so it should not be readily dismissed as an invention. Interestingly, Daniel’s insistence that Belshazzar was the anointed king of Babylon was dismissed by historians until relatively recently when an inscription recorded that Belshazzar was made joint king by Nabonidus and seems to have run the kingdom while Nabonidus focused on religious priorities. This is not the only time that the veracity of parts of Daniel’s account have been confirmed by recent discoveries.
- Nebuchadnezzar recognises Jehovah’s divine primacy, but not as the only god, something a bridge too far for a polytheistic Babylonian – in reality Nebuchadnezzar might readily have syncretised Jehovah with the head of his own pantheon, Marduk. The treatment of Nebuchadnezzar, the destroyer of Jerusalem, is again surprisingly sympathetic – he is allowed to learn his lesson and not lose everything.
One might think chapter 4’s purpose ends there, but it acts as one half on a larger morality tale with chapter 5 which shows what happens if a hubristic ruler does not heed divine warnings.
Chapter 5 – Belshazzar’s Dream
Years later Belshazzar, the son of Nabonidus, Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, is king of Babylon and holds a great banquet for his leading nobles, using the sacred vessels taken by Nebuchadnezzar from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem four decades earlier to serve the wine. For a Jew this was sacrilege of the first order. As they drank from the vessels, a disembodied hand appeared and wrote on the wall in front of the guests the words, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.”
The Babylonian wise men and priests are unable to translate their meaning and eventually the ageing Daniel is called in to do so in what is his last service to his captors. He translates and interprets the words as a message to Belshazzar that “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and your kingdom is at an end and shall be given and divided between the Medes and Persians.”
Daniel then explains that, unlike his greater predecessor Nebuchadnezzar who learnt from his humiliation by Jehovah, Belshazzar has not curbed his arrogance, has committed extreme blasphemy and will lose his kingdom to the Medes and Persians, under Cyrus. Seemingly strangely, Belshazzar rewards Daniel for his explanation, but is overthrown that night by the invading Meds and Persians in a coup-de-main.
The Meaning of the Dream
The words inscribed on the wall like other written forms of early Semitic languages (including Hebrew) do not record the vowels. Daniel does give them in two ways:
- Firstly, so the words are read as nouns and are monetary weights: a mene, equivalent to a mina or sixty shekels, a tekel, equivalent to a shekel, and Uparsin, or half-pieces. The last involves a word play on the name of the Persians (pares in Hebrew), suggesting not only that they are to inherit Belshazzar’s kingdom, but that they are two peoples, Medes and Persians.
- Secondly, Daniel then interprets them as verbs, based on their roots: menemeans “numbered”, tekel means to weigh or “weighed” (and found wanting), and pəres, the singular form of parsin means “to divide”, denoting that the kingdom is to be “divided” and given to the Medes and Persians.
On a further note, if the “half-pieces” means two half-shekels, then the various weights—a mene or sixty shekels, another shekel, and two half-shekels—add up to 62, which the tale gives as the age of Darius the Mede, indicating that God’s will is being worked out. It is Darius who takes the kingdom according to Daniel, probably a later scribal error for the real conqueror, Cyrus the Great.
It’s an amazing piece of ancient word play and typical oracular ambiguity. Ancient cultures were fascinated by such things, among them the Babylonians, and one can see why such a thing would have had made a striking impression on people of the day.
The Fall of Babylon
The final verse (30) of the chapter states that Belshazzar was slain that very night and that Darius the Mede, i.e. Cyrus the Great, took the kingdom. It’s almost a postscript to, what was for Daniel/the writer, the more important art of the narrative – the writing on the wall and Daniel’s reading of it. Interestingly, Daniel’s account is the only one surviving describing events leading to the Fall of Babylonian from an internal, unofficial perspective. The others are from Persian mandated accounts, e.g. Cyrus’ official records and the Babylonian Chronicle, or from the Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon who described it from the attackers’ perspective.
Putting them together, perhaps the best understanding of actual events surrounding the Fall of Babylonian, is that after a rapid campaign in which some key Babylonian figures and forces defected to Cyrus (King Nabonidus was unpopular because he had marginalised the worship of Marduk – the lead god of Babylon – for that of the moon god Sin). There seems to have been a brief siege in which Cyrus’ engineers diverted the course of the River Euphrates so that the army could enter the city unopposed under the river gate, while the defenders were celebrating an important religious festival (Belshazzar’s Feast). Belshazzar was killed while his father and co-ruler Nabonidus fled, was captured and deported. It was all over quickly and relatively bloodlessly, and one can quite see why it would have made such a moral impact on the captive Jewish exiles at the time, who were soon allowed to return home by Cyrus.
What Does it all Mean?
The whole episode of the twin stories of Nebuchadnezzar’s humbling and Belshazzar’s hubris-nemesis reminds one very much of the metaphysical-interpretation of political events that was current in the mid first millennium BC, and is just the sort of story Herodotus would have included in his Histories. The evidence previously described and this ‘feel’ indicates strongly that it dates from that period, almost certainly from Jews in Babylon at the time.
The rise and fall of kings and kingdoms which breached the moral and metaphysical codes of the time was meat and drink to ancient writers and their audiences – that’s how they saw things. The rapid and dramatic fall of Babylon at the height of its imperium was contrasted with the its construction by Nebuchadnezzar half a century early. Clearly, the Jews saw the latter, despite his paganism and brutality, as the instrument of divine justice upon an errant Jewish people, and as someone who enjoyed Jehovah’s favour, whereas the impious Belshazzar did not, despite similarly heeding Jehovah’s warning inscribed on the palace wall.
Ultimately, for the Jews, they saw the Exile as serving their time of divine punishment, and then Jehovah turning the wheel of empires again to set them free. In many ways, the years of Exile consolidated the Jewish faith, their holy writings were edited into pretty much final form, some new ones added, and afterwards they became more dedicated to monotheism, rather than flirting with polytheism as they had before, and strictly observing the Law as a way not to repeat the follies that led to their Exile. So focused on observing the letter of the Law did they become that they forgot the point of it, which leads on to Jesus’ mission.
For us, as modern Westerners, Christians, these lessons apply as well, as do the secular ones about the rise and fall of nations, imperial overstretch, arrogant rulers, impious behaviour etc. In some ways Daniel’s accounts of the dreams, prophecies, Exile and Fall of Babylon are the climax of the Old Testament narrative, where much of it comes together. The minor prophets who follow Daniel, men concerned with re-establishing the faith in their ancestral homeland and rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, are more narrowly parochial, perhaps fitting for the subjects of a minor Persian province, but Daniel gathers together the lessons of the Jew’s previous history of fallouts and reconciliations with God, and also looks forward to the End of Time, at least human time – and acts a pivot point for the whole Bible, and that is why, despite being the most controversial book in the Old Testament, Daniel is worth serious study and understanding for it has much of which to remind us.
© 1642again 2020
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