Why did Belshazzar offer the prophet, Daniel, the third, not the second highest position of authority in Babylon for reading the handwriting on the wall?
About eleven years ago, my wife, Marcia, challenged me to write a novel based on the Book of Daniel. I have since forgiven her. My mistake, back then, had been to quickly agree to do it. Like everyone else, I had heard the popular stories about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego thrown into a fiery furnace, accounts of Daniel and the lions’ den and the startling account of the handwriting on the Babylonian palace wall, warning King Belshazzar of the end of his kingdom. But I knew nothing about the Book of Daniel. I had not read it. While the fire, the lions and disembodied hand all sounded like appealing “myths” to dramatize, after I actually read the Book of Daniel I realized I had no clue how to go about writing a novel based upon it.
The problem wasn’t simply how to go about it, but my complete ignorance of the Bible, Jewish history and the Daniel story itself. That’s why this blog entry begins with the words, “eleven years ago.”
I have no regrets. Researching Daniel since then, with frequent breaks for meals and exercise, has been beyond fascinating, it’s been life changing. Trying to construct a time line from the biblical text led me to read Jeremiah, Jeremiah led to Ezekiel, Ezekiel to Isaiah, then to Zechariah, Habakkuk, all of them.
In this blog entry I share a fascinating tidbit from the fifth chapter of Daniel, the account of the handwriting on the wall, relating to King Belshazzar’s promise to Daniel…
Now if you are able to read the inscription and make its interpretation known to me, you will be clothed with purple and wear a necklace of gold around your neck, and you will have authority as the third ruler in the kingdom.”
Third ruler in the kingdom? As king of Babylon, why would Belshazzar not promise Daniel the second highest position of authority in the land? That’s the way it has always been done in stories of this kind.
There seem to be countless titles about the Book of Daniel, the startling prophecy in its last six chapters and of course children’s stories—books, cartoons, videos—pointing to the miracles mentioned above. I found an excellent resource among the learned works, the Apollos Old Testament Commentary, Daniel, by Ernest G. Lucas, Intervarsity Press, US ISBN 0-85111-780-5. From the title’s introduction…
In many ways, the Old Testament book of Daniel is an enigma. It consists of two different kinds of material: stories about Judean exiles working in the court of pagan kings (chapters 1-6) and accounts of visions experienced by one of these exiles (chapters 7-12). It is written in two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, and the language division does not match the subject division. Whether the book’s affinities lie more with the Hebrew prophets or with later Jewish apocalypses is debated, as are its affinities with the wisdom traditions of both Israel and Babylon. Refreshingly, Ernest Lucas postpones much of the discussion of such issues to an Epilogue, and invites the reader to an investigation of the meaning of the text in the form in which we now have it. He identifies the central theme of the book as the sovereignty of the God of Israel. With even-handedness and clarity, Lucas demonstrates that, for preachers and teachers, there is much in Daniel that is fairly readily understandable and applicable, and that there are also theological depths that are rewarding for those willing to plumb them and wrestle with the issues they raise.
For centuries, the authenticity of the biblical king, Belshazzar (mentioned only in Daniel and the apocryphal book of Baruch) was held in serious doubt. A fellow named Nabonidus, not Belshazzar, is clearly identified in surviving Babylonian cuneiform as the king of Babylon at the time of its conquest by Koresh (Cyrus the Great) and Persia. Belshazzar is not listed among the kings of Babylon in the cuneiform.
It’s things like this, when left unaddressed, that can give scripture a bad name.
Recent discoveries of additional cuneiform and further linguistic research seem to have come to the rescue. Utilizing these, Lucas, in his comments on Daniel 5, makes a strong case for the following:
- Belshazzar was not the king of Babylon as stated in most biblical translations but rather its regent, or governor.
- Nabonidus, the king of record, was Belshazzar’s father, not Nebuchadnezzar as most translations say. (Nabonidus was hiding in the Arabian desert, worshiping the moon god, Sin, when Persia invaded and Belshazzar threw his party, but that’s another story.)
- Nitocris, daughter of mighty King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, “the queen” in Chapter 5 of the book of Daniel, was Belshazzar’s mother, not his wife, making Belshazzar Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, not son. (The biblical reference to Nitocris as “the queen” is correct; she was Nabonidus’s wife.)
Lucas discusses these apparent “errors” in depth, establishing that they are not necessarily flaws in the original texts but much more likely the result of the many difficulties and subtleties of interpreting and understanding ancient languages and customs. It is most important to note that, while some translations may have failed to correctly identify the characters listed above, Belshazzar’s promise to Daniel in Chapter 5…
you will have authority as the third ruler in the kingdom…”
…rings perfectly true and supports Lucas’s findings. Belshazzar could not have awarded Daniel with the second highest position of authority in Babylon because he, himself, was second in authority at the time, the regent son of king, Nabonidus.
“Third in the kingdom” was the best Belshazzar was able to offer; the Tenach was correct.
In my novel, For the Sake of His Name, dramatizing the first six chapters of Daniel, I have rendered the biblical account of the handwriting on the wall consistent with the more current understanding of the identities of Belshazzar, Nitocris and Nabonidus, as discussed above.
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