Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Bible's Critics Were Wrong Again: Daniel and His Supposedly Invented King

"Belshazzar's Feast" by Rembrandt
The Book of Daniel records for us the final hours of the Babylonian empire before its fall to the Medes and Persians (539 BC). We read that:

Belshazzar the king made a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and drank wine in the presence of the thousand. While he tasted the wine, Belshazzar gave the command to bring the gold and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple which had been in Jerusalem, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them (Daniel 5:1–2).

Shortly after this, Belshazzar saw a human hand write a mysterious message on the wall that no one was able to interpret. After Daniel was called in to help interpret the message, he gave Belshazzar the interpretation:

Belshazzar…you have lifted yourself up against the Lord of heaven. They have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you and your lords, your wives and your concubines, have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone, which do not see or hear or know; and the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified. Then the fingers of the hand were sent from Him, and this writing was written…This is the interpretation…God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it…You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting…Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians (Daniel 5:22–28).

That very night Belshazzar was killed (v. 30) and the city of Babylon passed into the hands of the Medes and Persians.
This passage of Scripture was long the target of critics’ cannons. They considered Daniel’s references to Belshazzar “pure invention" [1] and “a historical blunder." [2] Why? The name Belshazzar could not be found anywhere outside the Bible and the ancient historians Berossus and Alexander Polyhistor said that the last king of the Babylonian empire was a man named Nabonidus. [3]
And so the critics appeared very wise pontificating about how the author of the Book of Daniel, not really knowing the real name of the king and writing long after the fall of Babylon, just made up the name Belshazzar. And they appeared to have a case. But, as the late Dr. James Montgomery Boice, said:

If you want to look very wise in the world’s eyes and are willing to risk looking foolish years from now, you can make a reputation for yourself by pointing out the “errors” in the Bible…But these things tend to become explained. As time passes and the data from archaeology, historical investigations, numismatics, and other disciplines accumulate, these alleged “errors” tend to explode in the faces of those who propound them. [4]

PHOTO: Babylonian Chronicle 7, known as the Nabonidus Chronicle

Explode they do. And explode they did with the mid-nineteenth century discovery of thousands of ancient clay tablets in Babylon. These clay tablets, known as the Babylonian Chronicle (see photo above), contain a treasure trove of information about Babylon’s history. They not only mention Belshazzar, they tell us that when king Nabonidus departed for a multi-year stay in the Arabian oasis town of Tema, about 450 miles away from Babylon (in modern day Saudi Arabia), he entrusted the rule of Babylon into the hands of Belshazzar, his eldest son. [5]
Belshazzar’s name has also been discovered on a clay cylinder (photo below) found in Ur in southern Iraq. The cylinder records a prayer by Nabonidus, wherein he petitions the moon god “Sin” for his son “Belshazzar, the eldest son of my offspring." [6]
So there is no doubt today that Belshazzar was a real person and co-ruler with his father on the night Babylon fell. [7]

PHOTO: Cylinder containing Nabonidus’ prayer with mention of his son Belshazzar.  © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons
But there appears to be another problem in Daniel chapter five. The passage refers to Belshazzar’s “father” as Nebuchadnezzar (5:2, 11, 13, 18) not Nabonidus. Clyde Fant, Mitchell Reddish and other critics have pointed out this supposed error. [8] But the critics have overlooked something. The word “father” in Aramaic (the language Daniel 5 was written in), [9] like Hebrew, can mean “ancestor” or “predecessor." [10] As Dr. Lawrence Richards points out:

The term is often used in genealogies to indicate an individual who may be a distant ancestor. “Father” was also used in biblical times with the sense of “predecessor” on a royal throne. Even a supplanter like Jehu, who murdered the family of Ahab to set up his own dynasty, is called in Assyrian records a “son of Omri,” the founder of the earlier royal line. A third consideration is that frequently a king like Belshazzar would marry a daughter of the founding line, and in this sense too be the “son” of the “father." [11]

So with some investigation into the original languages and consideration as to how the word “father” was used in the ancient world, another apparent problem evaporates. The critics will have to turn their damaged cannons elsewhere. For more on how archaeology has helped to validate different details in the Bible, see my book, Archaeological Evidence for the Bible.


1. Free, Archaeology and Bible History, 201.
2. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible, 119.
3. Ibid. and Free, Archaeology and Bible History, 201.
4. Boice, Daniel: An Expositional Commentary, 60.
5. Nearly all of the books cited in my footnotes and many others not cited discuss the archaeological evidence surrounding Belshazzar.
6. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible, 119.
7. The fact that Nabonidus and Belshazzar occupied the top two ruling positions in Babylon, sheds light on Belshazzar’s offer of the third position (rather than second) to anyone able to interpret the writing on the wall (Daniel 5:7, 29).
8. Fant and Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible, 234.
9. The Book of Daniel was written in two languages: 1:1-2:4a and chapters 8-12 are in Hebrew, and 2:4b-7:28 is in Aramaic.
10. The ESV Study Bible, see notes at Daniel 5:1.
11. Richards, The 365 Day Devotional Commentary, June 19, Daniel 5:1, retrieved on QuickVerse software (version 2.0.2).