From Academic Kids

In the Book of Daniel (chapters 5 and 8) of the Tanakh or Christian Old Testament, Belshazzar is the King of Babylon before the advent of the Medes and Persians.



Daniel 5:1-4 calls Nebuchadnezzar his father but in the light of extra-Biblical evidence this must be understood in the sense of ancestor. The Nabonidus Chronicle identifies the father of the historical Belshazzar as Nabonidus and his mother as Nitocris the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar and widow of Nergal-sharezer. Nabonidus, after ruling only three years retired to the oasis of Tema and devoted himself to the worship of the moon god, Sin. The rulership of Babylon was handed over to his son Belshazzar in 553 B.C.

In the year 540 B.C. the Nabonidus returned from Tema, hoping to defend his kingdom from the Persians who were planning to advance on Babylon. In 539 B.C. Belshazzar was positioned in the city of Babylon to hold the capital, while Nabonidus, marched his troops north to meet Cyrus. On October 10, 539 B.C. Nabonidus surrendered and fled from Cyrus. Two days later, October 12, 539 B.C., the Persian armies overthrew the city of Babylon. It is against the background of that fateful night the narrative of Daniel 5 unfolds.

Belshazzar's feast

Daniel 5:1-4 describes "Belshazzar's Feast" in which the sacred vessels of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, which had been brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar at the time of the Captivity were profaned by the company:

"King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. 2 While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. 3 So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. 4 As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone."

In consequence of this, during the festivities, a hand was seen writing on the wall of the chamber a mysterious sentence mene mene tekel upharsin, which defied all attempts at interpretation. Their natural denotations of weights and measures were superficially meaningless: "two minas, a shekel and two parts." When the Hebrew sage Daniel was called in, he read and interpreted the words. The last word (prs) he read as peres not parsin. His free choice of interpretation and decoding revealed the menacing subtext: "Thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting." The divine menace against the dissolute Belshazzar, whose kingdom was to be divided between the Medes and Persians was swiftly realized: in the last verse we are told that Belshazzar was slain in that same night, and that his power passed to Darius the Mede.

This Biblical story is the source of the popular phrase "the writing on the wall" as a euphemism for impending doom that is so obvious only a fool would not see it coming.

For a list of artistic and musical references to the feast, see the article Belshazzar's Feast.

In classical rabbinic literature

Belshazzar appears in many works of classical Jewish rabbinic literature.

The chronology of the three Babylonian kings is given in the Talmud as follows: Nebuchadnezzar reigned forty-five years, Evil-merodach twenty-three, and Belshazzar was monarch of Babylonia for two years, being killed at the beginning of the third year on the fatal night of the fall of Babylon (Meg. 11b).

The references in the Talmud and the Midrash to Belshazzar emphasize his tyrannous oppression of his Jewish subjects. Several passages in the Prophets are interpreted as though referring to him and his predecessors. For instance, the passage, "As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him" (Amos v. 19), the lion is said to represent Nebuchadnezzar, and the bear, equally ferocious if not equally courageous, is Belshazzar. (The book of Amos., nevertheless, is pre-Exilic.)

The three Babylonian kings are often mentioned together as forming a succession of impious and tyrannical monarchs who oppressed Israel and were therefore foredoomed to disgrace and destruction. The verse in Isaaiah xiv. 22, And I will rise up against them, saith the Lord of hosts, and cut off from Babylon name and remnant and son and grandchild, saith the Lord, is applied by these interpretations to the trio: "Name" to Nebuchadnezzar, "remnant" to Evil-merodach, "son" to Belshazzar, and "grandchild" Vashti (ib.). The command given to Abraham to cut in pieces three heifers (Genesis 15:9) as a part of the covenant established between him and his God, was thus elucidated by readers of Daniel as symbolizing Babylonia, which gave rise to three kings, Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-merodach, and Belshazzar, whose doom is prefigured by this act of "cutting to pieces" (Midrash Genesis Rabbah xliv.).

The Midrash literature enters into the details of Belshazzar's death. Thus the later tradition states that Cyrus and Darius were employed as doorkeepers of the royal palace. Belshazzar, being greatly alarmed at the mysterious handwriting on the wall, and apprehending that some one in disguise might enter the palace with murderous intent, ordered his doorkeepers to behead every one who attempted to force an entrance that night, even though such person should claim to be the king himself. Belshazzar, overcome by sickness, left the palace unobserved during the night through a rear exit. On his return the doorkeepers refused to admit him. In vain did he plead that he was the king. They said, "Has not the king ordered us to put to death any one who attempts to enter the palace, though he claim to be the king himself?" Suiting the action to the word, Cyrus and Darius grasped a heavy ornament forming part of a candelabrum, and with it shattered the skull of their royal master (Cant. R. iii. 4).

The Sacred Royal Feast

Though the narrative and its details stand outside history, the setting of the feast at which the temple vessels from Jerusalem were desecrated has been remembered from actual Neo-Babylonian cult practice. In Babylon, the image of Marduk was served meals daily in a style befitting the divine king, including musical accompaniment and beautifully-arranged desserts of fruits. After the god's meal, water in a basin was brought and offered to the idol to wash its fingers. According to several extant descriptions, the dishes of food that had been presented to the image were then sent to the king for his consumption. The food had been blessed by its proximity to the god, and the blessing was now transferable to the king. One exception is recorded, on a tablet from Uruk, which mentions that the crown prince— this was Belshazzar— enjoyed the royal privilege.

The ritual importance of the god's sacred leftovers is illustrated in an inscribed claim of Sargon II:

"the citizens of Babylon [and] Borsippa, the temple personnel, the scholars [and] the administrators of the country who [had] looked upon him (Merodach-baladan) as their master now brought the leftovers of Bel [and] Sarpanitu [of Babylon and] Nabu [and] Tasmetu [of Borsippa] to me at Dur-Ladinni and asked me to enter Babylon"
(Oppenheim, pp 188ff)

Idols of conquered cities were ordinarily brought to Babylon and set in positions of reverence to Marduk within his temple. The Jews, having no idol of Jahweh, had been forced to give up the vessels of Solomon's Temple, which, it appears, were used to serve Marduk's sacred repast, ritually shared by Belshazzar.

External link


A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilizationde:Belsazar fi:Belsassar nl:Belsazar


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