This post deals with Chapter 5, which contains many errors. Many of these errors are of a sort that would be inconceivable for someone to make if he had actually been a high-ranking member of the Babylonian court as Daniel is portrayed as being.
5.1 Summary of Chapter 5
This story takes place after Nebuchadrezzar has died and is replaced as king by Belshazzar, his son. Belshazzar had a party with thousands in attendance. He decides to show off some of his treasures and uses some of the wine goblets of the Jews that had been ransacked following Nebuchadrezzar’s destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. During the feast Belshazzar sees a hand materialize and write something on the wall. Belshazzar brings in “the astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers” to interpret, but they are unable to do so. The queen remembers that Daniel had been useful in this type of thing during the reign of Nebuchadrezzar. Belshazzar brings him in to interpret and offers to give Daniel many gifts and set him up as the third highest ruler in the kingdom.
Daniel says that he does not need the honors but he will tell Belshazzar what the writing means. The writing is “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN” which means “NUMBERED, NUMERED, WEIGHED, DIVIDED”. This, in turn, means that God has numbered Belshazzar’s days, he has weighed his worth and found him wanting, and lastly that his kingdom will be taken away and divided between the Medes and the Persians.
Belshazzar does fulfill his end of the (unaccepted) bargain giving Daniel expensive robes and gold chains and appointing him to the number three position. However, that very night Belshazzar is killed and the kingdom comes under control of Darius the Mede, who is 62 years old.
5.2.1 Minor problems
It seems strange to me that none of Belshazzar’s “astrologers, Chaldeans, [or] soothsayers” could tell him the meaning of the writing. MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN is Aramaic which was the language of the Babylonians at the time. Surely someone there could have come up with a story that would have satisfied Belshazzar as well as Daniel’s. This is especially true since there were high rewards to be obtained if one was successful.
5.2.2 Major problems
First, Belshazzar did not succeed Nebuchadrezzar. Second, Belshazzar was not Nebuchadrezzar’s son. Third, Belshazzar was never king of Babylon. Fourth, the overthrow of Babylon was accomplished peacefully without bloodshed. Fifth, Darius the Mede did not conquer Babylon. Sixth, Darius the Mede is not even an historical person.
Nebuchadrezzar ruled until 562 BCE when he died. He was succeeded by his son Amel-Marduk who ruled for 1 year before being assassinated by his brother-in-law Nergal-Sharezer. Nergal-Sharezer reigned for 7 years and resigned. His son, Labsi-Marduk took his place. Labsi-Marduk was deposed by Nabonidus, a member of the priesthood. It was Nabonidus who was king of Babylonia when it was conquered. Belshazzar was his son, and was not related to Nebuchadrezzar at all.
Extreme bible-believers have a scenario in which they dismiss the above paragraph. They do so at the expense of making words mean what they do not actually mean. First, they point out that Nabonidus, the real king of Babylonia, had moved out of Babylon and made Tema in Arabia his capital. He left his son Belshazzar in Babylon as co-regent, and even though Belshazzar was not king in reality, he was acting king and that is what Daniel actually meant when he referred to Belshazzar as king.
While it is true that on rare occasions this is done, it always done in such a way that the context makes it clear. Otherwise misinformation is being communicated and it brings up the disturbing question of why a document supposedly divinely inspired would do that. In Daniel, Belshazzar is only referred to as king. He has princes of his own. He has a king’s palace. He has a queen. Daniel is referred to a “man of [his] kingdom”. Daniel tells Belshazzar that God has numbered the days of his (Belshazzar’s) kingdom. And that his (Belshazzar’s) kingdom will be divided between the Medes and the Persians. Belshazzar has the power to promote someone to third highest ruler of the land on his own accord. In short, there is absolutely nothing in the book of Daniel to suggest that Belshazzar is a co-regent. Everything suggests Belshazzar is a full-fledged king.
Next, extreme bible-believers say that while Belshazzar was not the biological son of Nebuchadrezzar, since he was acting as king of Babylon, he was in the same ruling line which means that it is perfectly OK for Daniel to refer to him as the son of Nebuchadrezzar.
Again, this is done on rare occasions, but again, it is always done in such a way that the context is clear. In the book of Daniel, every reference to Belshazzar suggests he is the biological son of Nebuchadrezzar. At the feast Belshazzar uses the goblets “his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had taken from the temple”. The queen tells him, “There is a man in thy kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him; whom the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father, the king, I say, thy father, made master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers”. Daniel tells him, “O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour” and “And thou his [Nebuchadrezzar’s] son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart”. In short, every reference in Daniel suggests that Belshazzar is the biological son of Nebuchadrezzar and has succeeded Nebuchadrezzar to the throne. There is no way Daniel could have portrayed Belshazzar more like a king or more like the biological son of Nebuchadrezzar. In other words, there is no way the book of Daniel could have portrayed Belshazzar more wrongly.
According to the book of Daniel, Belshazzar is killed the very night Daniel tells him the meaning of the writing on the wall. This suggests the overthrow of Babylon was violent. However, we know this is not the case. The Cyrus cylinder is an archaeological artifact containing Cyrus’s own version of how he took Babylon. Cyrus had sent agents into the city. They discovered that there was a great deal of resentment of Nabonidus (the real king of Babylonia). The agents talked up the character of Cyrus and by the time Cyrus’s army was ready to enter the city, the people of the city were ready for a new ruler. His army entered the city peacefully with their swords sheathed. There was no killing, nor is Belshazzar even mentioned.
From the above, it is apparent it was not Darius the Mede who conquered Babylon but it was Cyrus. And he did this in 539 BCE. There is no other independent historical reference anywhere to Darius the Mede. In a later chapter of the book of Daniel, Darius the Mede is referred to as the son of Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus is an alternate name for Xerxes. Xerxes was Cyrus’s great-grandson and ruled from 485 to 465 BCE. His son was not Darius, but Artaxerxes I. Xerxes’ FATHER was Darius I, but that Darius was a Persian and not a Mede, and if Daniel had been alive during his time, he would have been well into his 100’s.
Extreme bible-believers have answers for the problem of Darius the Mede as well. Some say that like Ahasuerus being the alternate name for Xerxes, Darius the Mede is the alternate name for Cyrus. This ignores the fact that Daniel also refers to Cyrus, and this Cyrus is obviously a different person. Furthermore, Cyrus was Persian and not a Mede. Nor is there any independent reason to believe that Darius the Mede was an alternate name for anybody.
Others say that Darius the Mede was Gobryas, the governor of Babylon during the reign of Cyrus. But there is no indication that Gobryas was a Mede either. Furthermore, the book of Daniel portrays Darius the Mede with kingly powers. In the next chapter we will see that Darius the Mede signs a law that cannot be changed no matter what. Darius is tricked into doing this and bitterly regrets it. Surely, if he is only the governor of Babylon he can get Cyrus to overrule the law. Also every reference made to Darius the Mede clearly implies he is the king.
Quite obviously the author of Daniel did not know the history of the time in which Daniel was supposed to have lived. Daniel was supposed to have been a high ranking official at this time; it is impossible for such a person intimately involved in these events to make these gross mistakes. Daniel could not have been written when extreme bible-believers say it was. But there is going to be even more evidence for this as we go along.
5.2.3 How could the author of Daniel have made these mistakes?
But wait a second here. These seem to be gross mistakes. Why didn’t the author of Daniel know better? For one thing, as we will see, the author of Daniel was separated in time from the events by almost 400 years. His ideas of history were skewed by other biblical writings.
The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel both predicted the violent overthrow of Babylon by the Medes. That was as about as good a prediction as anyone could do at their time. The Medes were the only empire that seemed to have a chance against the Babylonians. What these prophets of God could not foresee is that before the Medes would ever get the chance to overthrow Babylon, the Persians would become strong and overthrow the Medes. The author of Daniel was evidently an extreme bible-believer. Isaiah and Ezekiel predicted it, therefore it must have happened. The Medes must have overthrown Babylon. What Mede did it? The author has only a hazy knowledge of the Persian period. There are several Darius’s and some of them were pretty powerful, so he invents Darius the Mede and a Median kingdom to rule over Babylon for a while. Is it any wonder that he concludes that this Median kingdom is inferior to that of Nebuchadrezzar’s?
Furthermore, there is convincing evidence that at least some of this misinformation was commonly believed during the Maccabean times that Daniel is thought to have been actually written. There is a group of non-canonical books written at this time. Many of these are also forgeries that were trying to be passed off as the real thing, but these didn’t make it. They are called the pseudepigrapha. Baruch, one of these books (supposedly written by Baruch the secretary of the prophet Jeremiah, but was actually written during Maccabean times), has a section in it in which contributions from Jews taken into Babylonian captivity are sent to priests who remained in Jerusalem. The pertinent section is quoted below:
The money we are sending you is to be used to buy whole-offerings, sin-offerings, and frankincense, and to provide grain-offerings; you are to offer them on the altar to the Lord our God, with prayers for King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and for his son Belshazzar, that their life may last as long as the heavens are above the earth. So the Lord will strengthen us and bring light to our eyes, and we shall live under the protection of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and of Belshazzar his son; we shall give them service for many a day and find favor with them (Baruch 1:10–13).
There is no denying that whoever wrote this book (which has been dated contemporaneous to the Maccabean time that Daniel was actually written in) thought that Belshazzar was the biological son of Nebuchadrezzar and next in line to the throne.
In the next installment we will look at the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Unlike the discussion of Chapter 5, it will be a rather brief interlude.
To read more about the father-son relationship between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar created by Daniel 5, you can read this article: Family Ties: Nebuchadnezzar, Nabonidus, Belshazzar, and Nitocris.