Regular readers of this blog may know that one of the first lines of evidence that caused me to begin questioning my Christian faith had to do with the Book of Daniel. There are a number of issues within the book that have led the majority of scholars to conclude that it was not written by a Jewish prophet living during the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and Cyrus of Persia, but that it was written some 400 years later during the Maccabean period. Over the last several days, a few of us have been having an in-depth discussion about those issues at this thread. One of the items we discussed had to do with a woman named Nitocris.
In Daniel 5, we’re told that Belshazzar is now king, and we’re given the impression that he is the son of Nebuchadnezzar. However, from a number of primary sources (some that even date from the Babylonian empire itself) we know that Belshazzar’s father was actually Nabonidus — a king who was not related to Nebuchadnezzar. Christian apologists have suggested a couple of different ways to resolve this issue.
One is to say that when Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar are talked about as father and son, it simply means in the sense that Belshazzar is a ruler of Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar was a former ruler of Babylon. It’s just talking about succession, in other words, not actual parentage. As an example, they point to the Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, which has a section that talks about “Jehu of the house of Omri.” That’s significant because Jehu was not related to Omri. Instead, he was a usurper that took the kingdom from Omri’s grandson. Presumably, Shalmaneser III’s court would have known that Jehu was not related to Omri; therefore, Daniel may not have been in error to refer to Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar as father and son.
However, the phrase “house of” is not quite the same as “father and son”. It’s important to note that it’s no accident Omri was still being referred to a couple of generations after his reign. As Omri’s Wikipedia entry states:
The short-lived dynasty founded by Omri constitutes a new chapter in the history of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It ended almost fifty years of constant civil war over the throne. There was peace with the Kingdom of Judah to the south, and even cooperation between the two rival states, while relations with neighboring Sidon to the north were bolstered by marriages negotiated between the two royal courts. This state of peace with two powerful neighbors enabled the Kingdom of Israel to expand its influence and even political control in Transjordan, and these factors combined brought economic prosperity to the kingdom.
Omri presided over a period of substantial growth for Israel, which caused many in the region to view Israel as Omri’s kingdom, even after he died. As the previous Wikipedia page goes on to say, even over 100 years after his death, Assyrian scribes were referring to Israel as “Omri-Land.” To me, that kind of situation seems rather different from the one we see in Daniel 5. “House of Omri” doesn’t sound as intimate as the words “father” and “son.” To help emphasize that a bit more, let’s look at how many times and in what ways the father-son connection is made in Daniel 5:
Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought — v. 2
There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezzar, your father — your father the king — made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers — v. 11
The king answered and said to Daniel, “You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah” — v. 13
O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty. — v. 18
And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this — v. 22
As you can see, the father-son connection was not just some throw away line that was barely mentioned. Within 20 verses, that connection is mentioned 9 times. If the writer of Daniel really did think Nebuchadnezzar was Belshazzar’s father, he couldn’t have said it any plainer. Belshazzar’s actual father, Nabonidus, is never mentioned in the Book of Daniel. What’s also striking is that the father-son connection is made by 4 different people in this chapter. Verse 2 is the voice of the narrator. The narrator had already written about Nebuchadnezzar in the first 4 chapters of the book, and he never wrote about Nabonidus. It seems strange to me that he would use the “father” description without more clarification, considering his audience wouldn’t likely know the actual relationships between these two individuals. In verse 11, Belshazzar’s mother (we presume) is speaking. She’s actually just referred to as “the queen,” so she could have been Belshazzar’s wife or Nabonidus’s. It’s possible that Nabonidus had more than one wife, so this queen might not even be Belshazzar’s mother. We really don’t know who she is, but she also makes the father-son connection, and she does so more emphatically than anyone else. In verse 13, we have Belshazzar refer to Nebuchadnezzar as “my father,” and in verses 18 and 22, we finally have Daniel make the reference as well. If the father-son connection weren’t real, but just a metaphor, it seems strange to me that all four individuals would use it.
Grandfather – Grandson
The other explanation is that Belshazzar’s mother is Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter. Initially, someone might object by pointing out that Daniel 5 says “father” not “grandfather.” But sadly, Hebrew apparently uses the same word for both. It’s a shame that God didn’t preserve his word in a language that would eliminate this kind of confusion, but there you go. It’s important to note that in the Bible this isn’t usually an issue, because lineage is either talked about in order (Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, etc), or a distant enough ancestor is named that it eliminates any confusion (like referring to “son of David” centuries after David’s death). I can’t think of another instance in the Bible where the words “father” and “son” are used for a grandparent relationship that are as ambivalent and misleading as what we see in Daniel 5, but perhaps there are some. Either way, the words here do technically allow for a grandfather-grandson relationship.
Because the grandfather-grandson connection is a cleaner fit for what we find in Daniel 5, this claim is made quite often in apologetics circles. It’s not uncommon to see it referenced as though it’s fact, without even giving a reference to the original source of the information (like here). But what evidence do we have for this view? Is it just speculation in an effort to rationalize Daniel 5, or are there real reasons for thinking that Belshazzar was the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar?
It turns out that the Greek historian Herodotus records information about a Babylonian queen named Nitocris. According to him, she completed a number of construction projects in and around Babylon. She was married to a ruler of Babylon named Labynetos, and her son (also named Labynetos) ruled Babylon when Cyrus came against it (Histories I, v. 185-188). For many years, the general consensus was that the younger Labynetos must have been Nabonidus, since he was king when Cyrus took Babylon, and that the older Labynetos must have been Nebuchadnezzar. However, we’ve since discovered that Nabonidus’s mother was not Nitocris, but Addagoppe of Harran. We also know that Nebuchadnezzar was not the father of Nabonidus, and we’ve discovered that Belshazzar was a real individual and the son of Nabonidus. Therefore, it’s much more likely that Nitocris was the wife of Nabonidus and the mother of Belshazzar. That means Herodotus’s older Labynetos is most likely Nabonidus, and the younger Labynetos is Belshazzar.
But what makes us think that Nitocris was related to Nebuchadnezzar? I finally found that most articles that make this claim refer to a book by Raymond Philip Dougherty called Nabonidus and Belshazzar, published in 1929. Luckily, a university in my area has a copy of this book in their library, so I was able to read portions of it for myself. On pages 46-51 of the book, Dougherty establishes that Babylon and Egypt had occasional trade, diplomacy, and military cooperation during Nebuchadnezzar’s lifetime. It’s also known that there was a Nitocris of Egypt who lived around that time as well. It is not believed that she’s the same individual as Belshazzar’s mother. However, both her father and brother served as Pharaoh, and she was a fairly influential person during her time. Perhaps the Babylonian Nitocris was named after her. Dougherty suggests 3 possibilities for the identity of Babylon’s Nitocris (pg 52). Nabonidus might have married:
- an Egyptian woman not of royal rank.
- an Egyptian princess from Pharaoh’s court.
- a descendant of an Egyptian princess who had become the wife of a Babylonian king.
Dougherty thinks the first option is unlikely, because Nabonidus was so ambitious. While he wasn’t royal, he was of noble descent and held a prominent place in the Babylonian government. I don’t know why he couldn’t have married an Egyptian noble, like himself, but that’s not an option that Dougherty addresses. He feels that the second option is also unlikely for the exact opposite reason that he dismissed the first: Nabonidus wasn’t of high enough station to marry an Egyptian princess.
Dougherty spends most of his time discussing the third option. He points to the conflict that Nebuchadnezzar had with Babylon in 605 BCE. A treaty of some kind was agreed upon, because the two nations seem to have had peaceful relations for decades after that incident. Dougherty suggests that Nebuchadnezzar may have picked up an Egyptian wife to solidify that treaty (pg 57). Belshazzar began serving as co-regent with his father around 560 BCE, roughly 45 years after the treaty with Egypt. Conceivably, that’s enough time for a grandchild from this supposed union between Nebuchadnezzar and an Egyptian princess to be old enough to help rule. Dougherty also refers to the descriptions of all the construction and defense projects that Nitocris performed, according to Herodotus, and suggests that her active leadership aligns with the fact that Nabonidus spent time away from Babylon toward the end of his rule. He also argues that a Babylonian princess would have incentive to conduct such projects. I didn’t find that particular point very convincing, though. Regardless of where she came from, a wife of the Babylonian king and mother of the future king would be very invested in the kingdom.
Dougherty’s arguments are interesting, but they don’t change the fact that the argument for Nitocris being Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter is shear speculation. No historical document tells us that Nebuchadnezzar ever had an Egyptian wife, nor is there a document telling us that he had a daughter named Nitocris. Furthermore, despite considering Dougherty’s three possibilities, we have no idea how Nabonidus got his wife. She could have been an Egyptian noble, an Egyptian commoner, or even a Babylonian or Canaanite woman whose family had some ties to Egypt. The possibilities are nearly endless. As one reviewer said, only a year after Dougherty’s book was published:
Anyone who likes arguments will follow with interest the process by which the author, after presenting a hypothesis which is at best merely possible, immediately proceeds to assure us that he knows his case is not proved and that a probability only remains a probability. Practically nowhere in the book does the author use a doubtful argument without warning the reader that the case is not proved. Thus a single section of the book might carry conviction. But the real trouble comes when all these probabilities are finally linked together. To one assumed conclusion is added another which is also more or less doubtful. The first two serve as the basis for a third assumption which in itself is not their necessary corollary; and so the house of cards goes up, ready to come down at the first little touch. (Chiera, pg 401)
And the apologists’ claim that Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson through Nitocris rests solely on this “house of cards.”
It also occurred to me that Nitocris might create an additional issue within Daniel. Christians often point to the fact that Belshazzar offers Daniel the third place in the kingdom as evidence that the writer of Daniel knew that Belshazzar was only co-regent, since his father Nabonidus was still living. But if the queen in Daniel 5 is Nitocris, it’s evident from Herodotus that she carried a great deal of authority in the kingdom. So how could Belshazzar have offered Daniel third place? The top three spots in the kingdom would have already been filled by Nabonidus, Nitocris, and Belshazzar.
In the end, there’s no good, substantial reason to think that the father-son connection that Daniel creates for Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar can be resolved in this way. We have no evidence linking Nitocris to Nebuchadnezzar. And considering how often and in what ways the father-son connection is spoken of in Daniel 5, the most likely explanation still seems to be that the writer was incorrect and actually did think they were father and son.
- Herodotus. Histories. c. 430 BCE
- Dougherty, Raymond Philip. Nabonidus and Belshazzar. New York: Yale University Press, 1929. Pgs 38-66, 194
- Chiera, Edward. “Nabonidus and Belshazzar.” The Journal of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930. Pgs 401-404
- Gera, Deborah Levine Warrior Women: the Anonymous Tractatus De Mulieribus. Brill, 1997. Pgs 106-120
- Wikipedia: Black Obelisk of Shalmeneser III
- Wikipedia: Omri
- Wikipedia: Addagoppe of Harran
- Wikipedia: Nitocris II