Belshazzar (or Balthazar; Akkadian Bel-sarra-usur) was a prince of Babylon, the son of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon according to the Book of Daniel. In the Book of Daniel (chapters 5 and 8) of the Jewish Tanakh or Christian Old Testament, Belshazzar is the King of Babylon before the advent of the Medes and Persians.
Contemporary Babylonian sources
Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus, who after ruling only three years, went to the oasis of Tayma and devoted himself to the worship of the moon god, Sin. He made Belshazzar co-regent in 553 B.C., leaving him in charge of Babylon's defense.
In the year 540 B.C. Nabonidus returned from Tayma, hoping to defend his kingdom from the Persians who were planning to advance on Babylon. In 538 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.
Herodotus refers to the last king of Babylon as Labynetos and claims that this was also the name of his father. Herodotus says that the mother of the younger Labynetos was the queen Nitocris whom he portrays as the dominant ruler. She is commonly thought to have been the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar. Labynetos is generally understood to be a garbled form of the name Nabonidus and the younger Labynetos is often identified with Belshazzar. Opinions differ however on how best to reconcile Herodotus with the Babylonian sources and an alternative view is that the younger Labynetos is Nabonidus.
Josephus gives an account of Belshazzar largely paralleling the Book of Daniel but remarks that he was known to the Babylonians by the name Naboandelus. Bible scholars have viewed this as a corruption of "Nabonidus" which if correct may be taken either as confusion on the part of Josephus or a corroboration of the interpretation of the younger "Labynetos" of Herodotus as Belshazzar. Josephus, however, knew of Nabonidus and calls him "Nabonnedus" relating an account of his capture by Cyrus taken from Berossus. Josephus refers to the queen at the time (corresponding to the Nitocris of Herodotus) as the grandmother of Belshazzar which corroborates the alternative view that the younger "Labynetos" (son of Nitocris) is Nabonidus.
Book of Daniel
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. The narrative unfolds against the background of the impending arrival of the Persian armies.
- "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. Some Rabbinic interpretations (notably the mention in the Babylonian Talmud) say that the words were written in code, one possibility was that it was an atbash cipher, another being that the written Aramaic and Hebrew looked very different, even though they were pronounced similarly. Still, their natural denotations of weights and measures were superficially meaningless: "two minas, a shekel and two parts.". In the verb form, they were: mene, to number; tekel, to weigh; upharsin, to divide—literally "numbered, weighed, divided". When the Hebrew 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.
The Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon also record that there was a festival in the city of Babylon the same night it fell to the Persians.
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. It also provides the origin for the similar expression "your days are numbered."
Daniel 5:1-4 calls Nebuchadnezzar the father of Belshazzar. The same claim is made in the deuterocanonical Book of Baruch, which most scholars believe to have been written around the same time, in the second century BC. This may simply have been a mistake on the part of the authors. Some Biblical commentators argue that the statement can be reconciled with extra-Biblical sources by interpreting the term to mean forefather or predecessor, as used elsewhere in Biblical texts, notably referring to the Patriarch Abraham as the father of King David. (The Hebrew word for father av is commonly used in the sense of forefather.)
For a list of artistic and musical references to the feast, see the article Belshazzar's Feast.
The chronology of the three Babylonian kings is given in the Talmud (Megillah 11a-b) 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 Isaiah 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 YHWH, 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.
Belshazzar in popular culture
George Friderich Händel's Belshazzar is an oratorio composed in the late summer of 1744.
In The Hand-Writing upon the Wall (1803), James Gillray caricatured Napoleon in the role of Belshazzar.
Robert Frost's poem, "The Bearer of Evil Tidings", is about a messenger from Belshazzar's court. After learning of Belshazzar's imminent overthrow, the messenger flees to the Himalayas rather than facing the monarch's wrath.
Emily Dickinson's poem "Belshazzar had a letter," #1459 from the Poems of Emily Dickinson is about Belshazzar's immortal correspondence. Her poem was written in 1879.
William Walton wrote an oratorio entitled Belshazzar's Feast.
The Space Liner Belshazzar, with the player character aboard, was disabled and boarded by Space Pirates in the early CD-ROM adventure game Spaceship Warlock.
Belshazzar was featured in season one episode two of the Nickelodeon game show "Legends of the Hidden Temple" entitled "The Golden Cup of Belshazzar". The Red Jaguars ran out of time in the Temple and was unable to win the game. The Golden Cup was located in the Shrine of the Silver Monkey.
Singer/Songwriter Johnny Cash wrote a song titled "Belshazar", based on the Biblical story. It was recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee in 1957.
The Jewish songwriter Harold Rome wrote, for the musical "Pins and Needles" in 1937, a gospel song, "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin," which made the analogy between Belshazzar and Hitler, saying the former "didn't pay no income taxes:/The big shot of the Babylon-Jerusalem Axis." Interpreting the writing on the wall, Daniel sums it up tersely: "King, stop your fightin' and your flauntin'./You been weighed, and you're found wantin'."
During the 1884 United States presidential campaign, Republican candidate James G. Blaine dined at a New York City restaurant with some wealthy business executives including "Commodore" Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, etc. This was featured in newspapers, with a drawing illustrating "The Feast of Belshazzar Blaine..." On the wall in the background was written "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin."
In the early 1970s, Esquire magazine, in its "Dubious Achievement Awards" section one year, showed a photo of nuns wearing habits with short skirts, commenting "MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN."
Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, liked to incorporate historical names into his pseudo-historical stories. He wrote a (non-Conan) adventure story, "Blood of Belshazzar" which Roy Thomas adapted into a Conan story in Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian #27 as "The Blood of Bel-Hissar". Howard also used the name of 'Nabonidus' (father of Belshazzar) in the Conan tale "Rogues in the House" which appeared in Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #11.
The Austin, Texas band Sound Team references Belshazzar with the lyric: "But I don't have to sleep at Belshazzar's house anymore / Gave up the center line" on the track "No More Birthdays" off their Movie Monster LP.
- Oppenheim, A. Leo (1977), Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Rev. ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0226631869 .
- Gaston, T. E. (2009), Historical Issues in the Book of Daniel, Oxford: Taanathshiloh, ISBN 9780956154002 .