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Belshazzar (/bɛlˈʃæzər/; Hebrew: בֵּלְשַׁאצַּר, Modern Bélšá’ṣar, Tiberian Bêlešāʾṣār, Greek: Βαλτάζαρ, Baltázar, from Akkadian: 𒂗𒈗𒋀, Belsharruzur, more accurately Bēl-šarra-uṣur, meaning "Bel protect the king")[3] was the eldest son of Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian empire, and regent for his father during the latter's prolonged absence from the city, although he never assumed the titles of ritual functions of kingship.[4] He may have been killed when Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BCE.[5]

Crown Prince of Babylon
Rembrandt - Belshazzar's Feast - WGA19123.jpg
Rembrandt's depiction of the biblical account of Belshazzar seeing "the writing on the wall"
Issue Vashti[1]
Father Nabonidus
Mother possibly Nitocris of Babylon[2]

Belshazzar also appears as a central character in the fictional tale of Belshazzar's feast in the Book of Daniel.[6] In the midst of a great feast the king sees a hand writing on a wall the words mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, which Daniel interprets as a judgment from God foretelling the fall of Babylon.[7] Daniel's Belshazzar is not malevolent (he rewards Daniel for his interpretation of the writing), but in later Jewish tradition he becomes a tyrant who oppresses the Jewish people.[8]


In historyEdit

The most important sources for the time of Belshazzar are the Nabonidus Chronicle, the Cyrus Cylinder, and the Verse Account of Nabonidus—which, despite its name, was commissioned by the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great.[9]

Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.[10] The Nabonidus Chronicle describes him as a grandson of Nebuchadnezzar, but this may have been propaganda to justify the reign of his father, who was not of the royal line.[3] He played a pivotal role in the coup d'etat that overthrew King Labashi-Marduk and brought Nabonidus to power in 556 BCE, although unlike his co-conspirators he was not a member of the old Babylonian aristocracy.[11] Nabonidus spent the years c.553-543 BCE in the oasis of Teima in the northern areas of the Arabian Peninsula, leaving Belshazzar to govern Babylon.[9] During his father's prolonged absence Belshazzar ruled as regent or co-regent, but was never called king and never took part in the Babylonian New Year Festival, at which the king's presence was essential.[3] His duties as Crown Prince (the title that appears in documents) included overseeing temple estates and leasing out temple land,[3] and he worked at restoring the Babylonian god Marduk, demoted by Nabonidus in favour of the moon god Sin.[12]

Nabonidus returned to Babylon about 543 BCE, and the status of Belshazzar thereafter is unclear.[13][14] The king's return may have been connected with the increasing threat posed by the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great, who ruled a huge empire to the north and east of Babylon. Open hostilities commenced in late 539, and on 12 October "Ugbaru, governor of the district of Gutium, and the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without a battle" (Babylonian Chronicle) - this is presumably the same individual as the Gorbyras, a Babylonian provincial governor who switched to the Persian side, mentioned by the Greek historian Xenophon.[13] Nabonidus was captured and his life apparently spared, but Belshazzar may have died during the fall of the city.[15]

In the Book of DanielEdit

Belshazzar plays a significant role in the tale of Belshazzar's feast in the 2nd century Book of Daniel.[16] In this story the Babylonians eat and drink from the holy vessels of Yahweh's temple, but as they do a hand appears and writes mysterious words on the wall.[17] Daniel, the wise Jewish captive, tells Belshazzar that unlike his father Nebuchadnezzar he has not given honour to God, and so God will give his kingdom to the Medes and Persians.[17] The judgement is put into immediate effect: Belshazzar is killed, and Darius the Mede takes the kingdom.[18]

Historical approach to the Book of DanielEdit

The constituent elements of the Book of Daniel were assembled shortly after the end of the Maccabean Revolt, which is to say shortly after 164 BC.[19] The episode of the feast carries the clear signs of historical fiction, and several details do not match the known historical facts.[20][21] Belshazzar is portrayed as king of Babylon and son of Nebuchadnezzar (though, the Hebrew does not actually say “son” but in fact reads as “descendant”, even then, still incorrect); he was actually the son of Nabonidus, one of Nebuchadnezzar's successors, and he never became king in his own right.[21] The conqueror who inherits Babylon is named as Darius the Mede, but no such individual is known to history, and the invaders were not Medes but Persians.[21] This is typical of the story's genre as a "tale of court contest," in which historical accuracy is not an essential element.[22]

In later Jewish traditionEdit

In the Book of Daniel Belshazzar is not malevolent (he rewards Daniel and raises him to high office),[8] but the later authors of the Talmud and the Midrash emphasize his tyrannous oppression of his Jewish subjects, with several passages in the Prophets interpreted as 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 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 to the trio: "Name" to Nebuchadnezzar, "remnant" to Amel-Marduk, "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 as symbolizing Babylonia, which gave rise to three kings, Nebuchadnezzar, Amel-Marduk, 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 someone in disguise might enter the palace with murderous intent, ordered his doorkeepers to behead anyone 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).

Art and popular cultureEdit

  • Oratorio Il convito di Baldassarro by Pirro Albergati, composed in 1691.
  • Oratorio Belshazzar by George Frideric Handel, composed in the late summer of 1744.
  • Opera Ciro in Babilonia by Gioachino Rossini, first performed in 1812.
  • Incidental music Belshazzar's Feast by Jean Sibelius, op. 51, composed in 1906.
  • Cantata Belshazzar's Feast by Sir William Walton, composed in 1930–—31.
  • 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. It was covered by Bob Dylan and The Band as "Belchezaar", on sessions for The Basement Tapes recorded in Woodstock, NY.
  • 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 Adolf 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'."
  • 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.
  • The Norwegian singer/songwriter Eth Eonel wrote a song titled "Belsassar", which was released in 2011 on the album "Drawing Lines (1989)". The song lays out an aquatic version of Belshazzar's feast, in which Belshazzar is a fish, and "the writing on the wall" becomes "the writing in the sand".
  • The artist Sting makes reference to "Balthazar's Feast" in The Last Ship, comparing the fall of Babylon to the economic collapse of the shipbuilding industry.
  • The fourteenth-century poem Cleanness by the Pearl Poet recounts the feast and subsequent events as a warning against spiritual impurity.
  • "Vision of Belshazzar" by the poet Lord Byron chronicles both the feast and Daniel's pronunciation.
  • Robert Frost's poem, "The Bearer of Evil Tidings", is about a messenger headed to Belshazzar's court to deliver the news of the king's imminent overthrow. Remembering that evil tidings were a "dangerous thing to bear," 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.
  • Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick (1851) at chapter 99 has the first mate Starbuck murmur to himself "The old man seems to read Belshazzar's awful writing" as he spies Captain Ahab speaking to the doubloon he had nailed to the mast of the Pequod.
  • In his novel Sister Carrie (1900), Theodore Dreiser entitles a chapter "The Feast of Belshazar – A Seer to Translate" in which the gluttony of turn-of-the-century New York City is highlighted.
  • Belshazzar was the title of a 1930 novel by H. Rider Haggard.
  • 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", one of three stories where the protagonist is the character Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. The story was adapted by writer Roy Thomas into a Conan story and published 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" (1934), an adaptation of which appeared in Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #11.
  • In William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (written between 1596 and 1599), Portia disguises herself as a lawyer's apprentice and calls herself Balthazar (in Act IV, scene i).
  • Heinrich Heine wrote a short poem entitled "Belsatzar" in his collection "Junge Leiden" ("Youthful Sorrows", 1827).[23]
  • In Wallace Stevens' poem "Country Words" the poet sings a canto to Belshazzar and wants him "reading right".
  • In Fazil Iskander's novel "Sandro of Chegem", one of the chapters depicting a dinner involving an Abkhazian dance ensemble and Joseph Stalin is titled "Belshazzar's Feast".
Paintings, drawings
Film, television

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Esther Rabbah, Petichta 12
  2. ^ Dougherty 2008, p. 43.
  3. ^ a b c d Chavalas 2000, p. 164.
  4. ^ Seow 2003, p. 76.
  5. ^ Albertz 2003, p. 69.
  6. ^ Collins 1984, p. 41.
  7. ^ Collins 1984, p. 67.
  8. ^ a b Seow 2003, p. 7.
  9. ^ a b Waters 2014, p. 43.
  10. ^ Briant 2002, p. 32.
  11. ^ Albertz 2003, p. 63.
  12. ^ Henze 1999, p. 61.
  13. ^ a b Briant 2002, p. 41-42.
  14. ^ Newsom & Breed 2014, p. 164.
  15. ^ Albertz 2003, p. 69-70.
  16. ^ Collins 1984, p. 101.
  17. ^ a b Seow 2003, pp. 75.
  18. ^ Albertz 2003, pp. 18-19.
  19. ^ Collins 2002, p. 2.
  20. ^ Laughlin 1990, p. 95.
  21. ^ a b c Seow 2003, pp. 4–6.
  22. ^ Collins 1984, p. 41,67.
  23. ^ Kortländer, Bernd (Hrsg.), Heine, Heinrich - Sämtliche Gedichte. Kommentierte Ausgabe, Stuttgart 1997. Reclam.


  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Belshazzar". Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. 

External linksEdit

Preceded by
King of Babylon
550–539 BCE
Succeeded by
Cyrus II of Persia