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Belshazzar (/bɛlˈʃæzər/; Hebrew: בֵּלְשַׁאצַּר, Modern Bélšá’ṣar, Tiberian Bêlšāʾṣār; Akkadian: 𒂗𒈗𒌑𒀫, Belsharazur (Bēl-šarra-uṣur); Greek: Βαλτάζαρ, Baltázar,[3] from Akkadian, "Bel Protect the King"[4]) was co-regent of Babylon with his father, King Nabonidus. Cyrus the Great made his entrance into Babylon a few days after it surrendered without fighting; Nabonidus was captured and his life spared, but nothing is known of the fate of Belshazzar.[5]

Co-regent king of Babylon
Rembrandt - Belshazzar's Feast - WGA19123.jpg
Rembrandt's depiction of the biblical account of Belshazzar seeing "the writing on the wall"
Reign 550–539 BCE[1]
Predecessor Nabonidus
Successor Cyrus the Great
Died 5 Oct 539 BCE[1]
Issue Vashti
Father Nabonidus
Mother poss. Nitocris of Babylon[2]

According to the Book of Daniel, in which historical accuracy is not an essential element,[6] Belshazzar holds a last great feast at which he sees a hand writing on a wall with the Aramaic words mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, which Daniel interprets as a judgment from God foretelling the fall of Babylon. The consensus among scholars is that Daniel never existed and was apparently chosen for the hero of the book because of his traditional reputation as a wise seer.[7]



King of BabylonEdit

Belshazzar never became king, although the Book of Daniel gives him that title.[8] The inscriptions of the Edict of Balshazzar (YBT 6 103) gives Belshazzar the title "crown prince".[9] The Aramaic Qumran scroll 4Q243 fragment 2; Lines 1–2 names Belshazzar as vice-regent in Babylon during the absence of Nabonidus.(Dan. 5:1–30).[10]

Nabonidus' stay in TaymaEdit

It is not clear yet why Nabonidus stayed in Tayma for so long. His reason for going there seems clear: Tayma was an important oasis, from where lucrative Arabian trade routes could be controlled. The Assyrians before him had already attempted to do the same.[11] However, why Nabonidus stayed for so long (probably about ten years, perhaps from 553–543 BCE) and why he returned when he did remain unresolved questions. It has been proposed that this was because he did not feel at home in Babylon, which was opposed to his emphasis on Sîn. Regarding his return, this may have had to do with the mounting threat of Cyrus and growing disagreements with Belshazzar, who was relieved of his command directly after Nabonidus had come back, along with a number of administrators.[11]

Achaemenid invasionEdit

Cyropaedia is a historical romance written in the early 4th century BCE by Xenophon and it is considered to be a largely fictional biography[12] of Cyrus the Great. Cyropaedia (4.6.3), but not Herodotus, describes two kings reigning over the Babylonian kingdom when the city fell, father and son, and it was the younger king, who was reigning when the city was taken and who was killed that night. Cyropaedia does not name either king.

Cyropaedia (7.5.20–33), in agreement with Herodotus (I.292), says that the combined Median and Persian army entered the city via the channel of the Euphrates river, the river having been diverted into trenches that Cyrus had dug for the invasion, and that the city was unprepared because of a great festival that was being observed. Cyropaedia (7.5.26–35) describes the capture of Babylon by Gobryas,[13] who led a detachment of men to the capital and slew the king of Babylon. In 7.5.25, Gobryas remarks that "this night the whole city is given over to revelry", including to some extent the guards. Those who opposed the forces under Gobryas were struck down, including those outside the banquet hall. The capture of the city, and the slaying of the son king of the king (4.6.3), is described in Cyropaedia (7:5.26–30) as follows:

(26) Thereupon they entered; and of those they met some were struck down and slain, and others fled into their houses, and some raised the hue and cry, but Gobryas and his friends covered the cry with their shouts, as though they were revellers themselves. And thus, making their way by the quickest route, they soon found themselves before the king’s palace. (27) Here the detachment under Gobryas and Gadatas found the gates closed, but the men appointed to attack the guards rushed on them as they lay drinking round a blazing fire, and closed with them then and there. (28) As the din grew louder and louder, those within became aware of the tumult, till, the king bidding them see what it meant, some of them opened the gates and ran out. (29) Gadatas and his men, seeing the gates swing wide, darted in, hard on the heels of the others who fled back again, and they chased them at the sword’s point into the presence of the king. (30) They found him on his feet, with his drawn scimitar in his hand. By sheer weight of numbers they overwhelmed him: and not one of his retinue escaped, they were all cut down, some flying, others snatching up anything to serve as a shield and defending themselves as best they could.[14]

Both Xenophon and Daniel 5 describe the demise of Belshazzar as occurring on the night that the city was taken.[15] Xenophon, Herodotus, and Daniel agree that the city was taken by surprise, suddenly, at the time of a festival, and with some (but apparently not much) loss of life. Since Cyropaedia, the silence of other classical sources regarding Belshazzar led to the denial of the historicity of Daniel’s naming Belshazzar as the king who was slain, until cuneiform evidence was found corroborating the existence of Belshazzar as the regent reigning in Babylon while Nabonidus stayed in Tayma[11] (Belshazzar was never king[8]).

Jewish traditionEdit

Belshazzar appears in many works of classical Jewish rabbinic literature. 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 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 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 book "Moby Dick" at chapter 99 has the first mate Starbuck murmer to himself "The old man seems to read Belshazzar's awful writing" as he spies Ahab speaking to the doubloon he had nailed to the mast of the Pequod.
  • In his novel Sister Carrie, 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" 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.
  • In Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Portia disguises herself as Balthazar in Act IV, scene i.
  • Heinrich Heine wrote a short poem entitled "Belsatzar" in his collection "Junge Leiden".[16]
  • 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 Stalin is titled "Belshazzar's Feast".
Paintings, drawings
Film, television

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Britannica 2006, p. 196.
  2. ^ Dougherty 1929, p. 43.
  3. ^ "Belshazzar (king of Babylonia)". Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 2015. Retrieved 2014-07-09. 
  4. ^ Hitchcock, Roswell D. "Entry for 'Belshazzar'". "An Interpreting Dictionary of Scripture Proper Names". New York, N.Y., 1869.
  5. ^ Briant 2002, p. 41–42.
  6. ^ Collins 1984, p. 41.
  7. ^ Collins 1999, p. 219.
  8. ^ a b Seow 2003, pp. 4–6.
  9. ^ Fried, Lisbeth S. (2004). The priest and the great king : temple-palace relations in the Persian Empire. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns. p. 38. ISBN 9781575060903. 
  10. ^ Flint, Peter W.; ed. by John J. Collins; Cameron VanEpps (2002). The Book of Daniel: Composition and Reception. Leiden: Brill. p. 348. ISBN 9780391041288. 
  11. ^ a b c Beaulieu 1989: 149–205. On Tayma's importance for trade: C. Edens and G. Bawden, "History of Tayma' and Hejazi trade during the first millennium B.C.", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 32 (1989: 48–103).
  12. ^ Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Heleen (1993), "Cyropaedia", Encyclopaedia Iranica, 6.5, Costa Mesa: Mazda 
  13. ^ In Cyropaedia 7, Xenophon says that Gobryas (Greek: Ugbaru) was a governor of Gutium. This captor is not found in Herodotus, however the name was verified when the Cyrus Cylinder was translated, naming Gubaru as the leader of the forces that captured Babylon.
  14. ^ Translation by Henry Graham Dakyns, available online.
  15. ^ Gaston, Thomas (2009). Historical Issues in the Book of Daniel. Oxford: Taanathshiloh. pp. 81–84. ISBN 978-0-9561540-0-2. 
  16. ^ Kortländer, Bernd (Hrsg.), Heine, Heinrich - Sämtliche Gedichte. Kommentierte Ausgabe, Stuttgart 1997. Reclam.


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

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