Nabonidus and Belshazzar (Daniel 5)

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Illustration: The Nabonidus Cylinder

Belshazzar (meaning “Bel protect the king”) was the son of the Babylonian king Nabonidus (ca. 556-539 B.C.) and the principal monarch from approximately 550 to 540 B.C. Although Nabonidus claimed to be a rightful heir to Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, it is clear that he was not originally in line to become king. An inscription found in Harran indicates that Nabonidus’ mother, Adad-guppi, was responsible for his rise to power. Some suggest that she was a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar; hence Nebuchadnezzar would have been Belshazzar’s “(grand)father” or “(fore)father” (Daniel 5:2). Others propose that Belshazzar may have played an active role in advancing his father to the throne – by murdering a man named Labasi-Marduk who had a better claim to succession.

A Babylonian text, the Verse Account of Nabonidus, relates that Nabonidus placed the military troops under Belshazzar’s command and entrusted the kingship to hm before departing to the west. During the approximate ten-year reign of Belshazzar, Nabonidus remained on campaign in Tema (Arabia). Nabonidus also was apparently devoted to the god Sin; he had no interest in the worship of Marduk (the chief Babylonian god) and even ceased to observe the traditional New Year festival. He was thus despised as a heretical and negligent monarch. Curiously, Nabonidus seems to have been one of history’s first archaeologists, having carried out excavations at Agade, Uruk and Ur.

Though always referred to as “son of the king” in Assyria sources, Belshazzar exercised all the functions of kingship, including receiving tribute, granting leases and attending to the upkeep of the temples, as attested in several business letters and contracs contemporary to his reign. He was apparently as impious as his father (seen in his lack of regard for the God of Israel), and ruthless as well. As “second” ruler, he promised Daniel the position of “third” ruler (5:16). Little is known of Belshazzar’s final years in power. Babylon was well fortified when the Persians attacked in 539 B.C., but Cyrus is said to have divirted the waters of the Euphrates and opened an access into the city. Herodotus and Xenophon relate that Cyrus found the city in celebration and took it with relative ease. Nabonidus returned to Babylon in 539 B.C. but was captured at Borsippa and exiled to Carmania in the east.


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