Nebuchadnezzar’s madness (Daniel 4)

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Illustration: Nebuchadnezzar was a madman at some point

Nebuchadnezzar reigned from 605-562 B.C. over Babylon at the peak of its power. Inscriptions reveal his great pride over his achievements in building temples and greatly fortifying the city of Babylon. The book of Daniel records that God struck Nebuchadnezzar with a strenge affliction in order to  humble him. Extra-biblical records deal with his infirmity only obliquely. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus cited a report by the Babylonian priest Berossus that Nebuchadnezzar died following a period of weakness. The Christian writer Eusebius preserved a tradition from the Greek historian Megasthenes (ca. 300 B.C.) that Nebuchadnezzar, having ascended to the roof of his palace, became inspired by some god. (In antiquity insanity was looked upon as possession by a deity.)

The illness described in Daniel 4:22-34 appears to have been a delusional disorder. The typical onset for this kind of malady occurs in later life; it frequently lasts from months to years and remits spontaneously, often with subsequent relapse. Lycantrophy, in which patiens imagine themselves to be wolves, is one such disorder. Nebuchadnezzar’s condition has been described as boantrophy, or cow-like behaviour. However, the imagery implied his behaviour may be related to a figure of the Gilgamesh Epic. This myth, known from the library of Ashurbanipal (668-626 B.C.), tells of Enkidu, a savage, animal-like creature who was hairy, unclothed and ate grass until becoming civilized – the antithesis of what would be expected of a cultured, self-sufficient builder of cities like Nebuchadnezzar.

Little is known of Nebuchadnezzar’s final years in power. The seven “times”, or periods (4:16, 23, 32), of the illness could represent years, months or various other units of time. If his illness lasted seven years, then it onset must have been toward the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, after the completion of his numerous building projects.


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