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Belshazzar (pron.: //; Biblical Hebrew בלשאצר; Akkadian: Bēl-šarra-uṣur) "Bel, protect the king", sometimes called Balthazar (//), was a 6th century BC prince of Babylon, the son of Nabonidus and the last king of Babylon according to the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. In Daniel 5 and 8, Belshazzar is the King of Babylon before the advent of the Medes and Persians. Although there is evidence that Belshazzar existed, his famous narrative and its details are only recorded in the Book of Daniel, which tells the story of Belshazzar seeing the writing on the wall.
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 BC, leaving him in charge of Babylon's defense. In 540 BC, Nabonidus returned from Tayma, hoping to defend his kingdom from the Persians who were planning to advance on Babylon. 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 BC, Nabonidus surrendered and fled from Cyrus. Two days later the Persian armies overthrew the city of Babylon.
Belshazzar in literature 
The name Belshazzar, Akkadian: Bēl-šarra-uṣur) "Bel, protect the king," (Heb: Belshatztzar) occurs in the Book of Daniel, Chapter 5. In verses 1–4, Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as the father of Belshazzar, rather than as his grandfather. The same claim is made in the deuterocanonical Book of Baruch, which may have been written in the 2nd century BC. Many Biblical commentators argue that the description covers a broad semantic range of relationships, including forefather or predecessor'.' This occurs in other Biblical texts, as when the term is applied to the Patriarch Abraham, as "the father" of King David, though they are separated by several generations. (The Hebrew word for father, av, is nonspecific as to immediacy of relation, and as such can often mean forefather.)
Historicity of Belshazzar 
The book of Daniel states that Belshazzar was "king" (Ar. מֶלֶך) the night that Babylon fell (chap. 5) and says that his "father" (Ar. אַב) was Nebuchadnezzar (5:2, 11, 13, 18). Evidence from Babylon has verified the existence of Belshazzar as well as his co-regency during the absence of his father, Nabonidus, in Temâ. Prior to 1854, he had been an enigma for historians and archeologists who knew nothing of Belshazzar outside the book of Daniel. While the deuterocanonical Book of Baruch (Baruch 1:11, 12) and the writings of Josephus (Antiquities 10.11.2-4 §231-247) do mention Belshazzar, the references to Belshazzar in these works were ultimately dependent on the book of Daniel. Both Xenophon (Cyropaedia, 7.5.28-30) and Herodotus (The Histories, 1.191) recount the fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Great, yet neither of these writers give the name of the king of Babylon. Additionally, both Berossus’ and Ptolemy's king lists have Nabonidus (Akk. Nabû-nā'id) as the last king of Babylon with no mention of Belshazzar.
Evidence of existence 
According to the Nabonidus Cylinder, Nabonidus petitions the god Sin as follows: "And as for Belshazzar my firstborn son, my own child, let the fear of your great divinity be in his heart, and may he commit no sin; may he enjoy happiness in life". In addition, The Verse Account of Nabonidus (British Museum tablet 38299) states: "[Nabonidus] entrusted the army (?) to his oldest son, his first born, the troops in the country he ordered under his command. He let everything go, entrusted the kingship (Akk. šarrûtu) to him, and, himself, he started out for a long journey. The military forces of Akkad marching with him, he turned to Temâ deep in the west" (Col. II, lines 18 - 29. 18).
Relation to Nebuchadnezzar 
The Book of Daniel calls Nebuchadnezzar the "father" of Belshazzar, whereas both the Nabonidus Cylinder and the Verse Account name Nabonidus as the father of Belshazzar. No known extrabiblical text indicates a blood relation between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. It has sometimes been proposed that Nebuchadnezzar was the maternal grandfather of Belshazzar; Nabonidus was a usurper and marriage to the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar might have given legitimacy to his reign. The name of Belshazzar's mother is not known so it is impossible to verify this proposal.
There were several rulers over Babylon between the death of Nebuchadnezzar and the rulership of Nabonidus and Belshazzar. Some have attributed the lack of mention of these rulers as indicating the author mistakenly thought that the two rulerships were consecutive. The Jewish Encyclopedia, holding to a later date of the book of Daniel, supposes that "during the long period of oral tradition the unimportant kings of Babylon might easily have been forgotten, and the last king, who was vanquished by Cyrus, would have been taken as the successor of the well-known Nebuchadnezzar".
Perhaps the most straightforward explanation is that 'ab ("father") and bar ("son") should be translated in the dynastic sense of predecessor and successor (cf. NLT, HCSB, ESVn) as in other ancient texts. For example, the 9th-century Assyrian Black Obelisk lists Jehu as the "son of Omri" even though Jehu was from a different lineage and did not take the crown directly after Omri.
Belshazzar's regency 
There is no evidence that Belshazzar ever officially held the title of "king" (šarru) as he is never called such in the Nabonidus Cylinder. In line with the statement in the Verse Account that Nabonidus "entrusted the kingship" (šarrûtu) to Belshazzar in his absence, there is evidence that Belshazzar's name was used with his father's in oath formulas, that he was able to pass edicts, lease farmlands, and receive the "royal privilege" to eat the food offered to the gods. Co-regencies were not that uncommon in the Ancient Near East. Some scholars have argued that the non-observance of the Akitu during Nabonidus' absence demonstrates that Belshazzar was not the "king" since it shows that he could not officiate over the festival. However, The Verse Account of Nabonidus says, "Nabonidus said: 'I shall build a temple for him (the Moon god Sin)...till I have achieved this, till I have obtained what is my desire, I shall omit all festivals, I shall order even the New Year's festival to cease!'" Thus, the halting of the Akitu may have been done by the king's command rather an inability on the part of Belshazzar.
The available information concerning Belshazzar's regency goes silent after Nabonidus' fourteenth year. According to the Nabonidus Chronicle, Nabonidus was back from Temâ by his seventeenth year and celebrated the New Year's Festival (Akk. Akitu). Whether or not Belshazzar continued his regency under his father's authority after his return cannot be demonstrated from the available documents.
Belshazzar is never explicitly described as the sole and independent king in the book of Daniel. The Aramaic term מלך (mlk, king) used in Daniel is not synonymous with the Akkadian šarru and could be used to translate titles of various levels of high ranking officials. (This can be seen in the case of a 9th century BC Akkadian/Aramaic bilingual inscription found at Tel Fekheriyeh in 1979 which reads "king" for the Akkadian "governor".) In Daniel 5:7, 16, 29 Belshazzar offers to make Daniel third ruler in the kingdom, implying that he is the only second ruler. Daniel is not writing an official state document for Babylon; the term mlk would have been an entirely appropriate word for a Jewish captive who perceived Belshazzar to be the de facto ruler, even if he was not technically šarru.
Views of Belshazzar 
Classical antiquity 
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.
Rabbinic literature 
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 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).
In art and popular culture 
- Oratorio Il convito di Baldassarro by Pirro Albergati, composed in 1691.
- Oratorio Belshazzar by George Frideric Handel, composed in the late summer of 1744.
- Incidental music Belshazzar's Feast by Jean Sibelius, op. 51, composed in 1906.
- Cantata Belshazzar's Feast by Sir William Walton, composed in 1930-1.
- 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'."
- 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 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.
- 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.
- Paintings, drawings
- Belshazzar's Feast is a painting by Rembrandt van Rijn created around 1635.
- Belshazzar's Feast is a painting by John Martin from c. 1821.
- In The Hand-Writing upon the Wall (1803), James Gillray caricatured Napoleon in the role of Belshazzar.
- 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".
- Film, television
- Belshazzar is a main character in one of the four stories presented in D. W. Griffith's film Intolerance (1916).
- Belshazzar is played by Michael Ansara in the 1953 William Castle film, Slaves of Babylon.
- Belshazzar was featured in the Season one, Episode two of the Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple, entitled "The Golden Cup of Belshazzar."
See also 
- Biblical archaeology (excavations and artifacts)
- Cylinder of Nabonidus
- List of artifacts significant to the Bible
- The Verse Account of Nabonidus
- Collins 1994, p. 32
- Gaston, Thomas (2009). Historical Issues in the Book of Daniel. Oxford: Taanathshiloh. pp. 76–80. ISBN 978-0-9561540-0-2.
- Archer, G. L. (1973). A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago: Moody Press. pp. 382–3.
- Gaston, Thomas (2009). Historical Issues in the Book of Daniel. Oxford: Taanathshiloh. pp. 80–81. ISBN 978-0-9561540-0-2.
- Miller 1994, p. 149
- Wilson 1917, pp. 107–111
- Shea 1982, pp. 148–9
- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: K-P, By Geoffrey W. Bromiley, see "Nebonidus," pp 468-470
- Hasel 1977, p. 168, note 91
- Millard 1977, p. 71
- Young 2009, p. 115
- Gaston, Thomas (2009). Historical Issues in the Book of Daniel. Oxford: Taanathshiloh. pp. 69–76. ISBN 978-0-9561540-0-2.
- James B. Jordan, for example, argues for mother of Belshazzar also being the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar on the basis of Jeremiah 27:6-7. Jordan, James B. (2007). The Handwriting on the Wall: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel. American Vision. pp. 271–272.
- Kortländer, Bernd (Hrsg.), Heine, Heinrich - Sämtliche Gedichte. Kommentierte Ausgabe, Stuttgart 1997. Reclam.
Further reading 
- Oppenheim, A. Leo (1977), Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Rev. ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-63186-9.
- Gaston, T. E. (2009), Historical Issues in the Book of Daniel, Oxford: Taanathshiloh, ISBN 978-0-9561540-0-2.