The writing on the wall
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"The writing on the wall", or "the handwriting on the wall", or "the writing is on the wall" or "Mene Mene", is an idiom for "imminent doom or misfortune" and for "the future is predetermined".
The expression originates from the Book of Daniel (Old Testament), Chapter 5, from the handwriting on the wall that was witnessed at a banquet hosted by King Belshazzar. As those at the feast profaned the sacred vessels pillaged from the Jerusalem Temple, a disembodied hand appeared and wrote on the palace wall the words, "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin". The visionary Daniel was summoned and interpreted this message as the imminent end for the Babylonian kingdom. That night, Belshazzar was killed and the Persians sacked the capital city.
|Chapters of the Book of Daniel|
1: Induction into Babylon
During the drunken feast, Belshazzar uses the holy golden and silver vessels, from Solomon's Temple, to praise "the gods of gold and silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone". Soon afterwards, disembodied fingers appear and write on the wall of the royal palace the words:
מנא, מנא, תקל, ופרסין
Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin
The advisers attempt to interpret the meaning. However, their natural denotations of weights and measures were superficially meaningless: "two minas, a shekel and two parts". Therefore, the King sends for Daniel, an exiled Israelite taken from Jerusalem, who had served in high office under Nebuchadnezzar. Rejecting offers of reward, Daniel warns the king of the folly of his arrogant blasphemy before reading the text. The meaning that Daniel decrypts from these words is based on passive verbs corresponding to the measure names, "numbered, weighed, divided."
And this is the writing that was inscribed: mina, mina, shekel, half-mina. This is the interpretation of the matter: mina, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; shekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; half-mina, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians. —Daniel 5:25–28
Although usually left untranslated in English translations of Daniel, these words are known Aramaic names of measures of currency: MENE, a mina (from the root meaning "to count"), TEKEL, a spelling of shekel (from the root meaning "to weigh"), PERES, half a mina (from the root meaning "to divide", but additionally resembling the word for "Persia"). The last word (prs) he read as peres not parsin. His free choice of interpretation and decoding revealed the menacing subtext: "Thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting." The divine menace against the dissolute Belshazzar, whose kingdom was to be divided between the Medes and Persians, was swiftly realized. That very night King Belshazzar is slain, and Darius the Mede becomes King.
Historical reconstruction of the fall of Babylon to Persia (539 BC) has been problematic due to the inconsistencies between the various source documents. Both the Babylonian Chronicle and the Cyrus Cylinder describe Babylon being taken "without battle" whereas the Greek historians, Herodotus, Xenophon, report that the city was besieged. The Book of Daniel implies that Babylon was taken in one night and that Belshazzar was killed.
The cuneiform texts – the Chronicle of Nabonidus, the Cyrus Cylinder and the so-called Verse Account of Nabonidus – were written after the Persian victory. They shed unfavourable light on the Babylonian king and present Cyrus II as the liberator of Babylon, the defender of the Babylonian gods and consequently as the legitimate successor to the Babylonian throne. The Cyropaedia is a historical romance, though it may contain a historical core. Herodotus, though writing long after the events, had traveled in Mesopotamia and spoken to Babylonians.
Tolini has proposed a plausible reconstruction of how Babylon fell. A receipt for reconstruction work on the Enlil Gate demonstrates that there was a forced entry into Babylon. Tolini proposes that a portion of the Persian army under the command of the general Ugbaru, penetrated the Enlil Gate, which is on the West side of the Euphrates, then crossed the river to take the eastern districts of Babylon. This may be source of the story, recorded by Herodotus, that the Persian army entered Babylon along the riverbed, having diverted the Euphrates. This surprise capture of Babylon is consistent with the story recorded in Daniel 5.
The success of Ugbaru's strategy may owe something to the timing of his attack. Herodotus, Xenophon and Daniel 5 all record that Babylon was in the midst of a festival on the night it was taken. The Babylonian Chronicle records that Babylon was captured on 16th Tašrîtu, which was the night before the akitu festival in honour of Sin, the moon-god.
Xenophon describes how Gobryas (probably a Greek form of Ugbaru) led a detachment of men in the capture of Babylon and that it was he who slew the king of Babylon. Xenophon is the only source, outside Daniel 5, to describe the demise of Belshazzar.
Babylon found itself under a foreign rule for the first time. A new system of government was put in place and the Persian multi-national-state was developed. This system of government reached its peak after the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses during the reign of Darius I, thereafter receiving its ideological foundation in the inscription of the Persian kings.
Some Rabbinic interpretations (see especially Sanhedrin 22a in the Babylonian Talmud), seek to explain why Daniel could read the writing when no one else could, and suggest that the words were written in code. One possibility offered is that it was an atbash cipher, another being that the written Aramaic and Hebrew looked very different, even though they were pronounced similarly. Another idea given is that gematriyatic equivalents for the words were written. Others offered the opinion that the words were written backwards or vertically in classic Jewish tradition.
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- The incident is both recounted and illustrated during the Middle Ages, perhaps most notably in the Pearl Poet's poem Cleanness.
- Belshazzar's Feast (Walton) is a cantata by the English composer William Walton. The work has remained one of Walton's most celebrated compositions and one of the most popular works in the English choral repertoire.
- In John Cheever's short story "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin," the narrator encounters graffiti (one example running several pages) in various public washrooms.
- In Robert Louis Stevenson's book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll explains that his experience as Mr. Hyde was "like the Babylonian finger on the wall, to be spelling out the letters of my judgment . . . "
- In the musical revue Pins and Needles, a song entitled "Mene, Mene, Tekel" uses the tale as allegory describing contemporary social injustices.
- In Samuel Beckett's Endgame, Hamm asks of Clov, "and what do you see on your wall? Mene, mene? Naked bodies?"
- In Voltairine de Cleyre's last poem, "Written in Red, the first verse begins:
Written in red their protest stands,
For the Gods of the World to see;
On the dooming wall their bodiless hands
Have blazoned "Upharsin," and flaring brands
Illumine the message: "Seize the lands!
Open the prisons and make men free!"
Flame out the living words of the dead
- In Jose Rizal's second novel El Filibusterismo, Crisostomo Ibarra, disguised as Simoun, planted an explosive disguised as a kerosene lamp in a reception party in Captain Tiago's house, in an attempt to kill all high-ranking officials of the society and the church which will attend. He also leaves a note behind, "Mene, Thecel, Pares", plus his name in his own handwriting.
- In the novel City of Ashes, part of The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, Clary uses her stele to write a rune on Valentine's boat. Although the rune simply means "Open," Clary's extraordinary powers amplify it so as to destroy the ship by ripping apart its bolts. Valentine looks on in awed horror and says, "mene mene tekel upharsin," because he realizes that Clary's powers represent a massive change in the order of things, which will lead to the Clave's, or his own, doom.
- In Philip K. Dick's novel A Maze of Death, Seth and Mary Morley lived in 'Tekel Upharsin Kibbutz' before moving to Delmak-O.
- In V. by Thomas Pynchon, Rachel leaves a written note on a wall to the schlemihl Benny Profane. In response to it Stencil states to Profane, "Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin." implying his impending demise. (Chapt. 15, pg 448)
- The Einstürzende Neubauten song Wüste also has the line "mene, mene tekel, upharshin" in the lyrics.
- "The Writing On the Wall" is the finale song of the musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
- The characters of Bertie and Aunt Dahlia discuss a reference to Belshazzar's Feast in chapter 9 of the novel Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse.
- In Chapter 119 (The Candles) of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Ishmael ominously describes the appearance of St. Elmo's Fire ("The corpusants!") on their whaling ship, the Pequod, when he writes, "...when God's burning finger has been laid on the ship, when His 'Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin' has been woven into the shrouds and the cordage."
- Elwell, Philip Comfort, Walter A. (2004). The complete book of who's who in the Bible. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers. p. 113. ISBN 0842383697.
- note to Daniel 5:25, The New American Bible, November 11, 2002, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
- Histories I.191; Cyropaedia VI.5.15–16; Gaston 2009, pp. 88–89.
- IsIAO, edited by A. Panaino; G. Pettinato. With the collaboration of G. P. Basello; A. Piras. Università di Bologna & (2002). Ideologies as intercultural phenomena : proceedings of the Third Annual Symposium of the Assyrian and Babylonian Intellectual Heritage Project ; held in Chicago, USA, October 27–31, 2000 ; [Melammu symposia, vol. III]. Milano: Ed. Mimesis. pp. 144, 149–150. ISBN 8884831075.
- Tolini, Gauthier (2005). "Quelques elements concernant la prise de Babylone par Cyrus". ARTA.
- Gaston, Thomas (2009). Historical Issues in the Book of Daniel. Oxford: Taanathshiloh. pp. 86–105. ISBN 978-0-9561540-0-2.
- Wolters, A (1995). "Belshazzar's Feast and the Cult of the Moon God Sin". Bulletin of Biblical Research 4: 199–206.
- Gaston, Thomas (2009). Historical Issues in the Book of Daniel. Oxford: Taanathshiloh. pp. 81–84. ISBN 978-0-9561540-0-2.
- Melammu Symposia Vol.3, Ideologies, p.143
- Kennedy, p. 302
- Ward, David. "David Ward, "The six greatest works of William Walton". ''The Guardian'', 15 July 2002". Guardian. Retrieved 2012-02-20.
- Towner, W. S. (1984), Daniel: Interpretation Commentary, Atlanta: John Knox Press, ISBN 0-8042-3122-2.
- Goldingay, J. E. (1989), Daniel: Word Biblical Commentary, Dallas: Word Books, ISBN 0-8499-0229-0.
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version, Oxford University Press, 1972.