Belshazzar's feast

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John Martin, Belshazzar's Feast, c.1821; half-size sketch held by the Yale Center for British Art

Belshazzar's feast, or the story of the writing on the wall (chapter 5 in the Book of Daniel) tells how Belshazzar holds a great feast and drinks from the Temple vessels. A hand appears and writes on the wall. The terrified Belshazzar calls for his wise men, but they are unable to read the writing. The queen advises him to send for Daniel, renowned for his wisdom. Daniel reminds Belshazzar of his father Nebuchadnezzar, who when he became arrogant was thrown down until he learned that God has sovereignty over the kingdom of men. Belshazzar has blasphemed God, and so God sent this hand. Daniel then reads the message and interprets it: God has numbered Belshazzar's days, he has been weighed and found wanting, and his kingdom will be given to the Medes and the Persians.

That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean (Babylonian) king was killed, and Darius the Mede received the kingdom.

— Daniel 5:30-31[1]

The message of Daniel 5 is the contrast it offers between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar:

  • Nebuchadnezzar is humbled by God, learns his lesson (he acknowledges the ultimate kingship of the Jewish God), and is restored to his throne;
  • Belshazzar, in contrast, learns nothing from Nebuchadnezzar's example, blasphemes against God, and has his kingdom given to others.[2]


Rembrandt, Belshazzar's Feast, 1635, (National Gallery, London). The message is written in vertical lines starting at the top right corner, with "upharsin" taking two lines.

Narrative summary[edit]

From C.L. Seow's commentary on Daniel [1]
King Belshazzar holds a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and commands that the Temple vessels from Jerusalem be brought in so that they can drink from them, but as the Babylonians drink a hand appears and writes on the wall. Belshazzar calls for his magicians and diviners to interpret the writing, but they are unable even to read them. The queen advises Belshazzar to send for Daniel, renowned for his wisdom. Daniel is brought in, and the king offers to make him third in rank in the kingdom if he can interpret the writing. Daniel declines the honour, but agrees to the request. He reminds Belshazzar that Nebuchadnezzar's greatness was the gift of God, and that when he became arrogant God threw him down until he learned humility: "the Most High God has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and sets over it whomever He will." Belshazzar has drunk from the vessels of God's Temple and praised his idols, but he has not given honour to God, and so God sent this hand and wrote these words:

מנא, מנא, תקל, ופרסין

Daniel reads the words, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN, and interprets them for the king: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed and found wanting; and PERES, the kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians. "Then Belshazzar gave the command, and Daniel was clothed in purple, a chain of gold was put around his neck, and a proclamation was made ... that he should rank third in the kingdom; [and] that very night Belshazzar the Chaldean (Babylonian) king was killed, and Darius the Mede received the kingdom."

The writing on the wall[edit]

For reasons which are not explained in the tale the Chaldean wise men are unable to read the writing on the wall, let alone interpret it. As Aramaic was written with consonants alone, they may have lacked any context in which to make sense of them. Daniel supplies vowels in two different ways, first reading the letters as nouns, then interpreting them as verbs.[3]

The words Daniel reads are monetary weights: a mena, equivalent to a Jewish mina or sixty shekels, (several ancient versions have only one mena instead of two), a tekel, equivalent to a shekel, and parsin, meaning "half-pieces". The last involves a word-play on the name of the Persians, suggesting not only that they are to inherit Belshazzar's kingdom, but that they are two peoples, Medes and Persians.[4]

Having read the words as nouns Daniel then interprets them as verbs, based on their roots: mina is interpreted as meaning "numbered", tekel, from a root meaning to weigh, as meaning "weighed" (and found wanting), and peres, the singular form of dual parsin, from a root meaning to divide, as meaning the kingdom is to be "divided" and given to the Medes and Persians. (A curious point is that the various weights — a mina or sixty shekels, another shekel, and two half-shekels — add up to 62, which is noted in the last verse as the age of Darius the Mede).[5]

Composition and structure[edit]

It is generally accepted that the Book of Daniel originated as a collection of folktales among the Jewish community in Babylon in the Persian and early Hellenistic periods (5th to 3rd centuries BCE), and was later expanded in the Maccabean era (mid-2nd century) with the visions of chapters 7-12.[6] Modern scholarship agrees that Daniel is a legendary figure,[7] and it is possible that his name was chosen for the hero of the book because of his reputation as a wise seer in Hebrew tradition.[8]

Chapters 2-7 of the book form a chiasm (a poetic structure in which the main point or message of a passage is placed in the centre and framed by further repetitions on either side):[9]

  • A. (chapter 2) – A dream of four kingdoms replaced by a fifth
    • B. (chapter 3) – Daniel's three friends in the fiery furnace
      • C. (chapter 4) – Daniel interprets a dream for Nebuchadnezzar
      • C'. (chapter 5) – Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall for Belshazzar
    • B'. (chapter 6) – Daniel in the lions' den
  • A'. (chapter 7) – A vision of four world kingdoms replaced by a fifth

Daniel 5 is thus composed as a companion-piece to Daniel 4, the tale of the madness of Nebuchadnezzar, the two giving variations on a single theme. This is spelled out in chapter 5 when Daniel draws a direct parallel between the two kings: the fate of Belshazzar illustrates what happens when a king does not repent.[10]

Daniel 5 does not divide neatly into scenes and scholars do not agree on its structure. The following is one possible outline:[11]

  1. The king's banquet and the mysterious oracle: the king desecrates the sacred vessels, the hand writes on the wall (verses 1-6)
  2. Attempts to interpret the oracle: the Chaldean sages fail, the queen recommends Daniel (verses 7-12)
  3. Daniel appears before Belshazzar: Daniel addresses and rebukes the king, interprets the oracle, and is rewarded (verses 10-12)
  4. Conclusion: Belshazzar's death, Darius' accession (verses 30-31)

Historical background[edit]

Cyrus the Great liberating the Jews from the Babylonian captivity.

The story is set around the fall of Babylon, when on 12 October 539 BCE the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great entered the city. Its last king, Nabonidus, was captured, and his fate is unknown, although he may have been exiled.[12] Several details in the text do not match the known historical facts: Belshazzar is portrayed as king of Babylon and son of Nebuchadnezzar, but was actually the son of King Nabonidus, one of Nebuchadnezzar's successors, and never became king; the conquerer is named as Darius the Mede, but no such individual is known to history; and the invaders were not Medes, but Persians.[13] This is typical of the story's genre, in which historical accuracy is not an essential element.[14]

The constituent elements of the Book of Daniel were assembled shortly after the end of the Maccabean crisis, which is to say shortly after 164 BCE.[15] The tales making up chapters 2 to 6 are the earliest part, dating from the late 4th or early 3rd centuries. Their setting is Babylon, and there is no reason to doubt that they were composed in the Babylonian diaspora (i.e., among the Jewish community living in Babylon and Mesopotamia under Persian and then Greek rule). They reflect a society in which foreign rulers were not necessarily malevolent (Belshazzar rewards Daniel and raises him to high office); this is a marked contrast with the visions of chapters 7-12, where the sufferings of the Jews are the result of actions by the evil 2nd century king Antiochus IV.[16]

Belshazzar's feast is a legend, conforming to the subgenre of the "tale of court contest". This has been complicated by the inclusion of Daniel's indictment of Belshazzar's pride and his failure to honour the God of Israel; as a result the tale has a double ending, in which Daniel is first showered with rewards and honours for interpreting the omen, and the king is then punished to fulfill the sentence pronounced by Daniel.[17]

Chapters 2 and 7 tell how all worldly kingdoms will come to an end and be replaced by the kingdom of God, and chapters 3 and 6 tell how pious Jews withstand the arrogance of earthly kings and are rescued by the God of Israel. Chapters 4 and 5 form the centre and carry the most important message in their parallel but contrasting tales of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. The first is humbled by God, learns his lesson (he acknowledges the ultimate kingship of the Jewish God), and is restored to his throne; Belshazzar, in contrast, learns nothing from Nebuchadnezzar's example, blasphemes against God, and has his kingdom given to others.[2]

Art and popular culture[edit]

Belshazzar's Feast[edit]

There are many depictions of "Belshazzar's Feast" in the arts. These include, in chronological order:

Visual arts

The writing on the wall[edit]

In The Hand-Writing upon the Wall (1803), James Gillray caricatured Napoleon in the role of Belshazzar.

References to the "writing on the wall" include:

  • The incident is both recounted and illustrated during the Middle Ages, perhaps most notably in the Pearl Poet's poem Cleanness.
  • 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 The Strange Case of 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 attending. 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
  • The song "Kodachrome", also by Paul Simon, includes the lyric "... my lack of education hasn't hurt me none / I can read the writing on the wall."
  • 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."
  • In Defrage's song "Save Us from Religion," the first song on their album Jackal, 'Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin' is sung at 3:01.
  • In Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, the Writer says "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" while talking to the Professor (around 01:14:00).
  • The song "The Last Ship" by Sting hyperbolically narrates the pilgrimage to Newcastle carried out most notably by the risen Jesus of Nazareth, and other guests haunted by the significance of the last ship sailing from Newcastle's morbid shipbuilding industry, understanding the occasion as though it were "that strange moving finger at Balthazar's feast."
  • In the episode "Season's Beatings," from season 7 of American Dad!, Steve becomes an Apostate of Satan and repeats the phrases, "Satana, Satana," and "Mene, Mene, Tekel," throughout the duration of his Apostasy.
  • The song "Mene", by the American band, Brand New, references the idiom with the lyrics "Written on the wall, the letters plain and tall"

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Seow 2003, p. 74-75.
  2. ^ a b Albertz 2001, p. 178.
  3. ^ Seow 2003, p. 80.
  4. ^ Seow 2003, p. 82-83.
  5. ^ Seow 2003, p. 82-84.
  6. ^ Collins 1984, p. 29,34-35.
  7. ^ Collins 1984, p. 28.
  8. ^ Redditt 2008, p. 176-177,180.
  9. ^ Redditt 2009, p. 177.
  10. ^ Collins 1984, p. 67,70.
  11. ^ Newsom & Breed 2014, p. 165.
  12. ^ Waters, p. 44-45.
  13. ^ Seow 2003, p. 4-6.
  14. ^ Collins 1984, p. 41.
  15. ^ Collins 2002, p. 2.
  16. ^ Seow 2003, p. 7.
  17. ^ Collins 1984, p. 67.
  18. ^ Ward, David (15 July 2002). "David Ward, "The six greatest works of William Walton". ''The Guardian'', 15 July 2002". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2012-02-20.