Belshazzar (; Biblical Hebrew בלשאצר; Akkadian: Bēl-šarra-uṣur; Greek: Balthazar,[3] from Akkadian, meaning “Protect His Life”; or, possibly, “[May] Bel Protect the King”;[4] ) was Co-regent of Babylon, governing the country after his father, King Nabonidus, went into exile in 550 BCE. Belshazzar died after Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BCE.[1]

According to the Book of Daniel, Belshazzar holds a last great feast at which he sees a hand writing on a wall with the Aramaic words mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, which Daniel interprets as a judgment from God foretelling the fall of Babylon.

Book of Daniel
Belshazzar’s feast

Chapter 5 of the book of Daniel tells the story of Belshazzar and the writing on the wall. Belshazzar, son of King Nebuchadnezzar and King of Babylon, celebrated a great feast for a thousand of his grandees (Daniel 5:1). During the feast and under the influence of wine, Belshazzar called for the vessels from the temple of Jerusalem to be brought so that he and his guests and his wives and concubines might drink from them while praising the Babylonian gods. Obviously, this request was due to no shortage of drinking vessels, but, rather, it constituted a deliberate act of contempt and bravado by the pagan king to reproach the God of the Israelites, Yahweh (Da 5:2–4). He thereby expressed defiance to Yahweh, who had inspired the prophecies foretelling Babylon’s downfall. He was then severely shaken when a hand suddenly appeared and began writing on the palace wall. He called upon all his wise men to provide an interpretation of the written message, but to no avail, whereupon the queen gave him sound counsel, recommending Daniel as the one able to give the interpretation (Dan. 5:5–12).[5] Daniel, by inspiration, revealed the meaning of the miraculous message, predicting the fall of Babylon to the Medes and the Persians. Though the prophet condemned Belshazzar’s blasphemous act in using vessels of Yahweh’s worship in praising see-nothing, hear-nothing, know-nothing gods, Belshazzar held to his offer and proceeded to invest Daniel with the position of third-most important kingdom (Da 5:17–29). Belshazzar did not live out the night being slain in the fall of Babylon to the Medes and Persians.

Nabonidus cylinder

A cuneiform tablet dated as from the accession year of Neriglissar, who followed Amel-Marduk (Evil-merodach) on the Babylonian throne, refers to a certain “Belshazzar, the chief officer of the king”, in connection with a money transaction. It is possible that this may refer to the biblical Belshazzar. In 1924, publication was made of the decipherment of an ancient cuneiform text described as the “Verse Account of Nabonidus“,[6] and through it valuable information was brought to light clearly corroborating Belshazzar’s kingly position at Babylon and explaining the manner of his becoming coregent with Nabonidus.

Concerning Nabonidus’ conquest of Tema in his third year of rule, a portion of the text says:

This text confirms the view that Belshazzar exercised royal authority from Nabonidus’ third year onwards, and corresponds with Daniel’s reference to “the first year of Belshazzar the king of Babylon” in Daniel 7:1.[8]

The Nabonidus Chronicle
Nabonidus Chronicle

In another document, the Nabonidus Chronicle, a statement is found with regard to Nabonidus’ seventh, ninth, tenth, and eleventh regnal years. It reads: “The king (was) in Tema (while) the prince, the officers, and his army (were) in Akkad [Babylonia].”[9] Apparently Nabonidus spent much of his reign away from Babylon, and while not relinquishing his position as supreme ruler, he entrusted administrative authority to his son Belshazzar to act during his absence. This is evident from a number of texts recovered from the ancient archives proving that Belshazzar exercised royal prerogatives, that he issued orders and commands. Matters handled by Belshazzar in certain documents and orders were those that would normally have been handled by Nabonidus, as supreme ruler, had he been present. However, Belshazzar remained only second ruler of the empire, and thus he could offer to make Daniel only “the third one in the kingdom” (Dan. 5:16).[8]

Relationship to Nebuchadnezzar

At Daniel 5:2, 11, 18, 22, Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as the father of Belshazzar, and Belshazzar as Nebuchadnezzar’s son. It is probable that Belshazzar’s mother was Nitocris and that she was a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar II.[2] If so, Nebuchadnezzar could have been the grandfather of Belshazzar.[10] However, not all scholars find the evidence for such a relationship completely satisfying. It may be that Nebuchadnezzar was simply a royal predecessor. In a similar manner, the Assyrians used the expression “son of Omri” to denote a successor of Omri.[11] [4]

King of Babylon

The inscriptions of the Edict of Balshazzar (YBT 6 103) gives Belshazzar the title “crown prince”.[12] The Aramaic Qumran scroll 4Q243 fragment 2; Lines 1–2 names Belshazzar as vice-regent in Babylon during the absence of Nabonidus, while the book of Daniel gives Belshazzar’s title as “king” (Dan. 5:1–30).[13]

Since the 19th century, some historians such as Robert Dick Wilson and W. H. Stevenson have disputed Belshazzar’s reign as a king. Both Wilson[14] and Stevenson do, however, acknowledge Belshazzar as a legitimate historic figure.[15] In the Babylonian chronicles, Belshazzar is commanding the armies in the North while Nabonidus remains in Babylon. Later, after a break in the inscription, Nabonidus is with the army. John H. Raven suggests that while Nabonidus was with the Army, Belshazzar could have been placed in authority at the Capitol. Thus, it would support Daniel’s position as being “third ruler of the kingdom” (Daniel 5:29) since Belshazzar was second only to his father. Despite the overwhelming evidence that Robert D. Wilson had uncovered concerning Belshazzar’s subordinate functions to Nabonidus, John H. Raven argues that Belshazzar would have been addressed as king and spoken of as such.[16]

In 1979, an archaeological discovery was unearthed in northern Syria, that of a life-sized statue of a ruler of ancient Gozan. On its skirt were two inscriptions, one in Assyrian and the other in Aramaic—the language of the Belshazzar account in Daniel. The two almost identical inscriptions had one outstanding difference. The text in the imperial Assyrian language says that the statue was of “the governor of Gozan”. The text in Aramaic, the language of the local people, describes him as “king”.[8] Archaeologist and language scholar Alan Millard writes: “In the light of the Babylonian sources and of the new texts on this statue, it may have been considered quite in order for such unofficial records as the Book of Daniel to call Belshazzar ‘king.’ He acted as king, his father’s agent, although he may not have been legally king. The precise distinction would have been irrelevant and confusing in the story as related in Daniel.”[17]

Those who wielded sovereign power in Babylonia were expected to be exemplars in reverencing the gods. There are six cuneiform texts concerning events from the 5th to the 13th year of Nabonidus’ reign that demonstrate Belshazzar’s devotion to Babylonian deities. As acting king in Nabonidus’ absence, Belshazzar is shown in the documents to have offered gold, silver, and animals to the temples in Erech and Sippar, thereby comporting himself in a manner consistent with his royal position.[8]

In Cyropaedia (4.6.3), Xenophon refers to a son of the Babylonian king whom he also calls a king, and this son/king was reigning in Babylon when Cyrus was preparing his army to advance against the city. Xenophon, without giving his name, also repeatedly refers to the “king” that was slain when Babylon fell to the army of Cyrus.

Achaemenid invasion

Cyropaedia is a historical romance written in the early 4th century BCE by Xenophon and it is considered to be a partly fictional biography of Cyrus the Great. Cyropaedia (4.6.3), but not Herodotus, describes two kings reigning over the Babylonian kingdom when the city fell, father and son, and it was the younger king, who was reigning when the city was taken and who was killed that night. Cyropaedia does not name either king.

Cyropaedia (7.5.20-33), in agreement with Herodotus (I.292), says that the combined Median and Persian army entered the city via the channel of the Euphrates river, the river having been diverted into trenches that Cyrus had dug for the invasion, and that the city was unprepared because of a great festival that was being observed. Cyropaedia (7.5.26-35) describes the capture of Babylon by Gobryas,[18] who led a detachment of men to the capital and slew the king of Babylon. In 7.5.25, Gobryas remarks that “this night the whole city is given over to revelry”, including to some extent the guards. Those who opposed the forces under Gobryas were struck down, including those outside the banquet hall. The capture of the city, and the slaying of the son king of the king (4.6.3), is described in Cyropaedia (7:5.26-30) as follows:

(26) Thereupon they entered; and of those they met some were struck down and slain, and others fled into their houses, and some raised the hue and cry, but Gobryas and his friends covered the cry with their shouts, as though they were revellers themselves. And thus, making their way by the quickest route, they soon found themselves before the king’s palace. (27) Here the detachment under Gobryas and Gadatas found the gates closed, but the men appointed to attack the guards rushed on them as they lay drinking round a blazing fire, and closed with them then and there. (28) As the din grew louder and louder, those within became aware of the tumult, till, the king bidding them see what it meant, some of them opened the gates and ran out. (29) Gadatas and his men, seeing the gates swing wide, darted in, hard on the heels of the others who fled back again, and they chased them at the sword’s point into the presence of the king. (30) They found him on his feet, with his drawn scimitar in his hand. By sheer weight of numbers they overwhelmed him: and not one of his retinue escaped, they were all cut down, some flying, others snatching up anything to serve as a shield and defending themselves as best they could.[19]

Both Xenophon and Daniel 5 describe the demise of Belshazzar as occurring on the night that the city was taken.[20] Xenophon, Herodotus, and Daniel agree that the city was taken by surprise, suddenly, at the time of a festival, and with some (but apparently not much) loss of life. Since Cyropaedia, the silence of other classical sources regarding Belshazzar led to the denial of the historicity of Daniel’s naming Belshazzar as the king who was slain, until cuneiform evidence was found corroborating the existence of Belshazzar as the king reigning in Babylon.

Jewish tradition

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 anyone 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).