(Dan. 5:1) Did Daniel err in making Belshazzar the king at the fall of Babylon?

CLAIM: For years, critics held that Belshazzar was a historical invention. While the fall of Babylon (the night of this event in Daniel 5) is dated to 539 BC, critics noted that king Nabonidus was in power—not Belshazzar. In fact, Belshazzar was not mentioned in any extrabiblical documents “except for the Book of Daniel and works dependent upon it, such as Baruch and Josephus’s writings.”[1] Since Nabonidus was the final king to be mentioned in the Babylon Empire, critics charged that this was an error from Daniel.

RESPONSE: In the last century, several extrabiblical documents have demonstrated that Belshazzar was actually a coregent during the time of his father Nabonidus. That is, these two kings ruled at the same time. Miller writes, “Thirty-seven archival texts dated from the first to the fourteenth year of Nabonidus now attest to Belshazzar’s historicity.”[2] While Nabonidus ruled 500 south in Tema, Belshazzar ruled the kingdom.

While Belshazzar is called the son of Nebuchadnezzar several times in this passage, this could be answered if Nabonidus married one of Nebuchadnezzar’s daughters, marrying into the family. Archer writes, “If Nabonidus married a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar in order to legitimize his usurpation of the throne back in 556 b.c., it would follow that his son by her would be the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar.”[3] Of course, the Hebrew word ab or abba can be rendered as “father” or “grandfather” (cf. Gen. 28:13; 32:10; 1 Kings 15:13).

Another solution is more persuasive, which is the fact that the terms “father” and “son” can sometimes refer to a predecessor—not necessarily a blood ancestor. Archer writes, “By ancient usage the term son often referred to a successor in the same office whether or not there was a blood relationship.”[4] Miller notes that other ancient Near Eastern passages use the term father and son in this way: “In the Assyrian text commonly referred to as the ‘Black Obelisk’ of Shalmaneser III, Jehu is called the ‘son of Omri,’ although Jehu was not a descendant of Omri. He was of another lineage altogether. ‘Son’ is unquestionably used in that text, as elsewhere, in the sense of ‘successor.’”[5]

Finally, we should note that Belshazzar had fallen out of the historical memory of Herodotus (fifth century BC) and Xenophon (fourth century BC). This means that Daniel accurately mentioned the historical figure of Belshazzar, when other historians didn’t. This helps give credibility to the fact that Daniel was an eyewitness of the events in question. (If Daniel was writing in the second century BC, then how did he get this historical detail correct, when others missed it before him?)

 

[1] Miller, Stephen R. Daniel. Vol. 18. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1994. New American Commentary. Daniel 5:1.

[2] Miller, Stephen R. Daniel. Vol. 18. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1994. New American Commentary. Daniel 5:1.

[3] Archer, Gleason. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (3rd. ed.). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 426.

[4] Archer, Gleason. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (3rd. ed.). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 426.

[5] Miller, Stephen R. Daniel. Vol. 18. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1994. New American Commentary. Daniel 5:1.