(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. The fall of Babylon is dated to 539 BC, and critics noted that king Nabonidus was in power as the final king of Babylon. 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: Let’s consider several questions surrounding this complex topic:

Was Belshazzar a historical invention of Daniel? No! Contrary to the critics, many extrabiblical findings have demonstrated that Belshazzar not only existed, but he was 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] Indeed, the Nabonidus Cylinder (1853) states, “May it be that I, Nabonidus, king of Babylon, never fail you. And may my firstborn, Belshazzar, worship you with all his heart (Nabonidus Cylinder, 3.3-31).[3] While Nabonidus ruled 500 miles south in Tema, Belshazzar ruled the kingdom.[4]

Thus, the recording of Belshazzar helps to support an early dating of Daniel. After all, Belshazzar had fallen out of the historical memory of both 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. Think about it: If Daniel was writing in the second century BC, then how did he correctly identify this historical detail, when other historians omitted this for centuries before him?

Was Belshazzar the son of Nabonidus, or the son of Nebuchadnezzar? Belshazzar is called the son of Nebuchadnezzar several times in this passage—not the son of Nabonidus. How can we resolve this? Several options are plausible:

OPTION #1. Nabonidus married one of Nebuchadnezzar’s daughters. Thus, Nabonidus would be Belshazzar’s father, and Nebuchadnezzar would be his grandfather.[5] 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).

OPTION #2. 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.”[6] 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.’”[7] Steinmann writes, “The normal formula to indicate a father-son relationship would be ‘Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzar,’ but that formula never occurs in Daniel… Since the formal father-son designation is never used, it is quite probable that the term ‘father’ here signifies ‘predecessor,’ and ‘son’ means ‘successor.’”[8]

Daniel understands the other details surrounding this account accurately. Consider just a few:

Daniel seemed to know that Belshazzar was a coregent with his father (Dan. 5:7). This is why he can only promise Daniel to be the “third ruler in the kingdom” (Dan. 5:7), rather than the “second ruler.” Hoffmeier comments, “Clearly Belshazzar was the crown prince who was de facto king in Babylon during his father’s absence. Amazingly, not only does the book of Daniel know that Belshazzar was the ruler, but it also contains a clue concerning his status. When Belshazzar summoned his wise men, he declared: ‘Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third ruler in the kingdom’ (Daniel 5:7). Because Belshazzar was in reality the second ruler, he could only elevate the successful interpreter to the third spot.”[9]

Daniel knew that Babylon fell instantaneously (Dan. 5:30-31). The Nabonidus Cylinder, the Cyrus Cylinder, Herodotus, and Xenophon claim that the Persians trampled the Babylonians without any serious fight. For instance, Herodotus (5th c. BC) records that Persian invaders entered Babylon where the Euphrates used to be, but the water only came up to their thighs. Regarding the Babylonians, “all this time they were dancing and celebrating a holiday which happened to fall then, until they learned the truth only too well” (Histories 1.191.2-6).

Xenophon (4th c. BC) records that the Persians rerouted the Euphrates River, and the king was consequently killed (Cyropaedia 7.5.29-30). He also states the Persians invaded on the night of a “certain festival had come round in Babylon, during which all Babylon was accustomed to drink and revel all night long” (Cyropaedia 7.5.15). Cyrus told his men, “We are going to fall upon them at a time when many of them are asleep, many drunk, and none of them in battle array. And when they find out that we are inside the walls, in their panic fright they will be much more helpless still than they are now” (Cyropaedia 7.5.20-21). This fits the context of Daniel 5 being a drunken party (Dan. 5:1), and it fits the description of the Persians taking over and killing Belshazzar without a serious fight (Dan. 5:30-31).

Did Daniel copy from Xenophon and Herodotus? This doesn’t fit with the notion that Daniel knew Belshazzar’s name (Dan. 5:7).

[1] See Antiquities 10.231. Stephen R. Miller, Daniel: New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1994), 147.

[2] Stephen R. Miller, Daniel: New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1994), 147.

[3] James Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion, 2008), 119.

[4] K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 73-74.

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

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

[7] Stephen R. Miller, Daniel: New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1994), 149.

[8] Andrew E. Steinmann, Daniel (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2008), 261-262

[9] James Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion, 2008), 119.