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The Last Kings

Of the Babylonian Empire1The idea of this article came to light, after reading the wonderful book The Challenge of Jewish History, Mosaica Press 2014, by Rabbi Alexander Hool.

Towards the end of our Pesach Haggadah,2Also found in the yotzros for Shabbos Hagadol. we find two “poems” which recount the miracles that happened throughout history on the night of Pesach. One is Vayehi Bachatzi Halayla3. Also found in the yotzros for the second day of Pesach. and the other is Va’amartem Zevach Pesach. In both of these, we mention a story. In one we find the following cryptic description: “The palm of a hand wrote to destroy a deeply founded city4Tzul mentioned in the poem, refers to Bavel, the capital of Babylonia, see tractate Shabbos 113b and Yerushalmi Brachos 30b. on Pesach, the guards guarded the laid table on Pesach.” The other poem contains a more direct but equally mysterious statement: “He who drank from sacred vessels was killed that very night.”

The questions abound: Who drank? What hand wrote about what city? Why was he killed? Who killed him? Who posted guards and why? What is the story?

Let’s go back in time…about 2,500 years!

Pesach Night – Year 3389

It is the night of Pesach and the Jews of Bavel sit around their Seder tables recounting all of the miracles of yetzias mitzrayim. The zeide is sitting at the head of the table and with great yearning, he describes the Korban Pesach that he himself experienced in Yerushalayim some fifty-two years ago. He sheds a tear as he recounts how they would bring the korban to the Beis Hamikdash and then later that night they would eat it last so the taste would linger in their mouth. The entire family responds with a hearty “Leshana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim,” full of great anticipation and deep faith, especially since the Navi prophesied it would be seventy years and the Jews will return to their rightful home.

Erev Pesach was challenging that year, both personally and nationally. On a personal level, everyone knows how hectic it is in every Jewish household on Erev Pesach. Nationally, King Cyrus the Great and his Persian army had attacked the capital city of Babylon. Belshazzar, the current king of Bavel, managed to fend off the assault and succeeded in saving his heavily fortified city. As you can well imagine, all of the inhabitants of the city breathed a sigh of relief.5Rashi, Megillah 15b, para. Bachomah.

At the very same time that the Jews were sitting at their Seder table, King Belshazzar was throwing a victory party. He summoned his nobles, wife and his concubines to come to drink with him in celebration. Feeling very haughty and proud, he ordered that the holy vessels from the Beis Hamikdash that were confiscated by Nevuchadnezzar be brought, so that everyone can enjoy drinking from them. Everyone drank and gave thanks to their idols for the great victory over the Persians. Suddenly, at the height of their revelry, they beheld an other-worldly hand go out across the lantern and inscribe an encrypted message upon the wall. (This story is the source for the well-known saying “the writing on the wall.”) Belshazzar became frantic. Trembling, he called together all of his wise men and sages to come to decipher the ominous writing. Whoever would crack the code would be appointed the third most powerful person in the kingdom, he offered, but they were all stumped. At this point, Belshazzar really began to panic and so the queen arrived. “Take it easy,” she told him. “There is a great Jewish sage who was shown and then able to interpret Nevuchadnezzar’s dream. Why don’t you ask his advice?” The great sage Daniel was then summoned. Daniel informed Belshazzar that he sinned gravely by abusing the holy vessels and his kingdom was going to fall to the Persians as punishment. Daniel’s interpretation resonated with Belshazzar as true and it came to pass that very night. The Persians launched a second attack on the city during which Belshazzar and was killed, and the rule of the Persian Empire spread over the entire civilized world.

Now we understand the answer to all of the above questions.

Who drank? Belshazzar.

What hand wrote about what city? A heavenly hand wrote about the capital of Bavel.

Why was he killed? He drank with the holy vessels.

Who killed him? Either the Persians or a Persian sympathizer.

Who posted guards and why? Belshazzar feared for his life.

Apparent Contradiction

The above story is recorded in the Book of Daniel. From this account we understand two historical details to be true. At the time the kingdom of Bavel fell: (a) Belshazzar the king was located in this city, and (b) he was killed sometime during that night.

However, in the Book of Yermiyahu, we find a prophecy regarding the fall of the Babylonian Kingdom:6Yermiyah 51:31. “Runner dashes to meet runner and messenger to meet messenger to tell the king of Bavel that his city is captured from end to end.” We understand from this verse that at the time the kingdom of Bavel fell: (a) the king was not located in the city, (b) he was very much alive!

It seems that the two versions contradict each other.

Two Kings?

Could it be that there were two kings – Belshazzar in Bavel who was killed, and another unknown king who was not on the premises at that time but was apprised of the situation via messenger? This would seem to be the easiest way to resolve this contradiction. If this is true, who might the other king be?

To further prove this theory, let’s delve into some of the verses written in the Book of Daniel. When describing the guest list to the party, the nobles are mentioned before the wife of Belshazzar. Why? If she is the queen (which normally is the wife of the king), she should be mentioned before the nobles, not afterwards!

Why does the verse call her a wife and not a queen?

When offering a reward, why did Belshazzar offer the third position in the kingdom?7As understood by the Malbim, Other commentaries explain he was offering a third of the kingdom. If he was so afraid, that he was willing to give away such a high position, why not offer the second-in-command?

After seeing the writing on the wall and panicking, the queen comes to the banquet hall to comfort Belshazzar and give him advice. If we have a queen, why hadn’t she joined her husband – the king – at the party? The Ibn Ezra answers this question by offering a heretofore unknown detail about the royal family of Bavel. The queen mentioned in the story was really Belshazzar’s grandmother, the wife of Nebuchadnezzar. Alternatively, the Chida says it was Belshazzar’s mother without mentioning who her husband was.

Who was Belshazzar?

We know the first Babylonian king was Nebuchadnezzar. After he died in the year 3364, his son Evil Merodach succeeded him. The next documented king in Nach8Melachim vol. 2 25:27 & Yirmiyah 52:31. is Belshazzar but there are various opinions regarding his identity. According to the Metzudas David,9Daniel 5:1. he was a son of Evil Merodach but according to Rashi10Daniel 5:1. he was his brother. To further confuse matters, Rashi elsewhere11Chavakuk 2:5. says Belshazzar was Nevuchadnezzar’s grandson but does not tell us who his father was.

Could it be that he was a son of a different son of Nevuchadnezzar? Was he a nephew of Evil Merodach?

Here is another interesting fact: In Medrash12Koheles Rabbah 2:8. we find Reish Lakish (in an unrelated topic) refer to Belshazzar as a “senator”, not as a king. Could it be that he wasn’t even king?

Nabonidus, King of Babylonia

The famous historian, Joseph ben Matisyahu, known as Josephus, writes in his book, Against Apion:13Against Apion, vol. 1, passage 20.

…but when he came to the seventeenth year of his reign, Cyrus came out of Persia with a great army; and having already conquered all the rest of Asia, he came hastily to Babylonia. When Nabonnedus perceived he was coming to attack him, he met him with his forces, and joining battle with him was beaten, and fled away with a few of his troops with him, and was shut up within the city Borsippus. Hereupon Cyrus took Babylon, and gave order that the outer walls of the city should be demolished, because the city had proved very troublesome to him, and cost him a great deal of pains to take it. He then marched away to Borsippus, to besiege Nabonnedus; but as Nabonnedus did not sustain the siege, but delivered himself into his hands, he was at first kindly used by Cyrus, who gave him Carmania, as a place for him to inhabit it, but sent him out of Babylonia. Accordingly, Nabonnedus spent the rest of his time in that country, and there died.

This story matches accurately with the abovementioned verse from Yermiyahu: “Runner dashes to meet runner and messenger to meet messenger to tell the King of Bavel that his city is captured from end to end.”

Obviously, we cannot accept this as factually correct for two reasons. Firstly, it still clashes with what we know from the Book of Daniel. Secondly, Josephus did not write his history based on Jewish sources. As a matter of fact, and he should be given credit for this, he brings the source for this very story:

This is what Berosus relates concerning the aforementioned king, as he relates many other things about him also in the third book of his Chaldean History.

Berosus was a Greek historian, whose writings have been lost, and most of what did survive, are the quotes which Josephus copied in his own works.14Josephus writes about him the following: “he was by birth a Chaldean, well known by the learned, on account of his publication of the Chaldean books of astronomy and philosophy among the Greeks. This Berosus, therefore, following the most ancient records of that nation, gives us a history of the deluge of waters that then happened, and of the destruction of mankind thereby, and agrees with Moses’s narration thereof. He also gives us an account of that ark wherein Noah, the origin of our race, was preserved, when it was brought to the highest part of the Armenian mountains; after which he gives us a catalogue of the posterity of Noah, and adds the years of their chronology.”

A similar account is found in the book Histories15Histories, Vol. 1, passage 188. written by Herodotus, the acclaimed father of history. He does name the king as “Labynetos” but changes the first letter of the king’s name to an ‘L’ from an ‘N’, which ends up as a very similar sounding name as Nabonidus. He does not mention where the king was when Babylon fell, however, it is very clear that he was not in the city.

Josephus was well aware of the discrepancy and in his Antiquities of the Jews,16Antiquities of the Jews, Book X, Chapter 11. he tries to merge both stories:

It came to Belshazzar, who by the Babylonians was called Nabonidus; against him did Cyrus, the king of Persia, make war…for it was Belshazzar, under whom Babylon was taken, when he had reigned seventeen years.

However, Nabonidus and Belshazzar cannot be one and the same due to the fact that Nabonidus is claimed to have been king for seventeen years,17Antiquities of the Jews, Book X, Chapter 11. while Belshazzar was king for only three years!18Seder Olam.

We find a similar account as of the book of Daniel in the ancient history book Cyropaedia,19Cyropaedia, vol. 5. written by Xenophon, another Greek historian:

When the day came, and they that guarded the castles perceived that the city was taken and the king dead, they gave up the castles.

One thing is clear. All of the secular historians agree that there is no Belshazzar in their Babylonian History!

We also see, that even the Greek Historians weren’t too sure about what happened that night and how things truly played out.

So let’s just close their books, as they don’t offer anything conclusive, and let’s try to find a third angle to solve our mystery.

Nabonidus, the father of Belshazzar

In 1854, while excavating the ruins in the ancient Chaldean town of Ur, known to us as Ur Kasdim, archaeologists unearthed several clay inscriptions, known as cuneiform. One of them, referred to as the “Nabonidus Cylinder from Ur,” contained a prayer from Nabonidus, to the moon, which he worshipped. The prayer reads as follows:

As for me, Nabonidus, king of Babylon, save me from sinning against your great godhead and grant me as a present a life long of days, and as for Belshazzar the eldest son – my offspring…20Translation by Paul-Alain Beaulieu (March 2019) Retrieved from: livius.org

The discovery of this particular cylinder exploded onto the scene of secular academia. Until that point, the very existence of Belshazzar had been refuted and held to be the concoction of Jewish Biblical “pseudohistory.” Now, it was proven that Belshazzar did in fact exist, undeniably, and that he was none other than the crown prince of Nabonidus, the king of Babylon!

But it gets even better.

In 1882, archaeologists found another enlightening cuneiform. This one was named the “Nabonidus Chronicle” and it contains a reference to Belshazzar as a senator and eventually as acting king:21Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Third Edition with Supplement, Princeton NJ, 1969, page 305.

[ii.5] The seventh year, the king (was) in Tayma (while) the prince, his officers, (and) his army (were) in Akkad. [In the month Nisannu, the king]…

[ii.10] The ninth-year Nabonidus the king (was) <in> Tayma, (while) the prince, the officers, (and) the army (were) in Akkad. The king, in the month Nisanu, to Babylon

[ii.11] did not come. Nabu did not come to Babylon. Bel did not come out. The Akitu festival did not take place.

[ii.12] The offerings were presented (to) the gods of <Babylon> and Borsippa as in normal times in Esagil and Ezida.

[ii.13] On the fifth day of the month Nisanu the queen mother, in Dur-Karašu, which is on the banks of the Euphrates upstream from Sippar,

[ii.14] she died. The prince and his army were in mourning for three days (and) there was (an official) mourning period. In the month Simanu, in Akkad,

[ii.15] there was (an official) mourning period for the queen mother…

[ii.19] The tenth year the king (was) in Tayma (while) the prince, the officers, and his army (were) in Akkad

[ii.23] The eleventh year the king (was) in Tayma (while) the prince, the officers, and his army (were) in Akkad. [The king did not come to Babylon in the month Nisanu.]

Tayma, ancient Teiman, is a largely settled oasis in north-western Saudi Arabia, far away from Babylonia. For whatever reason, Nabonidus was not in his home country. He had left his son to be in charge as acting senator,22Senato, originates from the Latin word “senex” meaning elder. as claimed by Reish Lakish, while he continued to rule the country from the city Akkad, which is not far from Babylon.

Eventually, things changed.

In a third cuneiform known as the “Verse Account of Nabonidus,” we read the following:23Ancient Near Eastern Texts, page 313.

[ii.5]…when the third year was about to begin – he entrusted the army [?] to his oldest son, his firstborn, the troops in the country he ordered under his command.

[ii.6] He let everything go, entrusted the kingship to him, and, himself, he started out for a long journey. The military forces of Akkad marching with him, he turned to Tayma deep in the west.

Eventually, Nabonidus entrusted the kingship to his eldest son, which we know from the “Nabonidus Cylinder from Ur” to be none other than Belshazzar!

Nabonidus was officially inactive far away in Tayma, the monarchy was entrusted to his oldest son, the crown prince, Belshazzar.

This collection of information is not from history books, rather from contemporary scriptures. While it must be stressed that these scriptures are not to be accepted and are not clean of bias and discrepancies, this is the best information we have today.

Gathering from what we’ve just put together, let’s extract some very important points:

  • Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus. (Nabonidus Cylinder from Ur)
  • Nabonidus left Babylonia for Tayma. (Verse Account)
  • He entrusted his army to Belshazzar as senator. (Koheles Rabbah, Nabonidus Chronicle, Verse Account)
  • He eventually entrusted the kingship itself to Belshazzar. (Book of Daniel, Verse Account)
  • After accepting the kingship, Belshazzar moved to the capital city, Babylon. (Book of Daniel)

The Night of Babylon

Now let’s watch the scenes of Babylon that very night and see how everything comes into place:

Scene 1 – Outside of Babylon

The capital of Babylon, which was a fortified city, surrounded by a strong and tall wall, was cut in two by the Dyala River. The walls were built in such a way that it was impossible to penetrate the city from the points of entry and exit of the river, for the depth of the river was the height of two men.

The Persian army viewed this entrance to the city as the best point of entry for themselves, but any attempt at underwater penetration wasn’t viable due to the depth.

So they came up with the following idea: They dug a few canals to divert most of the river’s waters, and as a result, the water level lowered dramatically, at which point the Persian army marched into the city. Babylon fell to the Persians without firing a single shot.24Herodotus, vol. 1, passage189.

They entered the palace where the king (or as we now call him the viceroy) lost his head to the Persians.

Scene 2 – Babylon

Belshazzar, who until three years ago was a senator and now appointed viceroy and acting king in Babylon, assumed he had secured the capital Babylon from the Persian army. To celebrate his great victory, he ordered a banquet, as mentioned above, and ends up losing his head.

According to this theory, we can now answer all of our questions above.

Belshazzar’s wife is not the queen, his mother, Nabonidus’’ wife who did not travel with her husband was the queen. We now understand why Belshazzar’s wife is mentioned in the verse, after the nobles. We also figured out the identity of the queen who was offering him the advice he so desperately needed. It was (as the Chida writes) his mother!

We also understand why he only was able to offer the third position in the kingdom. The second position was already occupied by himself.

Belshazzar, the acting king of Babylon, was in the city when the city fell and he was killed that very night.

Scene 3 – Sippar

Nabonidus, Belshazzar’s father, came back from Tayma to confront the Persian forces but he didn’t make it to Babylon; he fled to the outer cities. That night he was in Sippar, when “Runner dashes to meet runner and messenger to meet messenger to tell the king of Bavel that his city is captured from end to end.”25This reconciliation has been raised by Shai Valter, see The Challenge of Jewish History, page 217, note 321.

Nabonidus, the true King of Babylon, was not in the city when the city fell, nor was he killed that very night.

What a wonderful solution to solve the discrepancy between the verses in Daniel and Yermiyahu! It must be noted that this is a contemporary solution based on archaeological findings.

Tzafoh hatzafis auroch hashulchan baPesach” – “The guards guarded the laid table on Pesach”

Belshazzar ordered a banquet to celebrate his victory but he ordered this very banquet be guarded just in case the Persians do manage to penetrate the city.

Mishtakeir b’klei kodesh neherag bo balayloh” – “He who drank from the holy vessels was killed that very night.” Babylon fell to the Persians, and as strange as it may sound, the only person to pay with his life to the enemy, was the king, sorry the viceroy, a clear punishment for desecrating the holy vessels of the Beis Hamikdash.

Image Information:
Author: John Martin, 1789– 1854
Date: 1820
Title: Belshazzar’s Feast
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Image Information:
Source: Illustrerad verldshistoria
Date: 1894
Page: 176
Title: Relief of Cyrus

And to remember this miracle, which was caused by a key, the community of Prague made a Schlissel Challah the first Shabbos after every Pesach. While it would seem appropriate to mark the matzos themselves with the shape of a key, the custom is not to make any shapes on matzos.26Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 460:4. Therefore, the commemoration of the miracle is postponed until the first week after Pesach.