Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Cyrus

Following the rise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in the late 7th century BC and the subjugation of the Kingdom of Judah, many of the former residents of Judah were eventually taken into captivity in Babylon as a result of rebellion against Babylonian rule. In three waves of exile, citizens of Judah were taken to Babylon and the surrounding area and forced to remain there until the Persians eventually conquered Babylon and allowed the various subjugated nations to return to their homelands. The oldest currently known copy of the book of Daniel dates to the 2nd century BC, although the book itself and other ancient writers state that it was composed by Daniel in Babylon during the 6th century BC. The story begins by describing the capture of Daniel and others as taking place in the 3rd year of King Jehoiakim of Judah, which occurred in ca. 605 BC. Prominent characters in the narrative include Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon, Belshazzar the co-regent of Babylon, King Darius I of Persia, and Cyrus king of Persia.

Nebuchadnezzar II (“Nabu [god of wisdom and son of Marduk] preserve my firstborn son”), the Babylonian king who conquered Judah and took many people into exile, reigned from ca. 605-562 BC following the death of his father King Nabopolassar. The Babylonian Chronicle, also referred to as the Jerusalem Chronicle, briefly describes the rise of Nebuchadnezzar, the subjugation of the Levant connected to the captivity of Daniel, and the 1st siege of Jerusalem culminating in the capture of King Jehoiachin and appointment of King Zedekiah as a vassal ruler of Babylon (ABC 5; cf. 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Jeremiah, Daniel).

Nebuchadnezzar also commissioned numerous inscriptions and construction projects, many of which have been recovered through archaeological investigation. The book of Daniel describes that Nebuchadnezzar had done much building in Babylon during his reign, and specifically mentions his palace. “All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. 12 months later he was walking upon the royal palace of Babylon. The king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?’” (Daniel 4:28-30). An inscribed brick recovered from excavations records the building of a royal palace in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II, confirming one of the specific building projects of this king. Many other, similar building inscriptions attribute a massive amount of building to Nebuchadnezzar II, who is one of the best attested kings of antiquity.

A former major historical issue with the book of Daniel was the reference to a Babylonian ruler named Belshazzar (Daniel 5, 7, 8). Because no ancient evidence had been recovered that confirmed his existence until archaeological discoveries brought new information to light, skeptics asserted that the book of Daniel was historically inaccurate and full of alleged errors like the “mythical” Belshazzar. According to the book of Daniel, Belshazzar offered 3rd place in the kingdom as a reward rather than 2nd the more obvious 2nd place in the kingdom. “The king called loudly to bring in the conjurers, the Chaldeans, and the diviners. The king spoke and said to the wise men of Babylon, ‘Any man who can read this writing and explain its interpretation to me shall be clothed with purple and a necklace of gold around his neck, and have authority as 3rd in the kingdom’” (Daniel 5:7). This puzzled scholars, since Belshazzar is referred to as “king” in the book of Daniel and offers the position of 3rd in the kingdom. However, a clay cylinder was found at the Temple of Shamash in the city of Sippara which contains a cuneiform inscription about King Nabonidus of Babylon and his son Belshazzar. This artifact is commonly known as the Nabonidus Cylinder. The relevant portion reads: “And as for Belshazzar my firstborn son, my own child, let the fear of your great divinity be in his heart, and may he commit no sin; may he enjoy happiness in life” (Nabonidus Cylinder). This inscription demonstrated that Belshazzar was the firstborn son of the Babylonian king Nabonidus and thus part of the ruling line during the lifetime of Daniel. Another ancient document, called the Nabonidus Chronicle, explains how the first born son of Nabonidus was installed as ruler in the absence of his father. “[Nabonidus] entrusted the army to his oldest son, his first born, the troops in the country he ordered under his command. 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” (Nabonidus Chronicle). A cuneiform tablet concerning the dedication of a temple to Eanna in Uruk from 539 BC names Nabonidus as king of Babylon and provides further historical context for the events. The tablet dates to the last year of the Babylonian empire, ca. 539 BC, just before Cyrus of Persia invaded and captured Babylon, demonstrating that Nabonidus was away from Babylon at this time. These three documents reveal that Belshazzar was made acting king in Babylon while his father Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, was away from the capital. Since Nabonidus was still alive and the primary king, he was 1st in the kingdom, Belshazzar his son, heir, and co-regent was 2nd in the kingdom, and thus Daniel could only have been offered 3rd place in the kingdom as a reward.

The book of Daniel also describes the capture of the city of Babylon by the Persians in ca. 539 BC and the subsequent rule of the Persians. The narrative indicates that the Medes and Persians would conquer Babylon and relates how Belshazzar was slain, but records nothing about a battle. “’Your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians.’ Then Belshazzar spoke, and they clothed Daniel with purple and put a necklace of gold around his neck and issued a proclamation concerning him that he now had authority as 3rd in the kingdom. That same night Belshazzar king of Chaldea was slain. So Darius the Mede received the kingdom at about the age of 62” (Daniel 5:28-31). Cyrus II, the Great, ruled the Achaemenid Persian Empire ca. 559-529 BC. He combined and expanded the Median and Persian empires into what became the largest empire on earth during ancient times. A major obstacle to the rise of this new empire was the dominant Neo-Babylonian Empire. Cyrus and his armies dealt with this obstacle through military victory. A key document records the capture of Babylon in 539 BC by Cyrus without any mention of a battle: "…the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without battle. Afterwards, Nabonidus was arrested in Babylon when he returned there… [later] Cyrus entered Babylon, green twigs were spread in front of him. The state of peace was imposed upon the city” (Nabonidus Chronicle). The Cyrus Cylinder affirms the capture of Babylon without a battle. “Marduk, the great lord, a protector of his people, beheld with pleasure his [Cyrus’] good deeds and his upright mind, ordered him to march against his city Babylon…Without any battle, he made him enter his town Babylon, sparing Babylon any calamity” (Cyrus Cylinder). Therefore, multiple ancient records and inscriptions agree with the narrative in the book of Daniel concerning specifics such as the construction projects of Nebuchadnezzar II, the acting regent of Babylon named Belshazzar who reigned while Nabonidus was away, the absence of a battle for Babylon, and that a leader other than Cyrus the Great initially led the army into Babylon during the conquest of the city.


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