THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN NABONIDUS AND BELSHAZZAR
By: Homer Trecartin, Jr. 8 December 1996 Studies in Daniel Professor Pastor Donn Leatherman
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'''When 19th century historians read Daniel chapter 5 they immediately noticed a problem. Daniel states that Belshazzar was the last king of Babylon when the Persians overthrew the city in 539 B. C. However any discerning historian realized that, according to all extant documents, Nabonidus was the last king of Babylon at this time. Historical-critical scholars jumped at the opportunity and said that Daniel was not accurate in its depiction of Babylonian activities and therefore must have been written during the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, 2nd century B. C. Traditional scholars tried desperately to connive explanations. This is a serious problem and needs to be addressed. Was Nabonidus the last king of Babylon? Did Belshazzar exist and if so what was his position? New documentation has become available that greatly aids in this research.
First we must address the question of Nabonidus. As mentioned before, the Babylonian chronological listings of its kings consistently end with Nabonidus. Greek historians that have recorded the history of this period, generally agree that Nabonidus was the last king. The next king mentioned after Nabonidus is Cyrus. The evidence is very obvious that Nabonidus' was the last ruler of Babylon, however some interesting things arise from this. Where did Nabonidus come from?
Nabonidus' father was Nabu-balatsu-iqbi as indicated from various documents were Nabonidus names his father. But who was Nabu-balatsu-iqbi? In one document we find the following statement, "Nabonidus, the king of Babylon, the appointed one of Nabu and Marduk, the son of Nabu-balatsu-iqbi, the wise prince, am I" (Dougherty 17.) Nabonidus' father is called "the wise prince," "the perfect prince," "the reverer of the great gods and goddesses," and "The courageous minister." Simply, a nobleman dedicated to the worshipping of the gods. How did Nabonidus become king if his father was only a pious nobleman? To answer this question we must turn to Nabonidus' mother and his wife and see if we can learn anything of them.
We have one Babylonian record that might be talking about Nabonidus' mother. The reasons for this conclusion are too complicated for our discussion here in this paper.1 However, we can assume that this document does talk about Nabonidus' mother who is therefor probably called Shumua-damqa. According to this document Shumua-damqa was a priestess of the moon god Sin.
Herodotus uses the name Labynetus for Nabonidus, and in one of his references to Labynetus he talks of Cyrus coming to attack the wife of Labynetus and their son. Herodotus does not name the son but says that he had the same name as his father and acted in his father's place. Herodotus says the name of Labynetus' wife was Nitocris. This adds a whole new dimension to the research since Nitocris is the name of an Egyptian princess of the 26th dynasty, contemporaneous with the Babylonian dynasty of Nabopolassar. Again the details are far too difficult to discuss in depth but let it suffice to say that it is probable that Nebuchadnezzar married an Egyptian and that they had a daughter whom they named Nitocris and whom Nabonidus married.
This now leads us to question who Nabonidus was that he would be able to marry a daughter of the greatest king of this Babylonian dynasty. The records that we have do not give a genealogy of Nabonidus beyond his father's name and the possible mention of his mother, Shumua-damqa. There is no indication that Nabonidus is directly related to or descended from Nebuchadnezzar. Records do indicate, however, that he was active in Babylon as a high official even during Nebuchadnezzar's reign. A cuneiform text of Nebuchadnezzar's 8th year mentions a Nabuna'id whom it calls "the son of a man of royalty [of a king.]" Another duplicate of this text describes him with the phrase "who is over the city." His ancestry is not mentioned.2 The relation is clear. As early as the 8th year of Nebuchadnezzar, Nabonidus was over a city as its ruler, governor, or commander. The city is not mentioned by name in the text, but of all the similar texts, most deal with the major cities of the Babylonian empire such as Borsippa, Erech, and Babylon. It is unclear though which city Nabonidus was the ruler of.
His prominence can be seen in another record, that of Herodotus who tells of a certain Labynetus3 who was chosen to be the Babylonian treaty-maker that met with his Lydian counterpart, Syennesis of Cilicia. The negotiations were successful and peace was made, sealed by the marriage of the Alyattes, the Lydian's, daughter to Astyagges, the Mede.4 All this took place in the 20th year of Nebuchadnezzar. It is almost certain that Labynetus was Nabonidus at least in Herodotus' mind and this fits quite well with the data mentioned already. If Nabonidus was old enough and skilled enough to be the ruler of a city during Nebuchadnezzar's 8th year, then certainly by the 20th year he might be considered capable of handling the responsibility of the Babylonian treaty-maker.
So we may conclude that Nabonidus held an exalted position in Nebuchadnezzar's court as early as Nebuchadnezzar's 8th year and continued that on through Nebuchadnezzar's reign. This makes it entirely possible that Nabonidus would marry the daughter of his king.
The actual way in which Nabonidus came to the throne is still somewhat ambiguous. A dynastic table might help to clarify what can be summarized from the various accounts (Dougherty 79).
This however does not do complete justice. A chronological list of the Babylonian kings according to the cuneiform texts might also be useful (Dougherty 7.)
|.||King||Length of Reign||Years of Reign|
|1||1 Nabu-apal-usur||21 years||626/625-605 B. C.|
|2||Nabu-kudurri-usur||43 years||605-562 B. C.|
|3||Amel-Marduk||2 years||562-560 B. C.|
|4||Nergal-sar-usur||4 years||560-556 B.C.|
|5||Labashi-Marduk||A few Months||556 B. C.|
|6||Nabu-na'id||17 years||556-539 B. C.|
One thing is clear. Nabonidus was king and he was not a usurper either. Labashi-Marduk is displayed as a very poor king, reigning against the wishes of the gods, and Berossus does indicate that he was assassinated, but there is no indication that Nabonidus played any role in the assassination although he may have favored it. Apparently after the assassination, the ones responsible for finding a new king selected Nabonidus as he was very qualified for the service.
It now becomes necessary in our discussion to turn to Belshazzar and discuss who he was and what function he plays in this story. First we must discuss the existence of Belshazzar at all. Until fairly recently there was no extra-Biblical evidence for the existence of a man named Belshazzar in the time indicated by the book of Daniel. A commentary on Daniel from 18765 mentions two possible explanations for the seeming discrepancy between history and the Bible. It says that Belshazzar can be identified with either Evil-Merodach or with Nabonidus. It states that the former is the more probable and says that the Medo-Persian conquest at this time does not mean a total conquering since this obviously took place later (in the time of Nabonidus.)
Now, however, we have more evidence that makes the issue much clearer. In fact, this same commentary adds a footnote that alludes to this suggestion which is now accepted by many if not most scholars whether conservative or historical-critical in their interpretation. Belshazzar co-reigned with his father and acted in his father's stead when his father was absent which as we shall see was a good portion of his seventeen year reign. First, however, we will look at documentation regarding Belshazzar's activities that have become known recently.
A number of cuneiform texts show Belshazzar involved in many different activities of Babylon such as buying, selling, and lending. However all of this is done through his servants, scribes, etc. All of these occur during Nabonidus' reign and show the exalted status that Belshazzar maintained. He did not busy himself with the petty matters of lending money and buying houses. He had more important duties.
More evidence of the maturity, dignity, and responsibility shown by Belshazzar during this time is the record of his devotion to the empire's gods. Several times what he gave is recorded. He gave gifts of gold, silver, and animals for the sacrificial services of the temples. Thus it is demonstrated that Belshazzar was acting as a high official of the time would have. Giving the right things to the right places.
Now we come to evidence that shows that Belshazzar was indeed appointed by his father, Nabonidus, as co-regent. In the ziggurat of Ur, four cylinders were found containing a prayer of Nabonidus. This prayer and a variation of it also found at Ur place Belshazzar in a very close relationship with Nabonidus. It names Belshazzar as the first born son and asks for the god's special blessing on him. According to Dougherty this type of association of the father and son in a religious entreaty was scarce in cuneiform literature (94.) One other example of such language could be given from the life of Cambyses and his father Cyrus. Nearly the same language is used on the Cyrus Cylinder as is used on the Ur cylinders. It is clear from other evidence that Cambyses worked in close association with his father: Cyrus ruling over the entire kingdom and Cambyses in charge of Babylonian affairs. This evidence and other examples of co-regency suggest that Nabonidus and Belshazzar may have had a similar relationship or rather that Cyrus and Cambyses relationship might have been a continuation of that started by Nabonidus and Belshazzar. More evidence is needed and there is more.
A unique idea emerges when one looks at some oaths taken during the 12th year of Nabonidus. Since the time of Hammurabi it had been customary to swear by the name of the reigning king, however in three cases from this year of Nabonidus we see a unique oath that mentions both Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar, and places the two nearly equal.6 However, nowhere else has the name of the son of the king been mentioned with the father's name in an oath formula. So at least by Nabonidus' 12th year, Belshazzar was considered to be nearly equal in status to his father.
An astrological document from the seventh year of Nabonidus' reign contains more important information. The seventh year was one of the years that Nabonidus was absent from Babylon and far away in Arabia. This text twice mentions Nabonidus and Belshazzar in the following manor.
"'In my dream I saw, and for the favor of Nabonidus, the king of Babylon, my lord, and for the favor of Belshazzar, the son of the king, my lord may my ear attend to them.' On the seventeenth day of Tebet, the seventh year of Nabonidus, the king of Babylon, Shum-ukin says as follows: 'The star I saw and (for) the favor of Nabonidus, the king of Babylon, my lord and (for) the favor of Belshazzar, the son of the king, my lord, may my ear attend.'" (Dougherty 98.)
Even the casual reader could see the striking similarity in the way the author relates Nabonidus and Belshazzar twice in the same way and indicating both as being exalted. Several other texts mention Belshazzar and Nabonidus on nearly equal terms in collecting the tribute and in other circumstances.
Another text with significance for our study is one that refers to Belshazzar in very unusual terms. The phrase that is used as the title of a high official is "a melsaqu sa mdBel-sar-usur [a mel] mar sarri, a chief officer of Belshazzar, the son of the king." The full significance of this title and the authority it places on Belshazzar is seen when one considers the normal title of such an officer, "a melsaqu sa a melmar sarri, a chief officer of the king." As Dougherty puts it, "Belshazzar was high enough in the kingdom to have subordinate officials equal to those of the king" (103.)
This evidence is astounding when one considers it together with more that could be mentioned. Until recently Belshazzar was entirely unknown to extra-Biblical literature and then suddenly we have evidence that leads to some major conclusions in the opposite direction. Belshazzar existed at the time of Nabonidus and was his son. Nabonidus elevated Belshazzar to a position of high trust and responsibility in Babylon and indeed appointed Belshazzar as co-regent with him.
Our next question to answer is why did Nabonidus appoint Belshazzar as co-regent? A fascinating account of this time is recorded for us in the inscription titled A Persian Verse Account of Nabonidus. It is a lengthy document and cannot be dealt with fully here. Parts of the document are badly damaged but enough is left that a clear story emerges. The inscription begins by condemning some of the acts of Nabonidus. The greatest condemnation is that the Babylonian New Year's Festival, the most important celebration of the year, was stopped until he had finished a temple to the moon god, Sin at Harran. The New Year's festival honored the gods of Babylon, namely Bel and Marduk, not Sin. Column V contains a reference to Cyrus' conquest of Babylon so it is clear the previous columns have been talking about Nabonidus though his name is not used in the readable sections of the column. Column II is the most important one for our study as it contains not only the proclamation of Nabonidus to stop the New Years festival but also contains a description of his conquest of Tema, an Arabian town, and his setting up residence there. The following is an excerpt from Column II, lines 18 - 29. 18
One camp he put into the charge of his eldest child, 19the troops he sent through the lands with himself. 20He struck his hands, he entrusted the kingship to him, 21while he himself set out on a far journey. 22The forces of Akkad advanced with him, 23towards Tema' in Amurru he set his face. 24He set out on a far journey, a road not within reach of the old. 25They slew the king of Tema' with the sword, 26the dwellers in his city and country, all of them they slaughtered. 27But he set the god (Sin?) in his dwelling, the army of Akkad. . . . 28That city he adorned, he made it. . . . 29They made it like the palace of Babylon. . . . (Smith 88-89.)
The statements of this portion of the inscription are startling. Nabonidus leaves Babylon to conquer the city of Tema in Arabia (Amurru is the "West-Land") after stopping the most important festival of Babylon. He is not leaving as a retired or exiled king as he has the support of the army and probably the homeland though they may not be greatly disposed to him at this time because of the cancellation of the New Year's festival. Before leaving for Tema, Nabonidus bestows on his "eldest son" the powers of the kingship. The eldest son of Nabonidus was Belshazzar and a clearer statement of the co-regency of Nabonidus and Belshazzar could hardly be expected. Nabonidus conquers Tema with no little bloodshed and proceeds to set up his residence there. This much is clear even though the inscription becomes fragmentary at this point. A statement of such magnitude and so startling is subject to question unless there is other information to back it up and to this we now turn our attention.
The next inscription is the Nabonidus Chronicle and is extremely important in the dating of the time Nabonidus was in Tema. The Chronicle states the facts in this way, "In the 7th year the king (stayed) in Tema'. The Crown Prince, his ministers and his troops (were) in Akkad" (Smith 115.) This is repeated for the 9th, 10th, and 11th years. The other years (1st - 6th, 8th, 12th - 16th) are too fragmented to be translated. Along with the fact that Nabonidus was in Tema and Belshazzar was in Babylon during this time it is clearly stated that the New Years Festival was not celebrated and the gods were not pleased.
Where was Tema? Another section if this Chronicle states that the mother of the king died and that there were two periods of mourning, neither of which mention the involvement of Nabonidus. It would seem from this that Tema must be some distance from Babylon as to make it difficult for the king to return, and he must have been preoccupied with other affairs deemed more important than the death of his mother.7 The references here to Belshazzar being in Babylon in "Akkad" also add some light to the subject. Akkad was a term used often to refer not only to the city of Babylon but also to Babylonia. Therefore, Tema must have been some distance from Babylon, outside of Babylonia. As was already mentioned it was considered to the west of Babylon as evidenced by the statement of its being in the land a Ammuru, the West-Land.
Two other documents from the time indicate that food was sent to Nabonidus in Tema via a camel. The mention of a camel in cuneiform writing is rare and indicates that access to Tema must have been by a desert route. Other documents indicate that there was close association between the two countries during this time.
Another collaborative document to substantiate this idea of Nabonidus absence and Belshazzar's rulership is found in a comparison of two leases of land, one done by Nabonidus in the first year of his reign and the other by Belshazzar in the 11th year of Nabonidus, one of the years which, according to the Nabonidus Chronicle, he was in Tema. The leases are quite similar in many respects but different enough that it is clear there was independent action by Belshazzar in this lease. This would fit with the idea that Nabonidus was gone during this time.
Even more evidence of Belshazzar's "kingly" activity is obtained from a document containing an administrative act by Belshazzar. Belshazzar makes inquiry into what has been done in the past on this matter and a search is done and the actions of previous kings are mentioned; from Nebuchadnezzar down to Nabonidus. The reference to what Nabonidus did in the first year of his reign is given impersonally. The entire document would have been unnecessary for Belshazzar if Nabonidus had been in Babylon at the time. This document is dated in the 6th year of Nabonidus, giving evidence that he was absent during this year as well as the 7th, 9th, 10th, and 11th years. The authority of Belshazzar is very evident in this document as all the high officials mentioned, including Erech's chief officer of the king, receive the message as though it were from the king. Many more inscriptions and letters from Belshazzar and to Belshazzar from various high officials could be given to demonstrate that Belshazzar was treated with deference by the nation's leading men during this time.
Why did Nabonidus leave and go to Tema? What was at Tema that attracted him or at Babylon that did not attract him? These questions remain to be answered and are made more difficult because this has so far been left to the realm of conjecture.
The Tema which Nabonidus is said to have conquered can be quite definitely associated with the Arabian desert oasis, Tema'. A discussion of the various reasons for this is beyond the scope of this paper so we will leave it at that. The city was, and still is, a center of trade and commerce between Babylonia and Egypt as well as around Arabia. It is also a beautiful city described as being of a healthful environment, 3400 foot elevation, producing many kinds of fruits and nuts, and generally conducive to pleasant living.
These benefits of the city of Tema as well as several other factors have been proposed as reasons for Nabonidus conquest and extended sojourn in Tema. Some have said that he abdicated from his throne either forced to by unpopular opinion or willingly because of unpopular opinion. It is clear however from the records that Nabonidus did not leave as a conquered king in any respect. There does not appear to have been any difficulty or estrangement between him and his wife or between him and Belshazzar. Control of the trade routes to collect revenue and to provide a garrison in case of Egyptian uprisings could have been handled by a capable general rather than the king. Other places of much easier access could have provided a healthy atmosphere for the king if he was sickly, but this idea is dismissed anyway when one considers the strenuous campaign he headed to take control of the city of Tema. It has been suggested also that he possibly was so religiously inclined (to the wrong god) that he was forced out of Babylon by the priests or that he merely left to spread his belief in and devotion to Sin, the moon god. Doubtless Nabonidus was pious regarding the god of which his mother had been the chief priestess. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that he went as a missionary nor that he was forced to go by the priests. Other possible explanations have been proposed, but all are answered in a similar manner to the ones already mentioned.
The best explanation for this unusual behavior of Nabonidus is that he was interested in expanding his empire westward and then stayed in Tema to consolidate this new addition to his empire. It is quite possible that some of the above reasons, while not being the main reasons, would have influenced him in this direction. However, we will have to wait for more evidence to give us a clear reason for his behavior.
So far we have concluded that Nabonidus did exist and did reign as the last king of Babylon. We have found that he was a legitimate king (not a usurper) and most probably a son-in-law of Nebuchadnezzar. We have said that sometime fairly early in his reign he left Belshazzar, his son, in charge of the kingdom and went off to capture Tema and make it the capital of his empire. During this time we have seen that Belshazzar was considered the one acting as the king and having the authority of the king at least in Babylonia. Several more problems remain to be answered, however. First, where were Nabonidus and Belshazzar when Cyrus captured Babylon? Second, when was Belshazzar appointed as co-regent in Babylon and how long did this last? Third, what do we do with the Dead Sea Scroll reference to Nabonidus going insane? Fourth, how does all of this fit in with the Biblical record?
Records are scant about where these co-regents were at the time of Babylon's capture. The Nabonidus Chronicle is clear in stating that in the last year of Nabonidus' reign he returned to Babylon and celebrated the New Year's festival although it continues by saying that he fled, later returned to Babylon and was taken captive. According to Berossus, he was then mercifully exiled to Carmania where he spent the rest of his life. Available cuneiform documents are silent about Belshazzar beyond Nabonidus' 14th year at which time he is still regarded as co-regent. There is no indication that anything changed during the next three years. Greek sources are confused about this issue though there is no contradiction to the suggestion that Belshazzar was still co-regent. That the Nabonidus Chronicle and the Persian Verse Account of Nabonidus do not mention Belshazzar at the time of Babylon's capture is little proof that he was not there. Both of these documents appear to have been written at the Persians' command with the purpose of defaming Nabonidus and would therefore not necessarily mention Belshazzar.
Concerning the date beginning Belshazzar's co-regency, a comparison of both the Persian Verse Account of Nabonidus and the Nabonidus Chronicle is helpful. It is clear from a comparison of these that the event depicted in the Persian Verse Account of Nabonidus where Belshazzar is entrusted with the kingship by Nabonidus before he goes on a campaign to Tema was in the third year of Nabonidus reign. As mentioned already, this continued until at least the 14th year of Nabonidus and there are no further cuneiform records that provide information about this subject.
Among the Dead Sea Scrolls there is some fragments of what is called The Prayer of Nabonidus. Burrows, in talking about this, states that Daniel was wrong and these fragments of Nabonidus prayer are the correct version of what happened to a Babylonian king who went insane. He goes on to say that this new evidence will be irrelevant to those who accept the historicity of the book of Daniel. However there is no record anywhere else of Nabonidus' insanity. Some have suggested this to be the reason for his extended stay in Tema but evidence is lacking and indeed is to the contrary. How could an insane or sick king lead a campaign into the desert to conquer a city of the magnitude of Tema? Some have pointed out the statement of the Nabonidus Chronicle that, though fragmented, seems to say that Nabonidus fell sick. The statement is as follows, ". . . fell sick but recovered. In Kislev the king (levied) his troops. . ." (Smith 115.) This is during the 3rd year of Nabonidus and the Chronicle continues with what appears to be a description of his campaign against Tema. Therefore it is more probable to assume that the writer of the Prayer of Nabonidus was mistaken on the name though the rest of the details do seem to collaborate the evidence for such a period of insanity in Nebuchadnezzar's reign.
One statement made by the book of Daniel remains to be considered. This is the statement in verses 2, 11, 13, and 18 of Chapter 5 that calls Nebuchadnezzar the father of Belshazzar. It has been clearly shown that this was not the case, that Nabonidus was the father of Belshazzar. Was Daniel mistaken? We considered the possibility and indeed the probability that Nabonidus was the son-in-law of Nebuchadnezzar, i.e., that he married a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar whom Herodotus calls Nitrocis. This would make Nebuchadnezzar the grandfather of Belshazzar. The Semitic languages, such as those used by the author of Daniel, often use this idea of father to mean grandfather or some other paternal ancestor. In fact, there is no Hebrew or Aramaic word for "grandfather." So, though no conclusive evidence is available, this too can be harmonized.
In conclusion we must now return to the Biblical narrative of Daniel and see if it matches to what we have found in the sources we have been searching. Daniel's purpose in writing chapter 5 is not to provide a detailed account of The Rise and Fall of the Babylonian Empire. He is relating the points of this night that were important for his book. If, as we have suggested, Nabonidus was not in Babylon on this night it is quite possible that Daniel would have no reason to mention him since Belshazzar was most likely still co-regent. In fact, since Cyrus was surrounding Babylon it is possible that it was not known for sure whether Nabonidus was still alive since he had fled Babylon. Daniel does indeed mention that Belshazzar promised to make the interpreter of the strange writing the third ruler in the kingdom, a clear reference to a first ruler (Nabonidus), and a second ruler (Belshazzar.) This scriptural account can be considered the most reliable source, excepting the actual cuneiform documents, to what was going on inside Babylon. It is clearly verified by the cuneiform documents that we have discussed, and is closer to what actually happened than any other history of this period that we have. Thus in the few cases where it is still unclear, such as whether Belshazzar was still active as co-regent at the time of Babylon's fall, we can accept this account of Daniel as reliable. This also must lead us to the conclusion that the book of Daniel must have been written close to the time of the events mentioned to have access at least to these cuneiform documents if not an eyewitness himself. Even historians such as Herodotus, Xenophon, Berossus, and Josephus are not as accurate as Daniel has proven to be.
1. For a detailed explanation of the possible translations of this document see Dougherty 18ff.
2. This is according to Babylonian custom when mentioning a high dignitary.
3. Labynetus is generally recognized to be Nabonidus in the mind of Herodotus and this is supported historically by the activities Herodotus ascribes to him.
4. The Medes were allies of Babylon.
5. Schroder 30.
6. This depends on the translation, but however it is translated, it is clear that Belshazzar held a very high position if not considered quite as great as that of his father.
7. Documents written by Nabonidus indicate that he did give directions of how the burial rites were to be handled. See Dougherty 26.
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Burrows, Millar. Burrows on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978.
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