Daniel 5 – Part Three-and-a-half

Over the last two days we’ve read the story of King Belshazzar’s feast, a defiant rallying of the troops in the face of a looming Persian invasion – and a brazen slap in the face to Israel’s God, using the temple cups in drunken worship of his idols. So God writes some graffiti on the wall, which no-one can interpret. No-one, of course, except Daniel. Taking Belshazzar’s arrogant and unrepentant attitude to task (in contrast with that of his more teachable ancestor, Nebuchadnezzar), an aging Daniel is about to interpret the writing on the wall.

Daniel 5:25 “This is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN.”

Now this might seem weird to us, but they’re perfectly common Aramaic words. Why didn’t any of the wise men at least have a go at interpreting it? Make something up, even? Or is Daniel decoding some strange writing and translating them into Aramaic as he speaks?

At any rate, he gives the explanation. (Note that parsin becomes peres as Daniel quotes the singular form of the noun, not the plural.)

Daniel 5:26-28 “Here is what these words mean:
Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

Not the most positive message for Belshazzar, but we’ll get to him soon. Let’s look more closely at the words Daniel explains. They works on three levels, depending on how you read the them (which may also explain the need for an interpreter).*

<—Begin nerd content—>

You see, Aramaic (like Hebrew) was written without any vowels. You read the consonants and supplied the vowels as you pronounced it. (This is called  “vocalising” the text.) Obviously, this could lead to ambiguities – sometimes intentionally. Here, depending on which vowels you use, the meaning changes.

Using the most natural vocalisation, the three words are common weights used for measuring:

mĕnē’ mĕnē’ tĕqāl pĕrēs = mina, mina, shekel, half-shekel

If the Babylonian wise men could read the writing, this is probably what they saw.

But there’s another level to the message, that Daniel uses to interpret, using a different vocalisation:

mĕnāh mĕnāh tĕqal pĕras = he has reckoned, he has weighed, he has divided

And there’s an interesting third level, using yet another vocalisation, hinting at the means by which God would “repay” Belshazzar for being found wanting – the Persians:

mĕnāh mĕnāh tiqqal pāras = he has paid out, you are too light, Persia!

 

<—End nerd content—>

So Daniel deciphers the riddle, which the Babylonian astrologers were unable to get. The “weights” theme running through it would have made it particularly galling for them, as on that very night, the constellation Libra (the scales) was rising. Astrologers and wise men, beaten at their own game by God’s servant!

 

Anyway, Daniel gets rewarded (despite his refusal) – but the reward is meaningless. That very night the prediction of judgement comes true:

Daniel 5:29-31 at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom. That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.

So the great ruler who opposed God and refused to acknowledge him is killed and his empire stolen, almost as an anticlimax.

For 2nd century Jews to think about

Here we have a clear case of a blasphemous ruler who defiles God’s holy objects being dealt with by God himself. (No Jew needs to lift a finger, as God even did that bit.)

What message does that send to Jews in the second century dealing with a similar despot with a similar tendency to defile that which is holy? (If you’re joining the series late, we’re working from the view that the stories of Daniel were compiled in the second century BC to speak to the challenges faced by the Jews living under Greek rule. See our introduction for the background.) It reminds them that God’s in charge, and is perfectly capable of intervening to sort things out.

But it’s possibly a little more poignant than that. Notice the way in which the three weights were phrased: mina, mina, shekel, half-shekel. Measures, measure, and half a measure.¤ Later on in the prophetic parts Daniel we get a similar phrase, describing the length of time “the ruler” (Antiochus) will be allowed to get away with his “abomination that causes the desolation” of the temple in Jerusalem:

Daniel 12:7 “It will be for a time, times and half a time.”

A few verses later, it’s made clear we’re talking about three and a half years. That’s half of the perfect number seven, symbolising a finite, divinely-ordained period.

So the message to Jews suffering under Greek rule could well be this: Belshazzar was a blasphemous despot who, after a finite period, was weighed and then deposed by the miraculous action of God. Three-and-a-half, and then he’s gone! So do you trust God that he can do the same again with Antiochus, or anyone else who refuses to acknowledge him as God? ‘Cause three-and-a-half, and he’ll be gone, too. 

For us to think about

 

Throughout this series in Daniel we’ve been talking about our response to those in our world who oppose God – who mistreat his holy people, and who misuse his good gifts in their pursuit of idolatry. With Nebuchadnezzar, we saw that God could miraculously humble even those we think are too powerful, too untouchable. Here, with Belshazzar, we see that God can miraculously judge, in an instant. They might run the show for now. But not forever. Their time is finite. Three-and-a-half, and they’re gone. 


* Al Wolters, “The Riddle of the scales in Daniel 5,” HUCA 62 (1991): 155-77.

¤ M. Clermont-Ganneau and Robert W. Rogers, “Mene, Tekel, Peres, and the feast of Belshazzar,” Hebraica 3 (1887): 88-102.

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