Chapter 6 Belshazzar and Daniel (Dan 5)

In: Aramaic Daniel
Benjamin D. Suchard
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After four stories featuring Nebuchadnezzar, we now move on to the story of Belshazzar, whom Daniel presents as the last king of Babylon. Here, too, OG and MT differ radically.

1 Comparative Reconstruction

The Qumran manuscripts preserve more material corresponding to Dan 5 than is the case for the preceding two chapters, but no readings which are clearly superior to MT. In v. 17, ancient versions that are generally close to MT such as Th have phrases meaning ‘the gifts of your house’ for נבזביתך. Comparing this form to נבזבה without yod in Dan 2:6 suggests that MT Dan 5:17 reflects a rather late haplography of נבזבת ביתך. Otherwise, the relevant textual evidence once again comes from OG.

The OG text starts with a short and separate account known as the Preface or OG 5:0. Unlike the main body of the OG text, it seems clear that this is largely an independent retelling of the story and not a different edition going back to the same archetype (although the Preface is literarily dependent on the full story).1 While some of the Preface’s elements can help to support a text-critical reconstruction, it is not suitable for phrase-by-phrase comparison.

Such a phrase-by-phrase comparison of the main body of the OG text and MT has recently been conducted in a separate article by Segal.2 I will largely rely on his judicious conclusions in the rest of this section.

One disagreement between OG and MT that recurs a few times is the number and status of the guests present at the feast. Segal argues that OG’s reading, which mentions the king’s ‘friends’ but does not number them and excludes the concubines mentioned in MT, is more original.3 MT then reflects expansion in vv. 1–3,23.

V. 6 differs between OG and MT. Segal argues that the OG corresponds to what we find as v. 9 in MT, which was moved to this position in OG to solve an apparent redundancy.4 MT’s שנוהי ‘his years’ in this verse is transparently a scribal error for שנו ‘they changed’ assimilated to the preceding and following words ending in *-ṓhī (spelled defectively in רעינהי ‘his thoughts’).

MT’s terms תלתי and תלתא in vv. 7,16,29 are generally taken to reflect titles, perhaps (originally) meaning ‘third in rank’. OG instead has the king’s reward including authority over one third of the kingdom. This may be seen as harmonization with Dan 6 on the one hand, where Daniel is one of three overseers placed over the satraps (and hence logically responsible for one third of the kingdom) and with Esther on the other, where Ahasuerus repeatedly offers Esther any request she makes ‘up to half of the kingdom’ (also cf. the same offer in Mark 6:23). Elsewhere, I have suggested that תלתי might indeed originally have meant ‘one third’, while תלתא more probably means ‘as the third, in third place’.5 The difference between these words may reflect the secondary status of the passage containing תלתי, as argued below.

MT vv. 10–13 appear in a different form in OG, where this passage is markedly shorter. The elements that they share also occur in a different order. Given OG’s tendency to abbreviation noted by Segal,6 the translator may have produced these verses as a rearranged summary. Daniel’s appointment to chief of the magicians (etc.) in MT v. 11b looks like a harmonization with Dan 4:4, which contains the same list of mantic experts, but as we have seen, that verse is secondary; Dan 4:4 is more likely to be a harmonization with Dan 5:11b than vice versa.

Segal is unsure whether Belshazzar’s opening address to Daniel in MT vv. 13b–16a, missing from OG, reflects abbreviation in OG or expansion in MT.7 He tentatively prefers the latter. These verses are awkward in their repetition of ‘I have heard about you’ (vv. 14,16) and ‘and now’ (v. 15, repeated in 16b). As the mention of the exiles of Judah (v. 13b) occurs in OG (although it occurs in v. 10 there), I suggest that only vv. 15–16a are expansive, explaining the repetitive phrases. This also explains why Belshazzar sticks closer to queen’s words in v. 14 than in the interpolated v. 16a.

Two other more or less extended passages are missing from OG and identified by Segal as secondary in MT.8 V. 17aβ is not only absent from OG but also contradicts Daniel’s acceptance of the reward later on (Segal also sees v. 17b as part of this interpolation, but it seems to be paraphrased in OG). And the recapitulation of Dan 4 given in vv. 18–22 is clearly a harmonization with that chapter. I would identify the start of this interpolation after the words אנתה מלכא ‘You, O king’ (v. 18). In their current context, these words form an anacoluthon with the following sentence.

What remains of Daniel’s speech is in a different order in MT compared to OG. In OG, the mysterious words are read at the outset, before Daniel gives the background of the king’s sin. The recapitulation of Belshazzar’s feast then separates the announcement that ‘this is their interpretation:’ from the interpretation itself. It is hard to see why an archetype that was closer to MT would have been changed to the text as attested in OG. If OG preserves the more original order, MT reflects reordering to avoid the awkward interruption of the interpretation and to keep the reading and interpretation together, although this has resulted in the repetitive כתבא דנה רשים ודנה כתבא די רשים ‘this writing was recorded. And this is the writing that was recorded:’. Hence, we should restore the verse relating the words’ reading to its place in OG, together with a doublet announcing their interpretation.

On the mysterious writing itself, most of the non-Masoretic versions and ancient references agree that it consisted of three words with three letters each: מנא, ‪תקל‬, פרס.‪9‬ This is also how they appear in the interpretation in MT. It is unlikely that the various sources independently harmonized the reading with the catchwords in the interpretation. Hence, MT’s מנא מנא תקל ופרסין in v. 25 is probably corrupt. מנא מנא can reflect dittography or mistaken harmonization with the following מנא מנהMNʔ: he has counted’. And perhaps פרסין was changed to a dual because of the double play on words (פריסת ‘it has been divided’ and פרס ‘Persia’).10

Finally, v. 30 in OG reads ‘And the meaning came upon Baltasar the king, and the rule was taken away from the Chaldaeans and was given to the Medes and to the Persians’. The gist is the same as that of MT and the presence of the phrases ‘Belshazzar the king’ and ‘the Chaldaean(s)’ in both versions suggests that they are related. OG’s reading is reminiscent of the statements that ‘all this came over King Nebuchadnezzar’ and ‘the matter was fulfilled over Nebuchadnezzar’ in Dan 4:25,30. Compared to MT, it more explicitly reflects the larger Danielic theme of the succession of world empires, and shows some redundance with the following ‘and Xerxes, who was king of the Medes, received the kingdom’ (OG 5:31) corresponding to MT 6:1 ‘and Darius the Mede received the kingdom’. This points to reworking of OG. MT thus preserves the more original ending here, leaving us with the following reconstructed archetype.

2 Internal Reconstruction

Our reconstructed text contains the following tensions and inconsistencies:

  • a) ‘King’ follows ‘Belshazzar’ in vv. 1,30 but precedes it in v. 9.

  • b) V. 2 mentions Nebuchadnezzar as having taken the vessels from the palace (or temple) in Jerusalem, while v. 3 omits Nebuchadnezzar but specifies that it is the palace of the house of God.

  • c) The name Belshazzar is spelled בלשאצר, corresponding to its etymology, in most of the story, but as בלאשצר in v. 30.

  • d) The name Nebuchadnezzar is spelled plene with waw in v. 2 but defectively in v. 11.

  • e) Especially without the ‘consorts and concubines’ intervening, ‘they drank from them. They drank wine’ in vv. 3–4 is repetitive (cf. the lack of repetition in Daniel’s recapitulation, v. 23).

  • f) Belshazzar seems to commit two separate sins: profaning the Temple vessels and praising all the idols but not the true God. The writing on the wall takes place immediately (‘at that moment’, v. 5), but only after the second sin.

  • g) The promised rank is spelled as תלתי in v. 7 but as תלתא in 16,29.

  • h) The expression ‘his appearance changed’ uses the peʿal verb שנה in vv. 6,9, but the itpaʿal verb אשתנה in v. 10.

  • i) The queen opens her speech to the king with the customary ‘O king, live forever!’ (v. 10), but Daniel does not (v. 17).

  • j) V. 11b repeats the subject at the end, which is syntactically odd.

  • k) In the queen’s speech, v. 12 partially repeats v. 11. Moreover, v. 12 continues the listing of Daniel’s qualities that had already been completed in v. 11, resulting in a back-and-forth structure of listing of qualities (11a), appointment by the king (11b), further listing of qualities (12a) and naming by the king (12b). In our reconstructed archetype, Belshazzar repeats the first list of qualities (v. 14), but not the second (prompting the harmonizing addition in MT which is absent from OG).

  • l) The mention of the name Belteshazzar in v. 12 is isolated.

  • m) The end of v. 13 reads as an afterthought.

  • n) Daniel’s recapitulation of the opening scene awkwardly follows the announcement of the interpretation in the reconstructed archetype of v. 17, which is repeated in v. 26.

Together with Dan 6:1 (corresponding to OG 5:31), v. 30 clearly forms a transition between Dan 5 and Dan 6. In the larger context, it marks the transfer of the empire from the Chaldaeans to the Medes. The etymologically incorrect spelling of Belshazzar (Akkadian: Bēl-šarra-uṣur ‘Bel, protect the king!’) as בלאשצר instead of the more usual בלשאצר (c) suggests that v. 30 was secondarily added to connect the originally independent tales.11 V. 30 is also linguistically notable for its double use of the preposition in the expression בה בליליא ‘in that night’. This construction is common in later Aramaic (e.g. Targum Ester 6:1) but contrasts with the more common construction in Biblical Aramaic, where the preposition is not repeated, as in בה שעתא ‘at that moment’ (not בה בשעתא**). The only other occurrence is בה בדניאל ‘in this Daniel’ in Dan 5:12, on which see below.

Based on OG, we have reconstructed a text where Daniel’s summary of the events interrupts the reading of the words and their interpretation (n). This results in a clear example of resumptive repetition. It stands to reason that the intervening material was added. A theological motivation can be identified in the desire to explicitly blame Belshazzar for not worshipping the true God, an offense that was originally left implicit or not intended.

A number of inconsistencies cluster in the pericope centered on the queen (vv. 10–12). One of these concerns the spelling of Nebuchadnezzar (d). Given the awkward repetition of the subject in that clause (j), however, the phrase מלכא נבכדנצר אבוך ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, your father’ is probably a later addition meant to connect the two kings (see below).12 But the inconsistency in the form of the verb ‘to change’ (h) remains, as does the inconsistent use of the greeting formula (i) and the isolated use of the name Belteshazzar (l). This passage also features a number of linguistic archaisms that are not paralleled elsewhere in Daniel: the use of two perfects in the expression ענתואמרת ‘she spoke, saying’, the use of the bare infinitives מפשר ‘interpreting’, אחוית ‘relating’, and משרא ‘loosening’, and the formally distinct Jussive יתקרי ‘let him be called’.13 As this passage is not integral to the plot, the simplest solution is to identify vv. 10–12 as secondary. Within this interpolation, v. 12a seems to be later than vv. 10–11,12b, as shown by the repetition and muddled structure that now characterizes the queen’s combined speech (k).

Most of Belshazzar’s remaining words in vv. 13b–14, which are dependent on v. 11 and partially reflected in OG (unlike vv. 15–16a, which are totally absent from OG), seem to be from the same hand as vv. 10–11,12b. As in the discussion of Dan 2, I will mark this early secondary layer as black, roman strikethrough text in the overview below in order to distinguish it from the later additions given as lightface (Aramaic) or italics (English) strikethrough text. The awkward addition די היתי מלכא אבי מן יהוד ‘whom my father the king brought from Judah’ (m) again stands out as an even later interpolation,14 which quite probably reflects the same association of Belshazzar with Nebuchadnezzar responsible for the double subject in v. 11b.

With the queen’s speech and Daniel’s recapitulation identified as secondary, vv. 2–3 now appear isolated, containing the only references to Nebuchadnezzar and the Temple vessels. The redundancy of Belshazzar’s double sin (f),15 for which he is only punished once—immediately after the second sin—together with the repetition of ‘they drank’ (e) suggests that these verses, too, are secondary. Leaving these verses out (including the last two words of v. 1, which form the set-up for Belshazzar’s fatal intoxication) once again results in a perfectly legible and coherent text. Given the slight inconsistency in how the vessels are described (b), v. 2aβ may have been rewritten or interpolated as an extra identification of Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s father, as in vv. 11,13.

Following the same reasoning, we may be suspicious of the scene where the mantic experts are summoned and fail to read the writing. Admittedly, excising vv. 7–9 makes the story less compelling, as it is no longer established that the writing is nigh-impossible to read. It also eliminates the format of the court contest. But if these verses are from another hand than the remaining core of the story, that explains two linguistic inconsistencies: the term used in the reward that is offered (g) and the phrase ‘King Belshazzar’ (a).16 We are left with a coherent story which is similar in structure to the reconstructed form of the dream interpretation in Dan 4: the king receives an omen and someone is called in to explain it to him.

3 Conclusion

Our methodology has produced a very pared-down base layer. Interestingly, it is quite different from the OG Preface, unlike the similarly brief reconstruction by Haag.17 This supports the view that the Preface is an abbreviation of a more developed version of the text, not an early form of it.

As in other chapters, we can identify different layers in the great deal of text that appears secondary. The queen’s speech and its summary by Belshazzar in vv. 10–14 start with the reassuring ‘Don’t let your thoughts terrify you, don’t let your appearance be changed!’ This refers back to ‘Then the king’s appearance changed and his thoughts terrified him’ in v. 6, but the ‘thoughts’ are not present in v. 9. This difference suggests that the additional material in vv. 10–14 was added before the verses mentioning the wise men, vv. 7–9. In this way, the queen’s words directly follow the king’s reaction in v. 6. V. 10 mentions the king’s nobles, who are present in v. 9 but not in v. 6, but this could be a later harmonization. On the other hand, the more physical aspects of the king’s reaction in v. 6 are not mentioned by the queen and could be seen as a later elaboration. The queen may have been introduced to the story to provide a backstory for Daniel, who is now established as a renowned wise man and Judahite exile. The poor integration of the phrases מלכא נבכדנצר אבוך ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, your father’ and די היתי מלכא אבי מן יהוד ‘whom my father the king brought from Judah’ in this layer show that it did not originally name Belshazzar’s father as Nebuchadnezzar (understandably so, as Belshazzar was historically the son of Nabonidus and not related to Nebuchadnezzar). It is thus also likely that these additions were made before that of vv. 2–3, which are thoroughly connected with the historical Nebuchadnezzar. Alternatively, the mention of Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s father in v. 2 could be an interpolation within an interpolation. Daniel’s recapitulation in vv. 23–24, in turn, incorporates the Temple vessels of vv. 2–3 and makes explicit that Belshazzar’s sin ultimately comes down to arrogant neglect of the Lord of Heaven, who is now also named as the source of the writing hand. It cannot be established with certainty whether vv. 2–3 and 23–24 originated with the same writer or whether vv. 2–3 are older. The failure of the other experts to read the writing is not mentioned in the recapitulating vv. 23–24, suggesting that the scene in vv. 7–9 was only added afterwards. Finally, the closing line in v. 30 shows a different spelling of Belshazzar than the scene with the wise men (v. 9) and the profanation of the vessels scene (v. 2). The occurrence of this spelling of Belshazzar in the apocalypses of Dan 7(:1) and 8(:1) suggest that it was added quite late. Interestingly, the similarly late construction -בה ב ‘in that’ is used in v. 12a as well as v. 30. V. 12a, which mentions dream interpretation and the name Belteshazzar, connects Dan 5 to Dan 4, as v. 30 connects Dan 5 to the following Dan 6. V. 12a also contains the expression רוח יתירה ‘an exceptional spirit’, which is otherwise only found in Dan 6:4 (spelled רוח יתירא there, possibly indicating that an adverb is meant, roughly translatable as ‘he was exceptionally spirited’). Hence, both verses may well be attributed to the redactor who joined these chapters together.


Segal, “Daniel 5”; not so Wills, Jew in the Court, 121–27 (who notes the similarity between the OG Preface and the independent reconstruction of Dan 5 by Haag, Errettung Daniels, 56); Justin L. Pannkuk, “The Preface to Old Greek Daniel 5: A Formal Approach,” VT 67.2 (2017): 213–26. Dalia Amara, “The Third Version of the Story of Belshazzar’s Banquet (Daniel 5) [Hebrew],” Textus 23.1 (2007): מא-יא argues that the Preface is a translation of an Aramaic text, not a Greek composition. Some of her arguments are more compelling than others: the suggestion that the Preface’s δάκτυλοι ὡσεὶ ἀνθρώπου ‘fingers as though of a human’ reflects a Vorlage אצבען די אנש with metathesis of original יד ‘hand’ presupposes an ungrammatical original text, אצבען יד אנש ‘fingers, a human hand’ (not ‘fingers of a human hand’, which would be ‏**אצבעת יד אנש with ‘fingers’ in the construct state). The terse list of the words written on the wall followed by their meaning is also hard to retrovert to Aramaic; in her reconstructed Vorlage, Amara employs Hebrew for the interpretation (e.g. מנאנספרMNʔ—it has been counted’). On this question see also Munnich, “Masoretic Rewriting.”


Segal, “Daniel 5.”


Segal, 257–60.


Segal, 267–69.


Suchard, “Historical (In)accuracy.”


Segal, “Daniel 5,” 260–62.


Segal, 256–57.


Segal, 255–56.


Collins, Daniel, 240; Newsom, Daniel, 161.


Cf. Hartman and Di Lella, Daniel, 185 for the first and last of these suggestions; Ulrich, Developmental Composition, 246 for the first two.


Thus also Haag, Errettung Daniels, 34; Haag, “Menschensohn,” 138.


See also the more detailed argumentation in Suchard, “Historical (In)accuracy.”




Cf. Kratz, Translatio imperii, 86.


Cf. Wills, Jew in the Court, 122–23.


The noun תלתי seems to contain the same * suffix used to form ארעי ‘bottom’ and עלי ‘upper chamber’, both nouns indicating places. Hence, it could well mean ‘third part (of the kingdom)’ and already reflect the harmonizing interpretation based on Dan 6 also seen in OG’s translation. On ‘King Belshazzar’, cf. Chapter 3, Note 10.


Haag, Errettung Daniels, 56.

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