(Bel·shazʹzar) [from Akkadian, meaning “Protect His Life”; or, possibly, “[May] Bel Protect the King”].
The firstborn son of Nabonidus, and coregent of Nabonidus in the last years of the Babylonian Empire. He is mentioned in the Bible account only by the prophet Daniel, and for long his position as “king of Babylon” was denied by Bible critics. (Da 5:1, 9; 7:1; 8:1) However, archaeological evidence in the form of ancient texts has since demonstrated the historicity of the Bible account.
At Daniel 5:2, 11, 18, 22, Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as the “father” of Belshazzar, and Belshazzar as Nebuchadnezzar’s “son.” The book Nabonidus and Belshazzar (by R. P. Dougherty, 1929) reasons that it is probable that Belshazzar’s mother was Nitocris and that she was a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar (II). If so, Nebuchadnezzar was the grandfather of Belshazzar. (See Ge 28:10, 13 for a comparable use of “father.”) However, not all scholars find the evidence for such a relationship completely satisfying. It may be that Nebuchadnezzar was simply the “father” of Belshazzar as to the throne, Nebuchadnezzar being a royal predecessor. In a similar manner, the Assyrians used the expression “son of Omri” to denote a successor of Omri.—See OMRI No. 3.
Does secular history confirm the role of Belshazzar as a ruler of Babylon?
A cuneiform tablet dated as from the accession year of Neriglissar, who followed Awil-Marduk (Evil-merodach) on the Babylonian throne, refers to a certain “Belshazzar, the chief officer of the king,” in connection with a money transaction. It is possible, though not proved, that this refers to the Belshazzar of the Bible. In 1924 publication was made of the decipherment of an ancient cuneiform text described as the “Verse Account of Nabonidus,” and through it valuable information was brought to light clearly corroborating Belshazzar’s kingly position at Babylon and explaining the manner of his becoming coregent with Nabonidus. Concerning Nabonidus’ conquest of Tema in his third year of rule, a portion of the text says: “He entrusted the ‘Camp’ to his oldest (son), the firstborn [Belshazzar], the troops everywhere in the country he ordered under his (command). He let (everything) go, entrusted the kingship to him and, himself, he [Nabonidus] started out for a long journey, the (military) forces of Akkad marching with him; he turned towards Tema (deep) in the west.” (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by J. Pritchard, 1974, p. 313) Thus, Belshazzar definitely exercised royal authority from Nabonidus’ third year on, and this event likely corresponds with Daniel’s reference to “the first year of Belshazzar the king of Babylon.”—Da 7:1.
In another document, the Nabonidus Chronicle, a statement is found with regard to Nabonidus’ seventh, ninth, tenth, and eleventh regnal years. It reads: “The king (was) in Tema (while) the prince, the officers, and his army (were) in Akkad [Babylonia].” (Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, by A. K. Grayson, 1975, p. 108) Apparently Nabonidus spent much of his reign away from Babylon, and while not relinquishing his position as supreme ruler, he entrusted administrative authority to his son Belshazzar to act during his absence. This is evident from a number of texts recovered from the ancient archives proving that Belshazzar exercised royal prerogatives, that he issued orders and commands. Matters handled by Belshazzar in certain documents and orders were those that would normally have been handled by Nabonidus, as supreme ruler, had he been present. However, Belshazzar remained only second ruler of the empire, and thus he could offer to make Daniel only “the third one in the kingdom.”—Da 5:16.
It is true that official inscriptions give Belshazzar the title “crown prince,” while in the book of Daniel his title is “king.” (Da 5:1-30) An archaeological discovery in northern Syria suggests why this may be the case. In 1979, a life-sized statue of a ruler of ancient Gozan was unearthed. On its skirt were two inscriptions, one in Assyrian and the other in Aramaic—the language of the Belshazzar account in Daniel. The two almost identical inscriptions had one outstanding difference. The text in the imperial Assyrian language says that the statue was of “the governor of Gozan.” The text in Aramaic, the language of the local people, describes him as “king.”
Thus, archaeologist and language scholar Alan Millard writes: “In the light of the Babylonian sources and of the new texts on this statue, it may have been considered quite in order for such unofficial records as the Book of Daniel to call Belshazzar ‘king.’ He acted as king, his father’s agent, although he may not have been legally king. The precise distinction would have been irrelevant and confusing in the story as related in Daniel.”—Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1985, p. 77.
Those who wielded sovereign power in Babylonia were expected to be exemplars in reverencing the gods. There are six cuneiform texts concerning events from the 5th to the 13th year of Nabonidus’ reign that demonstrate Belshazzar’s devotion to Babylonian deities. As acting king in Nabonidus’ absence, Belshazzar is shown in the documents to have offered gold, silver, and animals to the temples in Erech and Sippar, thereby comporting himself in a manner consistent with his royal position.
The End of Belshazzar’s Rule. On the night of October 5, 539 B.C.E. (Gregorian calendar, or October 11, Julian calendar), Belshazzar celebrated a great feast for a thousand of his grandees, as chapter 5 of Daniel relates. (Da 5:1) Babylon was then menaced by the besieging forces of Cyrus the Persian and his ally Darius the Mede. According to Jewish historian Josephus (who, in turn, quotes the Babylonian Berossus), Nabonidus had holed up in Borsippa after having been defeated by the Medo-Persian forces in battle. (Against Apion, I, 150-152 ) If so, Belshazzar was the acting king in Babylon itself. The holding of a feast when the city was in state of siege is not so unusual when it is remembered that the Babylonians confidently regarded the city’s walls as impregnable. Historians Herodotus and Xenophon also state that the city had abundant supplies of necessary items and hence was not concerned with shortages. Herodotus describes the city as in a festive mood on that night, with dancing and enjoyment.
During the feast and under the influence of wine, Belshazzar called for the vessels from the temple of Jerusalem to be brought so that he and his guests and his wives and concubines might drink from them while praising the Babylonian gods. Obviously, this request was due to no shortage of drinking vessels, but, rather, it constituted a deliberate act of contempt by this pagan king in reproach of the God of the Israelites, Jehovah. (Da 5:2-4) He thereby expressed defiance of Jehovah, who had inspired the prophecies foretelling Babylon’s downfall. While Belshazzar seemed lighthearted about the siege set by the enemy forces, he was now severely shaken when a hand suddenly appeared and began writing on the palace wall. His knees knocking, he called upon all his wise men to provide an interpretation of the written message, but to no avail. The record shows that the queen now gave him sound counsel, recommending Daniel as the one able to give the interpretation. (Da 5:5-12) Certain scholars consider “the queen” to be, not Belshazzar’s wife, but his mother, believed to be Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter, Nitocris. Daniel, by inspiration, revealed the meaning of the miraculous message, predicting the fall of Babylon to the Medes and the Persians. Though the aged prophet condemned Belshazzar’s blasphemous act in using vessels of Jehovah’s worship in praising see-nothing, hear-nothing, know-nothing gods, Belshazzar held to his offer and proceeded to invest Daniel with the position of third ruler in the doomed kingdom.—Da 5:17-29.
Belshazzar did not live out the night, being killed as the city fell during the night of October 5, 539 B.C.E., when, according to the Nabonidus Chronicle, “the army of Cyrus (II) entered Babylon without a battle.” (Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, pp. 109, 110; see also Da 5:30.) With the death of Belshazzar and the apparent surrender of Nabonidus to Cyrus, the Neo-Babylonian Empire came to a close.—See CYRUS; NABONIDUS.
[Picture on page 283]
Babylonian temple cylinder that names King Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar