(Bel·shazʹzar) [Akkad., Bel-shar-usur; 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. (Dan. 5:1, 9; 7:1; 8:1) However, archaeological evidence in the form of ancient texts has since demonstrated forcefully the historicity of the Bible account.
There is some historical evidence indicating that Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus through his wife Nitocris, a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar. Belshazzar’s being thus a grandson of Nebuchadnezzar would harmonize with the Biblical references to Nebuchadnezzar as the “father” of Belshazzar (the term “father” also being used to mean grandfather), and to Belshazzar as Nebuchadnezzar’s “son” (also used for grandson). (Dan. 5:11, 18, 22; compare the usage at Genesis 28:10, 13.) This was not only a Biblical practice but also a Neo-Babylonian custom. (Assyrian inscriptions refer to certain kings as ‘sons’ of their predecessors even though not actually related by blood.)
A cuneiform tablet dated as from the accession year of Neriglissar, who followed Amel-Marduk (Evil-merodach) on the Babylonian throne, refers to “Belshazzar, the chief officer of the king,” in connection with a money transaction. Some scholars believe this to refer to the Belshazzar of the Bible, thereby indicating that he attained to some prominence even before Nabonidus’ coming to the throne. The connection is by no means certain, however.
In 1924 publication was made of the decipherment of an ancient cuneiform text described as “A Persian 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 a camp to his eldest, firstborn son; the troops of the land he sent with him. He freed his hand; he entrusted the kingship to him. Then he himself [Nabonidus] undertook a distant campaign; the power of the land of Akkad advanced with him; towards Tema in the midst of the Westland he set his face.” 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.”—Dan. 7:1.
In another document, the Nabonidus Chronicle, the statement: “The king (was) in the city of Tema. The son of the king, the princes (and) his troops (were) in the land of Akkad [Babylonia],” is repeated with regard to Nabonidus’ seventh, ninth, tenth and eleventh regnal years. The record concerning the intervening and the succeeding years of Nabonidus are lacking, but it is apparent that he 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, issuing orders and commands. Matters handled by Belshazzar in certain documents and orders were such as 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.”—Dan. 5:16.
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 fifth to the thirteenth years 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.
On the night of October 5-6, 539 B.C.E. (Gregorian calendar, or October 11-12, Julian), Belshazzar celebrated a great feast for a thousand of his grandees, as chapter 5 of Daniel relates. (Dan. 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 on the field of battle. If so, this would leave Belshazzar as 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. (Dan. 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. Basing their conclusions on the general tone of her conversation with Belshazzar and on her knowledge of things relating to the earlier times of Nebuchadnezzar, 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 Daniel’s interpretation was certainly not encouraging, and although the aged prophet had 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.
Belshazzar did not live out the night, being killed as the city fell during the night of October 5-6, 539 B.C.E., when, according to the Nabonidus Chronicle, “the troops of Cyrus without fighting entered Babylon.” (Dan. 5:30) In his history, Xenophon (c. 434-c. 355 B.C.E.) also connects Belshazzar’s death with the actual capture of Babylon. With the death of Belshazzar and the apparent surrender of Nabonidus to Cyrus, the dynasty beginning with Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar came to a close, and with it ended the dominion of Mesopotamia by Semitic rulers.—See CYRUS; NABONIDUS.