Thanks to the Book of Daniel, King Nebuchednezzar ‘the Great’ can be identified with Nabonidus
Damien F. Mackey
The historicity of the prophet Daniel and of the book that bears his name has become hopelessly clouded by factors such as the (i) inaccurate view of neo-Babylonian succession; (ii) a late authorship (C2nd BC) attribution; and the (iii) over-emphasis upon Aramaïc.
Attempted interpretations of the Bible can suffer badly from erroneous extra-biblical factors, such as an over-inflated historico-archaeological model.
The biblical narrative is thus forced to squeeze fit, in Procrustean fashion, within a matrix that has no proper basis in reality, meaning that we end up with, not so much the prophet Jeremiah’s “Terror on every side” (e.g., 20:10), but with “Error on every side”. In Part One of this series (https://www.academia.edu/23886406/_Nebuchednezzar_of_the_Book_of_Daniel), however, and elsewhere, I have argued for a radical shortening of the conventional neo-Babylonian succession, with Nebuchednezzar II ‘the Great’, for instance, now to be identified with the King Nabonidus who so notably resembles “Nebuchednezzar” of the Book of Daniel.
The reason being, that Nabonidus was that Nebuchednezzar.
But historians and biblical commentators almost universally adopt an approach quite different from mine. Blindly trusting in their conventional apparatus, they, upon realisation that the biblical data cannot comfortably be aligned with it, must emasculate the biblical account in, as I said, a Procrustean fashion. One example that stands out in my mind is that of the fallen walls of Early Bronze III Jericho, which adequately fits the account of it given in the Book of Joshua, but archaeologically does not correlate with the estimated time of Joshua, but, rather, with a much earlier era. Conclusion: The Joshuan account must have borrowed from some real historical situation that had occurred many centuries before.
But, how about this approach instead? The Joshuan account adequately fits a real historico-archaeological situation that is thought to have occurred much earlier than Joshua.
Let us re-examine the conventional apparatus to see if it has all been put together properly.
Now, in the case of the Book of Daniel, what has been so colourfully narrated about its king, “Nebuchednezzar”, seems to have been borrowed from a king named Nabonidus. So - and this has been my approach - could Nebuchednezzar and Nabonidus be just the one king, meaning that the conventional neo-Babylonian succession has been wrongly constructed, with kings being multiplied.
That is not the usual approach, though, as we shall read next.
Book of Daniel and historical evidences
“The Babylonian king Belshazzar in Daniel 5 reflects the historical Bēl-šar-us-ur, eldest son of Nabonidus and regent of the kingdom during his father’s ten-year absence in Arabia. The Daniel tradition erroneously makes him the actual king and portrays him as the son of Nebuchadnezzar”.
The methodology that I wrote that I favoured in Part Two (i) is by no means the usual approach, however, which latter is typically the one employed by Paul-Alain Beaulieu, in his nonetheless interesting article, “The Babylonian Background of the Motif of the Fiery Furnace in Daniel 3” (Journal of Biblical Literature, 128 (2009) 289-306), also available at:
Beaulieu, who has accepted the standard view of long oral traditions leading to a late authorship of the Book of Daniel, will nonetheless find that “the story of Daniel and his three companions being taken to the court of Babylon, given rations from the king’s table, and educated in the lore and manners of the Chaldeans, fits remarkably well with the evidence available from contemporary documents”:
…. The royal order to worship the golden image, the refusal of the three Jewish youths to comply with Nebuchadnezzar’s demands, their ordeal in the fiery furnace and miraculous salvation, followed by their reinstatement in royal favor, all raise fascinating literary and theological questions. The themes and motifs that make up this narrative underwent a long process of oral and written transmission that is extremely difficult to reconstruct.
Indeed, any proposal in that direction is bound to remain speculative. Changes inevitably occurred in the tale during the long process of its elaboration, a time span covering more than three centuries. This means that the original historical background remains partly concealed behind the final redaction. How much does Daniel 3 reflect the situation of Jewish exiles at the Babylonian court in the sixth century, and the political and theological debates which took place at that time?
I propose in the next few pages to address one aspect of this question, the motif of the punishment in the fiery furnace.
I. The Account in Daniel 3
The episode related in Daniel 3 allegedly took place at the court of Nebuchadnezzar, the conqueror of Jerusalem who reigned from 605 to 562 …. Following the deportations he ordered, Jewish exiles settled in Babylonia in substantial numbers in the early decades of the sixth century.
The fate of some exiles is now documented by a group of cuneiform contract tablets stemming mainly from two localities in the region of Nippur, one of them called “city of Judah/of the Judeans” (Al Yahudu/Yahudayu), the Babylonian name of Jerusalem.
As the majority of the people appearing in the documents bear West Semitic and Judean names, it seems certain that this new Jerusalem in Babylonia had been founded by recent exiles. Those Judeans integrated to various degrees into the life of their new home. Some even gravitated around the royal court. Indeed, such a group of Judeans appearing in cuneiform tablets has been known since 1939, when Ernst Weidner published administrative documents discovered in Babylon at the beginning of the twentieth century in the storeroom area of the royal palace and datable to the thirteenth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar.
A few tablets record deliveries of rations to groups of foreigners, some of them obviously state prisoners. Among the recipients one finds Jehoiachin, the king of Judah exiled in 597, and a number of unnamed Judean men and princes who presumably belonged to Jehoiachin’s retinue. 2 Kings25:27–30 tells us that in the twenty-seventh year of the exile, the Babylonian king Evil-Merodach (= Amēl-Marduk, son of Nebuchadnezzar II, reigned 562–560 … released him from prison, provided him with a regular allowance and received him every day at his table.
Mackey’s comment: I have identified this king Jehoiachin (Coniah) with the conspiratorial Haman of the Book of Esther:
Is the Book of Esther a Real History?
Therefore the story of Daniel and his three companions being taken to the court of Babylon, given rations from the king’s table, and educated in the lore and manners of the Chaldeans, fits remarkably well with the evidence available from contemporary documents.
While the general historical context of Daniel 3 seems relatively easy to assess, some aspects of its setting remain foggy. It has long been accepted that behind the Danielic Nebuchadnezzar lurks a memory of the historical Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, who reigned from 556 to 539 ….
Mackey’s comment: But, according to my reconstructions, Nabonidus was not “the last king of Babylon”, but he was Nebuchednezzar himself, hence the Book of Daniel’s lurking “memory of the historical Nabonidus”.
Beaulieu will now, again missing the point, go on to write that Nabonidus’s son Belshazzar is a reflection of the “Babylonian king Belshazzar in Daniel 5”. The truth of the matter is that this is just the one Belshazzar. Thus we read:
The figure of Nabonidus emerges most clearly in Daniel 4 and 5. It is now generally accepted that the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness and his expulsion among beasts originates in a recollection of Nabonidus’s eccentric behavior, especially regarding religious issues, and of his withdrawal to the north Arabian oasis of Teima. The Babylonian king Belshazzar in Daniel 5 reflects the historical Bēl-šar-us-ur, eldest son of Nabonidus and regent of the kingdom during his father’s ten-year absence in Arabia. The Daniel tradition erroneously [sic] makes him the actual king and portrays him as the son of Nebuchadnezzar. This latter interpolation constitutes the strongest argument for tracing the Danielic narratives about Nebuchadnezzar to a cluster of historical memories of Nabonidus. This has led some scholars to seek in cuneiform sources relating to Nabonidus historical data that might provide a background to the story of the worship of the golden statue in Daniel 3. Such data came to light with the publication of the Verse Account of Nabonidus in 1924.
This polemical account, probably written at the behest of the Persian conquerors of Babylon, largely focuses on Nabonidus’s promotion of the cult of the moon-god Sîn at the expense of Marduk, the city-god of Babylon. It claims that Nabonidus made a horrifying new cult image of the god Sîn. The Verse Account probably refers in this case to the statue of Sîn that the king claims to have returned to the temple Ehulhul in Harran. Sidney Smith, the original editor of the text, did not fail to see the relation that this episode
bears to the tale of the fashioning and compulsory worship of the gold statue in Daniel 3.
The suggestion was later taken up by Wolfram von Soden and several other scholars since.
…. The statue might also be the image of a king, perhaps Nebuchadnezzar himself, or a symbol of his regal power. In ch. 2 of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar receives a dream vision of such a statue. Some ancient exegetes clearly saw a connection between chs. 2 and 3. In the second century, Hippolytus of Rome already interpreted the statue fashioned by Nebuchadnezzar as a reminiscence of his dream: For as the blessed Daniel, in interpreting the vision, had answered the king, saying, “Thou art this head of gold in the image,” the king, being puffed up with this address, and elated in his heart, made a copy of this image, in order that it might be worshiped by all as God.
…. Originally, the tale focused on the memory of Nabonidus’s crafting of a new image of the moon-god Sîn for the temple of Harran and his effort to impose it as state cult in the Babylonian empire of the sixth century. The tradition eventually substituted Nebuchadnezzar for Nabonidus [sic] and transformed the episode into an edifying theological tale of the arrogant attempt of a pagan king to impose the worship of a statue of his own design, a statue embodying imperial hubris. The Danielic tradition transmuted this memory of Nabonidus’s failed attempt at religious reform into a timeless critique of idolatry. Forced worship of the statue, however, merely sets the background for the other elements in the drama to unfold. As in most court tales, peer envy ushers the heroes into royal disgrace. Refusing to bow down to the statue, the three Jewish youths are denounced for impiety and are sentenced to the punishment prescribed by the king for defying his order: to be thrown alive into a furnace of blazing fire …. Burning as a death sentence occurs occasionally in the biblical and Near Eastern worlds. ….
II. Punishment by Fire
Punishment by Fire in the Bible
The Bible contains few allusions to execution by burning. In spite of their small number, they indicate that punishment by being burned alive was part of the legal system of ancient Israel. For example, this punishment is prescribed for prostitution or fornication in the episode of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38:24) and, more specifically, for prostitution by the daughter of a priest in the laws of Leviticus (Lev 21:9). Leviticus also prescribes that punishment for the particular form of incest committed by a man who weds both mother and daughter (Lev 20:14). The same end befalls the thief of sacred paraphernalia and his family according to the episode of the sin of Achan (Josh 7:13–19), although Achan himself is stoned to death before being burned.
…. In the prophetic and apocalyptic literature of the postexilic period, burning is sometimes mentioned as a form of eschatological punishment, notably in Daniel7:11, where the beast of the fourth kingdom is killed and given over to be burned with fire. For the interpretation of Daniel 3, the most interesting mention of death by burning in the Bible is the execution of the false Jewish prophets mentioned in the letter sent by Jeremiah to the first wave of exiles in Babylon (Jer 29:1–23).
The time frame of the letter should be 594–593 … between the two captures of Jerusalem, when many in Judah still entertained hopes of casting off the Babylonian yoke. Yet Jeremiah encourages the exiles to settle in their new country and patiently await the term of seventy years prescribed for their return; he warns them against false prophets who predict Judah’s impending liberation (Jer 29:21–23NRSV):
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, concerning Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying a lie to you in my name: I am going to deliver them into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he shall kill them before your eyes. And on account of them this curse shall be used by all the exiles from Judah in Babylon: “The Lord make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire,” because they have perpetrated outrage in Israel and have committed adultery with their neighbor’s wives, and have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them; I am the one who knows and bear witness, says the Lord.
Ahab, son of Kolaiah, and Zedekiah, son of Maasiah, both occur in a list of false prophets from Qumran (4Q339).
They proclaimed the end of Babylonian hegemony over Judah. Therefore, fear of their spreading a spirit of rebellion appears to be Nebuchadnezzar’s most likely motive for ordering their execution. Consonant with Jeremiah’s interpretation of history, Nebuchadnezzar acts here as a mere instrument of God’s plan. However, it is interesting that Jeremiah further indicts the two prophets for fornication, a crime that in some circumstances entailed death by burning in Israel and is listed here as the primary reason for their execution. Jeremiah provides a biblical rationale for their condemnation, a rationale that conceals the political motives of the Babylonians in carrying out that sentence. As I will dis-cuss below, death by burning occurs a number of times in Babylonian sources from the eighth to the third centuries … in some cases as a sentence imposed by the king. The punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 29 involved roasting in fire, but it does not say explicitly how, and therefore burning in a furnace cannot be excluded, even if death at the stake seems more likely. Be that as it may, Jeremiah 29 provides a crucial parallel to Daniel 3 and may yield some clues as to how the tale originated and expanded. Both narratives portray Nebuchadnezzar imposing capital punishment on rebellious Jewish exiles, and the punishment involves death by burning in the two cases.
Punishment by Fire in Ancient Egypt
Burning as a form of capital punishment is attested a few times in texts from the pharaonic and Hellenistic periods in Egypt.
Anthony Leahy has reviewed the various allusions to such punishment in Egyptian sources.
Burning is attested for adultery, murder, conspiracy to murder, sacrilege, and rebellion. It is uncertain whether legal codes prescribed it, but in some cases it could be ordered by royal decree. Execution by burning usually involved placing the condemned on the (“brazier, open furnace”). The Instructions of Ankhsheshonqy, a Demotic text from the first century … describe how the king ordered a group of conspirators to be burned in this manner; however, there is no agreement on whether the text refers to an open fire or an enclosed furnace.
Leahy points out two possible examples of large furnaces that could accommodate several individuals.
At Edfu a relief shows the king condemning four prisoners to be tied together in a type of box that is depicted also in Papyrus Salt 825, where it is identified as a “furnace” … with two men tied back to back inside it. He also gives examples of punishment by burning in the metaphysical realm; for instance, the Book of Gates depicts some large furnaces …. In Demotic the word … means both a censer or brazier and a large furnace.
Punishment by Fire in Ancient Mesopotamia
Execution by burning occurs in Mesopotamia both as a provision of the legal system for certain crimes and as a punishment imposed by the king.
It is attested already in the Old Babylonian period.
… the Babylonian king Nabû-šuma-iškun, who reigned in the middle of the eighth century, burned alive sixteen residents of the city of Kutha at the gate of Zababa in Babylon.
In a passage warning against the brazen confidence of strength and wealth, the Babylonian Theodicy remarks how the prominent citizen can be burned in fire by the king “before his time,” that is to say, before the natural end of his life.
In addition, the astrological series Enuma Anu Enlil mentions a royal condemnation to be burned.
There is also evidence in mythology and magic for burning as metaphysical punishment.
Punishment by the Fiery Furnace in Mesopotamia
The precise manner of execution in the texts discussed so far cannot be determined. Although death at the stake seems the more likely possibility, one can envisage a number of different ways in which a sentence of death by burning can be carried out. It is fortunate that we have three instances in Mesopotamia where the manner of execution by burning is specified, and all three cases involve being thrown into an oven or a furnace. However, these sources have not been discussed in previous commentaries on Daniel 3. The earliest text (BIN 7, 10) is a letter of King Rīm-Sîn of Larsa, who reigned from 1822 until 1763
… according to the middle chronology …. Thus says Rīm-Sîn, your lord. Because he cast a boy into the oven, you, throw the slave into the kiln.
The context of this letter cannot be reconstructed and remains enigmatic. Is the king quoting a proverb or some other form of saying, or is he ordering these officials to carry out an execution? The two words for “oven” and “kiln” are tinūru and utūnu. The latter derives from Sumerian UDUN, and occurs more rarely as atūnu, the form under which it entered the Aramaic language (Nwt) in Daniel 3). The second occurrence comes from a palace edict of the Assyrian king Aššur-rēša-iši I (1130–1113 …). It was originally published by Ernst Weidner, who noted with his usual acumen the parallel between the edict and the motif of the furnace in Daniel 3.
The relevant part of the edict reads as follows: …. They shall throw them, either the woman or the man, the eye-witness, in the oven.
The word for oven is again utūnu/atūnu, written here with the logogram udun. Unfortunately the edict is not fully preserved, so it is not entirely clear which transgression results in death in the oven. Many provisions in Middle Assyrian edicts sanction inappropriate behavior by palace women and personnel. Thus a misdemeanor of sexual nature seems probable. The third and final example occurs in a Neo-Babylonian school text from the Sippar temple library. It is datable to the first half of the sixth century and is therefore contemporaneous with the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar II and Nabonidus. The text may well have been composed earlier, however, since it purports to reproduce a letter of the Old Babylonian king Samsu-iluna (1750–1712) to a certain Enlil-nādin-šumi, who is given the title of governor …. The king orders the governor to inscribe on a stela an encyclical address to the superintendents of all cult centers of Babylonia.
…. To Enlil-nādin-šumi, governor of the land … superintendent of all [the cult centers of A]kkad, speak, thus [Samsu-ilun]a, king of the world …. “(Concerning) all the cult centers of the land of Akkad, all of those from east to west [which] I have given entirely into your control, I have heard (reports) that the temple officials, the collegium … priests of the cult centers of the land of Akkad, as many as there are, have taken to falsehood, committed an abomination, been stained with blood, spoken untruths. Inwardly they profane and desecrate their gods, they prattle and cavort about. Things that their gods did not command they establish for their gods.”
After having thus chastised local priests and officials for impiety and sacrilege, the king concludes his remonstrances with a series of curses, and instructs Enlil-nādin-šumi to enforce them: You now, destroy them, burn them, roast them, . . . to the cook’s oven . . . make their smoke billow, bring about their fiery end with the fierce flame of the box-thorn!
In spite of the gap in the text, it seems clear that the punishment by burning and roasting envisaged in the curses is effected by means of a cook’s oven. The term for oven here is
kīru, which refers normally to a lime kiln rather than the oven used by cooks and bakers. Remarkably, in his classic commentary on Daniel, James Montgomery noted that the furnace of Daniel 3 “must have been similar to our common lime-kiln, with a perpendicular shaft from the top and an opening at the bottom for extracting the fused lime.”
The Letter of Samsu-iluna provides the closest known parallel to Daniel 3, not only in the manner of execution but also regarding the context in which it is envisaged, that of a royal order on the correct performance of cultic duties. The text belonged to the curriculum of Babylonian schools. Apprentice scribes who joined the royal administration were required to copy and study it. The Letter propagates an idealized view of the Babylonian monarch as religious leader and custodian of traditional rites. Given its status as official text, it is hardly surprising that elements of its ideology resurface with a slightly different formulation in the Harran Stela of Nabonidus. The Harran Stela openly propagandizes Nabonidus’s devotion to the moon-god Sîn of Harran, whom he sought to promote as imperial deity. In a passage that recalls the tone and thematic content of the Letter of Samsu-iluna, Nabonidus chastises the administrators and citizens of the cult centers of Babylonia for behaving sinfully, committing blasphemy and sacrileges, and disregarding the true nature and worship of Sîn: The god Sîn called me to kingship. He revealed to me in a night dream (what follows): “Build quickly Ehulhul, the temple of Sîn in Harran, and I will deliver all lands into your hands.” (But) the people, the citizens of Babylon, Borsippa, Nippur, Ur, Uruk, (and) Larsa, the temple administrators (and) the people of the cult centers of the land of Akkad, offended his (Sîn’s) great godhead and they misbehaved and sinned, (for) they did not know the great wrath of the king of the gods, Nannar. They forgot their rites and would speak slanders and lies, devouring each other like dogs. (Thus) pestilence and famine appeared (ušabšû) among them, and he (the moon-god) reduced … the people of the land.
There are two other striking points of resemblance between the Letter of Samsu-iluna, the Harran Stela, and Daniel 3. In all three cases the Babylonian king addresses his subjects by means of an encyclical proclamation, and the individuals most specifically targeted by the anticipated punishment are the priesthood and high officials, who were generally royal appointees. Daniel 3 records that Nebuchadnezzar’s proclamation is addressed to “the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces” (Dan 3:2, 3), and the biblical material further emphasizes that the Jewish companions of Daniel had been nominated by the king to oversee “the affairs of the province of Babylon” (Dan 3:12). The motif of the Chaldeans denouncing the three Jewish appointees stems from the paradigm of the court tale, but the story of officials falling into disgrace because they contravened the king’s religious pronunciamentos very probably originates in actual conflicts that erupted during the reign of Nabonidus.
The executions recorded in Daniel 6 and in the story of Bel and the Dragon, effected by throwing the condemned into a lion’s pit, appear more feasible and on the surface more believable than the punishment in the fiery furnace. However, such a mode of execution finds no parallel in the ancient world. Karel van der Toorn argued that the story probably originated in the literalization of an ancient metaphor that is recorded in a letter addressed by the scholar Urad-Gula to the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.
The scholar complains that he has unexplainably fallen into disgrace, and in a broken passage states that he prays to the king day and night “in front of the lion’s pit.” Earlier in the letter Urad-Gula had said that he used to eat “lion’s morsels,” which can be understood to mean the fine food apportioned to members of the staff of schol-ars who advised the king. ….
Mackey’s comment: Beaulieu will now proceed to discuss what he (wrongly, I suggest) considers to have been “the transformation of the figure of Nabonidus into that of Nebuchadnezzar”:
V. Nabonidus and Nebuchadnezzar
A very important element in the elaboration of Daniel 3 is the transformation of the figure of Nabonidus into that of Nebuchadnezzar. This could have happened any time before the court narratives of Daniel 1–6 reached their final form. However, the discovery of the Prayer of Nabonidus among the Qumran manuscripts(4Q242) shows that even after the compilation of Daniel in the first decades of the second century [sic], there continued a parallel tradition that correctly ascribed to the historical Nabonidus the episodes of the royal disease and the residence in the oasis of Teima. These episodes appear in Daniel in the form of the sudden madness, animalization, and exile of Nebuchadnezzar among the beasts. The Danielic figure of Nebuchadnezzar does not entirely depend on a memory of Nabonidus, however. The book accurately portrays Nebuchadnezzar as conqueror of Jerusalem (Dan1:1–2) and builder of Babylon (Dan 4:30). Thus, in Daniel, various memories of the two kings were woven together into one archetypal figure. It seems difficult to deny that there is a very close relation between the story of the two false prophets burned by the historical Nebuchadnezzar in Jer 29:21–23 and the story of the three Jewish exiles thrown into the fiery furnace by the fictionalized Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3. The books of Daniel and Jeremiah share many more traits. For one thing, the two prophets were allegedly near contemporaries. The final redactors of Daniel highlighted this connection in their prophet’s reinterpretation of Jeremiah’s prediction of the length of the exile (Daniel 9).
Mackey’s comment: The Book of Daniel does not, in fact, need any “reinterpretation of Jeremiah’s prediction of the length of the exile”. What stands in need of “reinterpretation” is the neo-Babylonian succession, the incorrect estimation of which by conventional scholars has led to apparent discrepancies between Jeremiah and Daniel. On this, see my:
Prophet Jeremiah's "Seventy Years" of Babylonian Rule