views updated May 08 2018


BELSHAZZAR (Heb. בֵּלְשַׁאצַּר, בֵּלְאשַׁצַּר; the Akkadian name Bel-šar-uṣur, "O Bel, guard the king"; lxx, Βαλτασάρ), son of *Nebuchadnezzar and the last king of Babylon, according to the Book of Daniel. The biblical account (Dan. 5) relates that Belshazzar gave a banquet for his high officials at which the wine was drunk from the sacred vessels captured by Nebuchadnezzar from the Temple in Jerusalem amid songs to the idols of gold, silver, etc. While they were thus engaged, a mysterious hand appeared and wrote on the wall words which none of the Chaldeans was able to read or interpret but which Daniel, on being summoned by the king, read as *Mene Mene, Tekel Upharsin, and interpreted as a warning to Belshazzar of the impending downfall of his kingdom. That night Belshazzar was killed and was succeeded as world ruler by *Darius the Mede (5:30; 6:1). Two of Daniel's visions are dated as occurring in the first and third years of Belshazzar's reign (7:1; 8:1). While the details given in Daniel appear historically inaccurate, Babylonian texts mention a Bēl-šar-uṣur as the son, crown prince, and regent of *Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon (556–539 b.c.e.). In Nabonidus' absence, Babylon was captured by the armies of *Cyrus, king of Persia. Neither Nabonidus nor Belshazzar was directly descended from Nebuchadnezzar. Presumably because he was a regent, Belshazzar's name is coupled with that of Nabonidus in Babylonian prayer formulae (in the prayer for the king's health in I Bar. 1:11, it is coupled – unhistorically – not with Nabonidus but with Nebuchadnezzar) and in two legal documents (12th and 13th years of Nabonidus), where an oath is sworn by their lives. While the Greek historians Herodotus (1:191) and Xenophon (Cyropaedia, 3:5, 15) do not mention Belshazzar, they share with Dan. 6 the – hardly historical – tradition that the Babylonians were engaged in revelry at the time when the Persians entered the city (corresponding to the time when Belshazzar was killed in the biblical account).

In the Aggadah

Belshazzar is often linked in the aggadah with two of the other Babylonian rulers mentioned in the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar and *Evil-Merodach. Thus the "three-year-old heifer" that Abraham was commanded to offer up (Gen. 15:9) is said to be a reference to these three kings (Gen. R. 44). The occasion of Belshazzar's feast was his miscalculation that the "seventy years" (Jer. 25:11–13) of exile before the redemption had passed without any sign of God's help to His people, a calculation that he made from the date of Nebuchadnezzar's accession to the throne, instead of from the destruction of the Temple (Dan. 9:2; Meg. 11b). Darius and Cyrus were the doorkeepers of Belshazzar's chamber. On the night after he had seen the handwriting on the wall, the king commanded them to kill anyone who tried to enter, even if he should claim to be king. Belshazzar himself, however, had cause to leave the room during the night by a private entrance, and when he attempted to reenter through the usual entrance, Darius and Cyrus, in accordance with his own instructions, slew him (Song. R. 3:42).

In the Arts

Christian writers and artists of the Middle Ages saw in Belshazzar a prefiguration of the antichrist. Belshazzar's feast is described in the Ordo Prophetarum, a medieval mystery cycle, in the section dealing with the prophet Daniel. From Renaissance times onward, however, the theological aspect of the story faded, and its dramatic and spectacular character was invariably emphasized. The great Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681) devoted one of his innumerable autos sacramentales to the theme, his La Cena de Baltasar (written c. 1634), combining fine poetry with excellent stagecraft. In England Hannah More included a Belshazzar in her Sacred Dramas (1782); Lord *Byron wrote the poem "Vision of Belshazzar" (in his Hebrew Melodies, 1815); and the poet and historian Henry Hart Milman, who became dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, produced Belshazzar; a Dramatic Poem (1822), a melodramatic verse-play not intended for the stage. Another English work inspired by the biblical story was The Impious Feast (1828), a poem by Robert Eyres Landor. Lord Byron's interpretation is said to have inspired the poem Belsazar, one of the earliest works of Heinrich *Heine, which appeared in his Buch der Lieder (1827). Another writer who dealt with the theme was the Spanish playwright and novelist Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, author of the romantic tragedy Baltasar (1858).

In the visual arts treatment of the Belshazzar episode followed the same pattern as in literature. The antichrist interpretation occurs in medieval manuscript illumination, notably the 11th-century Saint-Sever Apocalypse, and in sculpture at Vézelay, France (12th century), and Amiens and Magdeburg (13th century). By contrast, the spectacular aspect is dominant in later painting, notably the dramatic portrayal by *Rembrandt (1634).

The biblical story has also inspired orchestral and vocal music. Handel's powerful oratorio Belshazzar (1745; text by Charles Jennens) did not deter later composers from attempting versions of their own. The most successful of these was William Walton's oratorio Belshazzar's Feast (1931; text arranged by Osbert Sitwell). Other treatments of the theme were Sibelius' Belsazars gästabud (1906), written as incidental music to a drama by the Finnish-Swedish poet Hjalmar Procopé and reworked as an orchestral suite in 1907; and a setting of Heine's Belsazar by Bernard van Dieren (1884–1936). The incidental music to a play on the theme which Joseph *Achron composed in 1928 was later reworked as two tableaux for large orchestra.

[Bathja Bayer]


in the bible:

J.A. Montgomery, Daniel (icc, 19492), 66, 261; R.P. Dougherty, Nabonidus and Belshazzar (1929), passim; H.L. Ginsberg, Studies in Daniel (1948), 25–26. in the arts: L. Réau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 2 pt. 1 (1956), 408–9; Sendrey, Music, nos. 7504, 9083.


views updated May 23 2018

Belshazzar In the Old Testament, the son of Nebuchadnezzar and last king of Babylon. The Book of Daniel relates how Belshazzar organized a great feast during which a disembodied hand wrote upon the wall, “Mene, mene tekel upharsin”. Daniel translated it as “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.” and said it signified Babylon's downfall. Modern archaeological investigations identified Belshazzar with Bel-shar-usur (d.539 bc), the son of Nabonidus, King of Babylon (556–539 bc).


views updated May 29 2018


BELTESHAZZAR (Heb. and Aram. בֵּלְטְאשַׁצַּר; בֵּלְטְשַׁאצַּר; lxx, Βαλτασάρ; Vulg., Baltassar), name given to *Daniel in Babylonia (Dan. 1:7). Foreigners introduced into court life were often given native names; e.g., in Egypt *Joseph became known as Zaphenath-Paneah (Gen. 41:45). Popular etymology related the name Belteshazzar to Bel (Dan. 4:5) but it probably derived from Balaṭ-šarri-uṣur ("Protect the life of the king").


J.A. Montgomery, The Book of Daniel (icc, 19492), 123; W. Baumgartner, Hebraeisches und aramaeisches Lexikon zum Alten Testament (1967), 127.

[Bezalel Porten]


views updated Jun 08 2018

Belshazzar. Oratorio by Handel. (F.p. London 1745.) Text by Charles Jennens.