Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar

The Book of Daniel is a patchwork of material, and I can well believe the scholars who hold that it is a compilation of stories rather than the work of a single author.  The first half is composed of short stories about the prophet Daniel and his friends, and the last half, a series of prophetic and surreal visions.  Even in the earlier, narrative portion of the book, every chapter is different.  It starts out in Hebrew; then switches to Aramaic in chapter 2; then in chapter 3 it forgets about the title character and tells a story about these other guys.

And then there’s chapter 4.  In the fourth chapter of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar himself gets to tell his own story.  And what a story it is.

King Nebuchadnezzar,
To the peoples, nations and men of every language, who live in all the world:
May you prosper greatly!
It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.(Daniel 4:1-2 NIV)

The chapter is framed as a royal proclamation in which the King addresses all his subjects as well as all the people on the earth.  Which as far as Nebuchadnezzar was concerned, amounted to the same thing; we see the same language in other decrees of his mentioned in Daniel.  Yes, his ego was really that big.  That’s kind of the point of this story.

This is the only story in the narrative portion of the Book of Daniel told in the first person.  The last half of the book, describing Daniel’s prophetic dreams, are told from Daniel’s point of view, but he does not narrate the earlier chapters.  This chapter, is a personal account, given not by a prophet or a holy man, but a heathen despot.

Nebuchadnezzar tells of how one day, while lying at home in his palace, happy and contented, he has a terrifying dream.  Something like this happened once before, you may remember, with the dream of the great statue.  And as in the previous instance, he calls upon his court magi, his astrologers, diviners and magicians, to interpret it.  This time, at least, he tells them what the dream was, but they still can’t divine its meaning.

Finally he calls upon Daniel.  In a parenthetical remark, he explains that Daniel is also called Belteshazzar, for the benefit of any of his subjects who find the name “Daniel” hard to spell; and further explains that “...the spirit of the holy gods is in him.” (Daniel 4:8)

Why didn’t Nebuchadnezzar summon Daniel first?  He knows from the previous dream that Daniel is good at this divination stuff; and he had placed Daniel in charge of all the other Wise Guys of Babylon.  Dramatic pacing for one thing.  It adds a touch of suspense and makes for a better story.  And, perhaps from a more practical point of view, because Daniel was in charge of the court magi.  Daniel might have been busy with administrative duties.  You don’t bother the Department Head when one of his subordinates can answer the question for you; you summon his to handle the tough stuff.

I said, “Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you.  Here is my dream; interpret it for me.”  (4:9)


One little touch of this story that I like is that, although Nebuchadnezzar has come to respect the Hebrew God of Daniel, and in this story receives another lesson in that God’s greatness, he does not cease to be a Babylonian.  He still calls Daniel by his Bablyonian name of Belteshazzar, (“Bel protect him”, Bel being another name for the Babylonian god Marduk), and attributes Daniel’s wisdom to the gods collectively, not to one God in particular.  It gives Nebuchadnezzar an individual voice, and he does not seem like a sock puppet for some Jewish writer wishing to put down a moral lesson.  At least that’s how it seems to me.

So Nebuchadnezzar tells Daniel his dream.  It’s of a ginormous tree he sees whose top touches the sky and could be seen from the ends of the earth; whose leaves were beautiful and fruit abundant; a tree big enough to shelter the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and to provide food for all.  It was one big honkin’ tree.

But then a messenger comes down from the heavens; a holy one.  Some translations call it a watchman or a watcher, bringing to mind the Watchers of the Apocryphal Book of Enoch, antediluvian ├╝ber-angels.  The Watcher commands that the tree be cut down and its branches lopped off; that its leaves be stripped off and its fruits scattered; that the animals living in and underneath the tree be driven off.  The stump shall remain, bound in bronze and iron, in the midst of the grass of the field.

That was certainly weird, but the next part more disturbing.  The Watcher goes on to say:

“Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth.  Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass for him.”  (4:15-16)

What could this mean?  Nebuchadnezzar is sure that his man Belteshazzar can interpret it; what with him having the spirit of the gods in him and all.

Daniel doesn’t answer right away.  The text says he “...was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him.”  Not because he didn’t know the dream’s meaning, I think, but because he knew that the king wouldn’t like what he heard.  And here the text switches from First Person back to Third Person.  Yes, it’s inconsistent; but this shifts the focus away from Nebuchadnezzar and how he felt, and to the message.  But the King urges Daniel to lay it on him, and so Daniel does.

“My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries!”  Daniel explains that Nebuchadnezzar himself was that tree, great and strong whose dominion stretches to the ends of the earth.  But for all his greatness, a time will come when he is driven away from people and will live with the wild animals, out in the open, eating the grass of the field.  “Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.” (4:23-16)

But although the tree would be destroyed, the stump would remain; meaning that Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom would be restored to him, when he admitted that he was subject to Heaven.

Daniel concludes by begging the king to do what is right and to renounce his wickedness by being kind to the oppressed and offering the hope that his present prosperity may continue.

Was Nebuchadnezzar angered by Daniel’s interpretation?  The text doesn’t say.  But it does say that about twelve months later, the king happened to be walking on the roof of the royal palace of Bablyon and began admiring all that he had accomplished.

“Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”  (4:29-30)

The city of Babylon had been a relatively small one before the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, but Nebuchadnezzar had built up his capital to be worthy of his new conquests.  He rebuilt the Eteminaki ziggurat, dedicated to Marduk, which had been destroyed by the Assyrian king, Sennacherib; enlarged the palace, and built the Ishtar Gate, largest of the eight gates of Babylon.  According to Herodotus, (who isn’t always accurate, but who knew a good story), Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, to please his wife who was homesick for the gardens of her native country.  Inscriptions have been found in which Nebuchadnezzar boasts of his building achievements, including one in which he claims to have personally cut down the cedars from Lebanon used in his palace.  Perhaps the dream carried an echo of that boast.

So when Nebuchadnezzar looked out on the city he had built, its massive walls, it’s high temples and opulent palaces, he could not help but swell with pride and say:

“I built that.”

The words have scarcely escaped his lips when a voice comes from heaven and repeats the words of the messenger from his dream.  “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar:  Your royal authority has been taken from you…”  (4:31)

Immediately, Daniel’s prediction comes to pass.  Nebuchadnezzar loses his reason and thinks he is a cow.  He is driven away from the public and eats grass like cattle and stays out in the wild where he is drenched by the dew of heaven.  His hair grows long like eagle’s feathers and his fingernails like the talons of a bird.

Apparently, this is an actual mental illness in which a person thinks he’s some type of bovine.  It’s called “boanthropy”, which sounds more scientific than “He Thinks He’s A Cow.”  I have to wonder, though, if Nebuchadnezzar’s condition is an ironic reference to the winged bull figures common as guardian spirits in Mesopotamian art.  He worshipped a bulls with the heads of men, and turned into a man with the mind of a cow.

Be that as it may, Nebuchadnezzar remains in this semi-bovine state for “seven times”.  How long is that?  It could mean “seven years”, and that is how the phrase is often rendered; but if the King of Babylon had been missing for seven years, wouldn’t someone have noticed?  Yeah, granted having the king start going about on all fours and saying “Moo” is not something most governments would want to commemorate; but you’d think there would be some sort of record of there being a regent in charge during that period or something like that.

One of the sources I researched claims that a Greek Historian named Abydenus from the 3rd Century BC says that Nebuchadnezzar had been “possessed by some god” and had disappeared.  The actual story from Abydenus, though, seems to be about the king going into a fit and predicting the fall of Babylon and then dying.  It doesn’t seem to fit the Cow story.

The same source states that there is no historical record of Nebuchadnezzar’s governmental activity between 582 B.C. and 575 B.C.  I don’t know enough of Mesopotamian history to know if this is true or not; but I suppose it’s possible that perhaps he was A.W.O.L. during that period and the account in Daniel Chapter 4 is based on an actual proclamation he made to explain where he’d been.

Another source cites an tablet from Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, currently in the British Museum, which seems to describe him suffering some sort of mental breakdown; but the tablet is incomplete and open to interpretation.

2 [Nebu]chadnezzar considered […..]3 His life appeared of no value to [him...]5 And Babylonian speaks bad counsel to Evil-merodach […..]6 Then he gave an entirely different order but [………]7 He does not heed the word from his lips, the cour[tiers……]11 He does not show love to son and daughter […..]12 …family and clan do not exist [………]14 His attention was not directed towards promoting the welfare of Esagil [and Babylon]16 He prays to the Lord of lords, he raised [his hands in supplication….]17 He weeps bitterly to Marduk, the g[reat] god [……] 18 His prayer go forth, to [………]

Suggestive, yes, but the passage could as easily be describing a crippling bout of depression.  Now, if it had the king saying “Moo!” or “There’s nothing like hay for a headache”, why then it would support Daniel’s account a little better.  Maybe that’s on the broken-off part of the tablet.

Or maybe the “seven times” of the Biblical text refers to a shorter period of time: seven months, or even seven weeks.  Raised though I was in a tradition of Biblical Inerrancy, I tend to be suspicious whenever the Bible speaks of numbers like “seven” or “forty”.  It makes me wonder if these numbers are being cited to the most significant decimal, or if they are being used symbolically.  “Seven” is the number of Completion in Hebraic literature, and perhaps “seven times” merely means “the period of time sufficient to fulfill God’s purpose.”

At the end of this period, Nebuchadnezzar regains his senses and his sanity is restored.  He is once again capable of taking over narrating the story.

At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored.  Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.  (Daniel 4:34)

His advisors and nobles seek him out and he is restored to his throne.  And, dang it all, he becomes even greater than he was before.

Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just.  And those who walk in pride, he is able to humble.  (Daniel 4:37)

Which isn’t to say that Nebuchadnezzar became a humble man.  Reading his voice in his proclamation I just don’t hear that.  And he was, after all, still king of the Greatest Nation on Earth.  But it’s always healthy for a ruler to remember occasionally that there are things even greater than he.

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