Evangelical Eisegesis: A Dalliance with Daniel #3 – Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar, and Nitocris

INTRODUCTION

In the narrative arc of the book of Daniel, the Neo-Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar II is heavily featured in the first four chapters. By ch. 5, he is no longer king of Babylon and instead Belshazzar sits on the throne. The impression one gets from reading Daniel 4-5 is that the monarch that immediately preceded Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar, an impression strengthened by the familial language used to relate Nebuchadnezzar with Belshazzar: Nebuchadnezzar is Belshazzar’s “father’ (Aramaic, ʾab; vv. 2, 11 [2x]) and Belshazzar is Nebuchadnezzar’s “son” (Aramaic, bar; v. 22). Historically, this is problematic. 

One problem is that of succession. According to the Uruk King List, a list of monarchs that reigned over the city of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by Amel-marduk, not Belshazzar.[1] Moreover, there is no Belshazzar mentioned on the list. This succession is also implied by a stele purportedly containing the words of Adad-guppi, the mother of Nabonidus.[2] Again, there is no mention of a Belshazzar. The Deuteronomistic Historian, writing sometime in the fifth or sixth centuries BCE, names Evil-merodach (i.e., Amel-marduk) as Babylonian king, implying that he succeeded Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:27).[3] Thus, if the Danielic author is implying in his narrative that Belshazzar was monarch immediately following Nebuchadnezzar, he is doubly wrong: the immediate successor of Nebuchadnezzar was Amel-marduk, and Belshazzar is not mentioned as a king of Babylon. 

Another problem is familial. In a prayer to the god Sin, Nabonidus requests that the moon deity “instill reverence” for his ancestral god in “Belshazzar, the eldest son my offspring.”[4] In another text, an interpretation of a dream found on a clay tablet, the author refers to “Nabonidus, king of Babylon, my lord” and to “Belshazzar, the son of the king, my lord.”[5] Neither of these texts, nor any extant, refer to Belshazzar as the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar. Instead, Belshazzar is always connected to Nabonidus. Thus, if the Danielic author is suggesting that Belshazzar was the actual son of Nebuchadnezzar, he is undoubtedly wrong. 

“Son” as “Descendent” 

In a recent piece over at her website,[6] business professor and Christian pop-apologist SJ Thomason contends that when the book of Daniel refers to Belshazzar as the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar that what is intended is something else entirely. She writes, “The Aramaic term for son can be used to describe a male in a person’s lineage. Compare this with the reference to Jesus as the ‘Son of David’ even though He is many generations down the lineage of David.” Thus, in describing Belshazzar as the son of Nebuchadnezzar, the author of the book of Daniel is implying that he belongs to Nebuchadnezzar’s lineage. Moreover, Thomason writes that when referring to Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s father, it is not necessarily the case that he means father since “the Aramaic word for father (‘ab’) can also refer to grandfather, great grandfather, ancestor, predecessor, etc.” 

For this logic to work, Belshazzar must be in some way physically related to Nebuchadnezzar. That is, they must share some genetic link. After all, even Jesus’ status as “Son of David” is bolstered by the Matthean and Lukan genealogies that trace his lineage back to the famous king of the united Israelite monarchy (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38; cf. Mark 10:47-48; Romans 1:3). The connection, per Thomason, is to be found in a woman named Nitocris. 

Belshazzar was the heir, descendent, and eventual successor to the throne through Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter, Nitocris. Archaeological findings have confirmed that Nabonidus is the father of Belshazzar. Historians in the Boston Museum have noted that Nabonidus was married to Nitocris.[7]

As the business professor goes on to note, Nitocris is mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus in relation to an individual named Labynetus. Undoubtedly, “Labynetus” refers to Nabonidus, though the name is a Hellenized form of his name,[8] not “Roman” as Thomason claims. More importantly, Thomason fails to note that a Babylonian queen named Nitocris is attested to only in Herodotus, and it is not without its difficulties. 

QUEEN(S)

In Herodotus’ Histories, there are actually two women who go by the name Nitocris: a Babylonian queen mentioned in 1.185-188 and an Egyptian one mentioned in 2.100. It is, of course, the former with which we must concern ourselves. To preface his discussion of Nitocris, Herodotus explains in 1.184 that while there were a number of Babylonian kings who were responsible for the “design and ornamentation of the walls and sanctuaries of Babylon,”[9] there were also two queens, separated from one another by five generations. The first he mentions is Semiramis who was responsible for “the remarkable dykes on the plain” that prevented severe flooding from the Euphrates.[10] “Semiramis,” historian Amélie Kuhrt writes, “evokes the Assyrian queen-regent, Shammuramat, active in the late eighth century [BCE], which fits [Herodotus’] chronological scheme.”[11] Semiramis was a character of legendary proportions. According to Ctesias, another Greek historian roughly contemporary with Herodotus, Semiramis was the daughter of a Syrian goddess (F1b. Diodorus 4.3). In Ctesias’ scheme, it is Semiramis who was responsible for the founding of the city of Babylon, attributable to the fact that she “was extremely ambitious by nature and eager to surpass the reputation of the man who had ruled before her” (F1b. Diodorus 7.2).[12] It is likely true that Semiramis was ambitious, but it is untrue that she founded Babylon as the earliest mention of the city can be traced to the late third millennium BCE,[13] long before the era of Semiramis. As Paul-Alain Beaulieu observes, “There is no basis for [Ctesias’] tale, as for almost every alleged historical fact reported by Ctesias concerning Assyria and Babylon.”[14]

Semiramis’ connection to Babylon seems dubious, though some aspects of Herodotus’ description of her may have historical verisimilitude.[15] We are able to connect Semiramis to a historical person quite easily, recognizing that “Semiramis” is a Hellenized form of “Shammuramat.” But what of Nitocris? As I already mentioned, Herodotus’ Histories contains two powerful women named Nitocris, one of which was an Egyptian. Space does not permit a full treatment of that Nitocris who must have predated her Babylonian counterpart by well over a millennium, but Alan Loyd in his commentary on Book Two of the Histories speculates that Nitocris is the Hellenized version of the Egyptian Nt-íkr.tì, a name that “was particularly common in the Late Period” of Egyptian history in which Herodotus writes.[16] If Labynetus was the Hellenized version of the Akkadian Nabonidus, Semiramis the Hellenized form of the Assyrian Shammuramat, and Nitocris the Hellenized form of the Egyptian Nt-íkr.tì, for what Babylonian name is this Nitocris the Hellenized version?

Nitocris: A Queen Par Excellence 

As we will discuss momentarily, Herodotus envisions Nitocris as the mother of the last king of Babylon, the one against whom “Cyrus’ strike was launched” (1.188). Prior to his ascending to power, Cyrus’ homeland of Persia had been under control of the Medes (1.102). It was during the reign of Astyages that Cyrus led a revolt, overthrowing the Median king and bring the Medes under Persian dominance (1.127-130). But the Medes had been a superpower in their own right and so Herodotus notes that Nitocris “noticed the size and restlessness of the Median empire,” ever mindful that impressive cities like the Assyrian metropolis of Ninus (i.e., Nineveh) had fallen to them (1.185) Consequently, Herodotus tells us, Nitocris prepared Babylon for a possible incursion, giving the city a “thorough defensive system” (1.186). 

The first thing that Nitocris did was to redirect the flow of the Euphrates River such that any assault by ship would be laborious and time consuming. As he notes here and in 1.180, Babylon was bisected by the Euphrates, and so an enemy coming down the river would have easy access to either district of the city. Nitocris purportedly remedied the situation by digging channels to the north of the city that made the normally straight river crooked. In addition to this, she raised the embankments along the river which, Herodotus interjects, “is well worth seeing for its bulk and height.” Finally, to the north of the city she had a lake created with a pavement surrounding it. Though Herodotus doesn’t make explicit for what the lake was intended (he may not have known),[17] it was perhaps intended to be filled with water that could be released as a deluge should enemies invade.[18]

It is clear from reading this section on Nitocris in the Histories that Herodotus greatly admires the woman: she was “a more intelligent ruler than her predecessor” (1.185). However, the description of her achievements is questionable. For example, Nebuchadnezzar II was responsible for various waterworks, including beginning work on the Royal Canal, sometimes referred to as Nebuchadnezzar’s Canal, that linked the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. In addition to this, he built the Median Wall north of the canal and Babylon.[19] Moreover, he was apparently behind the creation of a water reservoir that could supply water for crops and flood the region in the event of an enemy incursion.[20] Could it be that Herodotus is attributing to Nitocris the achievements of Nebuchadnezzar?[21]

Another issue has to do with her relationship to Labynetus. According to 1.188, Nitocris is the mother of Labynetus and it was against him that Cyrus waged war. If Labynetus is Nabonidus then we have a problem. As I discussed previously, on a stele purportedly containing the words of Nabonidus’ mother she refers to herself as Adad-guppi, not Nitocris. Further, the implication of 1.188 is that Nitocris was married to the king of Babylon also named Labynetus, from whom the current Labynetus had received his name “and had succeeded to the Assyrian kingdom.” However, not only was Nabonidus’ father’s name not Labynetus,[22] his father was not a king! Historian Amanda Podany writes, “Nabonidus did not refer to his father as a king, because he was not one…. His surprising success at taking power was, he believed, ordained by Sin, the moon god, and foretold in a dream.”[23] Additionally, none of the achievements attributed to Nitocris by Herodotus are found in any description of Adad-guppi extant. Finally, an addendum to Adad-guppi’s stele claims that upon her death Nabonidus placed her “in a hidden tomb.” Herodotus, however, writes that Nitocris “had a tomb built for herself over the busiest city gates, in a prominent place right about the actual gates” (1.187). That is, it was not hidden at all. While it isn’t entirely clear where Herodotus got his story about Nitocris, it is clear that whoever she is she cannot be Adad-guppi, the mother of Nabonidus. 

Nitocris: Mother of Belshazzar?

Thomason, however, makes no claim that Nitocris was the mother of Nabonidus. Rather, she contends that Nabonidus was married to Nitocris and that the “son” to whom Herodotus refers in 1.188 is actually Belshazzar, Nabonidus’ son. Moreover, Thomason asserts that Belshazzar could be considered the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar because his mother, Nitocris, was his daughter thereby making Belshazzar a descendant. 

Thomason provides no support for the claim that Nitocris was the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar. She certainly didn’t get it from Herodotus. In his commentary on Daniel, John Collins notes that some have suggested “Nabonidus might have married a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, as Neriglissar had done, but this is mere speculation, unsupported by any evidence.”[24] In truth, it looks like Thomason got it from an entry on gotquestions.org,[25] a site to which she frequently appeals. An examination of that piece reveals no source for its claim regarding Nitocris’ relationship to Nebuchadnezzar. To reiterate Collins, it is “mere speculation, unsupported by the evidence.” 

What of the claim that Herodotus refers to Belshazzar in 1.188 and not Nabonidus? This view has had its proponents, including historian Paul-Alain Beaulieu. In his work on Nabonidus, Beaulieu proposes that the “son” of 1.188 is the product of Nabonidus and Nitocris and therefore Belshazzar.[26] One of his reasons for thinking so is because he views the references to Labynetus in 1.74 and 1.77 as being about Nabonidus. But this is not at all certain and some scholars recognize the possibility that the Labynetus of 1.74 is none other than Nebuchadnezzar II.[27] Because of this possibility, Kuhrt suggests that Labynetus is “a portmanteau name for all Babylonian kings.”[28] Thus, both Nabonidus and his father as well as Nebuchadnezzar could all be called by Herodotus “Labynetus.” 

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Herodotus is referring to Belshazzar in 1.188. Is Herodotus getting the history correct here? Was it against Belshazzar that Cyrus waged war? Doubtless, no. Historical sources indicate that Nabonidus had left Babylon during the third year of his reign and made his way west, spending a number of years in the city of Tema.[29] During this time, he left Belshazzar in charge, referred to as “the crown prince.” Beaulieu notes that sometime around 543 Nabonidus returned to Babylon and Belshazzar’s role as regent ceased. Four years later, Cyrus began his invasion into Babylonia and in October of 539 Babylon fell to the Persians. But who was the monarch reigning in Babylon at this time? Nabonidus. In fact, one ancient text asserts that it was the Babylonian god Marduk himself who caused Babylon to fall to Cyrus and for Nabonidus to be “delivered into [Cyrus’] hands” because Nabonidus “did not worship him.”[30] Thus, if Herodotus was asserting that Belshazzar was the one against whom Cyrus directed his war, he is undoubtedly wrong. 

That Herodotus is wrong is unsurprising to historians. Herodotus’ claims are often contradicted by archaeological and historiographical findings. With regards to Babylon specifically, Kuhrt explains: 

Babylon was never ruled by a queen: Nitocris cannot be accommodated into our fairly full picture of Babylonia’s history….The palace of Babylon lay fairly close to the central temples, not on the other side of the river; the city was enormous (c. 850 ha.) but nowhere near the size envisaged by Herodotus; it had eight gates no a hundred; the ziggurat did not have a spiral ascent; ill people were not displayed in public squares; girls were neither auctioned off nor prostituted to earn their dowries; nowhere in the quite dense documentation do we hear of women being compelled to have intercourse with random passersby as part of a cult. The two images – Herodotean and Babylonian – cannot be easily harmonized, and attempts to do so remain methodologically questionable.[31]

CONCLUSION

It is therefore very likely Herodotus was wrong about Nitocris. As evidence for Thomason’s views, Herodotus offers no viable support. If the “son” of Nitocris in 1.188 is Nabonidus, Herodotus is wrong both about her name and her history. If the reference is instead to Belshazzar, he is wrong about who was king of Babylon when Cyrus invaded. Either way, Herodotus fails to make the case for Thomason that she thinks he does. 

We must also keep in mind that Herodotus is our only evidence for a Babylonian queen named Nitocris. While Thomason asserts that she was the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, Herodotus never makes such a claim and to my knowledge there is no other extant source that does. Thomason would do well to either support her claim with evidence or retract it. But alas, to do the former would require an actual interest in conducting research; to do the latter would require an interest in honesty.

Thomason, unfortunately, has no interest in either.  


[1] See “The Uruk King List from Kandalanu to Seleucus II,” A. Leo Oppenheim, translator, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, James B. Pritchard, editor, third edition with supplement (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 566.

[2] See “The Mother of Nabonidus,” A. Leo Oppenheim, translator, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 561; cf. C. J. Gadd, “The Harran Inscriptions of Nabonidus,” Anatolian Studies, vol. 8 (1958), 47, 69. 

[3] There is an implicit contrast made in the text of 2 Kings 25 between the harsh treatment of Nebuchadnezzar of Judean captives and the gentler treatment of Evil-merodach. According to v. 27, it is in the first year of Evil-merodach’s reign that he releases Jehoiachin of Judah from prison. It is therefore a change in regime that explains this change in treatment. This suggests that the Deuteronomistic Historian knew that Evil-merodach succeeded Nebuchadnezzar for the throne of Babylon. Cf. Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing Inc., 2000), 605-606.

[4] Translation taken from Paul-Alain Beaulieu, “Nabonidus’ Rebuilding of E-lugal-galga-sisa, The Ziggurat of Ur (2.1123B),” in The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, William W. Hallo, editor (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 2:314.

[5] Translation taken from “Dream Portending Favor for Nabonidus and Belshazzar,” in Albert T. Clay, Miscellaneous Inscriptions in the Yale Babylonian Collection, Yale Oriental Series – Babylonian Texts Vol. 1 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1915), 55. 

[6] SJ Thomason, “Daniel in the Lion’s Den: Belshazzar, Nabonidus, and Nebuchadnezzar” (1.3.21), christian-apologist.com.

[7] Because Thomason does not provide a citation for her claim regarding historians at the Boston Museum, I attempted to track it down myself but couldn’t find it. I did, however, find something on Nitocris at the Brooklyn Museum which can be viewed here. The entry is problematic and so my hope is that someone who holds a PhD would not think that such a site is credible enough to bolster their argument. But alas, I’ve been let down by Thomason before. 

[8] David Asheri, “Book I,” in A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV, Oswyn Murray and Alfonso Moreno, editors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 135.

[9] Translation taken from Herodotus, The Histories, Robin Waterfield, translator (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Unless otherwise noted, all translations of the Histories are from Waterfield’s translation. 

[10] Such flooding may have partly been the inspiration behind the Deluge tales found in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the biblical story of Noah found in Genesis 6-9. Cf. David R. Montgomery, The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), 153; Irving Finkel, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood (New York: Anchor Books, 88.

[11] Amélie Kuhrt, “Babylon,” in Brill’s Companion to Herodotus, Egbert J. Bakker, Irene J.F. de Jong, and Hans van Wees, editors (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 496.

[12] Translation taken from Ctesias’ History of Persia: Tales of the Orient, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones and James Robson, editors (New York: Routledge, 2010).

[13] Paul-Alain Beaulieu, A History of Babylon: 2200 BC – AD 75 (Medford, MA: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2018), 50-51.

[14] Beaulieu, A History of Babylon, 2. This should not be taken to mean that Semiramis was of no historical consequence. Marc Van De Mieroop (A History of the Ancient Near East: ca. 3000-323 BC, second edition [Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007], 244-245) notes that “she remained so influential in the reign of her son Adad-nirari III (ruled 810-783) that official inscriptions mentioned the two as acting together.” Cf. Sarah C. Melville, “Royal Women and the Exercise of Power in the Ancient Near East,” in A Companion to the Ancient Near East, Daniel Snell, editor (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 223.

[15] Asheri, “Book I,” 204.

[16] Alan Lloyd, “Book II,” in A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV, 312; cf. Robin Waterfield, “Explanatory Notes,” in Herodotus, The Histories, Robin Waterfield, translator, 624.

[17] Asheri, “Book I,” 205.

[18] Asheri, “Book I,” 205.

[19] Beaulieu, A History of Babylon, 232.

[20] Asheri, “Book I,” 204-205.

[21] Robin Waterfield, “Explanatory Notes,” in Herodotus, The Histories, Robin Waterfield, translator, 612.

[22] According to the Sippar Cylinder of Nabonidus, his father’s name was “Nabû-balāssu-iqbi, the wise prince, the worshipper of the great gods.” See Paul-Alain Beaulieu, “The Sippar Cylinder of Nabonidus (2.123A),” in The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, William W. Hallo, editor (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 2:310-311. 

[23] Amanda H. Podany, The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 114.

[24] John J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 32.

[25] “Who was Belshazzar?” gotquestions.org.

[26] Paul-Alain Beaulieu, The Reign of Nabonidus: King of Babylon 556-539 B.C. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 80-81.

[27] Asheri, “Book I,” 135.

[28] Kuhrt, “Babylon,” 486.

[29] See A. Leo Oppenheim, “Text from the Accession Year of Nabonidus to the Fall of Babylon,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 306.

[30] See A. Leo Oppenheim, “Cyrus,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 315-316. Nabonidus was devoted to the god Sin, not Marduk. 

[31] Kuhrt, “Babylon,” 495-496.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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