The Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4
There are a number of biblical passages that are classified as unforgettable and the madness of Nebuchadnezzar easily qualifies for the list. The book of Daniel is filled with perplexing passages and predictions so it has been scoured by those interested in the prophecies. However, despite the many people laboring over the texts, few people have really spent time focusing on the passage in chapter four concerning the Babylonian king having a bout of madness for seven years. During these seven years he is said to have converted to an animalistic state, grazing on the grass, growing long hair and nails, and sleeping outside. Most, modern scholars are rightly skeptical of such stories, insisting that such strange events would show up in extra-biblical records somewhere. Traditional scholars take the story at face value. Still yet, moderate scholars have landed somewhere in the middle suggesting there is a some kernel of actual history being told but that many details are either wrong or embellished. This form latter of story telling was common during the time period in which Daniel was being composed and redacted.
For those who are not familiar with the passage, here are the relevant verses from Daniel. In the passage, Nebuchadnezzar is punished for taking God’s glory.
28 All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”
31 Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. 32 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”
33 Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.
34 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.
If you’re reading this passage for the first time and you’re anything like me, you’re probably highly skeptical that the king of the greater world power of the ancient Near East had a bout of
Boanthropy and that it was not documented by any ancient records. Given that the Babylonians took great pride in their textual libraries and the art of writing, it seems inconceivable that nobody mentioned the tale other than one or more Hebrew scribes. So what evidence does exist and what can we learn from it?
As previously stated, no direct evidence of these events actually exist but what about indirect evidence? Are there any records of Nebuchadnezzar being absent from the throne for any time period? What about records of the king having a religious awakening or turnaround? Anything concerning his mental well-being? Sadly, the answer to all these questions are “no”. But there are some Babylonian texts that are quite interesting and could serve as the original seed for this story. In fact, it is almost universally accepted at this point that this textual tradition is the source of the tale concerning Nebuchadnezzar’s madness. The texts in question are usually referred to as the Nabonidus Chronicles. This text is part of a larger body Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (ABC). The ABC corpus contains some 25+ chronicles from ancient Mesopotamia. In these chronicles we learn a lot about the later years of the Neo-Babylonian empire, during the time of Daniel. We also learn quite a bit about a king named Nabonidus who reigned from 556 to 539 BCE. What we learn about Nabonidus sounds an awful lot like the descriptions of Nebuchadnezzar.
The Nabonidus Chronicle details the events in the life of the Babylonian King, Nabonidus. In the chronicle we learn that Nabonidus leaves Babylon for about 10 years and stayed in Arabia. His absence from the kingdom seems to have affected a number of cultural traditions. For example, in the years he was gone the gods Bel and Nabu do not present themselves to the people even though their normal libations and feasts were still carried out.
[ii.5] The seventh year The king (was) in Tayma (while) the prince, his officers, (and) his army (were) in Akkad. [In the month Nisannu, the king] [ii.6] did not come to Babylon. Nabu did not come to Babylon. Bel did not come out. The [Akitu festiv]al [did not take place].
[ii.7] The offerings to the gods op Babylon and Borsippa, a[s in normal times], in Esagila and Ezida
[ii.8] were presented. The urigallû-priest made a libation and inspected the temple. ([…])
In the chronicle we also learn that the Persian King Cyrus was already making advances towards conquering the Mesopotamian region. The Median king Astyages is said to have fallen to Cyrus in the third year that Nabonidus was away. This is helpful as we know from other texts that Astyages was conquered by the Persians in 550 BCE, 11 years before Cyrus conquers Babylon in 539 BCE. Thus, the timeline in Daniel for the king of Babylon being away matches that of Nabonidus.
[ii.1] [The sixth year: Astyages] mustered (his army) and marched against Cyrus, king of Anšan, for conquest […] [ii.2] The army rebelled against Astyages and he was taken prisoner. Th[ey handed him over] to Cyrus. ([…])
We also learn that Nabonidus’ son stayed in Babylon during the king’s absence.
[ii.10] The ninth year Nabonidus the king (was) <in> Tayma, (while) the prince, the officers, (and) the army (were) in Akkad. The king, in the month Nisanu, to Babylon
[ii.11] did not come.
Nabonidus ended up spending 7-10 years or so in Tayma (Taima). In the 17th year of his reign we see Nabonidus back in Babylon, just in time for king Cyrus to invade with the Persians. This year, Babylon falls to the Persians, as predicted in Daniel 5:26-28. Daniel has Nebuchadnezzar as the last king in Babylon but it was actually Nabonidus. Another curiosity is that Darius the Mede is credited with the fall of Babylon and not Cyrus, but the explanation might actually tell us something about how Nabonidus and Babylon was captured. As it happens, Babylon was less conquered by the Persians as much as they were annexed. In other words, it was not entirely a hostile takeover. With the king away for so long and many political functions on hold, the Persians were nearly welcomed when they came. Nevertheless, Cyrus was not actually the first leader to “conquer” Babylon. This event actually occurred about 2-3 years previous by an unidentifiable Median ruler. Like the mixup between Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus, it is believed that Darius (the 3rd Med0-Persian king) was actually King Astyages, who was the last king of the Medes. For a short period, the king of Persia (Cyrus) and the king of the Medes (Astyages) were co-rulers of the joint empire. It was not until the death of Astyages that Cyrus took full control over the joint kingdoms and became the sole leader. After Cyrus had gained full control he lead a campaign westward through Babylon and Assyria, solidifying the Median and Persian holdings. Many believe that Astyages was actually Darius the Mede but that the name was either mistaken or purposefully replaced.
Besides the political issues that lead to the annex of Babylon, the Babylonians also had a religious motivation to welcome the Persians without a massive battle. Nabonidus essentially removed Marduk as the high deity of the pantheon and the patron deity of Babylon. Instead, he elevated the moon god Sin in an attempt to dethrone Marduk. This did not sit well with the Babylonians. However, when Cyrus entered Babylon he had proclaimed Marduk to be the high god in Babylon. For the first time in 17+ years a ruler was in town that both honored Marduk and was able to provide administrative leadership. In Nabonidus’ own account of his journeys, he makes his return to Babylon specifically on the feast day of Sin, after consulting priests and diviners in Tayma. Paul-Alain Beaulieu, “The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon 556-539 BC.” (New Haven, Yale University Press), 1989 After arriving in Babylon Nabonidus appears to have gone full in on restructuring the religion around Sin as opposed to the traditional patron deity, Marduk. This is most intriguing because in the book of Daniel the king that went mad seems to have also made a drastic change in religious devotion, not unlike what we see from Nabonidus. Moreover, Tayma was quite close to Israel; much closer to Jerusalem then Babylon. To what extend the legends of Nabonidus and his journey to western Arabia had grown and morphed is unknown but certainly those in Israel would have caught wind of the events and formed a narrative. Perhaps, even some Israelite diviners consulted with Nabonidus during this period.
Much of what we see in the book of Daniel pertaining to King Nebuchadnezzar lines up with the life of Nabonidus. For example, Nabonidus had a son named Belshazzar, even though in the book Daniel his father is listed as Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5:1, 2, 9, 22, 29, 30, 7:1, 8:1). Nabonidus’ son, Belshazzar, did actually look after the kingdom while Nabonidus was away for a period of 10 years years. This son, Belshazzar is mentioned prominently in a clay cylinder that was left by Nabonidus in the Temple of Sin, located in Ur.
Nabonidus Cylinder from Ur
[i.1-4] Nabonidus, king of Babylon, caretaker of Esagila and Ezida, worshiper of the great gods, I: [i.5-ii.2] E-lugal-galga-sisa, the ziggurat of Egišnugal, which is in Ur, which Ur-Nammu, one of the kings who preceded me, had built but not completed and whose work his son Šulgi had completed, for in the instructions of Ur-Nammu and Šulgi his son I read that Ur-Nammu had built that ziggurat but not completed it and that Šulgi his son had completed its work, now that ziggurat had become old and on the ancient foundations which Ur-Nammu and Šulgi his son had built, that ziggurat, as in former times, with bitumen and baked bricks I repaired its damaged parts and for Sin, the lords of the gods of heaven and the netherworld, the king of the gods, the “gods” of the gods, who dwells in the great heavens, the lord of Egišnugal, which is in Ur, my lord, I built anew. [iii.3-31] O Sin, my lord “gods”, king of the gods of heaven and the netherworld, “gods” of the gods, who dwells in the great heavens, when you joyfully enter that temple, may good recommendations for Esagila, Ezida. Egišnugal, the temples of your great godhead, be set on your lips, and instill reverence for you great godhead in the hearts of its people so that they do not sin against your great godhead. May their foundations be as firm as heaven.
As for me, Nabonidus, king of Babylon, save me from sinning against your great godhead and grant me as a present a life long of days, and as for Belshazzar, the eldest son – my offspring – instill reverence for your great godhead in his heart and may he not commit ant cultic mistake, may he be sated with a life of plenitude.
As can seen from the text, there is no confusion about who the father of Belshazzar is.
Testimony of Nabonidus
A form of the prayer and conversion of Nebuchadnezzar described in Daniel was also found in the Dead Sea Scrolls but in this text Nabonidus was named, not Nebuchadnezzar. Its unofficial title is aptly named “The Testimony of Nabonidus”.
1. The words of the p[ra]yer which nabonidus, king of [Ba]bylon, the great king, pray[ed] when he was stricken] 2. with an evil disease by the decree of G[o]d in Teman. [I Nabonidus] was stricken with [an evil disease] 3. for seven years, and from [that] (time) I was like [unto a beast and I prayed to the Most High]
4. and, as for my sin, he forgave it (or: my sin he forgave). A diviner – who was a Jew o[f the Exiles – came to me and said:] 5. ‘Recount and record (these things) in order to give honour and great[ness] to the name of the G[od Most High.’ And Thus I wrote: I] 6. was stricken with an evil disease in Teman [by the decree of the Most High God, and, as for me,] 7. seven years I was praying [to] gods of silver and gold, [bronze, iron,] 8. wood, stone (and) clay, because [I was of the opini]on that the[ey] were gods [ ].
The Testimony of Nabonidus confirms that Nabonidus was indeed self-exiled in Tayma and that he was like an animal for seven years. It seems that the story in Daniel about Nebuchadnezzar was originally about Nabonidus.
It seems reasonable to conclude that what we read about Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel was actually about Nabonidus. Moreover, the events in the book of Daniel appear to have been recorded centuries later. This is evident by the style of Hebrew and Aramaic used but also by some of the names and places. When narratives have 100 or more years to develop they tend to take on legendary form and sometimes the names, dates, or places get confused. In other cases, like what we see in the book of Judith, names are changed on purpose in order to vilify particularly dreadful historical figures. Thus, the name Nabonidus being changed to Nebuchadnezzar is no surprise if it was intentional and not accidental. After all, Nebuchadnezzar was the Babylonian king that captured Judah in 597. The brutality and hatred of Nebuchadnezzar in Judah was never forgotten, whereas Nabonidus was hardly relevant since he was in power after Jerusalem was exiled and he was not even present for most of his reign. Of course, it could all just be a mix-up or scribal error. Nevertheless, the account in Daniel appears to get a few details wrong.
But did Nabonidus convert to worshipping the god of the Jews and feeding on the grass? It seems that this portion of the story telling is only recorded in Hebrew texts. The madness episode is likely a later legendary adaptation. Such legends may have began circulating while Nabonidus was in Tayma, on the outskirts of the Judean realm. It seems clear that he was living in the wilderness and some even in Babylon thought he was out of his mind, especially after his attempt to supplant the god Marduk. But there seems to be no evidence that Nabonidus was literally eating grass and living like an animal. However, if we take the text in Daniel to be a hyperbolic image, it’s fair to conclude that some abnormal living on Nabonidus’ part could appear to others as living like an animal.
William H. Shea, “Darius the Mede”, Andrews University Seminary Studies, Autumn 1982, Vol. 20, No. 3, (Andrews University Press.) 229-217.