Nebuchadnezzar & Nabonidus

Q – A professor of Aramaic at the Hebrew Union College emailed me trying to disprove Daniel’s book. She claims that there are problems with it such as Daniel mistaking Nebuchadnezzar with Nabonidus in the desert episode?

I don’t know what desert episode she’s talking about and I never read in the Bible about any Nabonidus; nor did I ever read in the Bible about Daniel mistaking Nebuchadnezzar with somebody called Nabonidus in any desert? Can you please give me information to refute her?

Jim – Well, sure I can! That’s my gig!

I cannot be sure as to what “desert episode” your professor is referring. In fact, the word “desert” does not appear anywhere in the book of Daniel. However, there is a classic argument posed by Daniel’s critics that I think may be what she is referring to, inasmuch as it is the only argument concerning Nabonidus. So, I will begin by citing the argument and then present the evidence to refute the argument.

So, let’s start at the start. Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Babylon during the deportation of the house of Judah. However, he is not the subject of the criticism your professor appears to be alluding to.

According to Daniel, Cyrus the Persian king routed Babylon during the reign of king Belshazzar. You can read about him in Daniel chapter 5. He was the king who held a feast for a thousand of his generals and leaders, during which feast he toasted his gods utilizing vessels stolen from the temple in Jerusalem. That’s when a hand appeared and wrote on the wall. And, at that very moment, secular history tells us that the armies of Persia were coming into the city under the wall, through the riverbed, and conquered Babylon.

Likewise, Daniel’s vision of four beasts in Chapter 7 is recorded as occurring “in the first year of Belshazzar, king of Babylon.” And, Chapter 8 begins “In the third year of the reign of king Belshazzar…”

But, here’s the problem. Secular history failed to record any mention of a Babylonian king named Belshazzar. In fact, the ancient histories record that the king reigning in Babylon at the time of the Persian victory was actually Nabonidus.

According to Middle East historians, the record of Berosus, in his third book, found in a fragment preserved by the Jewish historian Josephus, summarizes the history between Nebuchadnezzar’s death in 562 BC and the fall of Babylon in 539. In essence, Berosus tells us that Nebuchadnezzar died after a reign of 43 years. He was followed by his son, Evil-Merodach. Because his rule was arbitrary and licentious, he was assassinated by Neriglisar after he had reigned only two years. The next four years Neriglisar was on the throne. After his death, his son Laborosoarchod, who was a mere child, reigned for nine months until a conspiracy resulted in his being beaten to death. The leaders of the conspiracy appointed Nabonidus – one of the conspirators, not a legal heir to the throne – as king and he reigned for seventeen years before being defeated by Cyrus the Persian. At that point, Nabonidus fled from Babylon to Borsippa, but he was forced to surrender to Cyrus and was allowed to live in Carmania until his death, but was never allowed to return to Babylon.

That’s about the best ancient record we have of the events surrounding the last Babylonian kings. And, nowhere in that ancient record do we find any mention of a king named Belshazzar. The critics claim that Daniel confused the historically verifiable king Nabonidus with a king who is without any historic merit, this so-called Belshazzar. I think that’s the confusion your professor is referring to.

Consequently, the critics have had a hay-day. From that platform they have pronounced the book of Daniel inaccurate, probably a forgery written long after the actual events, and most likely created during the Macabaean revolt against the Grecian general Antiochus Epiphanes during the second century B.C.

Of course, the whole argument hinges on the supposition that Daniel is historically inaccurate. If it were ever proven that Daniel was in fact correct, the entire list of assumptions would tumble down like a house of cards.

And, that’s exactly what has happened. In 1854, archeology unearthed a clay cuneiform cylinder that has come to be called “the Nabonidus cylinder.” You can look at it here.

A simple Google search on the Nabonidus Cylinder will produce a wealth of information concerning the remarkable find.

The most remarkable aspect of this piece of history, though, is that it names the son of Nabonidus – you guessed it, Belshazzar. It was the first piece of undeniable archeological evidence that not only did Belshazzar exist, but that he was son to Nabonidus. Since that time, records have been unearthed declaring that Belshazzar served as regent in Babylon while his father was absent at the oasis of Teima in Arabia. This regency began around 553 B.C. and lasted for several years prior to the incursion of Cyrus.

So, not only was Daniel absolutely correct, he was correct in the face of thousands of years of deafening silence outside his own report. Now there is ample external evidence (including another fragment from Berosus) to conclude that Nabonidus had left Babylon, had been vanquished in battle and fled to Borsippa. This leads us to believe that while Nabonidus normally lived at Teima, he had returned to Babylon for a visit just prior to the siege of Babylon, had gone out to do battle with the Persians prior to Babylon being surrounded, he was routed, he fled, and the Persians went on to besiege Babylon while Belshazzar was the sitting king.

Again, this is exactly in line with every word coming off Daniel’s pen. By the way, Sir Robert Anderson’s book, “Daniel In The Critics’ Den” published in 1909 and more recently John Walvoord’s book, “Daniel, The Key To Prophetic Revelation” both deal with this issue.

Now, there’s also the possibility that your professor is referring to a related bit of controversy. It is widely assumed that the reason Nabonidus spent so much time at the oasis palace was due to his general state of mental instability, though he himself only refers to a physical malady he suffered for seven years. The book of Daniel records that king Nebuchadnezzar underwent a punishment from God during which time he suffered a madness that caused him to eat grass, live in the wilderness, his hair grew like eagle’s feathers and his nails grew like talons. He suffered this madness for seven years and was then restored to his sanity and kingdom.

Critics point out that the historic records fail to mention this period of madness for the great king. That’s not actually surprising, considering how haphazard ancient historical records tend to be. The chronicles of such kings often cover up their failures and aggrandize their accomplishments. But, because of this failure to read extra-biblical accounts of his madness, combined with the generally accepted tales of Nabonidus’s problems, the critics quickly assume that Daniel confused the two. But, that is truly a spurious argument.

To start with, it is an argument from silence. The thinking goes: Daniel records the details, the historic records don’t. Ergo: Daniel’s wrong.

But, more importantly, Daniel’s details don’t begin to fit what we know of Nabonidus’s difficulties. Where he fled to the desert palace, Nebuchadnezzar was driven from men and dwelt with the beasts of the field (Dan. 4:32). He ate grass and his body was wet with dew. And, there was an end to his madness, when Nebuchadnezzar claims to have lifted his head and proclaimed the absolute sovereignty of God over His entire creation (v. 34-37). But, the records concerning Nabonidus merely say that he retreated to the oasis, suffered an illness, credited several gods with his restoration and was later defeated in battle. Those two stories hardly match.

A version of this argument appears here.

Once again, it is an attempt to discredit Daniel, despite the fact that every actual historic record unearthed has continued to defend his credibility as an honest and accurate historian. So, it’s nothing more than wishful thinking to make the leap from one man’s madness to a later king’s admission that he has “an ulcer,” and then attempt to blame Daniel for the confusion that the critics themselves caused. As you read the argument you will instantly notice the lack of credible evidence. It’s just a series of leaps from assumption to assumption. It fails to do any actual damage to Daniel’s text. To do that, the critics would have to produce a historic document that actually contradicts Daniel. And, that they have failed to do.

I hope that helps. Keep digging. Keep reading. Trust the Word. It has yet to fail any test thrown at it by the critics. And, let me know how I can help.

Yours in Him,

Jim Mc.

Q – Thank you so very much for taking the time to write about Nabonidus. I deeply appreciate what you did for me, Jim. Hopefully the professor will eventually come to accept Jesus as her savior. God bless you and your family.