Blogging Towards Sunday, June 2, 2013
How do we know that God is alive and well in the universe?; that what is happening to, with and around us is willed by God and not just random evolutionary acts in which victory goes to the powerful? Can we do or be part of God’s will for the world?; or is that just justification that those who rule use for themselves?
- There is a long jump in time between the events of chapter 4 (our immediate literary context) and this chapter. According to the text we have, the king has abruptly changed. Belshazzar has succeeded Nebuchadnezzar. Yet historical records indicate the following chronology of royal reigns in the Empire: Nebuchadnezzar (606-562 BCE) succeeded by his son Amelmarduk (652-650), followed by Neriglissar (560-556), Labashi Marduk (a few months in 556) and Nabonidus (556-539), the father of Belshazzar. Either history was ignored, or the importance in the story is the gradual decline and sudden and swift fall in 539 BCE (told in this chapter) of the Babylonians. In 5:31 we learn that the next king was a Mede, rather than a Babylonian. In Hebrew and Aramaic the words “son” and “father” mean both the literal son and father, as well as indicate the notion of progeny, or ancestry, or the generational chain that links us.
- The events of this chapter happen all in one night. Either the king is really evil and deserves his doom, or God is ungenerous in terms of time. How is it that Nebuchadnezzar was given so much time to come to an understanding of who God truly is and Belshazzar isn’t?
- The text tells us that the new king is reckless, in the middle of a party, under the influence of wine, he commits sacrilege, using sacred vessels stolen from the Israelite Temple in Jerusalem as drinking mugs. He isn’t drunk, for his actions seem calculated to entertain his multiple guests, he shows, off while the captive Israelites and snubbing his nose at their foreign God.
- God’s finger seems to float in the air either in front of in back of the light. The king alone sees the vision, which appears to be the back of the hand (from the wrist to the finger tips) writing on the wall. The finger of God recalls the writing of the covenant at Mount Sinai (Exodus 31:18 & Deut 9:10), as well as the plague of gnats associated with the finger of God in Exodus 8:18. It’s a metaphor or world-language to refer to the active, presence and power of God in the world (see Luke 11:20 and also comparable to the numerous times in the First Testament that talk about the “strong arm of the Lord.”)
- The king is terrified – he comes undone – both literally and metaphorically – at the sight of the vision. In the Aramaic text v6 says literally that “the knots of his hips were loosened” by his fear. In v11 the queen reminds the king of the wise counselor he has forgotten – Daniel, now old, – but who has often loosened the knots of problems.
- The queen appearing in verse 10 is most likely the king’s mother, not his consort. A queen wife or harem member could not appear before the king at her will, only when summoned (see Esther 4:11). This queen just shows up and addresses the king in a tone that would be unforgiveable for anyone else.
- The words written are done so in Aramaic, with no vowels, only consonants. This is how the language commonly works, but it is hard to decipher and interpret as the absence of vowels requires context for meaning to be deduced. The three words are MENE: which as a noun was a form of money, equivalent to a Jewish talent (60 shekels), as a verb it means “to number or numbered”. The second word is SHEKEL which as a noun was also a form of money, equivalent to the Hebrew Shekel, and as a verb means “to weigh”. The third word is PARSIN which as a noun means a “half-piece” or a wordplay on the world “Persian” (which the Medes were). As a verb it means “to divide”, meaning that the kingdom would be divided. The vision harkens back to the statue dreamed of by king Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2. A representation of his kingdom which would become increasingly unstable and doomed.
- Chapter 5 again talks about the notion of the sovereignty of God. Belshazzar, by his desecration of the sacred vessels to entertain his guests, blatantly calls into question the sovereignty and power of the God of the exiles.
- Belshazzar sees himself as all important, the center of everything, above any god. How has he not learned from his father’s example? How does his self-focused vision compared with the commandment of God – or God’s will for us to do – (in ancient theology known by the Latin term Missio Dei) – found in Genesis 1:28-30; Micah 6:8 and Mark 10:17-31?
Questions for wondering and exploring:
- This story is about an old man, an impuissant exile who alone can read the writing on the wall of what God is up to. How do you find that encouraging?
- How do you struggle with accepting, and depending upon God’s sovereignty? What does it take for you to recognize, see and read the “writing on the wall” of what God is doing in the world?
- How do you understand God’s will? Is it what happens in history? Can it be impeded? Is it what we do? Is it what we work against? Is it merely what those who win and write history determine it to be?
- How do you see the finger of God today in our world?; our city?; our church?; your life?
[2nd image: “Belshazzar’s Feast” painted by Rembrandt | LINK]