Wednesday of Week 34 of Ordinary time – First Reading


Commentary on Daniel 5:1-6,13-14,16-17,23-28

If yesterday’s reading was about ‘feet of clay’, today’s is about ‘the writing on the wall’.
(Our Bible is full of phrases that have passed into our daily language and familiar even to those who have never opened the book.)
The setting for today’s reading is a great banquet thrown by King Belshazzar for his nobles, a thousand of them altogether. In the Babylonian language the king’s name would be Bel-shar-usur, meaning ‘May-Bel-protect-the-king’. Although further on in the account he is called the son of Nebuchadnezzar, he is in fact known to be the son Nabonidus, who gave him the title of king. ‘Son’ could mean ‘descendant’ or even ‘successor’. Actually, we know that several kings of Babylon intervened between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar but it was necessary for the author to put the two kings close together so as to make Daniel’s appearance plausible as being alive during both reigns.
In the presence of his guests the king began drinking his wine and there is a hint that he was drinking quite a lot, with the not uncommon outcome of making strange on-the-spot decisions. He suddenly gives the order for gold and silver vessels which had been looted by King Nebuchadnezzar from the Temple in Jerusalem to be brought in so that his wives, his nobles and the women who sang for him could drink from them. Which they did. The orgy of revelry and blasphemy on such occasions is well documented by ancient Greek historians such as Herodotus and Xenophon.
As they drank from these sacred vessels, they were also singing the praises of their idols of gold and silver, of bronze and iron, of wood and stone. Using vessels consecrated to the worship of Yahweh for the adulation of ‘gods’ made of inanimate materials was, to any Jew, a horrific profanation.
It was not surprising, then, that all of a sudden, a hand was seen writing on one of the palace walls, clearly visible by the light of a nearby lamp. So the king could see the hand clearly. (We need to remember that, in pre-electricity days, the banquet hall would be in relative darkness, especially the walls.) The highly superstitious king was filled with fear and alarm. He became weak and began to tremble all over.
He immediately promised huge rewards to any sage who could interpret what was going on. None of them could do so. The king became even paler. Then the queen entered and told the king not to fear. There was a man who had been chief sage in the days of King Nebuchadnezzar, “your father”, who was an expert in the interpretation of dreams. Daniel is brought in to the king’s presence.
The king tells Daniel what he has heard about him, that he is one of the Judean exiles brought to Babylon by his “father” (Nebuchadnezzar) and that he is known for his “perception, intelligence and marvellous wisdom”. He hopes that Daniel will be able to do what all his other wise men cannot do – decipher the strange message written on the wall. In return, Daniel will be dressed in purple (the colour worn by the rich and powerful), have a gold chain put around his neck (probably the equivalent of an English knighthood) and be made one of the top three administrators of his kingdom. (These last two paragraphs are not in our reading.)
In a great show of integrity and courage, Daniel spurns the offer of gifts and rewards, while assuring the king that he is able to interpret the strange message. He first tells the king that his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had abused his great power and, in his pride, was driven from his throne. Only in his misery did he acknowledge God as the true ruler of people everywhere. (These remarks are not included in our reading.)
Now, says Daniel, Belshazzar has learnt nothing and is walking the same path. He then goes on to make a scathing attack on Belshazzar and his behaviour. He has defied the Lord of heaven by taking the sacred vessels which were pillaged by Nebuchadnezzar from the Temple in Jerusalem and he, his nobles, his wives and his women entertainers have drunk their wine from them. In addition, the king has worshipped gods made of gold and silver, bronze and iron, of wood and stone, which can neither see, hear nor understand. At the same time, he has paid no honour to the God to whom he owes his very life and all his prosperity.
There are, then, three main accusations brought against Belshazzar: he sinned not through ignorance but through disobedience and pride, because he should have learnt from the fate of his “father” who was deposed and exiled to live among farm animals; he defied God by desecrating the sacred vessels; and he worshipped man-made idols instead of the God from whom all he has and is came.
And now, says Daniel, that is why the hand has written these three words: mene, teqel, and parsin. The meaning of the words, continues Daniel, is as follows:
Mene: God has measured your sovereignty and put an end to it;
Teqel: you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting (in the light of God’s expectations);
Parsin: your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.
The three mysterious words may represent three oriental measures of weight or of coins – a mina, a shekel (60th part of a mina) and a half-mina (or paras). There is then a play on words which emerges in Daniel’s interpretation above.
Mene suggests the verb mana, “to measure”; teqel the verb shaqal, to “weigh out”; while parsin suggests both the verb paras, “to divide”, and the Persians. (Descendants of Persians in India are still known as Parsi.)
The full meaning, however, of Daniel’s interpretation is not so clear to us. It could allude to the decreasing influence of the three successive empires – Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Persians. Or it may refer to the three kings, Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-merodach and Belshazzar. Or else of Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and the kings of the ‘Medes and Persians’. Whichever reading is right, the outcome is the same – the ultimate and inevitable collapse of powerful dynasties and empires.
The epilogue to the story is not given in our reading but the king, in spite of the denunciation he has heard from Daniel’s lips, keeps his promise and clothes Daniel in purple and gold and gives him the third place in his kingdom. And that very night, too, the king is murdered.
The message of the story is clearly directed against King Antiochus under whom the Jews were suffering and who had also desecrated and plundered their Temple. The author is saying that Antiochus’ fate will not be any different from that of Nebuchadnazzar or of Belshazzar. And there lies a message of hope for every suffering people.
No ruler, however powerful, can long maintain a regime that goes against the values of God. Nor can any one of us find true happiness in a lifestyle that violates the same values.
 

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