The Hebrew Bible


Chapter five of the Book of Daniel describes the royal banquet of King Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar was the Babylonian emperor who had conquered Jerusalem, exiled its people, destroyed the Temple and carried off its sacred vessels in triumph. Interestingly, the Bible portrays him as eventually acknowledging his hubris and humbling himself, as he says, ‘before the Ever-Living One, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion and whose kingdom endures throughout the generations. All the inhabitants of the earth are of no account…’ (Daniel 4-31-32). (Daniel 4-31-32).

Belshazzar, his son, was nowhere near as humble. In the midst of a gala banquet he ordered the sacred vessels to be brought to his palace. In addition to profaning them by using them as common drinking cups, he added sacrilege by toasting and praising his pagan gods. As punishment for glorifying lifeless gods, the live hand of God writes a cryptic message on the palace wall-

But you Belshazzar his son, did not humble yourself although you knew all this. You exalted yourself against the Lord of Heaven and had the vessels of His temple brought to you. You and your nobles, your consorts and your concubines drank wine from them and praised the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone which do not see, hear or understand; but the God who controls your life breath and every move you make – Him you did not glorify! He therefore made the hand appear and caused the writing that is inscribed- Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin… (Daniel 5-22-25).

Rembrandt has captured the startled expression of the king and his guests. He has remained true to the biblical text insofar as only the king beholds the inscription, while the others drop their vessels and gaze at the king. It is noteworthy that he has painted the words of the cryptic message in Hebrew letters, but has written them up and down rather than from right to left, offering an inventive explanation for why they could not be deciphered.

Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy

Photo courtesy of National Gallery, London.