Daniel was indeed a deportee, and Belshazzar—according to the Hebrew Bible—gave him the same offer he gave to his soothsayers before him.
“Listen, you tell me what this means, and I’ll give you gold chains, and silver coins, and I’ll let you rule a third of the kingdom.”
He offered him such stuff, and Daniel said something like:
“Keep your gifts, or give them to somebody else; I’ll tell you what the writing means.”
Of all the different versions of the Bible, the Torah¹, and all of these books—and all the versions are good, but—the King James’ Bible with its wrath-of-the-God style sums it up perfectly.
Daniel looked at the “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN” and described the words as meaning, “NUMBER, NUMBER, WEIGHT, DIVISIONS”, and then defined that as meaning—from the King James’ Version:
“This [is] the interpretation of the thing, God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. Thy kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
That’s pretty colourful stuff, isn’t it?
Then, as stated in that version, the King of the Persians, a guy named Darius², conquered Babylon that night and killed Belshazzar.
Well, none of that is true, but that’s how the Bible story goes.
Nonetheless, it’s clear from that perspective that the Persians in this story are not going to be the bad guys. They’re going to be the instrument of God that rectifies things. If God is on any one’s side, in that story, he’s on the side of the Medes and the Persians.
Who the heck are these Medes and Persians? Plus, if they are so good in this story, during the time of the Babylonians, how did they go from that to the evil, the griggsy, two or three rulers later?
Well, let’s remember, Darth Vader wasn’t always evil. [Spoiler alert!]
In fact, the guy who will kick off the Persians first real appearance on the world stage will be a guy that is so beloved—by at least the Hebrew God—he will be the only non-Jew ever proclaimed a messiah³.
The person who will get this honour is known in your history books by the name, Cyrus II, or Cyrus the Great⁴.
If you want to make it sound a little bit more like it probably sounded in Ancient Persian, you would say “Kūruš” (Kurash).
He was probably the greatest conqueror in world history up until the time of Alexander⁵. He has got some of the best historical press anybody was likely to get. Nobody has a bad word to say about the guy.
Even the Greeks like him.
Xenophon⁶ wrote a whole book essentially romanticising Cyrus; “the greatest, perfect, world leader. When would you like to be like him? Here’s how you can emulate what he did.” All those kinds of words.
Cyrus became part of this Greek motif that Western tradition will continue for a long time, that portrays the East as decadent, soft and corrupt.
Then, how do you explain how some of these great empires got started?
Well, the way the Greeks did it was:
“Cyrus is fantastic! He builds up this entire thing and bequeaths it to the Persians who proceed to become soft, rich, lazy and decadent, and ruin what the Great Cyrus gave them.”
Hence, even the Greeks portray Cyrus as this great figure, yet we know so little about the guy.
If you contrast what we know about him and the guy who probably takes the crown from him as greatest conqueror in the world up to that point, Alexander the Great, it’s night and day.
Alexander the Great exists in a fully colourised historical world, a post-Herodotus world, a world where Alexander will bring his own publicists with him, from place to place, so they can record his latest deeds, sayings and doings.
Cyrus the Great founded the last, great empire in, maybe what you could call, the black-and-white era in the Near East. An era where we know the majority about the people back then because of things like monoliths, statues, reliefs, carvings, tomb paintings, architecture, and ruins.
When you do have writing, you get business records, proclamations, and transactions. Some of the best stuff you get from this era are the correspondences, the letters between diplomats, governors and rulers.
However, what none of those people were doing was writing to amuse or entertain anybody.
All of the writing from the back-and-white period of human history is colder. They all have a purpose beyond being entertaining. It might be a religious purpose, a business purpose, a governmental purpose, or even two important officials writing to each other about matters of state, and a few personal things creep in.
That is very different than writing something to be performed in front of a live audience for their entertainment and enjoyment.
I read something, historian Michael Grant had written, about Herodotus suggesting that the reason Herodotus has the interesting structure that he does to his histories is because it was not meant to be read as much as it was meant to be performed live, read aloud by Herodotus himself, and that the digressions and the tangents in the work represent things that would have worked much better in a live situation with somebody broadcasting if you will; an orator, as opposed to somebody writing something to be read by somebody else, remotely.
If that’s the case, then we don’t really have the first written prose history—with Herodotus’ issue—of the script for Herodotus’ live show, if you will.
Which would explain a lot, considering that if you want to get drama and colour in stories before the period of Herodotus, you’re looking at things like the Illiad by Homer, or the Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamian history. Both of which are believed, by the way, to have been stories told for hundreds of years, that were finely compiled and written down; same thing with, like, Beowulf in Scandinavian history.
Maybe Herodotus is more like the ancient storytellers than first meets the eye.
To give him some credit, Herodotus was trying to be a chronicler at the same time he was trying to do the things you were told to do in news reporting, to relate the facts as best as he understood them, in the most compelling way he could.
Consequently, what you have here, in this ancient story, is not so much myth, that wouldn’t be fair, not just to people like Herodotus, but also to all of the great historians over time who have found all of these records, and put them together—in like a jigsaw puzzle.
A viewing of the past that is always being redone and improved, but wouldn’t have even existed there if a ton of different pieces of the puzzle hadn’t been brought together.
Still, at the same time, while it’s not myth, it’s not exactly truth either.
To be continued in the next episode.
¹ Torah has a range of meanings. It can most specifically mean the first five books (Pentateuch) of the 24 books of the Tanakh, and is usually printed with the rabbinic commentaries (perushim). It can mean the continued narrative from the Book of Genesis to the end of the Tanakh, and it can even mean the totality of Jewish teaching, culture and practice, whether derived from biblical texts or later rabbinic writings.
² Darius I (c. 550–486 BCE) was the fourth king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Also called Darius the Great, he ruled the empire at its peak, when it included much of West Asia, the Caucasus, parts of the Balkans (Thrace-Macedonia and Paeonia), most of the Black Sea coastal regions, parts of the North Caucasus, Central Asia, as far as the Indus Valley in the far east and portions of north and northeast Africa including Egypt (Mudrâya), eastern Libya and coastal Sudan.
³ In Abrahamic religions, the messiah or messias is a saviour or liberator of a group of people. The concepts of moshiach, messianism, and of a Messianic Age originated in Judaism, and in the Hebrew Bible; a moshiach (messiah) is a king or High Priest traditionally anointed with holy anointing oil.
⁴ Cyrus II of Persia (c. 600–530 BCE), commonly known as Cyrus the Great and also called Cyrus the Elder by the Greeks, was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian Empire. Under his rule, the empire embraced all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East, expanded vastly and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much of Central Asia and the Caucasus. From the Mediterranean Sea and Hellespont in the west to the Indus River in the east, Cyrus the Great created the largest empire the world had yet seen.
⁵ Alexander III of Macedon (20/21 July 356 BCE – 10/11 June 323 BCE), commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a king (basileus) of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon and a member of the Argead dynasty. He was born in Pella in 356 BCE and succeeded his father Philip II to the throne at the age of twenty. He spent most of his ruling years on an unprecedented military campaign through Asia and northeast Africa, and he created one of the largest empires of the ancient world by the age of thirty, stretching from Greece to northwestern India. He was undefeated in battle and is widely considered one of history’s most successful military commanders.
⁶ Xenophon of Athens (c. 430 – 354 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher, historian, soldier, mercenary, and student of Socrates.