The Writing’s on the Wall

Rembrandt's 'Belshazzar's Feast

Rembrandt's 'Belshazzar's Feast

The Old Testament spans a broad period which we can loosely call ‘history’, but really it’s a semi-historical narrative, less intended to record what happened, and more to give identity and sense of place to a particular people group - the Jewish people. In the latter part of the Old Testament, after the exodus from Egypt, the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, after the division of the Kingdom, and after it's subsequently conquered (first by the Assyrians who conquered the Northern part of Israel, and secondly by the Babylonians who finished the job), this is where my address this morning begins. It’s a period which Biblical scholars refer to as the ‘Exilic’ period, which means the period of Exile, when the Babylonians conquered what remained of Israel at around 600 BC, sacked Jerusalem, stole some artefacts, dethroned the king of Israel, destroyed the Temple, and then moved a large portion of the population to Babylon. Babylon, which is in modern day Iraq, at that time it was easily the largest city in the world, the population being pretty comparable with Ipswich today – just a bit over 100,000. There were no cities larger than a million people in the ancient world until Rome achieved it in the first century. This exilic period lasted around 50 years, but it was in and around this period that most of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament as we know it) was written. Now the reason for this is pretty obvious. When the Jewish people had their land, had their city, and had their Temple, their sense of identity was rooted to those places. Who were the Jewish people? They were the people of Israel.

Human beings have historically thought about human identity as being very much rooted to geographical place. It's only in the last century that this idea has begun to break down and become less significant. When, then, the Jewish people were severed from their land, they needed to find another way to affirm their distinct identity, and they did this by telling stories, by constructing narratives which could be told over and over to remind themselves who they were – to remind themselves that they were God’s chosen people. The fact that the Jewish people responded to their captivity in a foreign land in this way sets them apart from most other people groups. Most displaced peoples over two or three generations assimilate to the cultural norms of the context in which they find themselves. The Jewish people refused to do this. They kept their distinct cultural and religious practices alive, and it is this fact alone that explains a great deal of the racism and discrimination levelled against the Jewish people throughout history. Within the exilic period then, some of the literature written was retrospective – the Jewish people considering where they had come from - and some of it was contemporary accounts of what the Prophets of this exilic period were saying and doing, the prophets of this period being Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Daniel. Those prophets all have their own books in the Bible.

The exilic period had a huge influence upon Jewish identity. When their identity was more land orientated, beliefs and practices throughout Israel could be more diverse, because their identity was less determined by what they did and believed, and more by their geographical location. When, however, they became displaced to Babylon, their identity had to be codified more in their cultural and religious beliefs and practices, and as such they had to become more concrete. One such belief is in monotheism itself, the belief that there is only one God.

We think today of Judaism being the foremost example of a monotheistic religion. Not simply that they worshipped only one God, but rather that they believe there is only one God to worship. Now it’s likely that this shift from the worshipping of one God among many, to believing there is only one God, happened during the exilic period. There are a few early hints in the Bible that the Jewish people didn’t always think this. Take for example the first of the Ten Commandments, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’ This Commandment suggests that you believe that there are other gods, you just shouldn’t believe in them, because they’re not our God. Or another example is in Genesis when God makes man in his image. The actual passage reads, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.” If God is one, then, who is the ‘us’? And in truth the ‘us’ does refer to a pantheon of gods; there was a belief in the ancient ancient Middle East that there was the chief God, and then there were a pantheon of little gods, his sons who became the gods of their subsequent nations, Yahweh, the god of Israel, being one of those gods.

So, during this exilic period, the beliefs and practices of the Jewish people were evolving. At this most fundamental level, there was a strong desire for the Jewish people to be as distinct as possible from their terrible captors. Babylon becomes a catch-all word for everything regarded as wicked. By the time you get to the Book of Revelation in the New Testament ‘Babylon’ becomes a word synonymous with evil or the antichrist, such expressions as the ‘Whore of Babylon’ expressing something of that deep-seated hatred. In subsequent Christian centuries the imagery of Babylon has been used to describe whatever groups were considered evil, such as the pagan Roman Empire in the New Testament, or during the Reformation Martin Luther and John Calvin used the word ‘Babylon’ to describe the Roman Catholic Church. Being as distinct from Babylon as possible meant affirming monotheism. It meant vehemently opposing the gods of silver and gold, and it meant living (unlike the Babylonians) in a sober, upright, morally good, and godly fashion.

Other than this desire to maintain their distinct religious and cultural identity, and their desire to be as unlike the Babylonians as possible, there were also a number of theological problems that being displaced in Babylon threw up for the Jewish people. The main ones being that Abraham was promised by God that his descendants would always inhabit the promised land, and that when the kingship was established in Israel, God likewise promised that a descendant of King David would always sit upon the throne. And finally, the destruction of the Temple itself. The Temple had a function, the place where sacrifices were done to atone for sins. No temple, no atonement. What did this destruction and this displacement mean? Had God broken his promises to the Jewish people. Had God forsaken them? It was this complex set of questions that the prophets in the period were wrestling with. They're attempting to offer the Jewish people some creative solutions to these deep theological problems, attempting to explain away God’s apparent betrayal. The three prophets I mentioned, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Daniel, all give different solutions to these problems. You could discuss any of them in a lot of depth. I’m going to focus on Daniel.

Daniel in the lion's den

So, first of all, I should say most scholars don’t think Daniel is an historic person; he is a mythical character who acts as a kind of exemplary model for the perfect Jewish exile. You could imagine a group of Jewish exiles gathered around a fire in Babylon, telling stories with one another, contemplating their predicament, and imagining the perfect Jew, and how he would respond in the most upright of Jewish ways to this set of difficulties. What kind of man would he be? How would he speak and act towards his Babylonian captures? And what answers would he give, if asked about those big theological problems - separation from land, no king, and no temple? He’s given a back story; he’s imagined as a noble Jewish boy who was in Israel when the Babylonians swept in. He was captured, and grows up in captivity in Babylon, reminiscing of his idolised childhood in Jerusalem. He’s imagined having God’s favour, and that favour manifest in miraculous ways, allowing him to get away with turning his back on the pagan demands of his Babylonian captors. Again, if you imagine these Jewish storytellers sitting around the fire in Babylon, they would have all been forced to do things by their pagan captures, like eat non-kosher food, or bow down to false idols - all things that would have made them feel spiritually violated, and all things that would have made them feel ashamed and angry. And so they imagine Daniel refusing to do all these things, and getting away with it. Despite the circumstances Daniel is able to remain faithful to God. Daniel in the lion’s den is the best example of this. Daniel is forced to worship the king - he refuses, and so he’s thrown in the lion’s den. But, having God’s favour, the lions don’t eat him.

Later on, in the book of Daniel we get to Daniel’s accurate predictions about the future. When we get accurate prophecy in the Bible, like we do in Daniel, there are a number of ways this can be handled. The conservative Christian approach would obviously be to just accept it at face value. If, like me, you’re not willing to go that far, it leaves two alternative possibilities. Option one is we could imagine that there were in fact many prophetic literary traditions which arose in the exilic period, and the traditions which were preserved that we still have today were simply those traditions which were the most accurate, and therefore the more meaningful going forward. And the rest were lost to history. I definitely think there are examples of that happening in the Hebrew Bible. Option Two is the more obvious, you simply record historic events after the fact and write them down as if they were recorded as prophecies beforehand. Now the prophecies in the Book of Daniel are so specific I think this is the more likely option. For example he predicts that the Babylonian Empire will fall. Now that alone is not very impressive; if you predict the fall of any Empire, it’s going to happen eventually. He also predicts that it will fall at the hands of the Persians. Now maybe that could have been predicted also, as the Persians were, after all, the Babylonians’ greatest rivals at the time, and so it’s not much of a stretch to assume they will be the ones to bring the Babylonians down. But the predictions are also given an accurate time frame, and furthermore, Daniel also predicts that after the Persians have their time in the sun, the Greeks will sweep in and conquer the whole territory too, which we know happens a couple of centuries later under Alexander the Great. And again, an accurate time frame is given. And by that point, I think we are stretching credulity.

Icon of Prophet Daniel

Icon of Prophet Daniel

But it’s very in keeping with the Daniel literary tradition to add these prophecies to the story after the fact. It makes sense that later writers would do this. You could imagine the Daniel tradition starting as an oral tradition around some fire in Babylon during the exilic period - they’re there envisioning this perfect Jewish exile - and then this narrative later on being embellished to make Daniel sound even better still, even predicting the arrival of Alexander the Great. ‘The Writing on the Wall’ – this mythic event is set up as the event which precipitated the end of the exilic period. God’s hand is portrayed as being instrumental in ending the exilic period; his hand is directing history. He writes upon the wall words of doom and destruction foreshadowing the looming demise of the evil king Belshazzar. And Daniel is there for the ultimate got-you moment. He doesn’t sugarcoat it. Because Belshazzar has been so wicked, oppressing the Jewish people, and even having these drunken parties using the very sacred vessels of the Temple itself, God has brought his reign to an end. He has used the Persian King as an instrument of his will, the Persian King being Cyrus the Great. Now Cyrus, despite being a pagan king, is thought of very highly in the Hebrew Bible. He’s probably the most highly regarded individual throughout all Israelite literature, who is not an Israelite himself. He is described as god’s anointed one! Unlike the polytheistic Babylonian king’s, Cyrus the Great was a monotheist – a Zoroastrian. And being moved by the plight of the Jewish people, probably by recognising spiritual kinship with them, Cyrus the Great having conquered the Babylonians makes his first decree, that the Jewish people exiled in Babylon could return home, and this happens around 538 BC. Not only does Cyrus the Great allow the Jewish people to return home to Israel, he also gives permission to the Jewish people to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem, so that they can resume worshipping God. Over the next 500 odd years before Jesus, the Kingdom of Israel is never re-established. There are periods of greater or lesser autonomy, but no kingdom, they are just passed from Empire to Empire, from the Persian Empire to the Greek Empire, and then ultimately to the Roman Empire.

‘The Writing on the Wall’ is an idiom that, used today, means the impending destruction to follow was evident well before the fact; it’s obviously going to happen. ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’. The whole point though of that story in Book of Daniel from which this idiom arises, is the very opposite to this. It was not obvious. Belshazzar calls upon his enchanters, astrologers and diviners, and even though the writing is literally on the wall, none of them can interpret its meaning. It’s only the imagined mythological figure of Daniel who can see the future, who knows what is to come. The destruction of a Temple, a people in exile, an evolution of thought, a move into monotheism, the tyranny of king, the persecution of a people, the kindness of a king, the new Temple. I think the point is, as Lawrence of Arabia put it, ‘nothing is written’. We are free, the writing is not on the wall.