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The Nabonidus Stele

September 6, 2018

 

Then Belshazzar gave the command, and Daniel was clothed with purple, a chain of gold was put around his neck, and a proclamation was made about him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom(Daniel 5:29 ESV)

 

Introduction

 

Nabonidus (556-539 BC) ruled as the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire until its collapse when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BC (Daniel 1:21; 6:28).  A devoted follower of the Assyrian Moon god Sin, the deity worshipped by his aged mother, Nabonidus failed to demonstrate the necessary devotion to the chief Babylonian god Marduk, a required duty for a Babylonian king, and consequently alienated himself from the Babylonian population and the priesthood (Lewy 1946; Beaulieu 1989: 62-65).  Moreover, Nabonidus eschewed Babylon as his seat of power and chose a self-imposed exile to Northern Arabia for ten years (ca. 552-543 BC).  His absence from the capital and most notably from the New Year’s festival ultimately led to his empire’s downfall. Nabonidus sojourned at Teima, a remote Arabian oasis and caravan-trading hub (Beaulieu 1989: 149-203; Lemaire 2003). On his way to Teima, Nabonidus conducted a campaign against Edom. A Neo-Babylonian relief and mostly illegible inscription discovered on a recessed cliff face at the Edomite city of Sela‘ in 1994 and measuring 3 x 2 m., probably relates details of Nabonidus’ campaign and conquest of this mountaintop stronghold.  Psalm 137:7-9 may allude to this event (Dalley and Goguel 1997; Lemaire 2003: 287-288). Upon his return to Babylon, Nabonidus imposed religious reforms and rejected Marduk as chief deity.  The absence of Nabonidus in Daniel 5 implies that he either left Babylon to attempt to counter the Medes and Persians or perhaps fled at their approach.  It is entirely possible that Nabonidus made his son co-regent before departing.

 

Relevance to the Biblical Account

 

While not mentioned in the Old Testament, the book of Daniel does mentions Nabonidus’ son, Belshazzar (Daniel 5:1-31; 7:1; 8:1), who ruled as de facto king in his stead in Babylon.  When scholars first discovered Belshazzar’s name in Babylonian texts, it clarified and confirmed that Belshazzar served as regent for his father and thus could only offer Daniel the third position of rule (Daniel 5:29; Millard 1977: 71-72; Shea 1982; 2005: 45-55).  The Dead Sea scrolls included fragmentary texts from Daniel, which also defend Daniel’s authorship and a sixth century BC dating (e.g., Bruce 1969; Hasel 1992; Shea 1982; 2005; Doukhan 2000).

 

Physical Description

 

Carved out of basalt and measuring 58 cm high, 46 cm wide and 25 cm in depth, the stele depicts Nabonidus wearing a typical Babylonian conical headdress and a fringed robe.  He holds a staff with his right hand and holds a short cylindrical object in his raised left hand.  To the right and slightly above Nabonidus are three astronomical symbols.  A crescent symbolizes the moon god Sin.  A winged disc signifies the sun god Shamash and a star represents Ishtar-Venus.  A poorly preserved cuneiform inscription, partially erased in antiquity, appears at the right of the figure of Nabonidus and extols his devotion to the god Sin. British agent and antiquarian Claudius Rich (1787-1820) acquired the stele, probably during a visit to Babylon.  After Rich passed away, the British Museum purchased the stele along with Rich’s large collection of other artifacts from his widow Mary. The British Museum link describing the Nabonidus Stele is viewable online: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=367113&partId=1&searchText=nabonidus+stela&page=1

The Nabonidus Stele in the Horn Museum collection is a carefully crafted replica of the original stele.  The University of Pikeville, represented by Mr. Tommy Chamberlin, donated the stele in January 2018.  

 

Historical Significance

 

The reign of Nabonidus brought the great Babylonian empire to an inglorious finale.  Clearly preoccupied with promoting his unorthodox religion, antiquarian pursuits, as well as a possible mental breakdown (e.g., Beaulieu 2007), Nabonidus watched his empire collapse to the extent that the Babylonian people looked upon their Persian conquerors as liberators. Despite access to a reasonable amount of inscriptions and other documentary sources, many details about his reign remain obscure.

 

Parallels

 

Similar depictions of Nabonidus appear on stelae and rock cut reliefs.  All show similar attire as well as the same three astronomical symbols. Archaeological excavations at Teima uncovered a poorly preserved stele fragment of Nabonidus (Eichmann, Schaudig, and Hausleiter 2006: 169-171), which supplement earlier stelae from Harran, Babylon and Teima.  Other stelae attributed to Nabonidus appear in publications by Gadd (1958: 36-45 and plates II and III) and Dalley and Goguel (1997: 176, fig. 12). A stele depicting Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in a similar pose and dress resides in the Schøyen collection and is viewable online: http://www.schoyencollection.com/history-collection-introduction/babylonian-history-collection/tower-babel-stele-ms-2063

 

Bibliography

 

Beaulieu, Paul-Alain

1989    The Reign of Nabonidus King of Babylon 556-539 B.C.  New Haven:  Yale University.

 

2000    King Nabonidus and the Neo-Babylonian Empire.  Pp. 969-979 in Volume 1                                of Civilizations of the Ancient Near East,edited by Jack M.                                                              Sasson.  Peabody: Hendrickson.

 

2007    Nabonidus the Mad King:  A Reconsideration of his steles from Harran and                                Babylon.  Pp. 137-166 in Representations of Political Power:  Case Histories from                    Times of Change and Dissolving Order in the Ancient Near East,edited by Marlies                      Heinz and Marian H. Feldman.  Winona Lake:  Eisenbrauns.

 

Bruce, F. F.

1969    The Book of Daniel and the Qumran Community.  Pp. 221-235 in Neotestamentica et                Semitica:  Studies in Honour of Matthew Black,edited by Edward Earle Ellis and Max                E. Wilcox. Edinburgh:  T. & T. Clark.

 

Dalley, Stephanie, and Goguel, Anne

1997    The Sela‘ Sculpture:  A Neo-Babylonian Rock Relief in Southern Jordan.  Annual of                    the Department of Antiquities of Jordan41: 169-176.

 

Doukhan, Jacques B.

2000    Secrets of Daniel:  the Wisdom and Dreams of a Jewish Prince in                                                Exile.  Hagerstown:  Review and Herald. 

 

Eichmann, Ricardo; Schaudig, Hanspeter; and Hausleiter, Arnulf

2006    Archaeology and Epigraphy at Tayma (Saudi Arabia).  Arabian Archaeology and                          Epigraphy17: 163-176.  

 

Gadd, Cyril J.

            1958    The Harran Inscriptions of Nabonidus.  Anatolian Studies8: 35-92.

 

Hasel, Gerhard

1992    New light on the book of Daniel from the Dead Sea scrolls. Ministry65/1: 10-13.

 

Lemaire, André

2003    Nabonidus in Arabia and Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period. Pp. 285-298 in Judah                and the Judeans in the Neo-Babylonian Period,edited by Oded Lipschits and Joseph                Blenkinsopp.  Winona Lake:  Eisenbrauns.

 

Lewy, Julius

1946    The Assyro-Babylonian Cult of the Moon and Its Culmination at the Time of                               Nabonidus.  Hebrew Union College Annual19: 405-489.

 

Millard, Alan R.

            1977    Daniel 1-6 and History.  Evangelical Quarterly49: 67-73.

 

Shea, William H.

1982    Nabonidus, Belshazzar, and the Book of Daniel: An Update. Andrews University                         Seminary Studies 20: 133-149.

 

2005    Daniel: A Reader’s Guide.  Nampa:  Pacific.

 

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