Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin

One of the things that amaze me about the Bible is how tight the composition is. There are no unnecessary words or phrases and the imagery, structure, and vocabulary all work together to support the message in a way that far surpasses the greatest human literary achievements. I admit that when I was younger I used to think that the Bible, while true, was not very elegant in its presentation. I thought that at times it was needlessly repetitive, somewhat clunky, and often belabored details that seemed unrelated to the main point. This opinion, however, was more of a reflection on my callow understanding of literature and my lack of patient hours with the text than on the scriptures themselves. In fact, as I have grown I have found that it is often precisely these eccentric details and how they support the message that most strongly highlight the glory of God in His divine authorship of the Bible.

I was reminded of this truth again a couple of days ago as I was reading the fifth chapter of Daniel. The chapter begins as follows:

“King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand. Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. Then they brought in the golden vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.           Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king's palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king's color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king called loudly to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. The king declared to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” Then all the king's wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his color changed, and his lords were perplexed.” (Daniel 5:1-9 ESV)

Belshazzar is stopped in the middle of his idolatrous use of the vessels of the temple by a disembodied hand that is writing upon the wall. Apparently, what the hand had written was not clear, nevertheless, Belshazzar was terrified by the experience. He then called for all his “wise” men to read the writing and explain it, but they were not able to do so. At this point, the queen mother hears about the predicament and informs Belshazzar that there is a man (Daniel) who had previously interpreted visions and solved riddles and who had the spirit of god.

Daniel is called for and Belshazzar explains to him that he will receive gifts and prestige if he can read and interpret the writing. Daniel rebukes him and tells him to keep his gifts. He reminds him of God’s humbling of his famous ancestor Nebuchadnezzar (which Belshazzar knew about) and rebukes his idolatry. In Daniel’s rebuke he repeats the phrase “you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone” that was mentioned in the introduction to the chapter. Then, Daniel reads and interprets the writing.

And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:25-28 ESV)

I had always found it interesting that the wise men could not read the writing. Obviously, God intended this so that Daniel would be called for. I thought that perhaps there was something obscuring the writing or that it was in some strange script (a rare Hebrew script perhaps) that the “wise” men would not recognize but that Daniel could. I always assumed there must have been some obscurity to the words for them to be indecipherable to these learned advisors. I had never bothered to study these words before but this time I decided to look them up.

To my surprise, these are not Hebrew words at all, but are Aramaic, which was a language that was quite familiar to the Babylonians. The words written on the wall are closely related to other words with which many Bible readers would be familiar. They are actually words for weights and measures associated with money. The word Mene is related to the more familiar word Mina, which is a little over 1lbs and was used as a measure for gold and silver. 1 mina of gold today would be worth around $35,500. The term Tekel is related to shekel, which is 1/60th of a mina. The final word in the message, Parsin, means to divide. After realizing that they are Aramaic words I think it is likely that the advisors could read the words but that they could not make sense of it. It would seem to be simply be a random list of words for measurements.

Daniel, however, reads the words as verbs and gives the interpretation. As verbs, Mene means to number or measure, Tekel means to weigh, and Peres (the singular form of Parsin) means to divide. The term Peres seems also to be play on words because of its similarity to the word for Persian. Daniel is given the ability to explain the meaning of the words and how they apply to Belshazzar. Belshazzar’s days are numbered because he has been measured, weighed, and found lacking. As a result, his kingdom will be divided.

Having taken the time to look up these words helped to reveal an irony in the message that I never appreciated before. The emphasis of the narrative is on the idolatry of Belshazzar. He was acting as though he was not under the rule of a sovereign God. He treated the things of God as though they were mere objects. He calls for these items as a conqueror who calls for the spoils of the vanquished. Even when he calls for Daniel to seek his help he addresses him not as the great advisor to kings but instead says, “You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah.” (vs. 13). 

When Belshazzar calls for the vessels, they are specifically mentioned as vessels of gold and silver. Twice the text mentions that they were praising gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. There is a repeated association of Belshazzar with material things and with division (conquest). It is therefore ironic that the very words of judgment pronounced against him are consistent with those same themes. The words of condemnation are essentially a description of the ambitions of Belshazzar’s heart. God, however, measures by a radically different standard and the wealth and power of the king are quickly shown to be given and taken at the mere pleasure of a sovereign God. 

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