New light on Nebuchadnezzar's madness

A recently published cuneiform inscription may confirm a story that Bible critics had dismissed as legend.

Siegfried Horn, now retired, is a noted archeologist, author, and university professor. He served for several years as sponsor of the Biblical Archeology section of MINISTRY.


In 1870 higher criticism dominated Biblical scholarship in Germany. Most scholars believed that the book of Daniel was a product of the Maccabean period of the second century B.C. But some German scholars dissented. One of these was Otto Zockler, who in his commentary on the book of Daniel published in J. P. Lange's Bible Commentary,* cap ably defended the authenticity, historicity, and sixth-century origin of Daniel.

Confronting Zockler were six main arguments that critical scholars considered to be proof of a late-origin Daniel. These were as follows:

1. Aramaic, in which parts of the book of Daniel were written, was a late Semitic language not used in literature of the sixth century B.C.

2. Existence of three Greek words in Daniel 3 indicates that the book was written in the Hellenistic period, after Alexander the Great had brought Greek culture and language to the Oriental world.

3. Chronological contradictions between Daniel 1:1 and Jeremiah 25:1 show that the writer of Daniel was so far removed from the historical events he described that he made mistakes.

4. Mention of Belshazzar as last king of Babylon proves that the story is legendary. All ancient sources present Nabonidus as Babylon's last king and never even mention Belshazzar.

5. Ancient historians never mention Darius the Mede as king of Babylon, as Daniel 6 does; thus the book of Daniel is not a trustworthy historical source.

6. Nebuchadnezzar's madness of seven years, recorded in Daniel 4 but in no other ancient source, is further proof of the legendary nature of the book.

Today, the first four arguments no longer pose problems for the conservative Bible scholar. The solutions, however, obtained through archeological discoveries, are different than Zockler thought they would be.+

But what of the last two arguments for a late-dated Daniel? Have no discoveries been made that shed light on Darius the Mede or Nebuchadnezzar's madness?

The problem of Darius has at least a reasonable solution, which I suggested twenty-three years ago. It has satisfied some conservative scholars, though others feel the answer lies elsewhere. Reference to the September, 1959, Ministry, page 44, or The SDA Bible Commentary, volume 4, pages 814-817, will refresh your memory on the tentative explanation of who this Darius may have been.

The madness of Nebuchadnezzar has been a disturbing enigma, be cause no extra-Biblical records mention a mental derangement of the great Babylonian king. In defense of the historicity of the story, the conservative Bible student has pointed out, of course, that very little is known of any aspect of Nebuchadnezzar's life after his tenth year of reign. And, it might be added, it is not likely that many kings of any age would advertise such a humiliating disability.

Furthermore, lack of contemporary records does not mean some thing didn't happen. For example, we have no such records of Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Tyre a 13- year ordeal, lasting from 585 to 572 B.C.—except what Ezekiel tells us in his book (see Eze. 26:1-14; 29:17, 18). Yet five cuneiform tablets dating from 569 to 563 B.C. show that Tyre was in the hands of Nebuchadnezzar after 570 B.C. Another bro ken tablet with no date extant refers to food provided to "the king and his soldiers for their march against Tyre," a likely reference to the siege, during which the Babylonians sent supplies to their troops besieging the Phoenician city. 1

Another example of the lack of documentary records of Nebuchadnezzar's activities relates to a military campaign against Egypt in his later years. The prophets Jeremiah (43:10-13) and Ezekiel (29:19, 20) predicted such a campaign, but only a small fragment of a cuneiform tablet confirms that it occurred. The few broken lines of the fragment, owned by the British Museum, include information that in his "37th year [568/567 B.C.] Nebuchadnezzar, king of Bab[ylon], marched against] Egypt to deliver a battle. [Ama]sis of Egypt [called up his a]rm[y]." Amasis was defeated, despite his large force of chariots and horsemen, and help of allies. 2

Whatever the reason, the Babylonians did not leave us many records of their martial exploits and political accomplishments. Professor Eckhard Unger comments: "One of the most striking contrasts between Assyria and Babylonia is that the Assyrian monarchs brag with great glee about their military activities in their records while this was frowned upon by the Babylonians. This Babylonian idiosyncrasy is already ob served with regard to the neo-Sumerian King Gudea of Lagash . . . who was a mighty ruler . . . but whose inscriptions speak only of his pious works and building activities.

Since other documents were not existing, this king was for a long time considered as insignificant. Exactly the same could be said of Nebuchadnezzar II, if we were not in formed by outside records, especially the Bible, about his military activities, which his own records pass over in silence. This is the reason that it is difficult to check on the biblical data about Nebuchadnezzar." 3

It should not surprise us, then, if we find no corroboration of Nebuchadnezzar's mental illness in Babylonian records. And, when we consider the humiliating nature of the affliction, the likelihood of the royal archives' preserving documentation of the event seems most unlikely. But the unlikely may have occurred! A recently published Babylonian cuneiform text seems to shatter the silence about Nebuchadnezzar's illness. The tablet is in the British Museum, No. BM 34113 (sp 213), and was published by A. K. Grayson in 1975.4 Unfortunately, it is merely a fragment, and the surviving text is not as clear as we would like it to be. But the lines that may refer to the king's illness are exciting nevertheless:

2 [Nebu]chadnezzar considered

3 His life appeared of no value to [him, ......]

5 And (the) Babylon(ian) speaks bad counsel to Evil-merodach [....]

6 Then he gives an entirely different order but [. . .]

7 He does not heed the word from his lips, the cour[tier(s) - - -]

11 He does not show love to son and daughter [. . .]

12 ... family and clan do not exist [. . .]

14 His attention was not directed towards promoting the welfare of Esagil [and Babylon]

16 He prays to the lord of lords, he raised [his hands (in supplication) (. . .)]

17 He weeps bitterly to Marduk, the g[reat] gods [......]

18 His prayers go forth to [......]

Let's attempt to decipher the text. Brackets [ ] indicate which words or letters are broken from the original tablet and have been supplied by the translator. Words or letters in parentheses ( ) are supplied by the translator for better understanding of the English rendering. The numerals preceding the lines of text indicate which lines of the tablet are quoted. The missing lines are either too badly preserved to make sense or not understandable, and therefore make no contribution to a better understanding of the text as a whole. The end of every line is missing and the beginnings of lines 2 and 12 are broken off—though there is no doubt that the reconstruction of the beginning of line 2 is correct. Evilmerodach of line 5 was the eldest son of Nebuchadnezzar and his successor on the throne. He is mentioned in the Bible as having re leased King Jehoiachin of Judah from prison after his accession to the throne (2 Kings 25:27-30; Jer. 52:31-34). Esagil in line 14 is the name of the principal temple complex of Babylon, in which the ziggurat, a 300-foot high temple tower, stood. The temple was dedicated to the chief god, Marduk, mentioned in line 17 of the tablet.

The text definitely refers to Nebuchadnezzar in lines 2 and 3, but it is not certain to whom lines 6 and on refer. Professor Grayson, editor of the tablet, suggests that "the main theme seems to be the improper behaviour of Evil-merodach, particularly with regard to Esagil, followed by a sudden and unexplained change of heart and prayers of Marduk." However, another interpretation of the poorly preserved text seems plausible, especially if read in the light of Daniel 4, which relates Nebuchadnezzar's seven-year period of mental derangement.

Read lines 3, 6, 7, 11, 12, and Mas referring to strange behavior by Nebuchadnezzar, which has been brought to the attention of Evilmerodach by state officials. Life had lost all value to Nebuchadnezzar, who gave contradictory orders, re fused to accept the counsel of his courtiers, showed love neither to son nor daughter, neglected his family, and no longer performed his duties as head of state with regard to the Babylonian state religion and its principal temple. Line 5, then, can refer to officials who, bewildered by the king's behavior, counseled Evilmerodach to assume responsibility for affairs of state so long as his father was unable to carry out his duties. Lines 6 and on would then be a description of Nebuchadnezzar's behavior as described to Evilmerodach. Since Nebuchadnezzar later recovered (Dan. 4:36), the counsel of the king's courtiers to Evil-merodach may later have been considered "bad" (line 5), though at the time it seemed the best way out of a national crisis.

Since Daniel records that Nebuchadnezzar was "driven from men" (Dan. 4:33) but later reinstated as king by his officials (verse 36), Evilmerodach, Nebuchadnezzar's eldest son, may have served as regent during his father's incapacity. Official records, however, show Nebuchadnezzar as king during his lifetime.

It is regrettable that this extremely important text has come down to us in such a fragmentary condition. But we can be grateful that at least a portion of it has been preserved, since it seems to shed light on a Biblical narrative otherwise unvindicated by extra-Biblical documentation.


* Later translated and published in English by Philip Schaff.

+ The solutions are discussed in The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 4. On arguments I and 3, see pp. 744-750; on argument 2, see pp. 781, 782; and on argument 4, see pp. 806-808.

1 Eckhard Unger, Zeitschrift fur die alttestament-Hche Wissenschaft, 3 (1926), pp. 314-317; B. Meissner, Archiv fiir Orientforschung, 11 (1936-37), 75.

2 The text translated by A. Leo Oppenheim is found in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by J. B. Pritchard (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950), p. 308. The words and letters put between brackets I ] have been supplied by the translator since they are broken off from the tablet.

3 Unger, op. cit., p. 314.

4 A. K. Grayson, Babylonian Historical-Literary Texts. "Toronto Semitic Texts and Studies," No. 3 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975), pp. 87-92. I am grateful to Dr. William H. Shea of Andrews University for having brought this text to my attention and for having granted me the privilege of discussing it in this article. A full treatment of the text will be found in Dr. Shea's forthcoming book on Daniel.

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Siegfried Horn, now retired, is a noted archeologist, author, and university professor. He served for several years as sponsor of the Biblical Archeology section of MINISTRY.

April 1978

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