The Last Night of Babylon

You’ve heard the story of the last night of Babylon, and how the fall of the kingdom was heralded by writing on the wall by a hand from the unseen realm. But what you probably haven’t been told was that the destruction of Babylon was also a humiliation of the patron god of its last king, Nabonidus.

Nabonidus was born in the north Mesopotamian city of Harran, one of the two major cult centers for the moon-god in the ancient Near East, the other being Ur in Sumer, present-day southeastern Iraq. As noted earlier, Nabonidus left his royal city and settled in the Arabian oasis of Tayma for ten years, another center of moon-god worship, for reasons scholars haven’t agreed upon yet. This is remarkable since his time in the desert accounted for more than half of his seventeen-year reign.

Whatever his motivation, Nabonidus was not led to the oasis in northwestern Arabia solely because of Tayma’s strategic importance, although its proximity to the caravan route used by the lucrative spice trade was undoubtedly a factor. Politicians rarely miss an opportunity to  It may be that he was waiting for a message from the moon-god—a prophecy or sign of some sort. While he stayed at Tayma, his son ruled as regent in Babylon. That was Belshazzar, the king we know from the Book of Daniel.

Belshazzar was in a delicate situation. There were certain religious duties that the king of Babylon was expected to perform. He played a key role in the annual spring akitu festival with the god Marduk. If the king wasn’t in Babylon to “take the hand of Bel” (Marduk), the rites couldn’t be performed, and the city, it was believed, wouldn’t receive the blessing of its patron god. Remember, Nabonidus was out of Babylon for ten years, living at Tayma in the Arabian desert.

Nabonidus didn’t seem to feel that this was a problem, lending credence to the belief that his goal was to replace Marduk as the chief god of Babylon with Sîn, the moon-god. That plan couldn’t have been popular with the ancient priesthood of Marduk or religious conservatives in Babylon.

Bad Moon Rising

On that fateful night in 539 BC, recorded in chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel, Belshazzar, the son and coregent of Babylon’s king Nabonidus, hosted a drunken party at the palace. During the festivities, he ordered his servants to bring out the gold and silver vessels that had been plundered from the Temple in Jerusalem more than half a century earlier, and he used them to serve wine to the Chaldean nobles and his wives and concubines.


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.

Daniel 5:5–6 (ESV)

Daniel was summoned to interpret the sign. Bad news for Belshazzar.

You have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. And the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.

Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed. 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 5:23–28, (ESV)

All this you probably know. The story is popular with all ages, from Sunday School kids to grownups. It’s an easy moral for a Sunday sermon: Don’t get too big for your britches. But there’s a lot more to it just under the surface.

The timing of the fall of Babylon is key. The festival hosted by Belshazzar wasn’t random event, some excuse for Belshazzar to show off in front of his friends. This party had spiritual significance.

The tradition of the festivities might reflect historical fact. According to the chronicle, Babylon was taken on the sixteenth of Tašritu. Accepting that Nabonidus imposed new features of the cult of Sîn in the capital after his return from Teima, it is conceivable that festivals linked with the cult of Sîn at Harran were transplanted to Babylon, perhaps even the akitu festival. This festival started on the seventeenth of Tašritu. As Babylon was captured on the eve of the seventeenth, the festivities mentioned by Herodotus and the Book of Daniel may have been those of the Harran akitu festival, as celebrated in the capital by the supporters of Nabonidus.[1]

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Babylonian calendar was tweaked so that the fall akitu festival for the moon-god was specifically timed to coincide with either the Harvest Moon or the Hunter’s Moon:

The seventeenth of Tašritu always fell during one of the two periods of the year that the moon had an unusually prominent place at night. It should also be remembered that the Harvest Moon and Hunter’s Moon, by a curious trick of perception, are popularly believed to be unusually large and luminous. It is therefore singularly appropriate that the akitu festival in honor of the moon god Sîn should take place on the seventeenth of Tašritu, when the lunar deity, several days after full moon, retained its sway throughout the night.[2]

Because most of us Christians are not very familiar with the festivals of Yahweh, let us point out that the last feast of the year, Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), begins on the fifteenth of Tašritu/Tishrei.

So, here’s the situation on the night of Belshazzar’s party: Babylon was ruled by a king so devoted to the moon-god that he tried to overturn more than a thousand years of religious tradition to elevate Sîn above Marduk in the pantheon. His son, the coregent, had just kicked off the akitu festival to honor the moon-god, an annual rite in Mesopotamia at least two thousand years old. Meanwhile, the most important annual festival of Yahweh, Sukkot, had begun two days earlier. Then Belshazzar, for reasons unknown, decided to liven up the party for his god, Sîn, by ordering the wine served in sacred utensils consecrated for use in the Temple of Yahweh.

Why did Belshazzar do it? What inspired him? (And why was he partying while the enemy Medes and Persians were right outside the city walls?)

It’s impossible to say. Accounts of the last night of Babylon are somewhat contradictory. Some say Nabonidus was at the battle; others say he wasn’t. It seems unlikely that Cyrus could have marched an army into Babylonia without word reaching the king. If the account in Daniel is accurate, and I assume it is, then maybe the akitu feast for Sîn was too important to postpone, even for an invasion. Maybe Belshazzar’s decision to bring out the Temple utensils was to demonstrate the power of the moon-god over the God of the exiles from Judah.

Big mistake.

Lights out. Babylon was done. 

And that was the last time the moon-god threatened the people of Yahweh for more than a thousand years.

[1] Paul-Alain Beaulieu. The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon, 556–539 B.C. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 150.

[2] Al Wolters, “Belshazzar’s Feast and the Cult of the Moon God Sîn,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 (1995), 201-202.

1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed this info as usual. Learned some things, I didn’t know about

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