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The Scribal Background of the “Menetekel” in Daniel 5

Since Aramaic was introduced as the standard administrative language in Achaemenid Palestine around 500 B.C.E. and dominated scribal training into the early Roman period, its influence on literary production is hardly surprising. Placing such key terms against their original background goes far beyond merely antiquarian interests; it helps uncover new literary subtleties in the biblical text and better assess their theological impact.

For Further Reading: Gzella, Holger (ed.). 2016. Aramäisches Wörterbuch (Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Alten Testament, vol. IX). Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, especially the articles jd, ktb, mnī, prq, and tql.

By Holger Gzella
Professor of Hebrew and Aramaic
Leiden University
April 2016

The imagery employed in the visions of the Book of Daniel is both grand and mysterious. These qualities have ensured it an exceptionally rich reception history in the visual arts, belletristic literature, music, systematic theology, and even contemporary political discourse. Moreover, they have triggered a long-standing scholarly debate about the relation between Daniel and its broader Ancient Near Eastern cultural backdrop. The latter is still a major issue in present-day exegesis, for even very comprehensive modern commentaries take quite different vantage points: John Collins’s 1993 Hermeneia volume, for example, shows particularly great care in establishing links with the apocalyptic compositions from Qumran on the one hand and themes known from the Hebrew Bible (or the underlying Canaanite mythology) on the other, whereas Klaus Koch’s contribution to the Biblischer Kommentar series (of which a first volume on chapters 1–4 appeared in 2004), while sensitive to possible connections with Mesopotamian and later Jewish writings, often assumes a considerable influence of Iranian traditions as attested in Zoroastrian compositions.

The underlying scribal tradition of Achaemenid Official Aramaic, by contrast, has, despite its obviousness, received little or no particular attention so far. However, a closer scrutiny of the historical semantics, as proposed by the relevant articles in the recent final volume of the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Aramäisches Wörterbuch, Stuttgart 2016; English edition in preparation), shows that a number of key terms especially in the Aramaic parts of Daniel (2:4b–7:28) are firmly entrenched in Aramaic legal and bureaucratic vocabulary. Since Aramaic was introduced as the standard administrative language in Achaemenid Palestine around 500 B.C.E. and dominated scribal training into the early Roman period, its influence on literary production is hardly surprising. Placing such key terms against their original background goes far beyond merely antiquarian interests; it helps uncover new literary subtleties in the biblical text and better assess their theological impact.

An “Aramaic” reading of the Menetekel in Daniel 5 may serve as a case in point. The eerie scene of a human hand, yet without a body, writing an enigmatic message in fiery letters on a wall at Belshazzar’s sinful feast (Dan 5:24-29):

‘So 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 on the scales and found wanting; peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.’

It is captured most successfully by Rembrandt’s famous painting. It is, at first glance, tempting to view the hand as an allusion to the power of God, as often in the Hebrew books of the Bible, or even to compare it to the effect of dismembered body parts in horror movies. Yet a more historically sensitive lexical analysis demonstrates that the narrator’s presentation first and foremost evokes legal connotations. The combination of the word yad ‘hand’ with the verb ktb ‘to write’ or the noun ketāb ‘written document’ regularly means ‘to sign’ or ‘(personal) signature’ throughout all earlier phases of Aramaic (see, e.g., KAI 233:9 [Old Aramaic, Assur Ostracon]; TAD B2.7:17f.; 4.3:21 [Achaemenid Official Aramaic contracts from Elephantine]; 4Q203 8:4 [Qumran]; P. Yadin 1:56ff.; 2:47; 3:51.54; 9:13 [legal documents from the Dead Sea]). That is, even though the writing itself has not yet been deciphered, the depiction of the scene indicates to a reader who is familiar with normal Aramaic usage that it must concern a divine verdict, signed by God’s own hand. In doing so, the narrator really racks up the tension right at the outset.

The entire point of the ambiguous message itself, too, is best understood as a scribal wordplay. The consonantal text mn’ tql wprsn (Dan 5:25), later vocalized mnē tqēl u-parsīn by the Masoretes (the possible dittography of mn’ and the variation between a singular and a plural form for the last word in the individual textual witnesses are of no major concern here), puzzles king Belshazzar and his advisors; only Daniel eventually manages to interpret it—correctly, according to the logic of the text—as a series of three passive participles ‘counted, weighed, and divided’ (5:26–28; *manē taqīl wa-parīsīn in reconstructed pronunciation) that refer to the king who did not live up to expectations and thus lost his kingship. Various hypotheses have been proposed why the court advisors were unable to figure out the meaning of the verdict. The Talmudic tradition of a secret writing with an unexpected order of letters (bSanh 22a) may have been known to Rembrandt via his connections to the Jewish community at Amsterdam: in his painting, the text does not run from right to left but from top to bottom. More plausibly, it has been suggested some hundred years ago that the bystanders understood the words not as passive participles but as nouns denoting weights, i.e., ‘mine, shekel, and half-mine’ (*manē teqǝl wa-parasīn in reconstructed Official Aramaic pronunciation), which of course makes no sense here.

Many hundreds of Aramaic documentary texts that have been discovered since the end of the nineteenth century have proved the latter view correct. Scores of attestations of these three nouns show that such an interpretation would come to mind most readily if one encounters the respective terms, without further context, in the consonantal spelling mn’ tql wprsn: there are now more than forty certain instances of ‘mine’, more than three-hundred of ‘shekel’, and about forty of ‘half-mine’, as well as several partial ones that can be confidently reconstructed. The fact that the three words all belong to the same semantic field further corroborates this assumption. By contrast, the passive participles of the cognate verbal roots mnī ‘to count’, tql ‘to weigh’, and prs ‘to divide’ are extremely rare, not more than one each of the latter two is attested at all in the whole of Aramaic between the beginning of the first millennium B.C.E. and the early centuries of the first millennium C.E. In addition, tql and prs are written defectively, whereas only the full spellings tqyl and prys would clearly have pointed to basic-stem passive participles.

One can derive two important conclusions from these observations: first, the king’s sages are by no means depicted as incompetent; their (assumed) reading of the text as a series of three nouns denoting ubiquitous weights is, in the light of normal language usage, indeed the most obvious one, whereas Daniel’s interpretation presupposes possible but extremely uncommon grammatical forms and would thus appear rather far-fetched. Second, the wordplay rests on a fine understanding of what happens when reading unvocalized texts, as any student of Biblical Hebrew or Semitic epigraphy can confirm: the most frequent words come to mind first, and the context then helps to eliminate less likely options. It requires quite some familiarity with the art of reading and writing to appreciate such a sophisticated double entendre (the well-known similarity between qayiṣ ‘summer’ and qēṣ ‘end’ in the vision of the basket of summer fruit in Amos 8:2 furnishes another example of the same technique).

There are many more instances of a theological reinterpretation of administrative vocabulary in Daniel and the Aramaic texts from Qumran: the juridical terms pitgam ‘edict’, gzīrā ‘decision’, and mēmar ‘sentence’ occur for divine judgments (Dan 4:14.21; likewise pitgam in 4Q242 1–3:2) and šallīṭ ‘legally entitled’ refers to God’s sovereign power (Dan 4:14; 1QGenAp 20:13; 4Q542 1 i 2f.; 4Q550 7+7a:1; 4Q552 1 ii 6), as does dayyān ‘judge’ (Dan 7:10.26; 4Q205 1 ix 2 [1 Hen 22:14]) and the corresponding image of the Last Judgment. A less trivial example is the use of the verb prq in Dan 4:24. Contrary to many Biblical Aramaic dictionaries and commentaries, it does not seem to mean ‘to break off’ here but ‘to redeem’. Daniel advises the king to ‘redeem’ the sin of pride by means of righteous deeds and thus ward off divine punishment. This has a close parallel a Nabataean Aramaic private document from the Dead Sea, according to which the debtor can ‘redeem’ (P. Yadin 36:23, same verb) the debt note from the creditor by paying off his debt.

The theological reanalysis of administrative terminology in Daniel also has implications for the social background of this book. Chapters 4 and 5 are part of the original core of Daniel, as attested by the different textual tradition of Daniel 4–6 in the Old Greek translation. This suggests that they have taken on their shape some time between the fifth and the third centuries B.C.E. in circles of learned administrators with strong religious affinities, such as the figure of “Ezra the Scribe”. An origin in a scribal milieu adequately explains the positive attitude toward expert knowledge in these earliest layers of Daniel: contrary to the later chapters, Daniel’s superior insight is not yet associated with religious practice like prayer (2:18; 9:3) and fasting but rather seems to presuppose natural gifts and a rigorous training. Hence “secular” and “divine” wisdom do not contradict but complement each other, and Daniel emerges as a role model for theological exegesis in an academic context.

Comments (1)

Thank you for the intriguing essay.
#1 - Jim - 04/29/2016 - 19:06

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