Daniel 4 – “The Feral King”

1075390_giant_tree_41Hebrew-English Text
I. Summary
Nebuchadnezzar has a dream, and Daniel interprets it for him as follows: God will humble Nebuchadnezzar by sending him off to the wilderness to live a feral lifestyle for seven years, but he will eventually be humbled before God and return to power. The prophecy comes true, and after seven years of animal life, Nebuchadnezzar returns to his throne as a God-fearing servant.

II. Photo
Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a giant tree : ”In the visions of my mind in bed I saw a tree of great height in the midst of the earth; The tree grew and became mighty; Its top reached heaven…” (vv. 7-8)

III. Important Verses
v. 5: Finally, Daniel, called Belteshazzar after the name of my god, in whom the spirit of the holy gods was, came to me, and I related the dream to him.
v. 16: Then Daniel, called Belteshazzar, was perplexed for a while, and alarmed by his thoughts. The king addressed him, “Let the dream and its meaning not alarm you.” Belteshazzar replied, “My lord, would that the dream were for your enemy and its meaning for your foe!
vv. 22, 24: You will be driven away from men and have your habitation with the beasts of the field. You will be fed grass like cattle, and be drenched with the dew of heaven; seven seasons will pass over you until you come to know that the Most High is sovereign over the realm of man, and He gives it to whom He wishes… Therefore, O king, may my advice be acceptable to you: Redeem your sins by beneficence and your iniquities by generosity to the poor; then your serenity may be extended.”
v. 34: So now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt, and glorify the King of Heaven, all of whose works are just and whose ways are right, and who is able to humble those who behave arrogantly.”

IV. Outline
1-6. Nebuchadnezzar invites Daniel to interpret a dream
7-15. The dream is related
16-24. Daniel’s interpretation
25-34. Nebuchadnezzar is sent away for seven years, but returns to his previous glory and praises God

V. Comment
Like chapter 2, chapter 4 consists of Daniel’s interpreting one of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams. In the story, Nebuchadnezzar is cast to the wilderness to live like an animal for seven years. He then returns to his throne, and just stops short of converting to Judaism. A major question of modern scholarship is, “Did this ever happen?” Collins writes: “Needless to say, there is no evidence that the historical Nebuchadnezzar was ever forced to eat grass like the beasts of the field. Attempts to diagnose his medical condition are beside the point. Indeed, we know something of the way in which this story developed. The last king of Babylon, Nabonidus, was absent from Babylon for several years. He spent the time in Teima, in the Arabian wilderness, and devoted himself to the worship of the moon-god. Because of his absence, he was reviled by the priests of Marduk in Babylon. Scholars have long suspected that the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness was originally a story about Nabonidus. This suspicion was confirmed by the discovery among the Dead Sea Scrolls of an Aramaic text called the Prayer of Nabonidus. This text is introduced as ‘the words of the prayer that Nabonidus… prayed,’ but the fragments do not preserve a prayer. Instead they preserve Nabonidus’s account of how he was ‘stricken with an evil disease by the decree of God in Teima.’ He was smitten for seven years, but was eventually restored when a Jewish diviner explained to him that he should pray, not to idols, but to the true God. The story in Daniel 4 is evidently an elaboration of this tradition.” (560) If the story is indeed about Nabonidus, why would the story be attributed to Nebuchadnezzar? Collins speculates: “The name of Nebuchadnezzar was substituted for that of Nabonidus, because he was much better known.” Indeed, chapter 5 speaks about how the empire “Nebuchadnezzar’s son” was overthrown, but historically speaking it was actually Nabonidus’ son who was overtaken.

Seeing that the prayer of Nabonidus is quite short, I will quote it in full (Context of Scripture, 1.89):
Superscription: The Afflictions of Nabonidus (1–2a)
(Concerning) words of p[ra]yer of Nabonidus, king of [Ba]bylon, [the Great] King, [when he was stricken] with a pernicious inflammation by the decree of G[o]d, in [the municipality of] Teman.

A First-Person Account of Nabonidus’ Affliction and Healing (2b-4a)
I was stricken for seven years, and ever since [that time] I became comparable [with the beasts. Then I prayed before God], and (as for) my offense  – he forgave it.

Recapitulation: It was a Jewish Diviner who Revealed to Nabonidus How He Could Be Healed (4b-8)
A diviner, who was himself a Jew fro[m among the exilic community of Judea], provided an interpretation, and wrote (instructions) to render honor and greatness to the name of G[od. And so did he write]: “You were stricken with a pernicious inflammation [by the decree of God in the municipality of Teman, but ] you continued for seven years to pray [before] gods of silver and gold, [bronze and iron], wood and stone (and) clay, because [you were of the opin]ion that t[hey were] (true) divinities.”

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
Collins, John J. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneaolis: Fortress Press, 2004).
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