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The Mysterious Number in Daniel 5:31
by John Evans
Toward the end of Daniel 5, which contains the marvelous tale of the handwriting on the wall, the prophet Daniel informs Belshazzar, the ruler of Babylon: “your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians” (NASB, v.28). Verse 30 tells us that Belshazzar was slain that very night, and the next verse ends the tale with this information: “So Darius the Mede received the kingdom at about the age of sixty-two.”Toward the end of Daniel 5, which contains the marvelous tale of the handwriting on the wall, the prophet Daniel informs Belshazzar, the ruler of Babylon: “your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians” (NASB, v.28). Verse 30 tells us that Belshazzar was slain that very night, and the next verse ends the tale with this information: “So Darius the Mede received the kingdom at about the age of sixty-two.”Among the biblical scholars who take it for granted that the Book of Daniel as we have it is a product of the second century BC—most of whom believe that the tales of Daniel 1-6 had an earlier beginning than that—it is generally accepted that the author was a poor historian of the sixth century BC and simply invented Darius the Mede in order to present Media as the second kingdom in the four-kingdoms sequences of Daniel 2 and 7, with Babylonia, Persia and Greece filling the first, third, and fourth slots, respectively. The author (or authors) was/were motivated to invent Darius, they believe, because he/they wanted to demonstrate the fulfillment of the prophecies in Isaiah (13:17-18, 21:2) and Jeremiah (51:11, 28) that have the Medes coming against Babylon without mentioning the Persians. In holding to this position, these scholars—I call them “liberals”—generally dismiss or ignore the inconvenient fact that, as Daniel 5:28 clearly indicates, the Book of Daniel portrays the Medes and Persians as the joint conquerors of Babylon.
There is no reference to Darius the Mede elsewhere in the Old Testament or in any non-biblical source. It is easy to understand, therefore, why one of the greatest challenges to those who believe in a sequence of four kingdoms in Daniel 2 and 7 that has Rome as the fourth kingdom—the present author included—is to provide a plausible resolution of the Darius the Mede problem that supports this “Roman” sequence. That we can approach the solution of this problem optimistically is justified, I believe, by the history of biblical scholarship pertaining to Belshazzar. Until the 1850s, no historical record revealed his existence, and it was assumed among the higher critics that he, like Darius the Mede, was a fictional character. Archeological discoveries that began in 1854 revealed, however, that Belshazzar was indeed in charge of governing Babylon at the time of its fall to the Medes and Persians 539 BC. He was not the crowned ruler of Babylonia, but the co-regent with his father, Nabonidus, who preferred to live for some years in northern Arabia. To this day, liberals continue to nitpick about Belshazzar, but there is no getting around the facts that he was the ruler in charge of Babylon when it fell and that the Book of Daniel alone preserved this information until the nineteenth century. Liberals tend to dismiss their Belshazzar problem by suggesting that even though the author of Daniel was a poor historian, traditions about Belshazzar and the fall of Babylon somehow survived that allowed the author to luck out in this instance. Nevertheless, they assure us, Darius the Mede cannot be a historical figure.
But if Darius the Mede is a fictional character, why was it necessary to make up an age for him at all, much less an age as precise as sixty-two? The liberal answer to this question is that the number sixty-two must have symbolic, as opposed to historical, significance. Therefore, those liberal writers who have concerned themselves with the sixty-two problem have tended to speculate about just what the symbolic significance of the number sixty-two might be.
This number appears at one other place in the Book of Daniel; it is the second of the three periods into which the famed prophecy of the seventy “weeks” or sevens is broken up (Dan 9:25-26). Just how the sixty-two weeks of 9:25-26, which represent a period of 434 years, connects symbolically with the age of the conqueror of Babylon is not obvious, but I have found one critical scholar, Reinhard Kratz, who believes that there must be a connection. Kratz does not offer an explanation of just why the author of Daniel wanted to symbolically connect the 434 years of the sixty-two weeks with the age of Darius the Mede, and I confess that I have been completely unable to think of one. But I am an economist by training and lack the capacity for imagination that some biblical scholars possess.
In his admirable commentary on Daniel, Ernest Lucas states that the precision of the number sixty-two given as Darius’s age “suggests something symbolic about the number,” and he offers these possibilities: (1) to imply a short reign for Darius and thus explain Daniel’s survival into the reign of Cyrus; (2) to suggest “that the seeds of the end of Babylonian power were sown (by Darius’ birth) at about the time the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed”; and (3), following John Goldingay, the possibility that “on the basis of the Babylonian mina of sixty shekels, sixty-two is the number of shekels implied in Daniel’s interpretation of the writing (a mina, a shekel, and two half-shekels).” The writing to which Lucas refers is, of course, the four-word message or omen of the handwriting on the wall: “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN” (5:25). In terms of monetary units, if you ignore the fact that MENE is listed twice, this can literally be translated as “a mina [worth sixty shekels], a shekel, and two halves,” though the “two halves” could also be translated as “some halves.”
John J. Collins, whose massive commentary constitutes the definitive work on Daniel from the critical perspective, leans toward the first of these possibilities, observing that “the relatively high age precludes a long reign and makes it plausible for Daniel to survive into the reign of Cyrus.” But sixty-two was not such an advanced age for a ruler even in ancient times as to automatically create a life expectancy of a year or two—which is how long the Book of Daniel appears to have Darius the Mede reign—and why have such a specific number if the idea was to suggest that Darius not going to last long?
More persuasively, I believe, John Goldingay argues that if the sixty-two of Darius’s age corresponds to the quantity of shekels indicated in the handwriting on the wall, then Darius “is the actual person who brings [the] fulfillment [of the omen] upon Belshazzar.” Perhaps so, though my lack of imagination handicaps me in relating sixty-two shekels to Darius’s age. Note, however, that Goldingay’s solution requires you to ignore the fact that MENE appears twice in the omen. Those who favor this solution ignore the repetition and perhaps believe that the second MENE was not in the original version of the tale and was added for some reason. Of course, one of the advantages of assuming second century BC authorship for the final version of the Book of Daniel is that this makes it easy to invoke the hand of an unknown glossator to rid yourself of inconvenient bits of text that you want to treat as editorial additions.
As for the second of the three possibilities listed, the idea that the purpose of the sixty-two was to have the birth of Darius coincide with the time when the seeds of Babylon’s eventual fall were sown, it has serious problems. If we add sixty-two to the year of Babylon’s fall (539 BC), we arrive at 601, four years after the year when Daniel was supposedly taken to Babylon, four years before a major exile of Jews to Babylonia, and fifteen years before the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. In other words, you land not far from the middle of nowhere. What the year 601 is supposed to represent besides the birth of Darius simply escapes me.
Adding to the difficulties involved in trying to figure out a symbolic meaning of the number sixty-two in Daniel 5:31 is the fact that the number sixty-two apparently is not as precise as is often claimed. As best as I can determine, the texts on which most English translations of Daniel are based—the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text and the Greek version known as Theodotion—are most accurately translated with 5:31 (6:1 in the MT) indicating that Darius the Mede was about sixty-two years old when he “received the kingdom.” Some translations omit the word “about,” however, and I have noticed that the comments on this verse that I have read by critical writers are generally written as if this word were not there. In my judgment, when you consider that the word about is there, the effect is to undermine the plausibility of most attempts to interpret the sixty-two symbolically.
Trained as we are in the decimal system, it is natural for us to round to numbers that are divisible by ten or five. It may be, however, that the residents of ancient Babylon did not think that way. Thus, while we are prone to say that a certain man was “about sixty” or “about sixty-five,” it may be that a Babylonian resident might have said that a certain man was “about sixty-two.” In any event, we have to conclude, I think, that the sixty-two years of age for Darius the Mede is not the precise figure that liberals have tended to assume it is.
If the explanations offered for how the sixty-two figure of 5:31 might have been intended to be understood symbolically do not seem satisfactory—and I submit that they do not—this raises the possibility that maybe, just maybe, “about the age of sixty-two” was intended to be understood literally; i.e. perhaps the author of Daniel thought of Darius the Mede as a real person and believed that he was about sixty-two years old when Babylon fell. But if that is the case, is it possible that we might be able to identify who he was if we put our minds to the task? I believe that the answer to this question is yes, and that Darius the Mede was none other than Cyrus the Persian.
About fifty years ago, the great conservative biblical linguist Donald J. Wiseman first put forth his hypothesis that when Daniel 6:28 is properly translated, it indicates that Darius the Mede was, in fact, none other than Cyrus the Persian. Here is the translation of that verse from the NASB: “So this Daniel enjoyed success in the reign of Darius the Mede and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” According to Wiseman, the “and” should be understood explicatively, meaning that it should be translated as “even” in the sense of “that is.” In other words, the verse should read, “So this Daniel enjoyed success in the reign of Darius the Mede, that is, the reign of Cyrus the Persian,” thereby yielding the meaning that the two are the same person.
It is not uncommon for the Hebrew construction in question in 6:28 to be translated as Wiseman suggests elsewhere in the OT, so the question emerges as to why it is generally translated as “and” in Daniel 6:28. The answer seems to be that most translators simply have not considered the possibility that Darius the Mede could be Cyrus the Persian. A partial exception to this pattern is the NIV, which recognizes in a footnote that the “and” of 6:28 could be translated as “that is.” Collins remarks (in a footnote) that Wiseman’s line of argument exists, but he dismisses it as being “very dubious” and explains himself by stating that Wiseman offers “no explanation of why Cyrus should be called Darius.” By contrast, Lucas recognizes that “For those who are looking for a historical ‘Darius the Mede’, Wiseman’s suggestion seems to provide the best answer.” Since those who believe that the Book of Daniel is a second century BC production generally are not “looking for a historical ‘Darius the Mede’,” one can safely assume that Lucas is here referring to those conservatives who entertain the notion (probably mistaken in his view) that Daniel the Prophet really existed.
In actuality, Wiseman and those who believe that he is on the right track with regard to 6:28 have suggested reasons why the author of Daniel may have chosen to refer to Cyrus as a Mede. Cyrus’s maternal ancestry was Median, and he had come to power with assistance from the Median nobles and chosen the capital of Media, Ecbatana (modern Habadan in western Iran), as the administrative capital of his empire. The residents of Babylonia, including the captive Jews, were more familiar with the Medes than with the Persians; and given Cyrus’s background, it was natural for them to think of him as a Mede. And of particular significance, no doubt, was the fact that since Isaiah and Jeremiah had prophesied that Babylon would fall to the Medes, it made sense in terms of prophetic fulfillment to credit a Mede with its conquest.
These factors, however, do not explain why the author of Daniel chose to change Cyrus’s name. I suggest that he did so because (1) he needed to credit a Mede with the conquest of Babylonia but the name Cyrus was specifically identified with the Persian aspect of the conqueror’s background and was, therefore, unsuitable; and (2) it was a common practice in that era for people to be known by more than one name, including the throne names that were given to kings. The name that the author chose was probably an appropriate throne name. Recall that Daniel 1:7 informs us that when Daniel and his three friends entered into Nebuchadnezzar’s service, the name Belteshazzar was given to Daniel and the names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, respectively, were given to his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Daniel 5:12 reminds us that Nebuchadnezzar referred to Daniel as Belteshazzar. Richard N. Frye, a long-time specialist in Iranian languages and history at Harvard, suggested that Darius was probably a throne name meaning “having wealth (good things of life).”
To all this liberals can (and do) respond by revealing their ace in the hole, the fact that Daniel 9:1 refers to Darius as the “son of Ahasuerus, of the race of the Medes.” Ahasuerus is the Hebrew equivalent of Xerxes, a name that is generally associated with Xerxes I, the ruler of the Persian/Achaemenid Empire from 485 to 465. Xerxes I was the son of Darius I, the ruler of the Empire from 522 to 485. Historians agree, however, that Cyrus the Great was actually the son of Cambyses I, who ruled Persia as a Median vassal king and died ca. 559. Based on this information, liberals have often concluded that the author of Daniel recycled the names of a couple of well-known Persian kings for his mythical Median conqueror of Babylon and his pedigree. For example, Collins informs us that “there can be little doubt that the figure in Daniel 9 [verse 1] is fictitious and that the author has simply used the well-known Persian name [Ahasuerus] to fill out the allusion to the sketchy ‘Darius the Mede’.” Some liberals who are less careful than Collins have suggested that the author of Daniel actually confused his Darius the Mede, the “son of Ahasuerus,” with the Persian kings Darius I and Xerxes I and reversed the father-son relationship.
Ernest Lucas, who shows a greater willingness to take conservative arguments seriously than most writers who favor a Maccabean date for Daniel, notes that Wiseman “suggests that, since there is evidence . . . that ‘Ahasuerus’ was a dynastic throne name, it could have applied to any of Cyrus’ forebears who are known to us by other names,” and he indicates that Wiseman’s analysis should be taken seriously by those “looking for a historical, rather than a purely literary, explanation of ‘Ahasuerus’ here.” Again I remind the reader that liberals generally are not looking for a historical explanation of Ahasuerus—though perhaps they should be! I add that if the author of Daniel had written in 9:1 that the father of Darius was Cambyses I, he would not have been able to append to that name “of the race of the Medes”; and as I have already explained, the author had reason to call attention to the Median aspect of Cyrus’s background.
The early years of Cyrus the Great are shrouded in myth and weak in solid documentary evidence, but it is generally agreed that Cyrus’s mother was a Median princess named Mandane, who was the daughter of Astyages, the ruler of Media, and the granddaughter of Cyaxares, the founder of the Median Empire. Based on Herodotus, historians generally give the reigns of Cyaxares and Astyages as running from ca. 625 to 585 and 585 to 550, respectively. In other words, both reigns were quite long. Cyrus founded what became known as the Achaemenid Empire by wresting the Median throne from Astyages in 550. This means that if it is correct that Cyrus’s mother was Mandane and that Mandane was the daughter of Astyages, then Cyrus deposed his own maternal grandfather. Historians generally give credibility to this assertion. In large part, they do so because they know that Cyrus received great support from the Median nobility. A reasonable assumption, it would seem, is that toward the end of his reign, Astyages became a rather irascible old man and was forcibly removed from office by what passed in those days for popular demand.
Unfortunately, the information that we have on the life of Cyrus the Great does not specify when he was born; and for the purposes of this article, the key question about his life is whether he could have been about sixty-two years of age when Babylon fell; i.e. in 539 BC. In other words, could Cyrus possibly have been born as early as, say, 601 BC? Admittedly, the ripe old age of sixty-two sounds rather advanced for a sixth-century BC conqueror, and it may seem improbable that a man who was about fifty-one years of age in 550 BC would have ousted his own grandfather from the Median kingship.
Assume that Cyaxares was at least thirty when he ascended the throne of Media ca. 625. Given the leadership that he exhibited in welding the various tribes of Medes together and molding a major fighting force that could be a full partner with Babylonia in destroying Assyria, it is reasonable to believe that he was no younger than that. Also assume that his son Astyages was born ca. 635. That may seem early, but princes in those days were expected to marry young and produce heirs. Mandane, who is supposed to have been the mother of Cyrus, is said to have been a daughter of Astyages. Given the fact (as the case of Mohammed reminds us), that females attained marriageable age quite early in the ancient Near East as late as the seventh century AD, it is not at all out of the question that when Cyrus ousted Astyages from the kingship of Media in 550, he could have been as old as fifty-one and still had Astyages as his maternal grandfather. In sum, it is mathematically possible for Cyrus to have been about sixty-two when his forces took Babylon.
Scholarly opinion about the year of Cyrus’s birth varies greatly. I have noticed that some posters on the “Net” have picked a date as late as 576 for the year of his birth, but I have also found that several prominent scholars have gone with a much earlier date and that a date of ca. 600 is common among them. I trust the work of archaeologist Max Mallowan, who is perhaps best known these days for having been the second husband of Agatha Christie. Mallowan stated that Cyrus must have been about forty when he ascended the Persian throne (ca. 558) and about seventy when he died campaigning in Transoxiana in Central Asia in 529; i.e. ten years after his forces took Babylon.
Conflicting somewhat with the evidence that would push the birth of Cyrus back as far as ca. 600 is the information that we have about three princesses who were contemporaries of Astyages: Amytis of Media, Aryenis of Lydia, and Mandane, who is said to have been the daughter of Astyages and the mother of Cyrus. If that information is correct, Cyrus could not have been born ca. 600. There is reason to believe, however, that the information is not fully trustworthy.
Amytis is known to history as the daughter of Cyaxares and the wife of Nebuchadnezzar whose homesickness for her native Media induced that monarch to construct the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Her marriage to Nebuchadnezzar reportedly occurred in connection with the alliance formed ca. 614 between Cyaxares of Media and Nabopolassar of Babylonia (the father of Nebuchadnezzar) to destroy Assyria. Although Berossus, a third-century Babylonian, wrote that Amytis was a daughter of Astyages, that is very unlikely in view of the fact that it would seem to require that Astyages was born considerably earlier than I have suggested. I completely agree, therefore, with James Jordan, who simply asserts that Amytis was the daughter of Cyaxares. If this is correct, this means that she was a sibling of Astyages and must have been born within a few years of the 635 date that I have surmised for the birth of Astyages.
According to Herodotus, Aryenis was the daughter of Alyattes II of Lydia, the wife of Astyages, and the mother of Mandane. If she was the daughter of Alyattes II, this means that she was also the sister of Croesus, who reigned as king of Lydia from 560 until his defeat by Cyrus in 547. Her marriage to Astyages supposedly occurred as part of a peace settlement reached between Lydia and Media following the indecisive Battle of the Eclipse in 585. This date cannot be reconciled with the claim that Mandane was the daughter of Aryenis and the mother of Cyrus unless you assume that she gave birth at a remarkably young age and that Cyrus was quite young when he became the ruler of the empire of the Medes and Persians. Neither assumption seems plausible. Far more reasonable is to believe that Astyages had a much earlier marriage than the one that supposedly occurred to Aryenis and that the account of Herodotus contains inaccuracies.
Near Eastern rulers, after all, tended to be polygamous, and Herodotus wrote his account of the time of Astyages and Cyrus long after they had passed from the scene. Here I agree with the “Some modern scholars” referred to in the Wikipedia article “Mandane of Media” who believe that Herodotus’s account of the supposed dynastic links between Cyrus the Great and the kingdoms he conquered may be embellishments designed to legitimize his conquests.
In conclusion, I am of the opinion that the evidence favoring a strictly symbolic interpretation of the “about the age of sixty-two” is weak, that a strong case can be made for believing that Darius the Mede was none other than Cyrus the Persian, and that a very plausible case can be made for believing that Cyrus was “about the age of sixty-two” when Babylon fell to the forces of Media and Persia. So when you encounter a statement on the “Net” from Wikipedia or other sources that suggests that Cyrus the Great was born ca. 576 BC, I recommend that you discount it very heavily.
Isaiah 21:2 does, however, give both Elam and Media as the attackers of Babylon, and Elam was next door to the Persian heartland. It had been incorporated into the Achaemenid or Persian Empire by the time Babylon fell, 539 BC; and one can readily see why in Isaiah’s mind, it would have been indistinguisable from Persia.
Reinhard G. Kratz, “The Visions of Daniel,” in The Book of Daniel: Composition and Reception, ed. John J. Collins and Peter W. Flint, vol. I (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2001), 108.
Ernest C. Lucas, Daniel, Apollos Old Testament Commentary, ed. David W. Baker and Gordon J. Wenham, vol. 20 (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002), 137.
John E. Goldingay, Daniel, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 30 (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 100, 102.
John J. Collins, A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, ed. Frank Moore Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1993), 253.
Goldingay, Daniel, 112.
Donald J. Wiseman, “Some Historical Problems in the Book of Daniel,” in Notes on Some Problems in the Book of Daniel (London: The Tyndale Press, 1965), 12. In a footnote, Wiseman records that he first advanced this hypothesis in a BBC broadcast in 1957 that was subsequently published in Christianity Today, II, 1957, pp. 7-10. Ibid., 12n19.
Collins, A Commentary, 253n116.
Lucas, Daniel, 137.
Richard N. Frye, The Heritage of Persia (Cleveland: Word Publishing, 1963), 92.
Collins, A Commentary, 348.
Lucas, Daniel, 234-35. See Wiseman, “Historical Problems,” 15. Wiseman follows Frye in suggesting that Ahasuerus was a throne name. Frye writes: “The names of Achaemenid kings after Darius which have been preserved were probably ‘throne names’ or appellations, perhaps taken at the time of accession, or when named crown prince.” He adds: “The name Xerxes probably means ‘hero among rulers.” Frye, Heritage, 92-93,
Max Mallowan, “Cyrus the Great,” The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2, ed. Ilya Gershevtch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 404.