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The Writing on the Wall

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We all know the ominous expression “the writing on the wall”.  Its meaning is clear, even if we don’t know its origin.  The origin of the expression is old, rooted in a mystical story that reaches back over more than two millennia.  If you’re interested, keep reading as I babble on.

The expression comes from a story from the Bible, in the Book of Daniel, chapters 5-6.  This is the famous Feast of Belshazzar.  Belshazzar was king of a people the Bible calls the Chaldeans, but who are better known as the Babylonians.  He was a descendant of Nebuchadnezzar, one of Babylon’s (or Chaldea’s, if you prefer,) greatest kings.  In the story, Belshazzar is giving a great feast for about a thousand nobles, all of whom have gathered to eat, drink and be merry.  The party really gets underway when they bring out the good goblets, the gold and silver ones that had been stolen from the temple of God in Jerusalem.  Once they started into the wine, they commenced with worshiping idols, which is something that you know, if you’ve ever read the Bible, always leads to trouble.

It didn’t take long for the trouble to begin.  Not far into the party, a disembodied hand appeared out of nowhere and started writing on the wall, right there in front of Belshazzar, and visible to everyone.  But no one there could read the writing, which was strange because it was obviously in Aramaic, the local language.  Someone pipes up and says that they should contact Daniel, who used to work for Nebuchadnezzar, and who was a good and righteous man (and also a polyglot).  (This would suggest that the guests at the feast somehow knew that worshiping idols was wrong, but the Bible doesn’t explore why that would occur to them.)

Daniel shows up and Belshazzar, freaked out by this hand coming out of nowhere, tells him that if he can interpret what was written on the wall, he’d make him incredibly rich and give him a highly placed seat in the government.  Daniel tells him that he can translate, but that the king could keep his gifts, because he didn’t want them.  Before translating, Daniel goes on to say that when he worked for Nebuchadnezzar, he watched him start out as a rotten, arrogant jerk, and develop a sense of morality and humility over time.  He contrasted this with Belshazzar, who hadn’t grown up or improved over the course of his life at all.  Daniel said all this in a disrespectful voice, not bowing to the king at all.  He gave Belshazzar the famous translation of the writing on the wall.  In English, it read, “You have been weighed in the balance and have been found wanting.”  In other words, “You’re a lousy person who’s doing a lousy job.  For shame!”

Belshazzar wanted to make things right as quickly and as thoroughly as possible, no doubt spooked by the hand.  Despite Daniel’s refusal of the gift, he ordered that he be covered in purple robes (the color of kings) and gold anyway, and that he be put in charge of part of the kingdom.  Then the party went on.  The Bible doesn’t say whether or not Daniel stuck around for some wine or hors d’œuvres, but it doesn’t sound like it was his kind of party.  Just as well: that evening, the allied armies of the Persians and the Medes showed up, killed Belshazzar, and that was the end of the empire.

The Feast of Belshazzar, as seen by Rembrandt, circa 1635

Above I provided the English translation of the writing on the wall, but of course the hand didn’t write it in English.  It wrote it in Aramaic.  What’s interesting is that no matter what language the Bible you’re holding has been translated into, be it English or Arabic or Spanish or Russian or Japanese or whatever, it also contains the words the hand wrote in the original Aramaic: “Mene mene tekel upharsin.”  Much of the Book of Daniel had been originally written in Aramaic, but translations of the Bible always seemed to include that line in the original as well as the target language.  Why?

Well, it’s kind of a pun, and like most puns, it doesn’t translate very well.  The word upharsin means divide.  The line literally translates as “Count and weigh the money, and divide.”  The implication is that if one were to do that, one would come up short.  The play on the word upharsin is that Pars was the Aramaic word for Persia.  In other words, the Persians are coming and they’re splitting up your kingdom.

Since Belshazzar and his subjects spoke and wrote Aramaic, there’s some question as to why they needed someone to come and help them sort it out.  There are many theories on this among Biblical scholars today.  One is that the writing on the wall could have been in an archaic form of Aramaic script, perhaps a century or two out of date.  Daniel, a scholar, would more likely have been familiar with archaic writing systems.  The writing might have included obsolete letters, or the letters might have been arranged in a way that didn’t make sense to the literate Babylonian of that day.  Whatever the reason, it was understood that you’d have to be a smart guy to sort out the meaning of what was written.  The character Daniel is a well known prophet in his book, frequently having visions of things to come, so this job was right up his alley.  The Book of Daniel was set in the 6th century BCE but was written in the 2nd century BCE, so all these “prophecies” predicted events that happened well before they were written about.  The safest prophecies are the ones you write down a few centuries after the events actually took place

Besides Rembrandt, the story of the writing on the wall has permeated popular culture in other ways.  Below is one example: the Feast of Belshazzar, as imagined by political cartoonist Herblock in 1956.  The men at the feast represent corrupt factions of the Teamsters Union and the Longshoreman’s Union, which at the time were being investigated for corruption by George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO.  Meany himself was “the writing on the wall”, threatening (and eventually bringing) indictments on corruption charges to both unions.  “Meany” sounds almost like “Mene”, so there’s the joke.


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