How did Belshazzar die? What’s with the ghost hand? Isn’t this all a bit creepy?

The Addams Family, a popular comic-turned-television comedy, hit the airways across the United States on September 18, 1964. This show, along with a few others introduced common households to the very real concept of death; Exposing us to a family who is all but a bit too familiar with the concept. With names like Morticia, cousin IT, and Uncle Fester, the dark grimace of tragedy became humorous and helped take the sting away from the looming idea of dying, all the while providing a beautiful undertone of a life worth living to the fullest and not giving in to the societal stigmas life tries to place on us.

But this special, Halloween bonus episode isn’t about dark humor or old television shows though the Addams family does have a bit in common with where we are going. You see, The Addams family had a helper that could have been cast straight from the book of Daniel. He was a “hand-servant” if you will and his name was Thing T. THING. Thing was a dismembered hand that roamed about and performed services for the family; which ironically, is exactly what showed up to the party one fateful night in King Belshazzar’s courts in Daniel, chapter five. 

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Belshazzar, son of Nabonidus, was the current reigning king over the Neo-Babylonian empire in 556 BCE. One evening, Belshazzar threw a feast for all his wives, concubines, and the lords of his kingdom. A banquet was laid before them and wine flowed a plenty. But this party wasn’t lavish enough for the king. His wives and royal court officials deserved something unique: something no one else had ever partaken in so he ordered for the golden vessels, those stolen out of the temple of Israel to be brought to their table. They poured themselves a glass of red in the temple’s finest vessels and cranked the party up to 10.

As the party drew on into the night and all the Babylonian gods had been passed their blessings, things began to take a turn from fun and festive to down right freaky. This is the part of the story where to me, things start to get fun. A dismembered hand appeared in the banquette hall just opposite of the lampstand where Belshazzar and his guests where dining. Pen in hand, the ghostly appendage began writing out a prophecy for all to see.

the Bible goes on to say that king Belshazzar froze as he locked his gaze on the ghostly writer. His color changed and he began to grow faint and trembled causing his knees to knock together. Now, I can’t help but think of the classic Scooby-Doo cartoon when Scooby and Shaggy encountered literally anything out of the ordinary. Ironically, there’s been a fare share of ghostly hands in the Scooby-verse as well. Maybe that’s not the literary style the writers of Daniel were going for, but it works all the same.

The trembling king summoned all the enchanters and astrologers in his kingdom but none of them could decipher the writing that had been carved on the wall. About to give up, the king grew pale once more as fear settled upon his shoulders. But just as all seemed to be sinking into hopelessness and this was all a lost cause, in walked the queen who boldly declared she knew just the guy!

“His name is Belteshazzar”, the queen exclaimed. “He was once appointed as the wisest of men for being able to interpret the dreams of the once king, Nebuchadnezzar. Side note: it seems the Neo-Babylonian empire had a thing for names ending in ZZAR. So much so that when the once young Daniel came to be a servant to the king, they changed his name to the quite similar name, Belteshazzar. It seemed this was the man for the job so they summoned him to the king’s banquet hall and had him read over the haunted inscription left behind by the bodiless hand.

“It means your kingdom will be captured”, David decreed. “You, oh king Belshazzar, have lifted up yourself above the one true God and have not humbled your heart”. “You have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, and 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.”

David went on to read the writing and the prophecy began to unfold. MENE MENE TEKEL PARSIN: Interpreted these words mean that “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and has brought it too and end”. “ You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting”. “Your kingdom is decided and has been given to the Medes and Persians”. That very night, Darius the Mede took the throne after Belshazzar was killed.

The book of Daniel never goes onto say much about Belshazzar’s death. We know he perished, but the details are pretty vague. That is, until you take a look at some other great works of Jewish literature. There you can find the rest of this morbid and frightening tale.

In the Midrash, a method of Rabbinic exegesis retellings of certain classic stories from the Talmud, It is said that after the dismembered hand delivered its message, Belshazzar gave orders to his guards that no one should enter his chambers fearing someone might attempt to murder him while he slept. Fearing for his life, he wanted to ensure this prophecy did not come to pass.

But to what I can only assume was because of the copious gorging on food and wine, the king became ill in the night. He snuck out of his own room and down the back hallways of the palace to go and well, relieve himself from his over-consumption. How he managed to get past his guards and outside is beyond me but upon reentering he had a bit of a problem. He had declared to his doorkeepers that not one was to enter the palace, not even one dressed as the king himself. And since he snuck out, the guards had no idea if he was the true king or just a well placed disguise.

I’m sure it was dark and everyone was a bit on edge. So when king Belshazzar began to get a bit frustrated and maybe even a bit forceful, his guards, trying to defend the very king they were unknowingly quarreling with, drew out their swords and with one swoop, lobbed of the kings head. Off his shoulders and onto the ground the kings head rolled and just like that, the prophecy had now been given the room to come to pass. That just goes to show you: not only can your paranoia cost you an arm or a leg, it might just make you lose your head all together.

One final note to tie this all together. Remember how I mentioned the Thing from The Addams family? Well, originally Thing was supposed to be something much more creepy than a dismembered hand. He was supposed to be a dismembered head that rolled freely about the manor but that was dubbed too disturbing for tv at the time. And yet here we are with not just a dismembered hand but also a king losing his head as well. Who says that Biblical History is boring?

So next time you are out with your friends enjoying the evening of a lifetime remember: you never know what you might just see. Oh, and be sure to write it down because when God wants to speak, He will find a way. I mean, think about it: a ghostly hand with a knack for heavenly languages? you’ve gotta hand it to him on that one.

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