Chapter 15

Studies In The Book Of Daniel: A Discussion of the Historical Questions by Robert Dick Wilson





  Was Nebuchadnezzar mad? Can he have had such a madness as is described in the book of Daniel? Can he have been mad for as long a time as Daniel says he was? And may his kingdom have been preserved for him during the time that he was ill? Such are the main questions to be considered in the present chapter. Being no specialist in diseases of the mind, it will be necessary to cite medical authorities in answer to the question as to the possibility  of a madness such as the author of Daniel describes. As to the other objection made by the critics, it will be observed that in lieu of proof they have recourse to the old phrases “cannot” and “no proof needed to show incredibility.” Those of my readers who think that the bare opinion of any man is sufficient to show that an event recorded by an historian is impossible or incredible, need not take the trouble of reading farther than the objections stated below. Those who believe that proof is needed will find, if they read, that nothing either impossible or incredible has been recorded by the author of Daniel as having taken place. It will be further observed that the critics found one of their main objections upon an interpretation of one of the terms used by Daniel, —that, which is translated “times” in the English versions of Daniel 4:25. It will be shown that there is no foundation in

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the usage of language for the critics’ interpretation of this word as meaning “years”; but that even f this were the meaning of the word in this place, the history of Nebuchadnezzar, as far as it is known at present, does not render it impossible to believe that he may have been ill for seven years.

  The objections as made by the critics and the assumptions involved in them are as follows:


  “Nebuchadnezzar’s madness during seven years cannot be taken literally.”1 To which I add from Professor Cornill as follows: “No proof is needed to show the incredibility attaching to the supposed in capacity of this king for governing, owing to madness, for the space of seven years.”2

  The question then is, can Nebuchadnezzar have been mad for seven years? We might content ourselves here with quoting Dr. Driver’s excellent remark with reference to Nebuchadnezzar’s madness and “some other similar considerations.”

  Our knowledge [says he] is hardly such as to give us an objective criterion for estimating their cogency. The circumstances alleged will appear improbable or not probable according to the critic, upon independent grounds, has satisfied himself that the book is the work of a later author, or written by Daniel himself. It would be hazardous to use the statements in question as proof of the late date of the book; though, if its date were established on other grounds, it would be not unnatural to regard some of them as involving an exaggeration of the actual fact.3

1 See Jewish Encyclopedia, Art. Daniel.

2 See Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 385.

3 See Literature of the Old Testament, p. 500.

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But, for the sake of those who will not accept Dr. Driver’s very sensible remarks upon this subject, it may be well to consider the following assumptions that are involved in the objections.


  1. It is assumed that no man can have suffered from such a madness as that attributed to Nebuchadnezzar in the fourth chapter of Daniel.

  2. It is assumed that Nebuchadnezzar cannot have had such a malady for seven years.


  In this chapter we shall be confronted with the same kind of objections and assumptions that have been considered in the last. Professor Cornill is master of all the arts of debate. His pages on Daniel are as full of the words “no proof is needed,” “impossible,” “incredible,” as an illustrated manuscript of gold letter heads. several times on a single page is the word “impossible” employed by him to characterize the statements of Daniel; several times, the phrase “no proof is needed” to show their incredibility, obscurity, etc. It seems amazing how such a conglomeration of absurdities, such a congeries of impossibilities, should have befooled both Jew and Christian alike for 2000 years or more! Why could not their learned men at least have seen that such things were impossible? And if they are impossible, and if no proof is needed to show this impossibility, why is it that millions to–day, including some who have every right to claim an equality with Professor Cornill and his coadjutors in knowledge,

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wisdom, and grace, should still believe them possible? Is no proof needed to convince Professor Cornill’s opponents? Perhaps, he thinks, they are not worth trying to convince. Then why did he write his book? Perhaps he thins that the majority of people to–day will accept the opinion of a professor as they used to accept that of an emperor, or a council. And most likely the majority of his readers will. On behalf, therefore, of this majority that does not accept opinion as authority, as well as on behalf of the minority who demand proofs and are willing to abide by the evidence, I appeal from the critics’ opinion to the documentary evidence. The writer of Daniel, purporting to give contemporaneous testimony, says that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon was mad during a space of seven times. The critics, interpreting the word for “times” as meaning years, say this is impossible.

  In the discussion of this question, I shall consider—

  First, whether any man can have suffered from such a madness as that attributed to Nebuchadnezzar?

  It would be madness in one who is not a specialist in diseases of the mind to attempt to answer this question. After consulting with some of the most eminent specialists in the line of so–called insanity, and the reading of the best works on the subject that could be found in the libraries of Philadelphia, I have come to the conclusion that there is a general agreement among them as to the possibility of such a disease, or form of insanity, as that with which Nebuchadnezzar is said to have suffered. D. H. Tuke, in his Dictionary of Psychological Medicine, page 5, says that

 the complete loss of personal identity, and the conviction of being changed into one of the lower animals, accom–

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panied frequently by a corresponding belief on the part of the beholders, is one of the most remarkable facts which the psychological history of the race reveals.

In the article on Lycanthropy, page 752 of the same dictionary, he cites a well–accredited case of a man who imagined himself to be a wolf, and attempted to act like one, as late as 1852 A.D. The case is described at length by the sufferer’s physician, a French specialist of note named Morelle. Dr. Chapin, who was till lately at the head of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, defines insanity as a “prolonged change of a man’s ordinary way of thinking and acting, resulting from disease.” Dr. Chapin says that the best article upon the insanity of Nebuchadnezzar of which he knows is one by D. R. Burrell, M.D., of Binghampton, N. Y.,  in the American Journal of Insanity for April, 1894, pages 493–504. In this article, Dr. Burrell says among other things of interest bearing on our subject, as to which we refer the reader to the volume cited, that the fourth chapter of Daniel contains “one of the most beautiful and accurate descriptions of the premonition, the onset, the course, and the termination, of a case of insanity that is recorded in any language” (p. 504).

  Nothing can be truer to nature and the daily manifestations of the insane than the account of the recovery of the king; the coming out of chaos, or self–absorption; the return of understanding; and then a heart overflowing with thankfulness (id., p. 504).

  As to the king’s eating grass, he says: “He ate grass—in imitation of the animal he claimed to be—in imitation only—as those now who think they are animals eat in imitation of these animals, but sub–

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sist upon the food of man.” Dr. Burrell thinks, also, that the treatment afforded to the king was the best possible; and that he never forgot, during the long period of his mental confusion, that he was still Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (id., pp. 502–503).

  Resting this part of our case, then, with the testimony of these noted specialists, we proceed to the second question, as to whether Nebuchadnezzar can have had this disease for seven years. The medical experts, as we have seen above, raise no question as to the possibility of a man’s suffering from this form of insanity for seven years; but the historical critics have raised the question as to whether the monumental evidence permits us to believe that Nebuchadnezzar can for seven years have been incapacitated from directing the affairs of state. Before entering upon the discussion of this subject from the historical point of view, we want to express our dissent from the statement made by Dr. Burrell in his article on “The Insane Kings of the Bible,” cited above, to the effect that “the king may have thought he was an ox, but may have been perfectly sane on other matters.” While we would not dogmatically deny that an interpretation of the Aramaic imperfect forms of the verbs found in verses 31 and 33 as frequentatives rather than inceptives, might allow of this view; nevertheless we are decidedly of the opinion that the translation of the English versions is correct, and that the writer meant us to understand that Nebuchadnezzar had not merely a monomania, or craze on one point, but that he was rendered completely incapable of conducting the government. What other sense can be put upon the words, “The kingdom is departed from thee”?

  With regard to this question, then, it may be said:

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  (1) That the translation “seven years” is possible, but is not necessarily correct. he word rendered “years” is not the ordinary word for year (shana), but a word which means merely a fixed or appointed time (‘iddan or ‘adan). It seems to be a word of Babylonian origin, meaning “fixed time,” and is equivalent often to the Greek kairos. In R. C. Thompson’s Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon, number 251, Rev. 3–6, we read, “let not the king go into the street on an evil day, until the time (‘adan) of the omen has passed. the omen of a star lasts for a full month.”1

  To be sure, the old version of the Seventy renders this passage by “seven years”; but the version of Theodotion has “seven seasons” (kairoi), the Latin Vulgate has tempora, and the Arabic has “times” (’azminatin).

  But even if it be insisted upon that it should here be interpreted as meaning “seven years,” why can it not be taken literally? The only sources of information as to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar which we possess outside the Scriptures, are some contract tablets, some building inscriptions, one historical inscription, and six or more sources belonging to profane history, all of these last sources coming to us at second hand. Thus, Josephus cites (1) “the archives of the Phenicians” as saying concerning Nebuchadnezzar that he conquered all Syria and Phenicia and began the siege of Tyre in his seventh year and continued the siege for thirteen years; (2) Philostratus, as mentioning in his history the siege of Tyre for thirteen years; (3) Megasthenes, as pretending to prove in the fourth book of his Indian History that Nebuchadnezzar was superior to Hercules in

1 “Sharru a–na su–u–ḳu la uṣ–ṣa–a (4) adi a–dan–shu sha it–ti (5) it—ti–ku (6) it–ti sha kakkab a–di arah ume.”

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strength and the greatness of his exploits, and as saying that Nebuchadnezzar conquered a great part of Libya, and Iberia also; and (4) Diocles, as merely mentioning Nebuchadnezzar in the second book of his Accounts of Persia. To these many may be added (5) the accounts which Josephus has taken from Berosus, and (6) those which Eusebius has taken from Abydenus. These last two both refer to the illness of Nebuchadnezzar, but give us no note of time (none at least as to the length of the illness) though they do implied it occurred near the end of his reign.

  The contract tablets give us no facts as to the private or public life of Nebuchadnezzar, except to imply that the regular machinery of government at Babylon ran on uninterruptedly throughout his reign. This implication is gathered, however, from the fact that the tablets are dated continuously throughout every one of the 43 years of his reign, from 604 to 561 B.C., and not from any direct allusions to the political events of the time.

  According to Langdon, there is but one of the building inscriptions that should be put between 593 and 580 B.C., and only three between 580 and 561. The one historical inscription which we possess records the invasion of Egypt in the 37th year of Nebuchadnezzar, that is, in 567 B.C. Before the expedition to Egypt took place, Nebuchadnezzar may, for all we know from the monuments and other sources, have been incapacitated for seven years through insanity. It might be well to note, also, that in addition at the beginning of the Septuagint version of the fourth chapter of Daniel, it is said that the dream occurred in the 18th year of Nebuchadnezzar, that is, in 586 or 587 B.C. As the insanity is said to have commenced a

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year later (Dan. 4:29), this would make the disease to have extended from 586 (5) to 580 or 579 B.C. No known objection can be made to these dates.

  It is marvelous how much Bertholdt and others have made out of the fact that Berosus does not expressly and precisely mention the madness of Nebuchadnezzar. In the excerpts from Berosus which have been preserved for us in Josephus and Eusebius, it is said that Nebuchadnezzar “having fallen into weakness died.” While we would not argue from this phrase, as Hengstenberg did, that Berosus thus, euphemistically as it were, refers to the madness of Nebuchadnezzar; yet, on the other hand, it is absurd to assert that, inasmuch as Berosus, in the few words concerning Nebuchadnezzar which have come down to us, does not state expressly that Nebuchadnezzar had been mad, that therefore he never was mad. Even if it were true, as Bertholdt asserts, that Berosus knew nothing of his madness, this would not prove that he had not been mad. For it is almost certain that the Babylonian sources from which Berosus derived his information would contain nothing about this great calamity. People never have on their monuments, and very few in their records or autobiographies, the records of their vices, crimes, or weaknesses. De Quincey and Rousseau, each for a reason best known to himself, portrays in fine literary style what most men would conceal, even if true. Cowper, in order to exalt the greatness and goodness of God, refers in one of his poems to his madness, just as Nebuchadnezzar is said to have done to his. But the weaknesses of our friends and of great men are mostly interred with their bones, and we speak no ill of the dead. One would search in vain for a tombstone recording that the inmate of the sepulcher had been for seven times

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(years or months) in an insane asylum. Berosus, writing a history of his own country—for according to Josephus “he was by birth a Chaldean”—would naturally want to soften down the character of the calamity which had befallen the greatest of the Chaldean kings. His negative testimony, therefore, must be discounted, and, in an euphemistic manner of speech, his phrase “having fallen into a weakness” may well have referred to his madness.

  But says Bertholdt again,

is it credible that without any scruple, or any fear of a relapse, such as according to common experience in diseases of this kind most frequently occurs, they would have entrusted to the hands of a man that had for many years been bereft of his reason the reins of government, and therewith the lives of many millions of persons?…

  If Nebuchadnezzar became crazy through discontent (Unmuth) and distraction, what wonder that he did not commit suicide!1

  The first assumption here is that the word for time must mean year; but we have seen above that it means simply a fixed time, and that in Assyrian it is defined in one case at least as meaning a month. It is to be said also, that, as Calvin says, their opinion is probable who think that the number seven is indefinite, i.e., until a long time had passed.

  The second assumption is that insane persons are wont to commit suicide; whereas, as everyone knows from his own knowledge of the insane, but a very small proportion of them desire to commit suicide.

  The third assumption is that the government may

1 Comm. on Dan., pp. 301–302.

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not have been carried on for him during his period of insanity. according to verse 36 (33 in Aramaic) his counselors and lords began to consult him again, as soon as his reason began to return. This implies that they had conducted the government without consulting him, so long as he was incapacitated by his disease.

  The fourth assumption is that an insane person would necessarily be deposed. Such a deposition has happened at times in the history of the world, that it is true; and even a violent deposition resulting in the death of the ruler, as in the case of Pail of Russia. But how about the Cæsars, and George III of England, and King Louis of Bavaria, not to mention a dozen or more others who may most charitably and reasonably be adjudged to have been insane, and that not in an innocuous sense, but violently and outrageously and homicidally insane? May not a regency have been deemed preferable to an Evil–Merodach, or to possible anarchy?

  The fifth assumption is that an insane person would be looked upon and treated in ancient Babylon as such an one might possibly be treated in modern Europe. But we must remember that in antiquity a king was often looked upon as a god and insanity as possession by a god.

  We must not be surprised [says Eusebius] if the Greek historians, or the Chaldeans, conceal the disease, and relate that he was inspired, and call his madness, or the demon by which he was possessed, a god. For it is the custom to attribute such things to a god, and to call demons gods.1

1 Chron. Arm., p. 61.

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In accordance with this belief we can understand why Abydenus relates that the Chaldeans said that Nebuchadnezzar having ascended to the roof of his palace became inspired by some god. But not only insane kings, but all kings, were considered in many countries to be divine. So it was with the kings of Egypt. So, also, with the Seleucid kings of Babylon. Because of these beliefs, probably, the subjects of Cambyses so long endured his raging manias.

  The sixth assumption is that he would not be permitted to resume his royal functions and glory, if at any time his normal sanity were restored. We would like to know who would have, or could have, attempted to prevent him from resuming his power. To maintain that he would have been thus prevented, we must assume that he was hated or feared by his subjects to such an extent as to have caused them to rebel against his authority. Why then would they not have rebelled and killed him like a mad dog while he was still insane? Having spared him while helpless, we judge that they would not resist him after his reason had returned. Nor do we judge that then any more than now, the physicians can have been positively certain that one attack of insanity would inevitably be followed by another. Of one thing at least we may be certain, that no physician of that day would have thought of advising that Nebuchadnezzar should be excluded from taking up again the reins of government. If one had so advised, it is probable that he would have been hanged higher than Haman!


  From the above discussion it is evident that the madness of Nebuchadnezzar may be taken literally;

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that he may have been mad for seven years, or times; and tat proof is needed to show the incredibility alleged as attaching to his supposed incapacity for governing.

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Home Up Chapter 16

Studies In The Book Of Daniel: A Discussion Of The Historical Questions by Robert Dick Wilson. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, 1917.

E-Text transcribed from the 1917 edition.

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