As we have seen, D. W. Griffith gives us an image of an effete and dissolute Babylonian kingdom, destroyed by a combination of its own lassitude and the fierce warlike ambitions of the Persian King Cyrus. But this is not the picture of things that one would get from reading the Hebrew Bible. There we see the Babylonians as not just the conquerors of Israel, but also as the captors and enslavers of the Israelites.
And then — some time after they had been brought to the rivers of Babylon, where they sat and wept when they remembered Zion — a handful of Jews, the book of Daniel tells us, became key advisors to King Nebuchadnezzar. Now this is an interesting phenomenon in several respects. Let’s look at it more closely.
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.
This account raises many questions. For instance, it would be very interesting to know how many Israelite youths were recruited into this program; we only hear about four, but it seems likely that there were more. Did the rest wash out? Or are they not relevant to this story because — as Nebuchadnezzar surely hoped — they became assimilated into the Chaldean culture of Babylon, forgetting the ways of their ancestors and adopting those of their captors? As I wrote some years ago, it happens all the time.
In any event: through the rest of the book of Daniel we see Daniel serving as a counselor to the Babylonian kings, first Nebuchadnezzar and then Belshazzar. He performs his duties with grace and wisdom, and in so doing earns promotion for himself and king-mandated respect for the God of Israel. What makes his success surprising is simply that he always brings bad news: he repeatedly reads the kings’ dreams as foretellings of disaster, which they always prove to be. Is this the only time in recorded history when bearers of bad news got themselves promoted?
Things get strange right at the end of Daniel 5, when Belshazzar is killed and replaced by someone totally unknown to any other historian: Darius the Mede, who is the guy who drops Daniel into the lion’s den. By contrast, Herotodus — who is the primary source for Griffith’s Babylonian story in Intolerance, and even gets cited in a footnote on a title card, an honor granted to few other historians — tells us that the conqueror of Belshazzar’s Babylon is King Cyrus the Great of Persia, who finds a way to break into the great walled city and does so virtually unnoticed:
Now, if the Babylonians had only been given forewarning of what Cyrus was up to, or fathomed it for themselves, then they could have turned the entrance of the Persians into their city so completely to their own advantage as to have annihilated the invaders utterly. All they would have had to do was to secure the postern gates that open out onto the river and mount the low walls that run along its banks, and they would have had the Persians caught as if in a trap. As it was, however, the enemy was upon them before they knew what had hit them. Indeed, according to local tradition, such was the size of the city that those who lived in the centre of Babylon had no idea that the suburbs had fallen, for it was a time of festival, and all were dancing, and indulging themselves in pleasures; so that when they did finally get the news, it was very much the hard way. And that is the story of how, for the first time, Babylon fell.
But back to Daniel. After Daniel escapes unscathed from the lions, we’re told, “So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian” (6:28). But the rest of the book is devoted to describing a series of visions granted to Daniel: they are identified as happening in some particular year of some king’s reign, but they otherwise say nothing about what Daniel was doing.
Again, it would be nice to know more, especially given the portrayal of Daniel as an advocate for his people; because Cyrus is perhaps the first royal defender of religious freedom.
That’s the Cyrus Cylinder, now in the British Museum, which contains a lengthy proclamation by Cyrus detailing his power, his glory, and his various achievements. Among these last are his repatriation of conquered peoples and his restoration of their temples and cultic sites. Some overly enthusiastic folks in recent years have called the Cylinder an ancient declaration of human rights, but it’s nothing of the kind: to Cyrus his subjects have no rights; he’s celebrating his own beneficence towards people to whom he owes nothing.
The Cylinder doesn’t mention the Jews, but surely Cyrus’s claims for himself strongly support the picture given in the book of Isaiah and elsewhere of Cyrus as the liberator — indeed the messiah, the anointed one — of Israel, though the Cylinder certainly does not say that Cyrus liberated anyone in response to a commandment from the Lord. We need one more chapter of the book of Daniel telling us that it was Daniel who convinced Cyrus to act so generously. Alas, we have no way to connect those dots.
(FYI: I am reading and so far very much enjoying Matt Waters’s King of the World: The Life of Cyrus the Great. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t look much like a tolerant modern liberal.)
So, two pictures of the fall of Babylon: in the version given by Herodotus and endorsed by D. W. Griffith, the Babylonians (largely as a result of their inattentive decadence) fall to a mighty conqueror, a great man of war; in the version given in the Hebrew Bible, they fall because of their cruel domination of the children of Israel, and are replaced by a more generous sovereign who has been anointed by God to be the instrument of Israel’s liberation. But even in the book of Daniel the Babylonians are associated with gross luxury: their doom is announced, via the aboriginal “writing on the wall,” when “King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand” (5:1) — and then chose to drink wine from the sacral vessels stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps a step too far from YHWH to tolerate.
You and I, my friends — this is the theme and topic of these posts — live in Babylon. How do we thrive? By working our way into the halls of power, or by praying for deliverance? Or, perhaps, by some other means?