The empire of Babylon (the Neo-Babylonian empire) was built almost entirely around around one man – Nebuchadnezzar II. God used it to punish many nations – including Judah – but after seventy years, the time came for the end of Babylon.
This article has taken a very long time to write because of the uncertainty in archaeology, history and Bible interpretation. I take the Bible as my first basis for evidence, but often the Bible gives very little historical detail. This should be no surprise. After all, recording historical detail is just a side effect of the Bible’s goals of offering salvation and truth.
Many’s the time, however, that Bible believers have rejected discoveries of science, not because they were wrong, but because our understanding of the Bible was simplistic. The interface between science and the Bible can be difficult at times. Sometimes scientists and Christians can each jump to unwarranted conclusions about the other. I’ve been trying hard to avoid doing this regarding the historical setting of the book of Daniel.
If “Nabonidus” is a new name for a recovered Nebuchadnezzar, we need to explore how his reign proceeded and how that related to the end of the Neo-Babylonian empire which Nebuchadnezzar founded. The Bible doesn’t mention Nabonidus at all, but it does mention Belshazzar, who is believed to have been regent in Babylon for about 10 years during the reign of Nabonidus.
The idea that he was regent rather than sole ruler fits well with Daniel 5:7, where Belshazzar offers to promote the person who could read the writing on the wall to be the third ruler in the kingdom, which would be the best a regent could offer. When Daniel reads the writing, Belshazzar keeps his promise in Daniel 5:29.
However, the Bible does not tell us the length of time that Belshazzar “reigned” in Babylon, any more than it states the length of reign of any of the other rulers of Babylon.
Let’s start with the chronology of Babylonian kings from historians based on analysis of clay tablets and other inscriptions as well as the writings of ancient historians. Some of the discoveries are financial or contractual records that give dates relative to the reign of various kings, while others are reports of the activities of kings or other propaganda. Later evidence – normally written hundreds of years after the events – comes from the opinions of ancient historians of varying reliability. If these comments give the impression that all ancient history is based on shaky foundations, this is true – except, I believe, where the Bible is involved (which reports history that is accurate but incomplete).
In general, kings like to write themselves into history as admirable, while presenting their enemies as weak or untrustworthy. This behaviour is to be expected of human beings, but it makes accurate assessment of history impossible in places where the Bible is silent.
The kings who ruled over Babylon during this period and their timing according to Wikipedia are shown in the following table.
|Reign/regency over Babylon
|Amel-marduk / Evil-merodak
|Neriglissar / Nergal-sharezer
|Darius the Mede
|Cyrus the Great
The most significant point of conflict between this analysis of history and the records of the Bible regards Darius the Mede. This coincides with the point of this article, namely to examine the end of the Neo-Babylonian empire and the rise of the Medes and Persians. The Bible says a few things that relate to what happened at this time in history and how it developed.
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a huge statue is reported in Daniel chapter 2 with its interpretation. This described Nebuchadnezzar as the head of gold. About 5-10 years later, Jeremiah predicted that all nations would serve Nebuchadnezzar, his son and his grandson. After that, the time would come for Babylon to serve other nations (Jeremiah 27:7).
What would happen after the empire of Babylon?
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream told of a subsequent empire of silver, but gave no more detail.
Almost 200 years earlier, Isaiah had prophesied that the Medes would attack and conquer Babylon with help from Elam.
Jeremiah also made predictions about the sudden defeat of the empire of Babylon by a horde of great nations from the land of the north, some of whom he named: Media, Ararat, Minni and Ashkenaz.
Interestingly enough, Persia is not mentioned by name in either Isaiah or Jeremiah. Yet later it is coupled with the Medes on several occasions in Esther and Daniel.
Daniel shows that this silver kingdom has two parts when he interprets the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast. He explained that Babylon’s kingdom had been divided and given to the Medes and the Persians. The same message is presented in two visions seen by Daniel a few years earlier, one in Daniel 7 probably showing the empire of the Medes and Persians as a bear raised up on one side and the other in Daniel 8 showing a ram with two horns, one of which was higher than the other. In both cases, the raised or stronger part of the empire is probably the Persian side.
The book of Daniel reports that Belshazzar died later on the night of that feast and that Darius the Mede subsequently received the kingdom. Cyrus the Persian appears to be the next king. As the empire of the Medes and Persians progresses, later kings are described as kings of Persia, which demonstrates how the Persians rose to completely dominate the empire – as predicted.
Very early in the Medo-Persian empire, the presidents and satraps are jealous of Daniel and want to get him into trouble. They approach Darius the Mede and refer to the laws of the Medes and the Persians – putting the Medes first. We don’t know whether this was because of their historical preeminence or some other reason. Likewise in Esther 10:2, there is a reference to a book entitled “The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia”, although in all other paired references in Esther, Persia comes first, suggesting that by that time it was the leading partner.
All in all, these references suggest that Media may have had greater historic importance and taken the lead initially, but that Persia became the more important and powerful partner, possibly even before the conquest of Babylon was complete. For whatever reason, Darius the Mede became the first king of the Medes and Persians to rule over Babylon. He was 62 years old when he became king, and the book of Daniel only gives dates for events in the first year of his reign, so his reign may not been very long.
If Cyrus was, even during the reign of Darius, the overall ruler over the empire of Persia and Media, when would his rule be counted from? He had already been king over Persia for about 20 years before Babylon was conquered, yet Biblical references to him start from the first year of his reign. This probably refers to the first year in which he reigned directly and personally over Babylon – ignoring the previous years during which he had reigned over a growing Persian empire. Most likely, the counting of Cyrus’ first year began after the death of Darius the Mede. If Babylon was defeated in 539BC, Cyrus’ direct reign may have begun one to five years later.
One interesting possibility can be found by connecting this with the prophecies of Jeremiah in Jeremiah 25:11-12 and Jeremiah 29:10 that there would be a 70 year period during which many nations would serve Babylon. For Jerusalem, this would have ended in 535BC, 70 years after the first siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 605BC. Perhaps the “first year of Cyrus” began in 535BC!
Alternatively, the 70 years could have begun with the defeat and death of Josiah when Pharaoh Neco took over control of the kingdom of Judah in 609BC and appointed Jehoiakim as king. 539BC would be 70 years after this event.
|Isaiah 13:17-19; 21:2
|Jeremiah 50:3, 9, 41. “North” is probably relative to Babylon.
|Jeremiah 51:11, 28
|This happened shortly after the battle of Carchemish and Nebuchadnezzar’s accession to the kingship. After the conclusion of this siege, Daniel and his three friends were taken into captivity in Babylon along with many others.
|2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-2