The hand, writing on the wall

The Hebrew Scriptures have some pretty cool stories that contain some really cool characters and memorable lines.  I’ve been studying the texts of the OT and NT and the Apocrypha, and Pseudipigrapha, and the literatures of neighbouring countries (Egypt, the Ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, and etc.) for so very long now, it’s tricky trying to single out what (and who) makes my absolute top of the pops of ancient literature.

I have resolved my love-hate relationship with the particular text(s) that served as the focus of my doctoral thesis- and I’m back to hanging out and having fun with my gnostics, in all their ‘heretical’ glory.  I’ve neglected the Egyptians and Mesopotamians a bit lately- after teaching about them for a few years running and visiting with them at the ROM on a weekly basis we all needed some time apart.

The NT and I remain estranged- there are still some residual hard feelings left over from my Master’s thesis, and, to be honest, I’m not sure that Saul of Tarsus and I will ever really see eye to eye on things.  The Revelation has a lot of fun stuff, but it’s being used all over the place lately (the Headless Horseman of the Apocalypse- on Sleepy Hollow, for e.g), so I’m feeling the over-exposure and forced interpretations more than a little bit right now.

My last new, not re-blogged, post- about our current selfie society- generated some great dialogue in the comments section, and led me to pull out the ol’ Old Testament and have a look back at the Book of Daniel (thanks, Susan!).

Now Daniel and I have always been buds.  He’s a guy you can really cheer for- and the book about him marks the real, canonical, beginnings of apocalyptic literature in the biblical worldview (I’d rather not get into an argument about whether or not the book belongs with the prophetic books or the writings.  Some day, perhaps, I’ll talk a bit about biblical prophecy being not so much- or at all- prophetic but very much about the social commentary of the time in which it was written- and therefore a type of early apocalypticism– but right now I’m grooving with Daniel.  Who belongs with the writings as a proto-apocalyptic).

Next to my gnostics, I love the apocalyptic peeps best.  Sometimes it’s like choosing a favourite from among two cherished children, so why choose?  They tend to overlap a fair bit anyway- hardly surprising since both arise out of discontent and disconnection with the society when the texts were written.

When people are pissed with the status quo things often get a little apocalyptic (it’s happening now, as a matter of fact).  Daniel- and the pseudonymous book about him- was a harbinger of a whole lot of discontent and attempts at change.  And it gave us one of the most interesting images of the whole bible.  In my humble opinion, anyway.

The narrative tells the story of Daniel, who, as a member of the Judean nobility, is serving some time in the service of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon.  He, and three of his pals, refused to succumb to the lures of the food and wine provided by their captors, and maintain the mandates of their heritage and religion, even while in exile.  They catch the eye of the king, who declares them to be superior to his own wise men at court and enlists them to his service.  Daniel soon gains a reputation for the accuracy of his dream interpretations, and, since Nebuchadnezzar (I love that name.  Just typing it makes me happy.  Saying it makes me smile.  I guess I was a Babylonian in a former life.  Or something) frequently needs his dreams analysed, he eventually appoints Daniel as his Chief Wise Guy.

While Nebuchadnezzar had his good qualities (like his name.  I love his name), he did steal the treasures of the Temple of Jerusalem (during the destruction of the city and the beginning of the Exilic Period) and brought them back to Babylon with him.  While Neb deals with his demons (7 years of crazy, living like a wild beast and all that) his son Belshazzar (although the Book of Daniel is the only source that lists Belshazzar as Neb’s kid- other historical sources list him as the son of Nabonidus- but we can let him be Neb’s son- no harm to the story) acts as co-regent, and then king in his own right.

One night Belshazzar and his noble friends throw a big party- and use the sacred vessels plundered from Solomon’s Temple as their pint glasses.  They make toasts to their gods- mainly inanimate deities- using Yahweh’s own sacred vessels.  Those of you who have read the Hebrew Scriptures up to this point in the continuing story have to realize that this is not a good idea.  Yahweh does not (generally) take kindly to his word, his people or his stuff being messed with.

To the horror of the collected party goers, a mysterious disembodied hand appears and starts writing on the wall.  Still reeling from the strange apparition, neither Belshazzar nor his assembled guests can figure out what the writing says.  He calls for Daniel to come and have a look.  Daniel, the superlative and Yahweh-favoured Chief Wise Dude, reads the words as Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin.  At first inspection they seem to be meaningless references to weights and measures, but Daniel interprets them as the verbs that correspond to the nouns: numbered, weighed, divided.

As such, he explains that god has numbered the days of Belshazzar’s kingdom and decided that they are at an end.  The kingdom (and its king) have been weighed and found wanting, so it will be divided between the Medes and the Persians.  Like now.  The interpretation is quickly realized, and that very night Belshazzar was killed and Darius the Mede became king.

Generally the story is used (‘the writing on the wall’, ‘the hand writing on the wall’, ‘Mene Mene’) to indicate imminent doom, originating in misbehaviour or inappropriate governance.  Those who attended the feast- and shared culpability for the bad politics and decisions- were able to see the hand as it wrote on the wall, yet were totally unable to understand the message that was being imparted.  The interpretation had to come from someone who wasn’t in any way responsible for the negative behaviours- or the misuse of the vessels and the sacrosanct ideology behind them.  Only Daniel was able to give warning and explain the impending collapse of the Babylonian kingdom by reading the writing on the wall.

Increasingly, these days and with the societies and systems of government that we have created and institutionalized, fewer and fewer people are able to see the imminence of danger as we continue headlong down a path that is becoming less and less equitable and more and more dictated by those who hold power.  That those in power were, ostensibly, chosen by the people (rather than through hereditary ascension, as in the Babylonian example), makes the systemic problems all the more glaring and frustrating.

We are not doing enough to hold our leaders to account (don’t even talk to me about the idiots of FN- who will STILL vote for that guy come next October.  As much as I despise name-calling, those who remain convinced that THAT guy is the best candidate for mayor, ARE idiots.  There is no other adequate descriptive word.  And I know LOTS of words) while they choose to ignore the disembodied hand and its message entirely.  Claims about improvements to the economy (while myriad citizens remain in situations of un/underemployment and the middle class continues shrinking while the divide between the haves and the have nots become more pronounced), to the housing market (as home ownership is increasingly an inaccessible pipe dream in most major Canadian cities), and the short-sighted politics that reflect immediate self-interest rather than long-term nationwide benefits… These things, as serious as they are, only scratch the surface of the current crises we are facing.

As I say over and over and over again, our myths- and their interpretations- have a whole lot of wisdom to offer, if we bother to take the time and pay attention to what those who came before us had to say.  Especially since we keep on making the same sorts of mistakes, driven by greed and one-upmanship and the ever-increasing need to hear ourselves speak (or yell) over the voices that might be offering an alternative (and better, more equitable) perspective.

In February 1964, as a response to the assassination of JFK a few months previously, a young lad named Paul Simon wrote a song.  The Sound(s) of Silence (the original title was plural) shares an enduring sense of futility and awareness of the dangers of silence- the problems that arise when people fail to effectively listen to and speak out about the cancers growing around us.

As we bow to our own neon gods, perhaps we need to take time to listen to this song- about to celebrate its 50th (!) birthday- a little more closely.  It might help us to see the hand and decipher the message it is continually writing on the walls that surround us.

And the sign flashed out its warning, in the words that it was forming

And the sign said, ‘the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls’

And whispered in the sounds of silence.

Mene Mene, my friends.  Take heed.  That hand is getting pretty emphatic with its messages.

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22 comments on “The hand, writing on the wall

  1. Rick says:

    The thing about Revelations is that it makes some good movie plots.

  2. You couldn’t have written a more enjoyable post for this navigator if you had tried. Bravo, Sir Cole.

    • colemining says:

      Well thank you kind Nav. It was fun to write. I do love the stories in Daniel. Lion dens and feet of clay and all that good stuff. AND it was my 100th post. THAT kind of sneaked up on me. Thanks for reading!

  3. bethbyrnes says:

    This reminds me of the Don Henley song ‘Learn to be still’. Similar sentiment. And of course, Joni Mitchell, Put up a parking lot…all along the same lines. I am a NT gal, myself. The last Christian died on the cross. Great post.

    • colemining says:

      If Don Henley was alive back in biblical times HE would have been one of the guys writing the stuff. Your equation between the two is spot on- same themes and same type of social commentary. Just slightly different media, is all. I respect your appreciation for the NT and its texts, but really, the OT has some GREAT stuff in there. Daniel and Job and Ecclesiastes… all full of wisdom and cool imagery. The theodicy? Not so much. Although it’s interesting to see the different ways that the writers justified the unjustifiable.
      Thanks for reading!

  4. Way out of topic, but do you think there are witches in Daniel’s time?

    • colemining says:

      There were certainly mentions of ‘witches’ (the King James Version, anyway) in biblical times (like the witch/wisewoman/medium of Endor in 1 Samuel who was commanded to summon the spirit of Saul) and that part of the ancient world had all manner of people who interpreted dreams, the stars, read entrails and tossed dice to determine the future.

      The time in which the Book of Daniel was set (but not written) includes the ascendency of the Persians and Medes- as mentioned at the end of the story of the writing on the wall. This resulted in the spread of the influence of Zoroastrianism (it’s ALL over the inclusion of more and more of an apocalyptic and dualistic worldview in the biblical texts). The followers/priests of Zoroaster have come, in common parlance, to be referred to as magi- for their abilities to read the stars and dreams and the like.

      Daniel certainly fulfilled the role of ‘wise man’ while captive in Babylon- ostensibly with the guidance of his deity, Yahweh. In the ancient world astrologers, diviners, mediums and those who claimed to be able to manipulate the elements were quite commonplace. In the worldview of the ancients, it was accepted that there were spirits- both bad and good- that could be coerced through ‘magical’ intervention, and, of course, an industry of people who claimed to be able to control these spirits arose out of this belief.

      Upshot of that too-long description? Yes, I would say that there were people- who some might describe as ‘witches’- in the time of Daniel.

      Thanks for reading- and for the question. I do love stuff about magic in the ancient world.

      • Wow, thank you for this very meaty answer. I also am attracted to that stuff, and there’s no better place to look for it than the ancient world (that and it also offers guides as what you’ve mentioned in your post–if only we know how to look). Again, thanks for indulging me!

      • colemining says:

        More than pleased to answer! I LOVE this stuff, and once a teacher, always a teacher, I guess. Thanks again for visiting!

    • Yes, to ditto colemining, the book of Daniel mentions diviners, magicians, astrologers. Witches not only fall in these occult categories, but have always been around.

  5. Ste J says:

    I always thought Mordecai didn’t get the credit he deserved, we need politicians like that now.

  6. […] passing through the Apocalypse (there’s that apocalypticism creeping in- societal discord seems to make that happen), Magog is ultimately defeated by the […]

  7. colemining says:

    Reblogged this on colemining and commented:

    Hello there strangers… Been a while…

    Between the extended recovery time that followed an awesome holiday (more on that to come), and a laptop that is down (and pretty much out- hoping to find a replacement this weekend) for the count, logging blogging time has been a little tricky of late.

    So… again with the reblog.

    While away I had the opportunity to take in the British Museum and to hang out with a whole bunch of ancient things and peeps I’d been reading about for decades. They have an outstanding collection from Mesopotamia and Assyria, and visiting my ancient friends called this post to mind.

    We are less than two weeks from a very important municipal election here in TO- one that I referenced way back when I originally wrote this post. The circumstances have changed a little- our current ‘mayor’ is unable to run again, so his brother has stepped in to drive the Ford Nation bus in its headlong rush to oblivion. If the rhetoric- from all three ‘viable’ candidates- since my return is any indication, I’m not sure that this election will institute the sea-change that is required to get this town onto the necessary footing to remedy the missteps that have been the norm for the past number of years, and to move forward with making the city livable and workable in the future.

    Let this be a reiteration of my Mene Mene. Positive forward momentum, while looking backwards and acknowledging our mistakes. THESE are the things that need addressing. Let’s DO this thing, TO.

  8. I always have interest in reading about my namesake. Being Jewish that interest doubles where דָּנִיֵּאל is concerned. I very much hope you will double down on a sequel and stretch out a bit more on the madness of Nebuchadnezzar. Thanks much for a good read. – Daniel

  9. I don’t know what I love best about this post, Cole. Your extensive knowledge of ancient history (not to mention the languages! good grief!); your interpretation of biblical passages based on that knowledge; the uncanny ability to make them relevant to the modern (shouldn’t that be what we are doing with them seeing as how we don’t actually live in the past?); the messages conveyed to the political world via the texts; the passion in your writing. Or maybe just the fact that you love certain words so much. 🙂 They are great aren’t they? And he does have a cool name. I rather like Melchizedek. And Methuselah.
    I love taking the bible stories (I teach them in school too) and turning them into poetry wth the kids then making a bit of a drama out of them with actions and voices that allow them to remember the stories and get the essence of the message without worrying too much about the historical accuracy. The kids are a dream to work with on them. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll remember the poems and therefore the tales that can be applied to their lives as they grow.
    So, no, I don’t know what I love best about the whole piece. Maybe because I love the whole piece. Great job. 🙂 x

    • colemining says:

      Lol. Thanks, Anne-Marie. Melchizedek is another of my favourites- AND he was at the centre of my doctoral thesis- have I told you that? My dissertation was on the ‘Melchizedek Apocalypse’ from Nag Hammadi- good ol’ Gnostic text that (arguably) says that Melchi (I call him Melchi) was an earlier incarnation of Jesus- the prototypical priest and first one to deliver the message about the ineffable originator of the universe. I love Melchi- but Nebuchadnezzar is still more fun to say…

      I love that you turn the myths into poetry! That’s exactly what we should be doing with these texts- passing them on for their core messages (assuming the core messages remain relevant in this day and age- not all do, of course) and worrying not-at-all about any perceived historicity and/or over-arching ideological ‘Truth’ behind them.

      I’ve done something of a patch-work fix on the laptop- hoping it will hold for a bit (at least until some of the vacation bills are paid). Fingers crossed! Will try to get some pictures organized over the weekend. Sad how dependent I’ve become on the computer! It stops working properly and I’m unable to write or get photos sorted. Jebus.

      Thanks for the read! xoxo

  10. I’ll look forward to the pics and hearing more about the rest of your holiday. If you’ve seen Nessie without me there’ll be hell to pay! She likes a proper intro. 🙂 I’m dying to know all the places you ended up visiting.
    Good luck with the computer situation. I know I’d be lost without mine. 🙂 x

    • colemining says:

      I know! It’s crazy how lost and bereft I feel without the stupid thing! Ah well. Not being able to write and organize holiday pictures and such has meant that I’ve been able to get lots of sleep and finally get over the plague I picked up in the vaults of Edinburgh.

      News on Nessie to follow… xo

  11. […] as a way of letting peeps know that I’m still around, I reblogged- weeks ago now, it seems- a little bit o’ something about some of the cool things that can be found in the OT Book of […]

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