Mene Mene Mystery

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published June 03, 2005, issue of June 03, 2005.

Writing about the coming Israeli disengagement from Gaza in The New York Times on May 1, correspondent Steven Erlanger predicts that after the Gaza evacuation will come the turn of settlers on the West Bank. The latter, he writes, “see the writing on the wall — ‘mene, mene, tekel, upharsin,’ in the mysterious Aramaic phrase, which the prophet Daniel interpreted to mean that the kingdom would be divided.”

The biblical phrase from the Book of Daniel that Erlanger refers to is indeed mysterious and has — besides giving us the expression “the writing on the wall” and a number of well-known works of art and music, such as Rembrandt’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” and William Walton’s choral work by the same name — led to various interpretations. Those of you who do not read the Bible’s back pages, where Daniel is found, might know about Belshazzar from a song from the labor musical “Pins and Needles” that goes:

The King of Babylon, Belshazzar (2x)

He was a mean old razzledazzer

He never paid no income taxes

The big shot of the Babylon-Jerusalem Axis.

Mene, mene, tekel, tekel, tekel

Mene, mene, tekel

U-oo-pharsin.

Actually, the historical Belshazzar was neither the king of Babylon that the Book of Daniel presents him as nor — as he is also referred to there — the son of Nebuchadnezzar, Jerusalem’s conqueror and the destroyer of the Temple. Rather, he was the son and heir apparent of Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, Nabunaid, the last king of the Babylonian dynasty before it fell to the kingdom of the Medes and Persians. In the biblical story, written several centuries after this event, Bel-shazzar throws a royal banquet at which his guests are served wine from gold and silver goblets from the Temple’s plunder. Suddenly he sees a human hand appear out of thin air and write incomprehensible words on a wall of the banquet hall. When he agitatedly asks his counselors to explain these to him, they are unable to, and so he is persuaded to call for the Jewish wise man Daniel to interpret them.

Daniel arrives at the banquet, lectures Bel-shazzar on his father’s sins and on his own misdeed of partying with Temple vessels, and declares in Aramaic (which, the lingua franca of the late Babylonian empire, is the language that most of the Book of Daniel is written in): “This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom, and brought it to an end; Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

Daniel’s construing of the words on the wall, it must be said, is not entirely grammatical. While he has interpreted mene (pronounced meh-NAY) and tekel (teh-KAYL) as the past tense, masculine, third-person-singular forms of the Aramaic verbs for “to number” and “to weigh,” he has interpreted u’pharsin as the conjunctive u-, “and,” plus the dual plural of pras, “part” or “halve,” so that the writing as understood by him literally means: “[He] numbered, [he] numbered, [he] weighed, and two parts.” In terms of sentence structure this leaves something to be desired, although it might be quite reasonably pointed out that when it comes to cryptic wall inscriptions, clear sentence structure is not necessarily a prerequisite.

Biblical scholars, however, have pointed out that, curiously, there may be more to these words than Daniel professes to see in them.

To begin with, there is a possible pun on pharsin, which can mean not only “two parts” but also “two Persias” (Persia in Aramaic is Paras) — a reference to the Persian-Medean alliance that toppled Babylon. Yet beyond this, there is an entirely different way of understanding the writing on the wall — a numismatical one having to do with the fact that each of its words can be taken to refer to an ancient coin. A maneh in the period in which the Book of Daniel was written was a very large silver coin weighing slightly more than half a kilogram; a pras was half a maneh, and tekel is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew shekel, of which a maneh was worth fifty. Read this way, the scholars propose, our inscription would mean, “A maneh, a fiftieth of a maneh, and two halves of a maneh.” This would be more grammatical while also constituting a reference to the succession of rulers in the Middle East, in which the great king Nebuchadnezzar was followed by the lesser Belshazzar, who — Daniel now prophesies — will be replaced by the two halves, the Persian and Median, into which Babylon will be divided.

Yet if this is the meaning of the writing on the wall, why, you may ask, does Daniel not say so to Belshazzar? The answer to this may be that he does say it: Since ancient coins were worth their weight in gold or silver, there is really no contradiction between our two readings of the verse. The decrease in value from a maneh to a 50th of it is the same thing as being numbered, “weighed in the balance,” and “found wanting.” One way or another, Daniel is telling Belshazzar, he and his kingdom are doomed.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.



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