August 3, 2021

Reading Daniel In the Dirt

Exciting testimony from the dirt

Patrick Mazani

The book of Daniel continues to excite believers because of its focus on the end-times. The first part of this two-part book relates Babylonian court stories; the second part deals with religious and political developments from the time of King Nebuchadnezzar to the end of world history. The recurrent theme of Daniel is the chronological succession of world empires from Babylonian times onward until they are displaced by God’s kingdom. Through ages of dirt, archaeology has provided artifacts that increase our understanding of the world of the book and consistently affirm its historicity. Among the areas of its faith-building contributions are the book’s language and dating, its geographic references and personal names, its reflection of life and times in Jerusalem, and its depiction of Jewish identification and status in captivity.

Language and Dating

The book of Daniel was first written in two languages. Chapters 1:1-2:4a and 8-12 were written in Hebrew, while 2:4b-7 were in Aramaic. Scrolls discovered at Qumran present the Hebrew and the Aramaic parts of the text of Daniel just as they appear in other ancient texts. The book of Daniel also includes scattered Akkadian, Greek, and Old Persian words. Daniel’s prodigious linguistic skills and administrative experience in national and international affairs are evident. The idea of two languages in one document is not unusual. Ancient, recovered texts featuring multiple languages include the life-size statue of Hadad-yith’i, ruler of Guzana in mid-ninth century B.C., found in northern Syria, and written in both Akkadian and Aramaic.1 Also, the trilingual inscription in Aramaic, Greek, and Lycian found in the sanctuary of Leto at Xanthos in 1973.2 The widely familiar Rosetta Stone inscription was written by Egyptian priests in 196 B.C. in classical Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic, and classical Greek.3

Some have argued that the book of Daniel is historical fiction, a prophecy written after the fact, around 165 B.C., to console the Jewish people who were being persecuted by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.4 Their claim that the Aramaic used in Daniel belongs to the second century B.C. has been contradicted by studies showing that the book’s Aramaic and syntax belong to the sixth century B.C. and are of Babylonian origin.5 Misplaced dating of Daniel results from inadequate use of archaeology. More and more archaeological evidence shows that the book is a unified whole, composed much earlier than their popularized suggestions.6 The author of Daniel had unique information and must have lived during the time period he wrote about.

Of Places and People

Disputes over history in the book of Daniel include doubts about everything from geography to humans, e.g., the Ulai waterway, the Great Sea, Belshazzar the king, Darius the emperor. Only the last of these, Darius, the Mede, remains without convincing archaeological testimony to the accuracy of the book of Daniel.

The Ulai, where Daniel had the vision of a ram and a male goat (Dan. 8:2, 16), was said to be nonexistent. We now possess a bull inscription found at the palace in Nineveh that records the battle of Sennacherib, king of Syria (704-681 B.C.), against some Chaldeans “by the Ulai, a river whose bank was good.”7

The Great Sea, so named by others beside Daniel (Num. 34:6, 7; Joshua 9:1), has been dismissed as mythic in Daniel 7:2, 3. But a foundation stone laid by Shamashi-Adad I (c. 1808-1776 B.C.), king of Asshur and Old Babylonia, identifies Lebanon as a land of the shore of the Great Sea.8 A broken slab found at Calah is inscribed with Adad-Nirari III’s (810-783 B.C.) expedition to Palestine. It identifies his area of conquest to stretch from the Great Sea of the rising sun (Persian Gulf) to the Great Sea of the setting sun (Mediterranean Sea).9 Daniel was well acquainted with the geography of the places he writes about. Their mention in other ancient texts highlights the veracity of the biblical text.

King Belshazzar was considered by many scholars as a fictitious figure.10 This mindset was undone by, among others, the discovery of a Babylonian tablet dated about 559 B.C., identifying the person of Bel-shar-utsur (Belshazzar). Insistence that this person is erroneously identified as Nebuchadnezzar’s son (Dan. 5:11, 18, 22), or king of Babylon (verses 1, 9, 30; see also Dan. 7:1; 8:1), is contradicted by many inscriptions discovered by archaeologists that show Nabonidus, king of Babylon (556-539 B.C.), as the biological father of Belshazzar.

Belshazzar seeing the writing on the wall as depicted by Rembrandt.

Discovered inscriptions now explain both Belshazzar’s status as king (Dan. 5:1ff.) and as son of Nebuchadnezzar (verses 11, 12). The Harran Inscriptions of Nabonidus say that Nabonidus, king of Babylon, was in Tema, Arabia, for 10 years while his son Belshazzar was in charge at Babylon.11 Recovered Assyrian records tell of Sennacherib, king of Assyria (704-681 B.C.), who appointed Bel-ibin, a Babylonian raised in Nineveh, to be king over Babylon in 702 B.C. These records also show Ashur-nadin-shumi, his son, was appointed to the same post in 699 B.C.12 With regard to his identification as Nebuchadnezzar’s son, overwhelming evidence from across the ancient Near East show that it was standard procedure for rulers to express or be described as descendants of their predecessors, regardless of genetic linkage. The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III calls Israel’s King Jehu Omri’s son, even though Jehu had no relationship with Omri. Kings often called themselves “son” of their tribe’s or nation’s legendary ancestor. Biblically, many kings of Judah are referred to as son of King David, including Hezekiah, son of Ahaz (2 Kings 18:1, 3), and Josiah, son of Amon (2 Kings 21:25; 22:2). Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, is David’s son (Matt. 1:20), as is Jesus Himself, in Matthew’s genealogy (verse 1); in the desperate cries of calamity’s victims—a Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:22), blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46, 47); in the ecstatic shouts of His coronation crowd (Matt. 21:9). “Son of” applies to genetic categories, royal aspirations, international political identifications, and character equivalency—“sons of Belial” (see Judges 19:22; 1 Sam. 2:12). Disputes over Belshazzzar’s title of “son of Nebuchadnezzar” are among the weakest arguments ever levied against biblical historicity. With Nebuchadnezzar as Babylon’s ruler without equal, it is not the least surprising that Belshazzar is called his son, whether after he ascended to the throne or in order to gain legitimacy to the throne.

Finds in Jerusalem and Egypt

Excavations in and around Jerusalem have supported the text of Daniel in exciting ways. They show massive fire damage caused by the Babylonians when they destroyed Jerusalem. The main attack was on the northern side of the city, at a vulnerable part of the defense system. Many Babylonian arrowheads have been found in a tower that was part of the defense system just north of the city. A possible archive or public office had 51 inscribed seals with identifiable names, including that of Gemareyahu ben Shapan, the scribe who had chambers in Jehoiakim’s court in 604 B.C. (Jer. 36:9-12, 25). An assemblage of bones, once analyzed, shows that domestic animals were the source of meat, along with wild game and chicken. The lack of pig bones and other nonkosher animals around Jerusalem not only inform us about the diet then, but show that the population was Jewish.13

Regarding the coming of the Messiah, Daniel 9:25 states that Jerusalem “shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time” (ESV)
.14 Ancient cities had a square or plaza as a social, business, and administrative center just inside the city gate. In Jerusalem, squares were found before the Water Gate (Neh. 8:1, 3, 16), next to the Gate of Ephraim (verse 16), and near the Temple (Ezra 10:9). The moat or trench was a defense apparatus dug at vulnerable places outside the city wall to provide security. Several such moats have been found around the walls of Jerusalem.

Correspondence from Elephantine in Egypt provides clear confirmation of Daniel 9:25, for it shows that by 408 B.C. Jerusalem had been built, marking the end of the 49 years since the decree of Artaxerxes I in 457 B.C., as predicted in Daniel 9:25.15

Life in Captivity

In 598 B.C. King Jehoiachin, with his wives, children, and mother, were taken captive (2 Kings 24:15). A record of Jehoiachin’s food rations from Babylonian texts casts direct light on Jeremiah’s report of the king’s captivity (verse 15; Jer. 52:31-34):

“10 (sila) to Ia-ku-ú-ki-nu [i.e. Jehoiachin], the son of the king of Ia-ku-du (i.e. Judah)

“2½ sila for the 5 sons of the king of Judah (Ia-ku-du) through Qana’a [. . .].”16

Other Bible writers reflect the times of the book of Daniel on which the book itself does not say much (Jer. 29:1-15; also Eze. 3:15; Ezra 2:59), and the archaeological finds show consistency with the biblical picture. A 498 B.C. administrative text was published from a place called “Judahtown” (Babylonian āl-Yāūdu).17 Hundreds of tablets discovered in Nippur in 1893, known as Murashu Tablets, from the century after Daniel, the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, show Jewish names on documents as principals, contracting parties, tax collectors, bankers, and brokers.18 These recovered texts show that Judean seals bear no pagan impressions or symbols. Judean documents were not issued on Saturdays or Jewish holidays, and contain no oaths to foreign gods. While in captivity, the Jewish community, for the most part, maintained its religious heritage and practice as demonstrated in the archaeological finds, reminding us of the faithfulness of Daniel and his friends in the book by his name.

Archaeological finds help us in the dating and interpretation of the book of Daniel. They also provide the history and cultural setting of the world of Daniel. In a remarkable way, these artifacts can increase our understanding of the book of Daniel as the sure Word of God.


  1. A. R. Millard and P. Bordreuil, “A Statue From Syria With Assyrian and Aramaic Inscriptions,” Biblical Archaeologist 45 (1982): 135-141.
  2. T. R. Bryce, “A Recently Discovered Cult in Lycia,” Journal of Religious History 10 (1978): 115-127.
  3. E. A. Wallis Budge, The Rosetta Stone (London: British Museum, 1955), pp. 1-8.
  4. John J. Collins, Daniel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), p. 25.
  5. Kenneth A. Kitchen, “The Aramaic of Daniel,” in Notes on Some Problems in the Book of Daniel, ed. D. J. Wiseman et al. (London: Tyndale, 1965), pp. 31-79; see also Zdravko Stefanovic, The Aramaic of Daniel in the Light of Old Aramaic (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992).
  6. See Patrick Mazani, “The Book of Daniel in Light of the Ancient Near Eastern Literary and Material Finds: An Archaeological Perspective” (PhD dissertation, Andrews University, 2008).
  7. D. D. Luckenbill, The Annals of Sennacherib (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1924), p. 75, lines 87, 88.
  8. William W. Hallo, and K. Lawson Younger, Jr., The Context of Scripture (Boston: Brill, 2003), vol. 2, p. 259.
  9. James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts: Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 281.
  10. Arguments for this view are summarized in Raymond P. Dougherty, Nabonidus and Belshazzar (Eugene, Oreg.: WIPF & Stock, 2008), pp. 11-15.
  11. A. K. Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2000), p. 106.
  12. Charles Boutflower, In and Around the Book of Daniel (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1977), p. 118.
  13. Abra Spiciarich, “The Jerusalem Diet,” Biblical Archaeology Review 44 (2018): 43.
  14. Texts credited to ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  15. See “Correspondence From Elephantine in Egypt,” Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 491, 492.
  16. Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 308.
  17. Laurie E. Pearce, “How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?” Biblical Archaeology Review 42 (2016): 52.
  18. Ran Zadok, The Earliest Diaspora Israelites and Judeans in Pre-Hellenistic Mesopotamia (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 2001), pp. 11-80.

Patrick Mazani is a district pastor in the Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Patrick Mazani
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