Nebuchadnezzar Was a Good Guy

So why was it God depicted Nebuchadnezzar as the golden head of the statue in Daniel’s vision?

Some things are obvious. The most popular answer from Western Christians is that Neb was simply fulfilling God’s plan. He had utility and played his part. And we also have that time when he went mad as punishment against his fleshly pride, and repented by humbling himself before God (Daniel 4). I note in passing that the Babylonians were unique in not boasting of their military conquests. We have precious few records of their martial exploits; it seems they frowned on such pride. The Sumerian Empire, which the Babylonians admired so much, provides a clue where that comes from, referring in official inscriptions only to their monarch’s piety and building programs, despite external records of major military conquests.

What we do have is a strong record of Babylonian libraries, a penchant they picked up from their Assyrian predecessors, who in turn had taken much from the more ancient Sumerians. Most of what we have today from Assyria and Sumer is found in the remnants of Babylonian possessions. We also know from these records that Daniel’s training for imperial court service included studying a lot of this stuff. We have a rough outline of his degree program, which included: language and literature, history, mythology, math and science, and administrative procedures. But it was more than a mere course in culture; Daniel had to learn to think like a Babylonian. More to the point, he had to understand his employer, Nebuchadnezzar.

You can get a decent introduction to Babylonian learning from Western academic sources. What would be exceedingly difficult to find is someone who can teach you what it would all mean to a Babylonian of that era. What we do understand is that the Babylonians themselves would insist you can’t get it without a certain broad outlook, an underlying approach to reality itself. Precious few Western scholars can help you with this. Oddly, those who know it best tend to be somewhat careful sharing it, because of the basic hostility they endure from the inveterate fans of Western Civilization. Once you really grasp the Ancient Near Eastern outlook, you find yourself pulled into that world, and no longer at home in the West.

Keep in mind: This is the world of Abraham and Daniel, among many other biblical heroes of faith. Daniel and his Hebrew pals didn’t struggle much because we know of a certainty that it wasn’t so radically different from their own Hebrew approach to things. Not in the peculiarities of revealed religious truth, but they shared in the broader intellectual background, those basic assumptions about reality. The Babylonians were part of the heart-led ancient past, same as the Hebrews.

In the passage in Daniel 4, the prophet is careful to note that Nebuchadnezzar was restored by praising God as he knew him, an ancient name we generally anglicize as El Elyon — “the Most High God.” Neb didn’t call Him “Jehovah” (or Yahweh) as the God of Israel; Daniel made that connection. So Neb clearly remained pagan, in the sense that he didn’t convert to serving Jehovah. This is the man God referred to as the golden head of the statue in Neb’s own dream, the same dream later revealed to Daniel. The whole business of how someone could recognize a dream as a divine revelation, and not be able to recount it, is itself a part of ancient lore Westerners find incomprehensible. It comes off as miraculous mumbo-jumbo. But to someone who understands the Ancient Near Eastern approach to life and reality, it’s not at all surprising. Two men could have the same dream if they shared a cultural background, plus a certain kind of moral receptivity and a sense of divine calling.

That was the objective of Daniel’s Babylonian education, to share a frame of reference consistent with his earthly master. And the whole objective for any Babylonian man’s delving into the ancient literature was to open up a higher faculty of moral reasoning not restricted to mere intellect. Daniel and his pals got that faculty as a component of their Hebrew faith; it was built into their religion. Theirs was due to a clear revelation from the Creator of all things. Babylonians had to wade through a lot of crap contained in ancient literature in hopes that some clue would seize them and make them able to see from that higher perspective.

Despite his pagan orientation, Nebuchadnezzar was enough heart-led to see in terms of moral truth and be used by God. We can see that he struggled to pass on this depth of moral vision to his heirs. The end of the Babylonian Empire saw the throne passed through increasingly incompetent hands until Belshazzar, who wasn’t even related to Neb, so far as we can ascertain. Belshazzar’s father was a decent soldier, seizing the throne by assassination, but had no talent for rule. We note that Daniel says the golden head of the statue is Nebuchadnezzar himself, not his dynasty.

Nebuchadnezzar’s moral probity in God’s eyes is hard to grasp from a Western viewpoint. The Babylonian sense of moral value conflicts with those of the West. But apparently Babylon’s was a lot closer to the Hebrew’s version of morals. This is why we cannot hope to understand what God calls “moral righteousness” unless we take the time to dig into the culture and orientation of the Ancient Near East.

About Ed Hurst

Disabled Veteran, prophet of God's Laws, Bible History teacher, wannabe writer, volunteer computer technician, cyclist, Social Science researcher
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6 Responses to Nebuchadnezzar Was a Good Guy

  1. Iain says:

    A list of reference materials would be right handy, as some of the stuff I’ve read only analyses through the lens of WC which, for me is only useful for names, dates and who killed who. I call it digital strikin’ paper (toilet paper).

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  2. Ed Hurst says:

    What you can find online will be divided mostly into two groups: (1) Those who love Western Christianity and (2) those who don’t take the Bible seriously. I have yet to find any sources that take the Bible seriously from a non-Western viewpoint. That means you’ll have to wade through a lot crap no matter which way you go. In general, your search term will be “Akkadian Literature.” There’s nothing much wrong with Wikipedia on this stuff. Their account of Babylonian history is okay, with a framework of who’s who and when stuff happened. It shows how sketchy things are.

    I used DuckDuckGo as my search engine. The analysis of Akkadian Literature would take years to read. You’ll find that the centerpiece is the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the best preserved pieces of literature from that context. You can start with a Western analysis because nobody else will write it in English for us: Brittanica has some decent stuff you can probably understand. An awful lot of material is in French, German, etc., and only some of it is translated into English. Online translation might work, but it’s pretty muddy reading using a built-in translator like Google Chrome or Slimjet browser. You can get used to it after awhile, but it’s slow going at first. On the other hand, a few sources have been trying to do it for you, like Leipzig University. You can actually read the literature in English. It’s part of a big project involving other universities.

    This whole background is stuff I covered decades ago before the Internet. If you can find a really decent college library, you’ll get stuff that may never be visible on the Net. However, newer research is always on the Net. But the bottom line is not what you can know from all of these sources, but whether you can absorb the bigger picture of ancient heart-led culture. You have to read between the lines and pick up on things those people assumed everyone would know. Their basic worldview was so very different from the West. I don’t recall all the details of what I studied years ago; sometimes I have to look it up again online. But I’ve never lost that strange shift in outlook that I got from reading it, bringing us very close to Daniel’s education.

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  3. Iain says:

    Appachian State University is 13 miles from my house. I’d have to check, but I doubt they allow the public free access but, when I go to apply for a job, I’ll ask them. As to your other suggestions, I’ve tried some of them, trusting the Spirit to guide my heart in reading between the lines, that and my knowledge of western thinking. Never heard of the Leipzig U reference so I’ll check that out. I listened to the epic of G on audio alone in the dark laying on the bed and was able to use my vivid imagination to picture myself as an ancient nomad listening to a storyteller around a campfire and it occurred to me that a young Abram would have grown up hearing these tales. As far as Gilgamesh preceding Noah, I believe it’s the other way around, just because the cuneiform tablets are older doesn’t prove anything. Archeologists find ever more ancient Hebrew scribblings regularly, we don’t hear much about that because it doesn’t fit their template.

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  4. Ed Hurst says:

    Quite correct on Noah vs. Gilgamesh. Noah as we have it in the Bible was long removed from the original event; what Moses put in Genesis is the version God said we needed to hear, taken from a large body of conflicting oral traditions.

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  5. Jay DiNitto says:

    Not so much anymore, but hearing stuff like this, and things like the account of Jesus proclaiming the centurion’s faith as “greater than all of Israel” would really mess with my head. Granted, that statement of Jesus was something of a hyperbole, but imagine Billy Graham saying that about a sketchy politician. A lot of Christians would be up in arms about that; maybe even me.

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  6. Ed Hurst says:

    It comes down to: Where are you standing when you say it? Context is everything.

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