The Writing on the Wall

26 09 2006

In Daniel 5, a curious incident occurs.

King Belshazzar, the (apparant¹) successor to Nebuchadnezzar, throws a feast for all of his notables. At this feast, Belshazzar brings in the treasures of the Judean Temple that his father had confiscated during his conquest of Jerusalem and uses them to praise the “gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone”. This delightfully decadent display is interrupted, most unfortunately for the frightened king, by a disembodied hand that appears out of nowhere and writes a cryptic message on the wall. Nobody can read it: neither the king himself nor any of the sages in his employ. The queen, however, offers a solution: call for Daniel. Daniel is wise, Daniel is modest and (best yet) Daniel is a Judean exile. Nothing surprising here, considering the ethnicity of the book’s author.

Daniel takes a look at the writing, declares his praise for God, and sets about translating it. Until now, the reader/listener has not been informed of what the writing says. Daniel is the first person to tell us this cryptic message, and he provides us with the interpretation straight away. That message, along with its interpretation, is as follows:

מנא מנא תקל ופרסין
mene mene teqel upharsin
5:26 “And this is the interpretation of the writing: mene – God has added up (mena) your reign and has completed it;
5:27 “teqel – He has weighed it (teqiltah) on the scales and it has been found lacking;
5:28 “peras – Your kingdom has been divided (perisat) and given to the Medes and to Persia (paras).”

An interesting interpretation: it would seem that God is rather keen on punning in Aramaic. But there is a problem. Anybody who is in the habit of completing cryptic crosswords should raise their eyebrows at the fact that none of the king’s sages were able to arrive at this conclusion. Not only that – they were incapable of arriving at any conclusion. Is this not rather odd? This strange conglomeration of words should surely lend itself to a whole variety of interpretations!

Something is very strange indeed. Actually, what is strange is simply the fact that contemporary translations of this section choose to transliterate the words in question. To people today, these words are nonsense and they require explanation no matter what. To ancient audiences, however, these words do actually constitute something of a poser. Let’s have a look at them each in turn.

מנא is from the etymological Hebraic root ‘count, number, add up’. It also means ‘portion’ (hence the manna in the desert) and, in Aramaic, can mean both “who?” and “what?” (although with both of the latter meanings it would possess a seemingly-inexplicable definate article). Finally, this word can also be used to refer to a small unit of currency;

תקל is from the etymological Aramaic root ‘weigh’. In Hebrew, this same root would be written שקל, with a shin. In Ethiopic (and, possibly, elsewhere) this word also means ‘to plant’, or ‘to implant’. As a noun, it refers to a unit of currency, larger than the mana;

פרס is from the Hebraic etymological root ‘divide, cut’. In Akkadian, this word can also mean ‘decide’. It is used as the proper name for Persia, and also represents a unit of currency larger than the sheqel.

Some scholars see the problem that the Babylonians had as being one of unfamiliarity with the writing system. This is plausible: that they say the signs as being absolute gibberish and even required a Judean to read it out for them. Whether or not that is the author’s intention, the presentation of a cryptic clue (especially if the interpreter is supposed to look intelligent for understanding its meaning) is always better conducted if the audience is liable to have difficulty with its meaning. Each of these words has a range of meanings and, since there is no semantic context, they can be understood in a range of ways. It is the opinion of the present author, alongside several others, that the currency-related meaning would have held primacy. Were I to be conducting a translation of the writing on the wall, I would execute it as follows:

cent, cent, quarter and dollars

Each of these words possesses a set range of meanings; their combination alludes to fiscal matters; and their meaning is completely uncertain. That is precisely the effect that was supposed to be conveyed by the anonymous author of one of history’s earliest detective novels.

¹ Dismissing issues of genuine history and focusing instead on the history presented by the text.

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8 responses

27 09 2006
Conrad

This passage has long fascinated me–there always seemed something more, something mystical to it, than the explanation given. Why mene repeated?

Very pretty new site, btw: did you design it yourself?

27 09 2006
Simon

Good question: two of the words within the clue are actually doubled; mene is written twice, and paras is pluralised. The plural paras might be explained away by giving it two, rather than one, levels of interpretation: God is dividing your kingdom and giving it to the Persians; I don’t know what the second layer of meaning might be for mene
I would like to think that it might function as a cryptic operator? The verb “number” serving as an indication of the nature of the clue. That would be nice, but those sorts of clues are probably of much later development. In reality, it’s probably there to give the line a certain rhythm, or even to imitate a verse with which people might already have been familiar.
And thanks, by the way. The site was designed by “Beccary”, whose name you can see if you scroll right down to the bottom.

5 10 2006
John Cowan

The Smith-Goodspeed American Translation used a wording similar to yours: “You have been quartered, halved, and cent to perdition.” Some of the rhythm of the Aramaic is preserved here as well. (In 1931 the half dollar was probably more familiar than it is today.)

6 10 2006
Simon

That’s fantastic! While part of me certainly sighs at the fact that I am not the first to stress the importance of translating those words, I am nonetheless thrilled to see that somebody else did such a good job of it! It’s a very loose translation, of course, but where it sacrifices form it does a far better job of maintaining the content than anything else I’ve ever seen.

15 10 2006
k perry

I would like a simple explanation of what was actually being said.

10 01 2007
Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Biblical Studies Carnival - Best of 2006

[…] Heard of Higgaion fame. Other great posts include Simon Holloway’s post on the mysterious Writing on the Wall in the story of Daniel 5 over at דבר אחר (dawar acher, literally “another […]

18 11 2007
danastasio

מנא מנא תקל ופרסין
i am search the expression with in Aramaic style :
Mna, mna, tkl o prsym (מנא מנא תקל ופרסין)

Thank you very much
Cordially

16 12 2007
Idetrorce

very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
Idetrorce

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