The mental illness of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has posed one of the two remaining unsolved problems of the Book of Daniel, the other being the identity of Darius the Mede. Several problems connected with Daniel that vexed scholars of previous generations have been solved to the satisfaction of those who believe in the sixth-century B.C. authorship of the book and in its historical authenticity. Among these problems, solved primarily through archeological discoveries during the past hundred years, are the identity of Belshazzar, the occurrence of Greek words in Daniel, and apparently chronological difficulties.
In 1956 a fragment of a Hebrew document found in Qumran Cave IV and labeled APrayer of Nabonidus@ was published by J. T. Milik. In it Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, claims to have been healed by a Jew from a bad inflammation that had tormented him for seven years, after he had ceased to worship his idols.1 The badly broken leather fragment, written about 100 B.C., was hailed at once by liberal scholars as providing the answer to the questions raised by Daniel 4, where the madness of Nebuchadnezzar is recorded. It has been asserted that the author of Daniel, writing the book Caccording to commonly held liberal viewsCduring the second century B.C., had confused Nabonidus with Nebuchadnezzar, although there were not only similarities in the two stories but also marked differences. Nabonidus was plagued by a bad inflammation in the city of Tema in Arabia, according to the Qumran scroll fragment, while Nebuchadnezzar was afflicted with a mental illness in the city of Babylon, according to the Bible. The best explanation is that the Qumran fragment contains one of the numerous Jewish legends, of which a rich apocryphal and pseudepigraphal literature exists, and that the APrayer of Nabonidus@ has nothing to do with Nebuchadnezzar=s unfortunate experience.
And now comes what seems to be the solution to our problem from a cuneiform tablet that has belonged to the treasures of the British Museum for many years but was published only three years ago.2 Unfortunately, the tablet (BM 34113 [sp. 213]) is broken, as are so many other cuneiform tablets. Its fragmentary condition is the main reason that not everything it contains is as clear as we would like it to be. I am presenting here only the best-preserved lines of this text in translation as provided by the editor of the text, Prof. A. K. Grayson:
2 [Nebu]chadnezzar considered [... ...]
3 His life appeared of no value to [him, ... ...]
5 And (the) Babylon(ian) speaks bad counsel to Evil-Merodach [...]
6 Then he gives an entirely different order but [...]
7 He does not heed the word from his lips, the cour[tier(s) ...]
11 He does not show love to son and daughter [...]
12 [...] family and clan does not exist [...]
14 His attention was not directed towards promoting the welfare of Esagil [and Babylon]
16 He prays to the lord of lords, he raised [his hands (in supplication) ...]
17 He weeps bitterly to Marduk, the g[reat] gods [... ...]
18 His prayers go forth, to [... ...]
The following remarks will help you to understand the parts of this text. Brackets  indicate words of letters that are broken off from the original tablet, but which have been supplied by the translator. Words or letters in parenthesis () are supplied by the translator for a better understanding of the English rendering. The numerals preceding the lines of text indicate the lines of the tablet that are quoted. Lines missing here are either too badly damaged to make any sense, or are not fully comprehensible and therefore make no contribution to a better understanding of the text as a whole. The reader should note that the end of every line is missing, as indicated by dots between brackets; also the beginnings of lines 2 and 12 are broken off, although there is no doubt that the reconstruction of the beginning of line 2 is correct.
Evil-Merodach of line 5 was the eldest son of Nebuchadnezzar and his successor on the throne of Babylon after his death. He is mentioned in the Bible as having released King Jehoiachin of Judah from prison after his accession to the throne (2 Kings 25:27-30; Jer. 52:31-34). Esagil, mentioned in line 14, is the name of the principal temple complex of Babylon, in which stood also the ziggurat, a temple-tower 300 feet high. The temple was dedicated to the worship of the country=s chief god, Marduk, mentioned in line 17 of our text.
This text definitely refers to Nebuchadnezzar in lines 2 and 3, but it is not absolutely certain to whom line 6 and the following lines refer. Professor Grayson, the editor of the tablet, suggests that Athe main theme seems to be the improper behavior of Evil-Merodach, particularly with regard to Esagil, followed by a sudden and unexplained change of heart and prayers to Marduk.@ However, another interpretation of the poorly preserved text is also possible, especially if it is read in the light of Daniel 4, which relates Nebuchadnezzar=s period of mental derangement for seven years.
Seen in this light, it is possible to detect, in lines 3, 6, 7, 11, 12, and 14, references to a strange behavior of Nebuchadnezzar, which was brought to the attention of Evil-Merodach by some state official(s) according to whose opinion, life had lost all value for his father, and that he, namely Nebuchadnezzar, gave contradictory orders, refused to accept the counsel of his courtiers, showed love to neither son nor daughter anymore, neglected his family, and performed no longer his duties as head of state with regard to the Babylonian state religion and its principal temple. Seen in this light one can understand line 5 as referring to Babylonian state officials who, bewildered by the king=s behavior, counseled Evil-Merodach to take over the affairs of state as long as his father would be incapable of carrying out his royal duties. Line 6 and following lines would then be a description of Nebuchadnezzar=s strange behavior as described by his courtiers to Evil-Merodach.
Since Nebuchadnezzar recovered from his illness, as the Bible tells us (Dan. 4:36), the counsel of the king=s courtiers to Evil-Merodach may later have been considered as ill-conceived or Abad@ (line 5), but may at the time when it was rendered have been the wisest way out of the existing dilemma. Since Daniel tells us that Nebuchadnezzar was Adriven from men@ (verse 33) and later reinstated into his regal position by his officers of state (verse 36), it is possible that Evil-Merodach, Nebuchadnezzar=s eldest son, served as regent during his father=s incapacity, although official records continued to be dated according to the years of Nebuchadnezzar=s reign as long as this king remained alive.
It is regrettable that this extremely important text has come down to us in such a deplorably fragmentary condition, but we are grateful that at least a small part of it has been preserved, since it seems to shed light on a biblical narrative that so far has not been vindicated by extrabiblical documentation.