“We’ve got some news, good King Darius
We fear your position is precarious”
These opening lines from the Veggie Tales song set in Daniel 6 are truer than the songwriters may have known. One of the many conundrums in the book of Daniel is the identity of Darius the Mede, the ruler who succeeds Babylonian Belshazzar and intersects somehow with Persian Cyrus (Dan 5:31; 9:1; 11:1). You probably don’t know about this puzzle unless you’ve taken or taught a class on Daniel or buried your nose in a Daniel commentary at some point.
Here’s the problem. Outside the book of Daniel, nobody’s ever heard of Darius the Mede. You might say, “So? Has anybody ever heard of, say, Ehud or Shamgar outside the Bible?” (If you’ve never heard of Ehud or Shamgar, a read through Judges 3 will fix that.) True enough, but Ehud and Shamgar acquired their “fame” because of their exploits on behalf of some no-name tribes tucked in the hill country of an insignificant player on the world stage. By contrast, Darius the Mede appears in Daniel as the ruler of a conquered Babylon, predecessor to the vast Persian empire. We have reams of historical data from mighty Mesopotamian empires, so it is a bit unsettling that nowhere in the dusty documents (by which I mean clay tablets) is anyone named Darius the Mede. (There’s a whole line-up of Persian Dariuses. The problem is with this Median Darius.)
Before you say, “Well, the Bible says it, so I believe it,” and dismiss the issue as unimportant, let me gently remind you that biblical faith is a historical faith – that is, what we believe is grounded in God’s actions on the stage of history. Thus, there are historical constraints to how we understand some things that the Bible says. For example, in Genesis 21 Abraham stays “in the land of the Philistines,” but well-documented history tells us that the Philistines aren’t in the land of Canaan until several hundred years later (around 1200 BC). This doesn’t mean the Bible is lying or getting history wrong, but it does mean that we need to explain why the biblical writer would say this.
So, who was Darius the Mede? There are four basic options:
- A Persian king. In this option, some will say Darius the Mede = Cyrus the Persian (see Dan 6:28, where some translations say “Darius, that is, Cyrus the Persian.” This is not playing fast and loose with the Aramaic text – it is a legitimate way, though not the only way, to read it.) Others will say both “Cyrus” and “Darius” were titles (like “Caesar” or “Czar”), and ancient Near Eastern kings often held more than one title.
- A Median king. The known Median kings from this period include Astyages and Cyaxares. If one of these is Darius the Mede, we can thank history for giving us an easier name to pronounce.
- A governor of Babylon during the Persian period. These “kings” were appointed by Persian Cyrus, and we know of a couple from historical records: Ugbaru and Gubaru.
- A case of mistaken identity. Many scholars argue that the author of Daniel made a mistake in naming this character and used the name Darius from Persian records. I consider this option untenable because of what I believe about the Bible, but I also think it overlooks the deliberate repetition of Darius’s descent (Dan 5:31; 9:1; 11:1). The author is pretty insistent that Darius was a Mede.
The identity of Darius the Mede remains a mystery, but we hope that someday archaeologists will find another clay tablet somewhere that clears things up. While we may not be able to verify every event or confirm the existence of every person the Bible mentions, it’s worth our time to try.