Belshazzar may not have finished swallowing his first sip of wine from God’s goblets when a disembodied hand appeared, writing on the palace wall. The narrator bothers to tell us that the hand was opposite the lampstand. Maybe he wants to explain why the king could see it (though that seems unnecessary) or, more likely, he’s hinting that the light casts a shadow of the hand, making an already eerie scene downright spooky.

It’s not clear whether anyone else in the hall saw the hand, but they certainly witnessed what happened next: their panicked host fell apart. First, his “color changed” and then his “limbs gave way.” Then his “knees knocked together” and he started screaming for his interpreters. Except for the alligator and non-royal attire, you are probably imagining something like this:

quaking If this is the image you have of Belshazzar, you are seeing a sanitized version of what the narrator is probably really saying. The king’s face changed (he probably turned some shade of gray), and then “the limbs of his hip became loose” and his knees knocked together.

That probably didn’t change your mental image at all, so let’s try an even more literal rendering of the Aramaic: “The knots of his loins were loosened (or untied).” If you’re still scratching your head, maybe Al Wolters can help. He has made a good case for this phrase referring “to the king’s panic-stricken loss of sphincter control.” So, it appears that while Nebuchadnezzar lost control of his temper in Daniel 3, Belshazzar lost control of, um, something else in Daniel 5.

Later in the chapter the queen recommends Daniel to Belshazzar, because the Judean exile is able to “untie knots” (5:12; compare also 5:16). For sure the narrator means this to be ironic – the king whose “knots” were just “untied” should call in Daniel, who is able to “untie” the “knots” of the puzzle written on the plaster. But being ironic is probably the lesser of his literary goals. Whenever Jews heard this story, they would have howled until it hurt. The stand-in king turned out to be a stand-up comic.

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