One of the unusual features of the story of Belshazzar and the handwriting on the wall (Dan 5) is the amount of space it devotes to people talking. There are three unusually long speeches by three different characters. The first is by the queen (vv. 11-12), who is followed by the king (vv. 13-16). Finally Daniel wraps things up with a very, very, long speech (17-28).

When the queen shows up at the banquet in v. 10, our first thought is, “Um, aren’t you late for the party?” The party, you remember, started ten verses earlier, and by now, an uninvited Guest has all but ended it. The queen’s absence from the banquet is an unanswered question in the story – and, for that matter, so is her actual identity. If she were Belshazzar’s wife, a logical conclusion for someone called “the queen,” we’d have expected her to be in the entourage of “wives and concubines” (v. 2). Most commentators think this probably means she was the queen mother who skipped the party for unspecified reasons. Since neither she nor the narrator offer her excuse, it’s probably not a good idea to make up motives for her – as much fun as that might be. The fact is that no one is entirely sure who this woman is and why she stayed home.

However, we do know why she finally shows up – all the commotion made by the king and the party goers over the handwriting on the wall (v. 10). She comes to offer the king some advice – namely, “Relax. Daniel can save the day.” She tells Belshazzar about this man, Nebuchadnezzar’s chief of magicians, and how wise and gifted he was in dream interpretation. He had the “wisdom of the gods,” and all Belshazzar had to do was call for Daniel. He would read the writing.

Her speech raises a couple curious questions. First, why wasn’t Belshazzar already acquainted with Daniel, who had held such a high position under Nebuchadnezzar? Second, is she just being informative and motherly, as in, “There, there, Your Royal Majesty, it will be okay. I can help,” or do her words have a sarcastic or derisive bite – as in, “Hey, Your Royal Idiocy, anybody worthy to sit on the throne of the mighty Nebuchadnezzar would already know this.”

That’s one of the tricky things about the “primitive” technology of writing – and especially the writing of a culture lost to us. The “script” of the story doesn’t come with director’s notes, and we don’t have the author to tell us the tone he had in mind when he wrote it. The resulting ambiguity gives us a little room to imagine different scenarios – but it also cautions us against holding any particular view too tenaciously.

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