Elementary school teachers learn how to read the indecipherable. It just goes with the territory. By Christmas time, they can fairly accurately sort and grade a batch of papers even if half the class forgot to put their names on the papers. (Though in my class, you didn’t win any prizes if I had to write your name on your paper. In another time and place, a seminary student griped when I took points off his paper for making me figure out whose typed paper it was. No sympathy. None. Not a bit.)

The handwriting on the wall in Daniel 5 was indecipherable, but probably not because it was messy. What made it indecipherable, however, isn’t immediately clear, and there’s been a fair bit of speculation about why the king’s experts couldn’t read it. One possibility has to do with the way Aramaic (and Hebrew) is written – namely, without vowels. This creates obvious challenges, but not insurmountable ones if the writing is in your first language. For example, without too much effort you can probably come up with a couple options for the following set of English consonants:

  • Jn rd th bk.
  • (Jon/Jan rode/read the bike/book.)

Some people have suggested the three words in the handwritten message may have been written without spaces, too, which would definitely increase the challenge – especially if you don’t have any context for your interpretation. Just try this in English:

  • Jnrdthbk.

What the would-be readers of the handwriting saw was three words, which may or may not have been run together:

  • Mn’ tql wprsn

Daniel reads it with ease: mene’ teqel uparsin. (Don’t let the w/u throw you; remember how your elementary school teachers taught you the five English vowels are “a, e, i, o, u…and sometimes y and w?” It’s the same sort of idea.)

The problem is that these three words do not form a sentence. They are three nouns, each referring to a unit of weight. Maybe the king’s experts got this far and then were stumped. I’m stumped too if this is all we get.

Daniel gives the interpretation of the three words (Dan 6:26-28):

  • Mene’ – “God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.”
  • Teqel – “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.”
  • Peres – “Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

From the meanings of the three nouns, this is not an obvious interpretation. But remember, Daniel is one who can “explain riddles and solve difficult problems” (Dan 6:12). We do appear to have a riddle here, and scholar Al Wolters has made a pretty good proposal for how the riddle worked. He suggests that the set of three words can be read on three different levels if the consonants are read with different vowels (and a few extra consonants at times for the purpose of conjugating verbs). I won’t give you his entire argument (you can find it in the 1991 volume of the Hebrew Union College Annual if you’re really interested), but let me give you the basics:

  • Level 1 – “mene’, teqel, uparsin” are all nouns representing three units of weight. They are symbolic in the riddle for the norms of God’s justice.
  • Level 2 – “menah, teqiltah, perisat” are all verb forms and they represent the process whereby God evaluated Belshazzar: God appraised his kingdom; the king was weighed on the scales; his kingdom was assessed.
  • Level 3 – “menah, tiqqal, paras” are also verb forms and they represent the outcome of God’s assessment: God squares the accounts (this involves another verb in Daniel’s interpretation – wehashlemah); the king was found wanting; the kingdom was given to the Persians (paras).

If you’re totally confused by now, it’s okay. Remember, Daniel’s the only one who understood the riddle – and he had some divine help. There was certainly more on the wall than met the eye – and what did meet the eye was terrifying enough.

The point of the handwriting was to call Belshazzar to account for his “wanting” life as king of Babylon and to initiate God’s judgment on him. The chapter ends with the foolhardy king rewarding Daniel for reading and interpreting the handwriting, as he had promised. Then he’s promptly killed by the invading army of Darius, whose presence in Daniel is a riddle in itself…for another day.

P.S. For “The Worst Penmanship Lesson Ever,” Part 1, see here.

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