When Belshazzar Wet Himself

Or worse.
The Akkadian phrase palḫāku adrāku u šutādurāku, “I am afraid, anxious, and constantly in fear,” is a common element in Akkadian prayers where the supplicant laments the impending portent of a bad omen. Daniel 5 tells a story of Belshazzar and the fearful omen that caused him such great distress. In case you don’t remember the story, here is how it begins,

King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for his thousand nobles, and in the presence of the thousand he drank wine. Under the influence of the wine Belshazzar ordered the gold and silver vessels that his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple at Jerusalem to be brought so that the king and his nobles, his consorts, and his concubines could drink from them. The golden vessels that had been taken out of the sanctuary of the House of God in Jerusalem were then brought, and the king, his nobles, his consorts, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. Just then, the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace opposite the lampstand, so the king could see the hand as it wrote. [Dan 5:1-5, JPS]

Now, this is not a good omen. The story goes on to say, “The king’s face darkened, and he was alarmed by his thoughts; the knots of his loins were loosened and his knees knocked together (Dan 5:6).” This might have been a good time for a prayer to Shamash containing the expression, “I am afraid, anxious, and constantly in fear.” And while we don’t get that, we do get a very good idea of just how frightened Belshazzar was.
The Aramaic that I translated “the knots of his loins” is וְקִטְרֵי חַרְצֵהּ. The Aramaic word קִטַר, is, in part depending on context, variously understood, “joint, band, muscle, tendon, knot, puzzle.” At nearly the same time and without knowing of each other’s work, Shalom Paul and Al Wolters addressed the phrase. While Paul seems to waffle on its exact meaning, Wolters, 119, gets to the point. “Our suggestion, therefore, is that the problematic phrase qiṭrē ḥarṣēh in Dan 5:6 refers to the sphincter muscles of the bladder and anus.” And so you have it. As we might say, he dropped his load. I rather doubt that either Paul or Wolters were the first to discern this meaning but they may well have been the first to write it up in scholarly journals.
This understanding of the word קִטַר, “knots,” in Daniel 5:6 turns the same word with the same verb in Daniel 5:16 into a double entendre. The king says to Daniel, “I have heard about you, that you give interpretations and loosen knots (וְקִטְרִין לְמִשְׁרֵא).” The double entendre results from the interplay between the meaning of “loosen knots” in Daniel 5:6 and its meaning here in Daniel 5:16 where it likely refers to deciphering the portents of omens or breaking them. Daniel may be able to decipher or break omens but there is considerable risk that he will scare the crap out of a person when he does.
PS: I said that Paul and Wolters worked on our phrase at about the same time. However, Wolters’ paper was actually first. Paul acknowledges this in a very brief postscript to his own paper. But the overlap time between when they submitted their papers and when their papers were published deprived Paul of the opportunity of interacting in any depth with Wolters’ work. While both authors approach the issue somewhat differently, I bet the knots of Paul’s loins were loosened when he first saw Wolters’ paper.
PPS: Among other things, a complete treatment of this issue requires mention of the cognate relationship between Aramaic קִטַר and Akkadian kiṣru. Rather than bore you with all that, I have provided a couple of references in addition Paul and Wolters’s work so that if you really have abnormal interests, you can bore yourself.
References:

Shalom M. Paul, “Decoding a ‘Joint’ Expression in Daniel 5:6, 16,” The Journal of the Ancient Near-Eastern Society of Columbia University (In Honor of Yochanan Muffs), 22 (1993) 121–127.
Hayim ben Yosef Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion For Biblical Hebrew: Etymological-Semantic and Idiomatic Equivalents with Supplement on Biblical Aramaic, Jersey City, NJ: KTAV, 2009, 451.
Nahum M. Waldman, “Akkadian Kasaru and Semantic Equivalents” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 28:4 (1969) 250-255, here 251-252.
Al Wolters, “Untying the King’s Knots: Physiology and Wordplay in Daniel 5,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 110:1 (Spring, 1991), 117-122.

2 thoughts on “When Belshazzar Wet Himself”

  1. Oh, dear, I never knew that people argued about this and didn’t recognize a circumlocution, i.e., a delicate way of saying that Belshazzar had the normal, well known, physiological reaction to great fright: scared the s..t out of him.
    It’s not just a modern saying, you know. The ancients were well aware of physiological reactions to various stimuli.
    I find quite amusing one of O. S. Card’s characters explanation of this physical reality to a gently born girl. The character calls the sound of a pistol cocking in the dark the “two pound noise.” When she asks why, the character explains that it causes the person to “lose two pounds, um, rather quickly.”
    Thus, Belshazzar, obviously.
    “Sacred” or not, the MT is rather down-to-earth…
    Sigh, just another example equivalent to translating Jeremiah’s lying about at the head of streets like *dumb oxen* as laying around like “antelopes.”

  2. Rochelle,
    You are correct, this does seem rather obvious. You will note that I said, “I rather doubt that either Paul or Wolters were the first to discern this meaning. . .” But it is surprising how often “the knots of his loins were loosened” is directly associated with the next phrase, “his knees knocked together,” as the cause of his knees knocking together. Most translations gloss over the whole issue. The generally reliable JPS renders it, “the joints of his lions loosened and his knees knocked together [emphasis mine].” I think the double entendre in 5:16 is considerably more interesting that what I take to be the rather clear and as you said “down-to-earth” meaning of קִטְרֵי חַרְצֵה.

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