Of Fire and Lions
I’d never seen a sesame seed grow until I came to Babylon almost seventy years ago. At harvest time my husband, Daniel, looks to the tiny seed as cause for great celebration. How inconsequential is a miniscule seed? How incomprehensible its yield? How unbearable the process of growth? A seed is buried. It dies. Then sprouts. And grows. It blossoms. Dries and dies again to be plucked up and used for the purpose of its planting. My husband’s purpose in celebration was to mark the passing of years toward prophecy’s fulfillment—now just futile poetry. But it caused me to remember things I’d rather forget.
It was a day I dreaded all year long.
I picked up my polished-bronze mirror and tucked a stray tendril of gray curls beneath my new linen head scarf, noting in the reflection his fidgeting behind me. He always had trouble tying a jeweled belt, but his fingers seemed more trembly this morning. Was he nervous too?
I set aside my mirror and crossed the bedchamber, nudging his hands aside. “Let me do it.” Though both his hands and mine were spotted with age and lined with bulging blue veins, at least mine were still nimble.
He cradled my head and placed a kiss on my forehead. “Thank you, love. What would I do without you?”
I finished the knot and gazed into his rheumy eyes, as smitten as I’d been sixty-six years ago. “Let’s hope you never find out.” I laced my arm through his. “Let’s go downstairs. The children are waiting.”
He opened our chamber door, and lively family sounds floated up from the courtyard below. We descended the stairs slowly since Daniel’s feet pained him. Waiting in our lush green courtyard were three generations of our descendants seated around four long rectangular tables. Four daughters with their husbands. Twenty-one grandchildren. And thirty-two greats.
Two conscientious grandsons met their saba Daniel at the bottom of the steps, one supporting each elbow. I was left to follow—alone. The snubbing had begun.
“I’m fine,” he protested. “Tend to your savta.”
“But Ima said your feet have been paining you, Saba.” Our oldest daughter’s firstborn offered an obligatory nod at me. “Shalom, Savta.”
I returned the nod with a half smile but remained silent, refusing to mock the peace such a greeting offered. One glance at our oldest daughter, Kezia, assured me there would be no shalom today. She stole sullen glimpses at me while standing beside her husband, Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah’s exiles in Babylon. Our other three daughters stood arm in arm with their husbands, eyes trained on the abba they all adored.
“Abba and Ima!” Sheshbazzar, whom we lovingly called Shesh, shouted over the dull roar of chattering children and our fountain’s happy splashing. “Take your place at the head of the table.” He’d already arranged two brightly colored cushions at the end nearest the stairs and rushed over to support Daniel’s arm while he lowered himself. I mouthed a silent thank-you and sat quietly beside my husband.
Shesh took his place at Daniel’s right. Kezia sat beside her husband with several of her children and grandchildren filling spaces at the large table around us. She avoided my gaze.
“You look lovely today, Kezia.” I spoke across Daniel. “Is that a new robe, dear?”
Her eyes sparked. “Are you implying I spend too much money at the market, Ima?”
“No, dear. I…” Nothing I said to Kezia would be safe. “You are beautiful, Daughter. That’s all.”
Her cheeks pinked, and she looked quickly away, beginning a conversation with one of her daughters about the toddler on her lap. A great-grandson I’d met only a few times. Kezia’s eyes crinkled with a smile that lit her features. She was a good ima, at her best when her children surrounded her. Had she learned anything from me—before her hatred sprouted and grew?
The servants began a triumphant march with pitchers of juice and wine and platters laden with various meats, fruits, and vegetables. This was a day our dear Egyptian servant, Mert, anticipated all year long, a day when her best recipes from both Babylon and Jerusalem found their way to our table.
My husband hoisted his silver chalice in the air, repeating his annual vow. “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.” Adults lifted goblets of wine and children their cups of juice. Our children had seen Jerusalem only in their minds through the stories Daniel told of his childhood in the palace. The rugged beauty of Zion. The grandeur of Yahweh’s Temple.
With our first sip came the rattle of the courtyard gate, and I caught the glint of morning sun off a soldier’s shield. Ten of King Belshazzar’s guards charged into our celebration.
One, wearing a captain’s gold breastplate, marched straight toward my husband. “King Belshazzar commands the presence of Daniel, exile of Judah, chief of King Nebuchadnezzar’s counselors.”
“I am Daniel.” He stood, and the captain gripped his arm and fairly dragged him toward the gate.
“Wait!” I lunged for my husband, but the other soldiers blocked my way.
My Daniel looked over his shoulder, offering a weak smile. “I’ll be back, love. Save some roast lamb for me.”
Panic clawed at my throat while ten strong soldiers led away the beating of my heart. I turned to the fruit of my womb, who moments ago had shunned me. Now everyone stared at me, pleading silently for direction. Angst filled my belly. Who needed food when my Daniel had been taken to the banquet of a madman? “I’m going upstairs to pray. No one eats a bite until Daniel returns.”
The captain’s fingers bit into Daniel’s arm, pulling him into the narrow street. Daniel tried to hurry his pace, but his feet were too tender. Perhaps conversation would slow the man down. “I haven’t visited the palace since Nebuchadnezzar released me from service twenty-four years ago. Did King Belshazzar mention his reason for summoning me?”
The only sound came from rippling water in the canal alongside the street. Silence was typical of a loyal eunuch. The captain’s wide gold collar proclaimed his vow to serve the king unto death and the king’s reciprocal commitment to lifelong provision.
Daniel stumbled, landing hard on his right foot. He braced his hands against his knees, wincing in pain.
“Are you well?” The captain’s concern was rather surprising.
“Yes, thank you. Could we slow our pace a bit?” Before the eunuch could answer, his stomach growled, and Daniel chuckled. “You and your men should have joined us for this morning’s meal. Mert is a fine cook.”
The captain’s features remained grim. “The king needs you now, Lord Daniel. Please.” He extended his hand in the direction of the palace, and Daniel felt the prickly flesh of urgency.
Continuing in silence, they left the walled city of Babylon’s wealth and noblility and ascended the marble stairs to the Processional Way. While crossing the wide avenue splitting Babylon’s municipality, they passed the three-storied Ishtar Gate, the military complex, and finally entered palace grounds through its southern gate.
The pounding of drums and trill of a flute floated on a chill autumn breeze, and a sudden presence pressed Daniel to his knees. With both hands over his ears, he blocked out distraction and held in the silent whisper:
“MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN.
Mene: I have numbered the days of Belshazzar’s reign and brought it to an end.
Tekel: He has been weighed on My scales and found wanting.
Parsin: I have divided his kingdom and given it to the Medes and Persians.”
“My lord!” A huge hand lifted Daniel to his feet. “My lord, are you well?”
Shadows cleared from the prophet’s eyes, and he gazed into ten pale faces. “Yes, yes. Thank you. We must hurry to the king.”
The captain placed a giant arm around Daniel’s waist and fairly carried him toward the grand stairway. “I’ve heard you are a seer. Did you have a vision, my lord?”
Daniel sensed something genuine in this man but knew a eunuch’s loyalty was first and always to his king. “If you have any family in Babylon, Captain, they should leave the city tonight.”
His brows shot up, but a slight nod communicated understanding. Any Babylonian with a measure of sense knew King Cyrus of Persia had built an army that would someday overtake Babylon—the empire King Belshazzar had weakened by overspending, poor council choices, and constant revelry during the past fourteen years.
The captain hoisted Daniel up the grand stairway and into the main entrance. They hurried through what had once been pristine hallways, now covered in dust and frayed tapestries. Music grew louder as they neared the throne hall but with no accompanying sounds of laughter or merriment.
“I thought the king was hosting a banquet,” Daniel said.
“He was.” Was it fear or loyalty that kept him from saying more? Guards at the throne room opened the double doors, revealing the colossal space filled with tables, terrified noblemen, and musicians whose timid notes tested the eerie silence.
A man wearing a gold crown rushed toward Daniel. He’d seen the young king only once, on the day of his coronation, when Belshazzar entered Babylon in a chariot on the Processional Way. He was much shorter up close and much older tonight.
“Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my great-grandfather brought from Judah?”
Daniel barely had time for a nod before the king aimed a shaking finger at a side wall. “The inscription. See it? None of my wise men could interpret it.”
Daniel followed his gesture and stared at the exact words from his vision blazing with an unnatural fire on the plastered wall. “I’ve heard the spirit of the gods lives in you,” the king said, his panic-stricken features but a handbreadth away. “Interpret the message, and I swear by my father’s life I’ll dress you in purple, place a gold chain around your neck, and make you the third highest ruler in our kingdom.”
Sickened by the king’s stale sweat and fetid breath, Daniel was grateful he hadn’t eaten. How many promises had this regent broken? Many believed Belshazzar had killed his father to take Babylon’s throne. Shrugging off Belshazzar’s hands, Daniel stepped back and bowed with forced habit.
“You may keep your gifts and reward someone else. The Most High God gives glory and splendor to whomever He pleases—as He did to your forefather King Nebuchadnezzar. But when the king became proud, he was stripped of his glory, driven away from people, and given the mind of an animal. He lived with wild donkeys and ate grass like the ox until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone He wishes. But you, Belshazzar, though you knew all this, have not humbled yourself.”
Shocked whispers rolled like a tide over the noblemen in the hall, confirming that King Nebuchadnezzar’s transformation had not been widely known. Daniel scanned the crowd, noticing for the first time the glint of gold set before each guest.
Righteous indignation loosed his tongue again. “You set yourself against the Lord of heaven by allowing your nobles, wives, and concubines to drink wine from the goblets taken from Yahweh’s Temple. You have not honored the God who holds your life in His hands, so His hand wrote your doom on the wall.”
Daniel pointed to the blazing words and read aloud:
“MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN. The Lord has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. You have been weighed on scales and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
He bowed once more and turned to go.
“Wait!” Belshazzar grabbed his arm and then lowered himself to one knee, inclining his head. “Please. I believe everything you’ve said, but please have mercy.” He stood and lifted his voice to the gathering. “Daniel will wear a purple robe from my chamber, and only my commands and those of my father carry more authority than Daniel’s in the whole empire.”
Belshazzar removed the gold chain from his neck and lifted it over Daniel’s head, letting the chiseled granite seal rest on the prophet’s chest. Lingering near, he spoke in a voice meant for only the prophet. “You’re now a son of Babylon. Surely your god won’t destroy an empire governed by one of his own.”
Daniel answered in an equally quiet voice. “My God will destroy many empires to bless His own.”
King Belshazzar recoiled, stiffened, and studied him. “You will remain at my side until I’m convinced you haven’t somehow conspired against me.”
“As you wish.” Daniel followed him to the elevated table, eating food prepared by palace cooks instead of the meal made by Mert’s loving hands.
Yahweh, protect my family when You bring Cyrus into Babylon.