The book of Daniel in the fourth chapter reminds us of Nebuchadnezzar at the height of power, considering his walls in the mighty Babylon of the 6th century BC. Babylon, inheritor of the realms of Sumer and Akkad, now ascendant over the brutality that had been Assyria. A new age of peace and prosperity opened for those reasonable enough to recognize the ‘right side of history’. Outmoded civilizations like the corrupt and vacillating kingdom of Judea were phased out, and the cream of intelligentsia, like Daniel the wise man and advisor, were grafted in to the new administration. Just like Gilgamesh, millennia before on the walls of Uruk, the master of the universe now drank in the majesty and surety of his place in progress. Like Gilgamesh, however, Nebuchadnezzar would experience a mid life crisis all the more strange because of the altitude of his accomplishment.
The pages of the book of Daniel record Nebuchadnezzar’s self described hubris in the perspective of the past – an aftermath. Great world powers in the days of Babylon were not customarily prone to self critique in the way our postmodern West tends to grovel before…itself. The press release of the iron age was the monument, and in a monument of admission styled as proclamation, the Babylonian king recounts a strange thing for posterity. The king would become bestial.
Irony in this situation comes from the contrast of the apex of worldly power with the shaggy dew bedecked existence of a cud chewing citizen of nowhere. This dream of the king, featuring a tree hacked to its stump and bound in iron and bronze, was troubling. The prophet Daniel interprets the dream of his sovereign, Daniel’s specialty, empowered by revelation from the one God of the Covenant. The king was to become an animal – or perhaps to lose his essential humanity. Daniel advises the king to pursue righteousness, with attention to the poor so that his tranquillity may not be disturbed.
One year passes after the revelation, until one morning Nebuchadnezzar walks out onto the walls , the stupefying walls, the scale of which, even in ruins, caused Herodotus to mark them three hundred years later. Many chariots abreast could race on their tops. No one had achieved this unique focus of power and control for the memorable centuries, and there seemed no end to the increase of Babylon as the riddle of dominion was laid open to the far seeing eye of the comprehensive monarch. He was transported by a vision of the universe with himself at the center, the man with connection and power, a city emitting vibrations and sounds of vitality feeding on his works. He had done this. The walls, gardens, lights and music were hymning his future. He lost his perception and was overwhelmed by the volition of desire and strength, losing his placement of himself and awareness of his own relationship to the world of worlds, and began to pass his life as a beast.
Perhaps like an ancient Howard Hughes he was sequestered by his ministers, a paradox of power and helplessness, his toenails growing in pace with his hair and beard. He would snap and rage at any slaves approaching for the purpose of grooming the great king. He could not bear to be confined within roof and walls, and like a free range chicken, could only benefit from a misplaced sentimentality from those who remembered his former glory. Now he runs and rolls on his back in the sunny Babylonian gardens, waking with dew in his hair and beard under the Mesopotamian stars. A stunning example of youthful health, he eats and runs, roars and defecates on bright tiled mosaic pavements. He embodies power.
And yet… the image of the glorious tree, its branches and trunk cut to a stump which is bound in forged metals comes back in dreams again. The roots still drink from the savage soil, but the aspiration, the yearning for the sky and sun- and the provision of shade and fruit – are blocked
by the fashioned fired and hammered works of man and the mind. Dull brittle iron and round beaten bronze constrain the stump that would bear again, could it only pass beyond that barrier into heaven toward the heaven of heavens. An ooze of sap seeps from the constricting clamps.
The eyes of the king fly open as he shouts words across the border of wakefulness; “My God”. He becomes a man once again, and as truly human men do, calls for a scribe to recount the story now full of meaning, so much more meaning than that dawn on the walls when he mistook the evening’s reflecting sun for a dawn.
Today we talk about humanism and sometimes, less every day, we talk about the humanities. What does it mean to be human?