Monday, August 8, 2011

Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4)

What king went mad and ate grass like an ox? Nebuchadnezzar.

Nebuchadnezzar II (634-562 BCE), king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, is remembered as one of history’s great leaders. In the Bible, he is known simply as Nebuchadnezzar and portrayed less favorably. Daniel depicts Nebuchadnezzar as an arrogant ruler who demanded worship of himself (Daniel 3:4-6). Daniel relays that at the height of his power, God humbled the monarch.

The fourth chapter of Daniel contains a first person account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great tree cut down to size (Daniel 4:13-17), Daniel’s interpretation explaining that Nebuchadnezzar would lose his faculties (Daniel 4:19-27) and the fulfillment of that analysis one year later (Daniel 4:28-37). The text shifts from first person to third person to accent that the story is out of the king’s control. After the condition subsides, Nebuchadnezzar resumes his account in the first person. The chapter ends with Nebuchadnezzar proffering a doxology to God acknowledging God’s supremacy (4:34-37).

Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity was sensational. Six symptoms are relayed: a loss of reasoning (Daniel 4:16), being drenched in the dew of heaven (Daniel 4:15, 25, 33), being exiled with animals (Daniel 4:16, 25, 32, 33), a change in dietary patterns i.e. eating grass (Daniel 4:25, 32, 33), growing hair like eagles’ feathers (Daniel 4:33) and possessing nails like birds’ claws (Daniel 4:33). Nebuchadnezzar’s exile and his lack of hygiene may indicate that the ruler was completely unrestrained. These symptoms persisted for the ambiguous duration of “seven periods of time” (Daniel 4:16, 23, 25, 32). This could mean seven years or seven months but given the number seven’s association with completeness in Hebrew writings, it may simply mean that the length was sufficient to accomplish God’s purpose(s).

Though these symptoms are curious, they are not entirely unique in the annals of history. Using modern psychological terminology, it appears that Nebuchadnezzar represents a textbook case of boanthropy. This is a rare psychological disorder in which a human being believes herself to be a bovine. Dreams are known to play a part in this malady.

British scholar R.K. Harrison (1920-1993) provides the following account from physician Raymond Harris on his experiences with a man suffering from boanthropy in a British mental institution in 1946:

A patient was in his early 20’s who reportedly had been hospitalized for about five years. His symptoms were well developed on admission, and diagnosis was immediate and conclusive. He was of average height and weight with good physique, and was in excellent bodily health. His mental symptoms included pronounced anti-social tendencies, and because of this he spent the entire day from dawn to dusk outdoors, in the grounds of the institution... His daily routine consisted of wandering around the magnificent lawns with which the otherwise dingy hospital situation was graced, and it was his custom to pluck up and eat handfuls of the grass as he went along. On observation he was seen to discriminate carefully between grass and weeds, and on inquiry from the attendant the writer was told the diet of this patient consisted exclusively of grass from hospital lawns. He never ate institutional food with the other inmates, and his only drink was water…The writer was able to examine him cursorily, and the only physical abnormality noted consisted of a lengthening of the hair and a course, thickened condition of the fingernails.” (Harrison, Introduction To the Old Testament, 1116)
Not surprisingly, psychologists have long been intrigued by the case of Nebuchadnezzar. Cognitive psychologist Henry Gleitman (b. 1925) speculates that Nebuchadnezzar exhibited features of an advanced syphilitic infection (Gleitman, Psychology, 219).

Famed psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) addressed Nebuchadnezzar in many of his works. He diagnosed the arrogant ruler with a “classic case of megalomania” (Jung Collected Works, volume 8, ¶ 163). Jung analyzed Nebuchadnezzar’s dream writing that it was “easy to see that the great tree is the dreaming king himself. Daniel interprets the dream in this sense. Its meaning is obviously an attempt to compensate the king’s megalomania which, according to the story, developed into a real psychosis” (Jung, Dreams, 37). This reading views the dream as an exemplar of a compensatory dream, a dream by which the dreamer offsets a disproportionate sense of power. Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the tree being cut is what his psyche deemed must happen for him to achieve any semblance of wholeness. Whether or not one consents to Jung’s interpretation, his summary of Nebuchadnezzar’s condition is seemly - “a complete regressive degeneration of a man who has overreached himself.” (Jung, Analytical Psychology 123).”

Many critics have argued the historicity of the events as depicted in Daniel due to their unbelievable nature. There is also some discussion as to whether or not the government could have maintained itself with its leader decommissioned. King George III, “the Mad King” of Great Britain (1738-1820) and Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), the 40th U.S. president who likely suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during his presidency, have shown that an effective staff can run a government with a sidelined figurehead. Nebuchadnezzar was known for selecting an elite staff as evidenced by the process by which he selected Daniel (Daniel 1:3-7).

Critics also argue that there is no outside evidence to support the Biblical account. This is not entirely true. There is a conspicuous absence of any record of acts or decrees by Nebuchadnezzar from 582 -575 BCE (Gleason L. Archer, Jr. [1916-2004], Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 7, 63). Berossus, a Babylonian priest and astronomer of the third century BCE, documents that Nebuchadnezzar became suddenly ill after 43 years in power (Contra Apionem 1:20). Eusebius (263-339) cites a report from the Greek historian Abydenus that corroborates the Biblical account stating that in Nebuchadnezzar’s latter days he was “possessed by some god or other (Eusebius, Praparatio Evanelica 9:41).” Also, a clay tablet housed in the British Museum known as BM34113 (lines 3,6,7,11,12,14) describes Nebuchadnezzar exhibiting irregular behavior including noting that “his life appeared of no value to him (Kendall K. Down [b. 1949], Daniel: Hostage in Babylon, 30). It has also been argued that an Aramaic fragment excavated from Qumran Cave 4 in 1952 attributed to Babylon’s last king, Nabonidus (556-539 BCE), is actually a garbled tradition relaying the illness of Nebuchadnezzar (Archer, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 7, 63).

The reader is not intended to have sympathy for the foreign dictator. Does Daniel have compassion for the king? Does the prophet’s interpretation of the dream influence (or even cause) Nebuchadnezzar’s breakdown? How should we treat the mentally ill?

Nebuchadnezzar is dehumanized. He is said to eat grass like a bovine, grow hair like an eagle and nails like a bird (Daniel 4:25, 32, 33). The implication is clear - Nebuchadnezzar becomes less than human. No other human eats grass in the Bible and to eat grass like a bovine may even have been a colloquialism as it is used with three different nouns all meaning bovine: showr (Numbers 22:4, Psalm 106:20), baqar (Job 40:14), and the Aramaic, towr, found only in Daniel (Daniel 4:25, 32, 33, 5:21). In temporarily dehumanizing the arrogant ruler, God removed Nebuchadnezzar’s power.

Do you feel God’s treatment of Nebuchadnezzar was just? When have you been humbled? Have you ever felt humbled by God?

The point of the passage is seen in the fact that Nebuchadnezzar’s illness lasts “until you [Nebuchadnezzar] recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes (Daniel 4:25, NASB).

God is the true king and to defy God is madness.

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