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What Has Rembrandt to do with Daniel?

And this is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin.” Daniel 5:25

Are you familiar with the Dutch painter Rembrandt? He’s widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time. Interestingly, Rembrandt frequently painted scenes from the Bible such as these:

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633)
“The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”
Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656)
“Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph”
The Return of the Prodigal Son
“The Return of the Prodigal Son”

At Georges Creek, we’re currently studying the book of Daniel, so what has Rembrandt to do with Daniel? Well, continuing with his fascination with painting biblical scenes, Rembrandt decided to paint this scene from Daniel 5:

What Does "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin" Mean? | Zondervan Academic
“Belshazzar’s Feast”

It’s an absolutely astonishing painting, and you can’t help but be impressed by it. In the painting, Rembrandt depicts king Belshazzar’s Feast from Daniel chapter 5 and the king’s reaction to seeing the writing on the wall. It’s one of the most famous scenes in the Bible, and the phrase “handwriting/writing on the wall” is a common phrase in the English language. For our purposes, we’re only interested in this portion of the painting:

Why are we so interested in this portion of the painting? As many of you may know, Hebrew and Aramaic are written and read right to left rather than left to right. So you would expect the writing on the wall in Rembrandt’s painting to read something like this:

However, there are two glaring and mind-numbing problems with trying to read the words that way in Rembrandt’s painting: 1) It should be obvious that we’re one word short —mene, mene, tekel, parsin is a four-word phrase and the above construction only has three— and 2) when you try to read the words as they’re typically read (right to left), you realize that those aren’t real Hebrew words: they’re meaningless Aramaic/Hebrew letters thrown together! So how did the famous Dutch painter get away with this? Did he knowingly throw together a garbled mess of letters to form nonsensical words, or was there a method to his madness?

Well, turns out, there was actually a method to his madness. Rembrandt intended the words to be read like this:

That’s right. Rather than writing the Aramaic in single lines intended to be read right to left (like normal), Rembrandt decided to have the handwriting on the wall be written in vertical lines intended to be read top down and then right to left. Nobody who knew Hebrew and Aramaic would EVER write something this way, so why did Rembrandt do this?

Like I said, there was actually a method to his madness. In Daniel 5, we read that the hand wrote four words on the wall: mene, mene, tekel, parsin. Four simple words that all literate people of the time could easily read, and yet, we find out in Daniel 5 that none of the wise men of Babylon could read or interpret the writing on the wall (Daniel 5:8). That’s crucial: they couldn’t read or interpret the writing. We can understand why they might have had a difficult time interpreting the writing, but how could they not read four simple words? Rembrandt decided to offer his own explanation to that mystery by having the writing be written top down and right to left. Since the words would be completely meaningless if one attempted to read the writing horizontally right to left (according to Rembrandt’s painting), Rembrandt believed his depiction of the writing on the wall offered a plausible explanation as to why no one could read or interpret the writing on the wall.

Now, there’s nothing in the Bible to suggest why no one could read the writing on the wall. There’s nothing to suggest that Rembrandt’s depiction is correct. But now you know why the writing on the wall in Rembrandt’s painting is the way it is. As it turns out, knowing biblical languages can sometimes (or at least in this one instance) allow you to speak on a variety of subjects…including art! So what can you do with this information you now possess? Basically, file it away as an interesting fact and hope that one day you find yourself talking with others about art, so that you get the opportunity to impress someone with your awesome knowledge of biblical languages and art…specifically this one painting!