From the Book of Daniel:
Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand. The king was watching the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king cried aloud to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the diviners; and the king said to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever can read this writing and tell me its interpretation shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around his neck, and rank third in the kingdom.” Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar became greatly terrified and his face turned pale, and his lords were perplexed.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Daniel 5:5-9 (NRSV) – April 17, 2013.)
Many are familiar with the phrase “the writing on the wall,” but few know that it has a biblical origin. Here, today, is the beginning of the story from which it comes. Belshazaar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, has thrown a party. He orders booty from the Jerusalem Temple, sacred vessels of silver and gold, used as drinking vessels. While he and his friends are partying, the hand appears as related above and writes on the wall.
The Boston Marathon was run this week. On Monday, 23,000 people ran the marathon. When about 75% of them had passed the finish line, two bombs went off in the midst of the observing crowds. As of this writing, three people (including one child) are dead; over 170 people are suffering injuries, some of them severally disabling and possibly still fatal. No person or group has yet claimed responsibility.
On the same day a bomb went off in Baghdad, Iraq. In fact, several bombs went off across that country and more than 75 people are dead and many others wounded. A colleague of mine commented that Baghdad “doesn’t seem so far away now.”
The writing on the wall provides some perspective. What was Belshazzar’s sin that prompted this display of divine displeasure? Using the Temple vessels in revelry, the abuse of a conquered people’s culture and values, imperial oppression of faith and identity. Could this not help explain of the acts of violence and terror perpetrated against our country from 9/11 to the present bloody mess in Boston? It could, if they are the acts of Muslim extremists. I am not suggesting that they are, but there are many who doing so.
Commentators left and right are trying to put spin on the Boston bombings, but everyone is speaking in ignorance right now because (as noted above) no one has claimed responsibility; law enforcement has identified no suspects. Nonetheless, plenty of people seem ready to point the finger at Muslims, but none of these finger-pointers appreciates that if that is the case, there is background to be dealt with . . . we may need to face the sin of Belshazzar committed anew by our own country. One of the more insightful comments, I think, came from an Arab editorial: “Whatever the truth about this latest bombing, the continued refusal to acknowledge the widespread grievances against the US and its allies caused by the wars and US policies in the Middle East will lead to turmoil until political solutions are found.” (Al Bawaba News Group)
The writer of Daniel tells us that Belshazzar’s “face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him.” I think that pretty much describes the United States today . . . . The king could not understand the writing on the wall. At this point, we seem unable to understand what is written in blood on the sidewalks of Boston.
But if it turns out that this the act of Middle Easterners, we need to ask ourselves, “Are we guilty of the sin of Bleshazzar?” Many would answer that question, “Yes,” and call upon us to repent. We need to find not just political solutions, but spiritual solutions, as well.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.