Darius the Precarious

“We’ve got some news, good King Darius
We fear your position is precarious”

These opening lines from the Veggie Tales song set in Daniel 6 are truer than the songwriters may have known. One of the many conundrums in the book of Daniel is the identity of Darius the Mede, the ruler who succeeds Babylonian Belshazzar and intersects somehow with Persian Cyrus  (Dan 5:31; 9:1; 11:1). You probably don’t know about this puzzle unless you’ve taken or taught a class on Daniel or buried your nose in a Daniel commentary at some point.

Here’s the problem. Outside the book of Daniel, nobody’s ever heard of Darius the Mede. You might say, “So? Has anybody ever heard of, say, Ehud or Shamgar outside the Bible?” (If you’ve never heard of Ehud or Shamgar, a read through Judges 3 will fix that.) True enough, but Ehud and Shamgar acquired their “fame” because of their exploits on behalf of some no-name tribes tucked in the hill country of an insignificant player on the world stage. By contrast, Darius the Mede appears in Daniel as the ruler of a conquered Babylon, predecessor to the vast Persian empire. We have reams of historical data from mighty Mesopotamian empires, so it is a bit unsettling that nowhere in the dusty documents (by which I mean clay tablets) is anyone named Darius the Mede. (There’s a whole line-up of Persian Dariuses. The problem is with this Median Darius.)

Before you say, “Well, the Bible says it, so I believe it,” and dismiss the issue as unimportant, let me gently remind you that biblical faith is a historical faith – that is, what we believe is grounded in God’s actions on the stage of history. Thus, there are historical constraints to how we understand some things that the Bible says. For example, in Genesis 21 Abraham stays “in the land of the Philistines,” but well-documented history tells us that the Philistines aren’t in the land of Canaan until several hundred years later (around 1200 BC). This doesn’t mean the Bible is lying or getting history wrong, but it does mean that we need to explain why the biblical writer would say this.

So, who was Darius the Mede? There are four basic options:

  • A Persian king. In this option, some will say Darius the Mede = Cyrus the Persian (see Dan 6:28, where some translations say “Darius, that is, Cyrus the Persian.” This is not playing fast and loose with the Aramaic text – it is a legitimate way, though not the only way, to read it.) Others will say both “Cyrus” and “Darius” were titles (like “Caesar” or “Czar”), and ancient Near Eastern kings often held more than one title.
  • A Median king. The known Median kings from this period include Astyages and Cyaxares. If one of these is Darius the Mede, we can thank history for giving us an easier name to pronounce.
  • A governor of Babylon during the Persian period. These “kings” were appointed by Persian Cyrus, and we know of a couple from historical records: Ugbaru and Gubaru.
  • A case of mistaken identity. Many scholars argue that the author of Daniel made a mistake in naming this character and used the name Darius from Persian records. I consider this option untenable because of what I believe about the Bible, but I also think it overlooks the deliberate repetition of Darius’s descent (Dan 5:31; 9:1; 11:1). The author is pretty insistent that Darius was a Mede.

The identity of Darius the Mede remains a mystery, but we hope that someday archaeologists will find another clay tablet somewhere that clears things up. While we may not be able to verify every event or confirm the existence of every person the Bible mentions, it’s worth our time to try.

8 responses to “Darius the Precarious”

  1. Thanks Wendy–very informative and easy to read. You can tell you’ve done your homework– the way that the information seems to flow out of you with ease suggests a sense of mastery. Definitely have to start following your blog now.

  2. Let’s look to the Book of Esther for another explanation. There is no historical figure named “Ahsaharius” for that time period. The explanation in Jewish literature is that title was a facetious offshoot of two words paraphrased to mean “he gives a headache”, I think they are “Ach Varoosh”. Two similar words also mean “great leader”, so he was called a term he thought was great leader but in truth it was meant to be “gives a headache”. Similarly the person likely Jesus in the Talmud is titled “Yeshua ben Pantera”, ben Pantera being either “son of tiger” or son of a Roman Legion officer. Either case being a facetious reference to the virgin birth, felt to be a cover for Mary’s indiscretion. Perhaps in Darius the Mede a similar satire is contained.

    1. Hmm. I suppose it’s possible, though I don’t know what the reference would be – and I haven’t read anyone who suggests one. So – we’ll leave your hypothesis out there for someone to tackle. 🙂

    2. Jeff – your theory has been rattling around in my head this week, and I’ve decided it’s really unlikely. 🙂 Here’s why. First, “Darius” is a well-known name from the time. It’s not a play on words. Second, Darius is not a king that the book of Daniel mocks like it does both Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. So, it doesn’t make sense that “Darius” would be some kind of satirical reference to the Median king.

  3. […] already talked about the problem of Darius the Mede himself – namely, who on the ancient Near Eastern earth was he – but that’s just one of two […]

  4. […] more laughs…), chapter 6 left off in the reign of Darius, which, despite general confusion about Darius’s identity, we at least know he comes after the fall of Babylon (539 BC). But chapter 7 turns back the clock a […]

  5. […] (now that would be some good extra sleep!). Chapter 6 (lions’ den) ended during the reign of Darius, which is sometime after the fall of Babylon in 539. Daniel’s visions in chapters 7 and 8 both […]

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