Why is “mene” written twice in the handwriting on the wall?

Q. In the handwriting on the wall in the book of Daniel, why do you think God wrote “mene, mene” twice instead of just “mene, tekel, upharsin”? Does the repetition mean something?

For one thing, “mene” might be repeated to fill out the poetic line, so that it will have two parts with four syllables and two stresses each: mené, mené; tekél, parsín.    (The “u” is barely pronounced and simply means “and”; it’s a variation on the usual “w,” when it comes before “p.”)  As I note in this post, solemn pronouncements, including judgments like this one, are often spoken in poetry in the Old Testament.  Repeating “mene” allows the line to have a memorable poetic cadence.

But the repetition of the first word might also be a clue that each word actually has a double meaning.  As I explain in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation:

The inscription is a play on words.  In one sense, it lists the names of three coins of decreasing value: the minah (worth many shekels), the tekel (the Aramaic form of the word shekel itself), and the peres (half-shekel; parsin is the plural).  This duplicates the image in the statue dream of materials of decreasing value, underscoring God’s purposes to replace the Babylonian empire with later ones.  (The narrator echoes this image by describing how the goblets from Jerusalem were gold and silver, while the gods of Babylon were gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone.)  

But the meaning of the inscription also rests on the derivation of the names of these coins.  Minah comes from a verb meaning “to count” or “to number”; tekel comes from the verb “to weigh”; and peres from a verb meaning “to divide.”  Daniel explains how all of these meanings apply to Belshazzar and his doomed empire.  (Peres is also a play on the word “Persian.”)

So this was a very dense puzzle; the last term actually has a triple meaning, disclosing the identity of the empire that would soon conquer Babylon. Even though the repetition of “mene” might have offered a slight clue to its interpretation, “all the king’s wise men . . . could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.”  But Daniel showed both his divine gifting and the certain fate of Babylon when he interpreted the puzzle.

Rembrandt, “Belshazzar’s Feast,” 1635. In this depiction the words read from top to bottom and then from right to left. (Uparsin takes up the two leftmost columns.) In Aramaic they would more likely have read from right to left and then from top to bottom.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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