Did Nebuchadnezzar say that the spirit of the “holy gods” or “holy God” was in Daniel?

Q.  In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar says several times that the “spirit of the holy gods” is in Daniel.  In my Bible there’s a footnote that says this could also be translated as the “Spirit of the holy God.”  Which is right?

It might appear that the translation should be determined by whether the word for “God” (or “god”) is singular or plural in the original.  But things are actually a bit more complicated than that.  This account is written in Aramaic, and in that language, as in Hebrew, there’s a “plural of excellence.”  If something is the supreme example of its own class, it’s put in the plural, even though it’s just one thing, not more than one.  The name for the supreme God in the Old Testament is therefore plural: Elohim in Hebrew, Elohin in Aramaic.  But the same word can also be used to refer to multiple “gods.”  So in what sense is Nebuchadnezzar using the term when he refers to Daniel in this account?

The vast majority of English Bibles translate it as “gods.” For example, almost all of the approximately forty English versions (not counting multiple editions of the same translation) that can be surveyed on BibleGateway render the expression this way. This likely reflects the reasonable assumption that Nebuchadnezzar is a pagan and a polytheist and so would naturally talk like this.

Only four of those versions—the NKJV, Amplified Bible, Jubilee Bible, and Modern English Version—instead have Nebuchadnezzar say that the “Spirit of the holy God” is in Daniel.  However, the ESV, RSV, NASB, and Good News Bible all provide this as an alternative translation in a footnote.  And I think that the possibility should at least be acknowledged to that extent.

Nebuchadnezzar’s account is actually a letter “to the nations and peoples of every language,” in which he acknowledges repeatedly that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”  Since Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that Daniel speaks on behalf of the “Most High,” he may well be addressing him as someone in whom is the “Spirit of the holy God,” meaning the Supreme God.

It might be countered that “the holy gods” was a characteristic Babylonian way to refer to the entire pantheon of gods that were recognized in that culture.  If the phrase is found with that meaning in ancient Babylonian literature or inscriptions (I’m not aware whether it is), then that would strengthen the case for the most common translation.  But we can note that the phrase does not appear in the book of Daniel where it otherwise might if it actually were a formula for the pantheon.  For example, Nebuchadnezzar challenges Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego by asking, “What god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”  He doesn’t say, “Which of the holy gods will be able to rescue you?”  So once again, even if “the holy gods” is chosen as the translation, I think it’s wise to provide “the holy God” as an alternative.

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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