The moment Daniel had understood that he was called to serve his God by serving Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, he had known that there would be some difficult moments. Now here he stood as Belteshazzar, one of the king’s favorites, and he was being called upon to make a judgment. It was an unusual set of circumstances that had put him in this position, because there would normally be judges assigned to such a task. But the village that served the exiles here was under the king’s control, and the captain of the guards had asked him to intervene. His instructions were to intervene when a case might cause trouble, and this one could certainly do that.
On the one hand was a young man, no more than in his early twenties, and perhaps as young as his late teens, an exile from Judah. On the other an almost equally pitiful farmer, who was bowing low to the ground before the great noble lord. Belteshazzar wondered how they would feel if they realized that he also was an exile from Judah. But that didn’t matter any more. He was now an official of the king, and easily the highest ranked person within a day’s ride of this place. Even the officers of his guard outranked everyone present.
The young man was also bowing to the ground, but it was not out of respect. He’d been thrown there, and a soldier was holding his neck down with the haft of his spear. Before the guard had pushed him there, Belteshazaar had seen his look of angry defiance mixed with despair. The young man was certain that he was about to die, and he was trying to do so with some pride.
“Rise!” he ordered.
“Who brings charges against this man?”
“I do, my lord.” It was the farmer.
“My lord, I am Nabu-etir, and I had in my possession a silver goblet, precious, a gift from a soldier I served as a manservant. The goblet was stolen from my house, and was found in the possession of that man.” He pointed to the young man.
“What is your proof of ownership?”
“I have here the grant made to me by my master, whose life I saved.” He passed to a guard a clay tablet, who passed it on to Belteshazzar. Belteshazzar examined it carefully, and read the writing on the outside. It was a fairly standard tablet for such a purpose, clearly wrapped a second time with clay with a copy inscribed on the outer shell, thus guaranteeing against forgery. The outer shell could be broken and the text inside read and compared. As Belteshazzar read, however, he noticed something odd. There were a number of errors in writing on the tablet, as well as several signs which were unusual. It looked just a bit like a student exercise, in which one might spell out the syllables of a word or a god’s name when a single sign might normally be used.
“This soldier,” he said, reading the text, “WARDU-ILANI, granted you this cup as a reward for saving his life. Yet you live the life of a poor tenant farmer.”
“My lord, I am a simple man of the soil. Yet the object is precious to me.”
Belteshazzar addressed the guard. “Where is this cup?” A soldier came forward and handed it to him.
“What is the inscription on here?”
“A dedication to some barbaric god, my lord.” Belteshazzar read the simple inscription in Hebrew: “LYTM BN YHYKM.” Odd that. No such son of Jehoiakim (YHYKM) was known, but it was not impossible that there had been one, lost in the confusion. It was also possible that another YHYKM than the obvious one was meant Obviously nobody here realized that he would be able to read the inscription on the cup.
“So you do not know anything about this cup, other than that it was a gift?”
“My lord, it was part of the spoils of Canaan, but beyond that I know nothing. I faithfully served my lord Wardu-ilani, and he rewarded me.”
“He gave you a cup, and he provided you with a document of tranfer so that your claim could not be questioned.”
“Indeed it cannot, my lord. The claim and the description is clear.”
Well, it might well be clear, assuming this “Wardu-ilani” knew nothing of what he had taken from the spoils, and the scribe who had written the deed was only marginally literate, and assuming that Abed-ilanu actually existed. The name was not impossible, but was a touch generic for Belteshazzar’s taste, considering the man himself was not there to verify. “Servant of the gods” indeed! There was something else about that tablet that bothered him, but he wasn’t sure what. It would come to him in a moment.
“What is your name?” he said to the younger man.
“I am Yotham, son of Jehoiakim, a prince of Judah,” he answered, straightening his body. The translator for the soldiers assigned to guard this village proceeded to translate, stumbling and slow. Nonetheless, even though he understood both Babylonian and Hebrew better than the interpreter apparently did, Belteshazzar preferred to keep his history out of the picture. None of these people seemed to realize it, and he had no plans to enlighten them.
“And this goblet is yours?”
“Yes, my lord, it is mine. I brought it with me, the sole heirloom of my house, when I was brought her to Babylon in the exile of Zedekiah. I hid it and preserved it. It is mine!”
“Yet you have no document indicating your ownership.” Belteshazzar could see the triumphant smile on Nabu-etir’s face. Clearly he thought he had won his case. One had a document, one did not. Simple!
“I have the inscription on the cup. It says, ‘belonging to Yotham, son of Jehoiakim.’ I’m Yotham, son of Jehoiakim. The cup is mine.”
Either he was telling the truth, or he had concocted a rather fantastic lie. It would have been easier to claim to have been the son of a court official with the same name, than to claim actual kinship with the king.
“Yet how could he bring the cup all the way from Canaan without it being discovered?” asked Nabu-etir. “That would be impossible! Clearly he is lying, and what is more, I have my document!”
Belteshazzar could see that all the guards, except his inner circle, and the villagers, both Babylonian and Judean, were against the boy. Clearly he had made a big deal of his princely blood, and alienated many. But there was only one real consideration, not who was the better person, but who actually owned the cup.
Then he realized what was bothering him about the tablet. He thought he had felt a slight dampness, perhaps a slight give. But he couldn’t see any problem when he looked again. Perhaps it was one of those moments of divine wisdom that came to him from time to time. There was only one way to check.
“Bring me a hammer,” he told one of his servants.
When the tool was delivered, he took it and carefully broke the outer layer of clay to get to the inner text. He preserved most of the text, and quickly compared the two. Again, though there was no difference in meaning, there were differences in spelling and in the formation of the signs that suggested it had not been done by a professional scribe. But further, as he pressed his fingers on the inner tablet, he felt the outer layer give, and he brok through to wet clay inside. He pulled the tablet into several pieces and showed the wet clay to the assembled people.
“The clay cannot be wet on a deed that is dated ten years ago,” he said, looking at Nabu-etir.
The man’s expression fell in shock. Clearly he had not thought of this. Then Belteshazzar had an inspiration.
“In your youth, you attended a scribal school.”
The man simply nodded, dumbfounded.
“You failed and wound up slave to a soldier.”
He nodded again.
“You served him well, and were granted tenancy on some land, an improvement in your lifestyle, but not what such a goblet could have done. With it, you could have bought your way to wherever you wanted. So you prepared this tablet.”
The man said nothing at that point, but he knew he was finished.
“You have attempted to steal this cup from this young man by fraud. Your penalty should be 10 times its value to be paid to its rightful owner. Can you pay this?”
The man simply looked up helplessly.
Belteshazzar turned to the guards. “Take Nabu-etir to his lord, and tell him what has happened here. I expect that there will be no action taken against the exiles because of this embarassment. Whatever his lord chooses to do, that is acceptable.”
“Yotham, son of Jehoiakim, you will come with me. We will investigate this claim of yours, and if it is valid, you will receive provisions from the king. If not, you will suffer the penalties of lying to the court.”
And once again, Belteshazzar served his king and by doing so also served his God. “How long, Lord,” he prayed silently, “Must I carry this burden?”