Who were the “wisemen” in the court of Nebuchadnezzar?
Daniel uses six terms for these court advisers: wise men (חכמים), enchanters (אשפים), magicians (חרטמים), Chaldeans (כשדים), determiners (גזרין), and sorcerers (מכשפים). I am of the opinion of S.R. Driver, the great Oxford scholar of the last century, that these terms seem to be used “with some vagueness.”1 They call to mind the various vain techniques and hopeless strategies employed by pagan “wisemen” and “experts” aimed at gaining insight into the affairs of history beyond that of mortal humans.
The famous description of Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) recalls their work:
Now the Chaldeans, belonging as they do to the most ancient inhabitants of Babylonia, have about the same positions among the divisions of the state as that occupied by the priests of Egypt; for being assigned to the service of the gods they spend their entire life in study, their greatest renown being in the field of astrology. But they occupy themselves largely with soothsaying as well, making predictions about future events, and in some cases by purifications, in others by sacrifices, and in others by some other charms they attempt to effect the averting of evil things and the fulfilment of the good. They are also skilled in soothsayings by the flight of birds, and they give out interpretations of both dreams and portents. They also show marked ability in making divinations from the observation of the entrails of animals, deeming that in this branch they are eminently successful.2
This description of their expertise finds parallels in the library of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, which contains a significant portion of texts listing incantations against evil spirits and diseases, and a fair number of chants aimed at fortune and the avoidance of ill.3
These dubious methods, which Daniel 2 alleges that even the king doubts, stand in stark contrast to the simple piety of Daniel and his three friends. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the eternal Creator, has spoken to his people and drawn them into covenant. He has spoken through his prophets and continues to speak, as through Jeremiah still active in Jerusalem. This is true wisdom from the Almighty, true interpretation, and true prescription. He reveals the hearts of humans, triumphs over the forces of darkness, and holds the keys of death and Hades. The Almighty God responds to the prayers of his people, of those who worship him and keep his covenant, exalting the humble and saving the just. But he responds as he wishes and will not be manipulated into revelation. In the darkness of Babylon the light of God shines in the persons of four young men.
1Driver, The Cambridge Bible, 15.
2Diodorus of Sicily, 2.29.2-3, translated by C.H. Oldfather, Loeb Classical Library.
3It is unclear how much they were influenced by Zoroastrianism. See for example Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. I, Leiden (1975), and the discussion of Beck, Roger (2003), "Zoroaster, as perceived by the Greeks", Encyclopaedia Iranica, New York: iranica.com.