Biblical bottles: Balthasar to Melchizedek

Balthasar – 12 litres/16 bottles
Used in: Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy

Balthasar sees the writing on the wall in this famous interpretation of the Biblical tale by Rembrandt

This bottle size is sometimes thought to be named after one of the Magi, Balthasar of Babylon, who presented his gift of Myrrh to the infant Christ in Bethlehem.

Rather more likely, however, is that it is named after the regent of Babylon of the same name – the son of the last king of that ancient city before it fell to Cyrus the Great and the Persians in 539 BC.

Belshazzar or Balthasar seems a more likely candidate as his story fits far more neatly into the, somewhat, historical progression through the Old Testament that the bottle names take.

This is slightly flawed as, as we shall see, the larger bottle sizes are in fact going to largely take us back in time but nonetheless he fits better into the litany of kings we have generally seen so far.

Furthermore, along with Nebuchadnezzar, Balthasar forms a neat double act in much the same way as Jeroboam and Rehoboam do.

There is another reason too and that is there is a very clear link in the Bible between Balthasar and wine – in a sinful and gluttonous sense of course. And 16 bottles is nothing if not a little gluttonous.

The Book of Daniel lays out the scene nicely: “Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.

Belshazzar, whiles he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein.

Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them.

They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.”

Balthasar and the Babylonians are committing a great many sins in this scene, hubris and blasphemy among them, profaning the holy artefacts of the Hebrews, the temple treasures, by having their concubines and whores drink wine from them as if they were common vessels while praising their heathen gods. They condemn themselves through their impiousness.

Famously, while the revel is going on, a mysterious and unseen hand appears and writes a message on the walls of the palace dining room.

Filled with terror Balthasar orders his wise men to translate the strange words but they could not – the reason for this is not explained but it may be because the script was Aramaic/Hebrew rather than cuneiform.

Balthasar’s queen however has the bright idea to call up Daniel to see if he can interpret the words, which, indeed, he can (lending further heft to the idea it was written in Aramaic/Hebrew not cuneiform).

The words, he says, are: “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin”. Daniel takes up the story again: “This is the interpretation of the thing: Mene; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.

“Tekel; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.

“Peres; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.”

For Balthasar the writing was really on the wall in more ways than one, indeed he was apparently killed that very night and Babylon falls to “Darius the Median”.

Once again, as with so much in the Bible, one can question the entire episode, safe in the knowledge that the whole thing was retroactively slotted in to give greater heft to the story and scripture and is largely intended as allegory. There are other errors too such as the fact that Balthasar was not the son of Nebuchadnezzar nor the last king of Babylon. He was the son of Nabonidus who, in fact, was the last king of that great Mesopotamian civilisation. Nabonidus though was in exile from about 550 BC, according to Babylonian texts he disappeared to a desert oasis for many years for reasons that are unclear and Balthasar became regent or ‘crown prince’ in his absence.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that in several respects the Bible narrative once again strays close to what we now know to be historical fact. Balthasar was in Babylon at the time of its capture and it appears he was deposed and killed by an invading army of Persians under Cyrus in 539 BC. The fall of Babylon as foretold by Daniel.

Babylon became the new centre of what was soon to be the Achaemenid Persian Empire and Cyrus, famously, releases the Jews from bondage in Babylon and allows them to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, an act for which he is ever remembered in Jewish tradition as Cyrus the Great.

Read more: Biblical bottles: Jeroboam to Salmanazar

2 Responses to “Biblical bottles: Balthasar to Melchizedek”

  1. Ian campbell says:

    What a fascinating series of articles. We don’t know the author’s name but he is a historian who also knows his Bible. And it’s always good to know that drinking has never gone out of fashion!

  2. Ian campbell says:

    Sorry! The author’s name is Rupert Millar.

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