Boasting, Boanthropy, and the Strange Case of Nebuchadnezzar
Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, presents us with a couple of challenging questions. Was he eventually converted to a genuine faith in the God of Israel? Perhaps. I’ll take that up in a subsequent article. But here I want us to look briefly at his boastful arrogance and the judgment God brought upon him. If he was later truly converted, it was this rather odd disciplinary procedure that likely accounts for it.
One day, as he was walking on the roof of his royal palace in Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar began reflecting on what he was convinced were his own personal accomplishments:
“Is this not great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30).
God did not take lightly this boastful claim to having accomplished what only he can do. We read that while these words were still in the king’s mouth, “there fell a voice from heaven, ‘O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Dan. 4:31-32).
This is a healthy reminder to us all that whether Trump or Biden is elected in November, it is God who ultimately determines who “rules the kingdom of men,” including the United States of America. But I want us especially to take note of the judgment that befell the Babylonian ruler. We read that
“he was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagle’s feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws” (Dan. 4:33).
Make no mistake, Babylon truly was a great and visually impressive city. It was surrounded by a system of double walls, the outer one of which was 17 miles long and wide enough for two chariots to race side by side on its top. Of the cities eight gates, the most beautiful was the Ishtar Gate. The processional street to which it gave access was 1,000 yards long and was decorated on each side by enameled bricks which displayed 120 lions and 575 dragons and bulls (symbols of Marduk and Bel).
There were more than 50 temples in the city. The “Hanging Gardens” were regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. “These were elevated gardens, high enough to be seen beyond the city walls. They boasted many different kinds of plants and palm trees. Ingenious hoists had been contrived by which to raise water to the high terraces from the Euphrates River. It is believed that the gardens were made by the king especially for the enjoyment of his wife, who had been raised in the mountains of Media” (Leon Wood, 119).
R. K. Harrison (Introduction to the Old Testament) says that in modern psychiatric terminology Nebuchadnezzar “would be described as suffering from paranoia, a mental disorder characterized by a lack of integrated relationship with environmental reality, which is generally complicated by the presence of systematized delusions” (1115). The condition described by Daniel, however, constitutes a rare form of monomania, a condition in which the sufferer is deranged in one significant area only. In Nebuchadnezzar’s case, he probably suffered from what is known as boanthropy in which the victim imagines himself to be a cow or bull and acts accordingly. The European werewolf legends are based on a related form of monomania known as lycanthropy. There have even been cases of avianthropy in which the person is convinced he/she is a bird and roosts each night in a tree!
Harrison describes his own personal encounter in 1946 with a victim of boanthropy. The patient was in a British mental institution. He was in his mid-twenties and had been hospitalized off and on for five years. Harrison writes:
“He was of average height and weight with good physique, and was in excellent bodily health. His mental symptoms included pronounced anti-social tendencies, and because of this he spent the entire day from dawn to dusk outdoors, in the grounds of the institution. He was only able to exercise a rather nominal degree of responsibility for his physical needs, and consequently was washed and shaved daily by an attendant. During the winter of 1946-47, when the writer observed him, he wore only light underclothing and a two-piece suit, with or without a sweater, during his daily peregrinations. The attendant reported to the writer that the man never wore any kind of raincoat or overcoat, and that he had never sustained such ill effects as . . . influenza or pneumonia.
His daily routine consisted of wandering around the magnificent lawns with which the otherwise dingy hospital situation was graced, and it was his custom to pluck up and eat handfuls of the grass as he went along. On observation he was seen to discriminate carefully between grass and weeds, and on inquiry from the attendant the writer was told that the diet of this patient consisted exclusively of grass from the hospital lawns. He never ate institutional food with the other inmates, and his only drink was water, which was served to him in a clean container so as to make it unnecessary for him to drink from muddy puddles. The writer was able to examine him cursorily, and the only physical abnormality noted consisted of a lengthening of the hair and a coarse, thickened condition of the finger-nails.
Without institutional care the patient would have manifested precisely the same physical conditions as those mentioned in Daniel 4:33. After having passed through a difficult and debilitating period occasioned by the Second World War and its aftermath, the writer was soberly impressed by the superb physical condition of the patient. His skin exhibited all the clinical indications of a healthy body; his muscles were firm and well-developed, his eyes were bright and clear, and he appeared to manifest a total immunity to all forms of physical disease. According to the attendant he was quiet in his behavior, reasonably co-operative for one so far divorced from reality, and never damaged institutional property” (1116-17).
It is far from certain that Nebuchadnezzar suffered from boanthropy, but it seems entirely likely. One can well imagine the snide comments made by his servants and especially his enemies:
“The old man has finally gone round the bend!”
“The king’s a cow!”
“Hey, where’s Nebuchadnezzar? Oh, he’s out back grazing!”
“What’s the king up to today? Oh, he’s just chewing his cud!”
“I’ll be back in a minute. I’m going to milk the king.”
“Anyone for Neb-burgers?”
Finally, Nebuchadnezzar lifted his eyes to heaven and his reason returned to him.
“[He] blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:34-35).
“It is important to note,” writes Joyce Baldwin, “the connection here between the exercise of faith and the return of reason. While he was full of his own importance Nebuchadnezzar’s world revolved round himself. It did not strike him how unrealistic this was until he was brought low by illness. Sanity begins with a realistic self-appraisal” (116).
Evidently Nebuchadnezzar was able to retain a sense of self and his relationship to God while yet in this condition. Since the purpose of the discipline was in response to his pride, there must be a measure of voluntary humility before the condition would lift. The fact that he raised his eyes toward heaven indicates that he has submitted and surrendered to God and acknowledged his need for him.
The affirmation by Nebuchadnezzar of divine omnipotence is important. The emphasis is on the insolence of disputing with God over what he may or may not do. God has both the right and power to do whatever he pleases (cf. Ps. 115:3). The language used here is taken from the custom of striking or spanking the hand of a child who reaches for something off-limits. How dare we treat God that way! No one can slap his hand and question his right to act as he chooses. Nebuchadnezzar would be the first to say: “What God has done to me was his right. I have no grounds for complaining.
But was this an authentic conversion from paganism to faith in the God of the Bible? I’ll try to answer this in the next article.