The last days of Babylon are depicted in the Bible with the story of King Belshazzar’s feast in Daniel 5, in which Daniel interprets a vision for the king. In gratitude, Belshazzar “gave the command, and Daniel was clothed with purple, a chain of gold was put around his neck, and a proclamation was made about him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom” (Daniel 5:29).
Why third ruler? The story of Joseph offers a parallel in some respects. In Genesis 41, after Joseph successfully interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams he was made second ruler (after Pharaoh). Interestingly, the text of the Cyrus Cylinder claims that King Nabonidus put his first-born son (Belshazzar) in charge of Babylon as regent. This information (not indicated in the Bible text) provides us with a simple explanation for why Daniel is offered third place by Belshazzar (who is never described as “king” in the cylinder). If Belshazzar himself is second ruler, his right-hand man would be the third ruler.
The Cyrus Cylinder offers other details that are consistent with Old Testament accounts. In particular, the cylinder claims that when Cyrus conquered the Babylonian empire he came as a “harbinger of peace” and subsequently “collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements”. This matches up with the accounts we read in the biblical book of Ezra (1:2-3) about a Jewish return to Jerusalem during this period: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel — he is the God who is in Jerusalem.” The restoration of displaced people to their homes would have been unusual at the time. Cyrus’s policy of returning people to their settlements differed significantly from the earlier deportations undertaken by the Babylonian and Assyrian empires.
For modern-day readers the survival of this small cylinder provides an extraordinary glimpse into the political context of some of the most significant events in the Old Testament. You can read more about the Cyrus Cylinder, along with a translation of the cuneiform text, on the British Museum website. You can also visit Room 52 at the British Museum virtually on Google Street View.