The good measures of power

The good measures of power

The mystery revealed/10 - The prophets who do not speak of "lowbrow" economy lower faith.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 05/06/2022

"What particularly distinguishes the God of the Jews is that he is a God who speaks. This is why prophets are prominent in the Jewish tradition"

Jacques Lacan The seminar​

Daniel interprets the mysterious writing that a "hand" had written on the wall of the palace of the Chaldean king and reveals the importance of coins and measurement in the Bible and in life.

Prophecy is the mystery of an infinite freedom and an equally infinite non-freedom. It is the freest experience in terms of man that there can be on earth because it is the least free experience in the face of the voice that inhabits the prophet and speaks to him. Having, at all costs, to obey that different voice, the prophets must at all costs disobey all the other voices that constantly try to manipulate their voice, which is free because it is gratuitous. Every absolute and perfect fidelity is absolute and perfect infidelity to everything that corrupts that first vocational fidelity. The prophets are this vital inextricable interweaving of obedience and disobedience, of fidelity and infidelity, of gratuitousness and obligation. Hence, also of a love for gifts and a hate for gifts. Because gifts are an expression of power relationships that strengthen power (gift in Italian, regalo comes from rex, regis: re = king). In the Bible, gifts are almost always gifts without gratuitousness, offered to (or by) the king and (or by) leaders for the sole or primary purpose of consolidating the pre-established hierarchy, expressing - with the silent and powerful language of objects and things - who really commands and who plays the role of the servant, perhaps while wrapped in gift wrapping and ribbons.

«So Daniel was brought before the king, and the king said to him, “Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? ... If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom”» (The Book of Daniel 5,13-16).

Once again, the Chaldean sages and magicians had not been able to read nor to interpret the words that a mysterious hand, perhaps the hand of God, had written on the wall during a banquet – «The king watched the hand as it wrote» (Daniel 5,5). Belshazzar’s vision with the hand of God is an "area" in which the Bible has influenced modern social sciences, following the use that Scottish economist Adam Smith made of it in 1759 in the wake of Calvin (Institute, 1536), centering his theory of the market around the image of the (invisible) "Hand", already used previously, in 1751 by Neapolitan economist Ferdinando Galiani in the "The supreme Hand".

Daniel's answer reveals an essential aspect dimension of biblical prophecy: «Then Daniel answered the king, “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means"» (Daniel 5,17). The prophet does not reveal mysteries for money, he does not respond to monetary or power incentives. He works by vocation, and that is it - "nevertheless I ...". This is a key element in distinguishing true prophets from false ones, philosophers by vocation (Socrates) from philosophers for profit (the sophists). A separation that continues to cross our secularized world, where Daniel and the Chaldean magicians still work side by side; but we no longer have the tools to distinguish them and so we almost always end up interpreting the high price of their invoices as a sign of the quality of the "prophets", and their fees as a sign of their honour.

Give your rewards to someone else. We find many examples of strong criticism of gifts in the Bible, but to understand it we would have to translate gifts with rewards. In order to make his gift to the king, Daniel must clear the ethical field of the king's rewards. This is an essential operation whenever someone wants to give a free gift to those who are objectively on a higher hierarchical level: the gift only becomes possible if the giver manages to put himself in a condition of freedom that allows him to be able to live gratuitousness (there is no gratuitousness without freedom and vice versa). Herein lies the reason why the gifts of the poor to the powerful are almost always impossible and why helping people out of their misery means helping them to free themselves from gifts and being able to start giving them instead. Gestures that are almost impossible, but not always impossible, because sometimes, in any context, we can be greater than our destiny.

Now, free, thanks to the loyalty to his vocation, Daniel can finally interpret the mysterious phrase that the hand had written on the wall. The first part of Daniel's speech makes only use of memory. He reminds Belshazzar of the story of his father Nebuchadnezzar (who was perhaps his grandfather) that despite his initial haughtiness, which cost him his reduction to a bestial state, ended up converting and recognized « that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth» (Daniel 5,21). Belshazzar, on the other hand, «have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this» (Daniel 5,22) and «you praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand» ( Daniel 5,23), and so from the true God «…he sent the hand that wrote the inscription» ( Daniel 5,24). A loud and clear verdict of guilt, which did not leave much hope regarding the meaning of that writing. Here we have finally arrived at the unveiling of the mystery: «This is the inscription that was written: "Mene mene tekel parsin"» (Daniel 5,25).

Daniel immediately solves the first enigma: the magicians and the Chaldean sages had not been able to read or interpret the writing at all, Daniel instead just reads the words on the wall. That sentence, however, said nothing comprehensible, not even to a biblical reader. It must have sounded similar to Dante's «Pape Satan, Pape Satan, Aleppe». Daniel therefore also reveals the meaning of those mysterious words: «“Here is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians”» (Daniel 5,26-28).

This verse in the Book of Daniel is among the most commented on in the Bible, because it is among the most controversial. Ancient and modern rabbis, Church Fathers, theologians and exegetes have all offered various readings (also due to the slight differences between the Hebrew and the Greek text of the Seventy). The Book of Daniel thus explains the words "mene", "tekel" and "parsin" as: "numbered", "weighed" and "divided". In the light of some inscriptions found in the late nineteenth century, these references to numbering, weighing and dividing advanced a hypothesis that most scholars today are has convinced of: the words of the mural were originally Babylonian coins. And for an economist (like me) it is no small thing; indeed it means a lot. Mene was a minah, tekel a shekel, parsin are the two parts of a broken minah. Thus, the mystery is revealed: minah, minah, shekel, two halves of a minah. Coins that could say to King Belshazzar: your father Nebuchadnezzar was a minah, you are a shekel (i.e. one fiftieth of a minah), that is, you are not worth much, and the Babylonian kingdom is a minah destined to be broken in two and divided between Medes and Persians. Ancient rabbis used to use the expression "a minah, the son of half a minah", to indicate an excellent son of a humble father. In ancient times, coins were born as measures of volume and weight - a shekel weighed around ten grams, the Latin libra meant balance in Latin. Hence: numbered (the days of Nebuchadnezzar), weighed (the lowest value of Belshazzar) and divided (the reign of the father between Medes and Persians).

The very probable presence of coins in this mysterious divine inscription tells us many things. Babylon was an economic and financial superpower, and thus the language of coins was universal and understandable to the general public. In that world, even God used coins to send messages. Telling us that in a society where economics and finance are very important (there were many banks in Babylon), God must learn to speak the language of coins and economics. At least the prophets had to learn. And when God and the prophets do not know how to talk about economics, or do not wish to talk about it because they consider it to be too lowbrow, it is faith that becomes too low to be able to look far and deep into the hearts of real people.

The language of coins is not foreign language to the Bible, to the Old or the New Testament. Because not all of us are experts in theology, but we all, including the illiterate, understand the different language of coins - my uncle Dominic did not know how to read, but when he sold chickens, he never made a mistake in calculating a price. The Bible uses coins extensively: the 400 silver shekels for Sarah's tomb, the 17,000 of the field of Jeremiah in Anathoth, the two denarii paid to the hotelier, the thirty denarii of Judas, the three hundred denarii of the woman who poured out the perfume. The Bible has counted, numbered, weighed and divided, to tell us that people's lives cannot not go through from counting, numbering, weighing and dividing. Perhaps it even overdid it, when, in some pages, it also wants to read the sacrifices in the temple as payments recorded in a double entry between man and God, and the death and passion of Jesus Christ as payment of the price of salvation.

However, in using measures of value and weight to give a message to a king, Daniel tells us something, perhaps, even more important. The day after the banquet, October 12, 539 BC, the empire fell occupied by the Persians. Belshazzar was murdered. That party and that mysterious hand were the last act of the Babylonian empire: «That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain» (Daniel 5,30). Belshazzar had made a mistake in his relationship with money and coins, he had not been able to count and measure properly: above all he had mistaken the measure of his power. Good governance is always a question of measure, knowing how to measure how far to push your strength and power when they appear omnipotent: every form of limitless power is perverse and perverted.

Daniel gave his gift to the king and he solved and revealed the mystery. However, it was a tremendous gift, it was the announcement of his end, but in exchange he obtained rewards and gifts from the king - which were no longer the price of his prophetic performance. These gifts from the king that come in the face of the unveiling of a fate of death is the greeting of the Book of Daniel to Belshazzar, a ruler the Babylonians did not really love. And so he leaves us one last precious message: gifts are not always nice, they do not always bring us good news. Sometimes a gift - a true word, an unexpected encounter - can hurt us, it can be terrible, it can announce a past, a present and a future that we would not wish for. The gift remains a gift even when we do not like it, it can do us good while hurting us. Daniel made his gift to Belshazzar by offering him a last moment of truth on the last day of his life, and, thanks to the Bible, that gift, tremendous and true, remains forever.

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