King Nebuchadnezzar's Dream & Bible Story

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Nebuchadnezzar is often remembered for his dreams in the Hebrew Bible, but what did they mean? Read more in this lesson about the meaning and historical context of these dreams and other stories.

Who Was King Nebuchadnezzar?

From the fiery furnace incident to killing Babylonians for not being able to interpret his dream, Nebuchadnezzar is not portrayed very positively in the Hebrew Bible. It is unclear how much of the story of the king in the Book of Daniel is historically accurate because things like Nebuchadnezzar's seven-year period of insanity are not found in other sources. Historically, and in Daniel's story, King Nebuchadnezzar II was often bad news for the Jews. As the ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the strongest kingdom of the time during its peak, Nebuchadnezzar focused on expansion. This involved conquering other nations, including Daniel's homeland of Judah, which the Book of Daniel opens with.

Engraving of Nebuchadnezzar II
Engraving of Nebuchadnezzar II

Jews in the Babylonian Court

After conquering Judah, Nebuchadnezzar decided to keep some of the royal and ''handsome'' children to work and educate in his court, which would keep their parents more content and save the conqueror from retaliation. Daniel, of course, was among these. The story of Nebuchadnezzar's dream shows a desperate and troubled man seeking answers, no matter where they came from. Only in the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar kept having a troubling dream, so he called a variety of magicians from his court to interpret. These Chaldeans, or Babylonians, could not interpret the dream, with no surprise, because the king did not tell them the dream at all, perhaps because Nebuchadnezzar doubted their reliability in the first place and wanted to know they were legitimate magicians.

Nebuchadnezzar's First Dream

Because the magicians could not tell him about his dream, he ordered all the ''wise men'' in the court to be executed, which included Daniel and the other Jews. But Daniel, after praying, received a vision in his sleep of the dream and reported it to Nebuchadnezzar, both dream and interpretation. Nebuchadnezzar's dream has much in common with dreams recorded in other texts in the Ancient Near East. According to the Book of Daniel, the king saw an enormous statue made of four different metals. The head was made of gold, the torso of silver, the stomach and upper legs of bronze, and the legs of iron, with some clay mixed in for the feet. When Nebuchadnezzar saw this statue, a stone was bashed into the feet of it, causing the clay to break and the statue to collapse, leaving just the stone in its place.

Daniel's Interpretation of the First Dream

Whether to flatter the king or not, Daniel explained that the different metals represented different kingdoms, and Nebuchadnezzar's was the head of gold, implying it was a golden age, or time of prosperity. The other layers were then the kingdoms that followed Babylon, and each was not as great as the previous. Scholars believe the silver represented the Median Empire, which Nebuchadnezzar married into. The bronze layer was probably the Persian Empire, during which the Judeans returned from exile. The iron is easily identifiable as Greece, or the Hellenistic Empire, as it begins strong, then becomes mixed with clay, representative of the kingdom being split after Alexander the Great's death. The stone that breaks the statue ''not by human hands'' and becomes a mountain that overtakes the earth is, undoubtedly, Israel, reunited and placed in power by God.

Nebuchadnezzar's Rage

Though Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar's dream and was even promoted, Nebuchadnezzar did not allow for varying religious beliefs (contrary to his historical counterpart). He made a golden idol, perhaps reflective of his previous dream, and forced everyone to worship it, with the threat of the fiery furnace otherwise. Because three of Daniel's companions, whose names were changed to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, would not worship the idol, they were thrown into the furnace. Miraculously, they survived the experience because of their faith in God, according to the story.

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