Mesopotamia - Babylon
by Alan Lenzi
For almost two thousand years, Babylon was one of the most important cities in ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Iraq. If you combine the economic vitality of New York, the political power of Washington, D.C., and the religious significance of Jerusalem today, you’ll get a sense of Babylon’s stature in the biblical world. Compared to Babylon, Israel and Judah were the sticks—interstate stopovers, so to speak, like Effingham, Illinois, or Wendover, Utah.
What do the Babylonians have to do with the Hebrew Bible?
The Hebrew Bible mentions Babylon more than 280 times. To understand this prominence, you need to know something about Babylonian history and culture.
Situated on the Euphrates River, Babylon rose to prominence under King Hammurabi in the eighteenth century B.C.E. Although Babylon’s political fortunes varied over the centuries, the city remained an important religious center and icon of Mesopotamian culture throughout its long history. Its name became synonymous with the southern region of Mesopotamia (Babylonia).
Although important earlier, it was not until the late seventh century B.C.E., under Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 B.C.E.), that Babylon became the capital of a vast empire stretching the length of the Fertile Crescent. Within decades, Babylon fell to the Persians under Cyrus (in 539 B.C.E.), but the city continued to flourish. When the Greek king Alexander took Babylon from the Persians in 331 B.C.E., he planned to make it his Asian capital; only his untimely death prevented this. The city lost its luster under Alexander’s successors, the Seleucids, and fell to the Parthians in 141 B.C.E. Its ruins presently lie about 60 miles southwest of modern Baghdad.
Thousands of cuneiform tablets from Babylonia (and Assyria, its northeastern neighbor) preserve ancient texts that illuminate the biblical world. Enuma Elish, the Atrahasis Epic, and the Epic of Gilgamesh offer parallels to the creation accounts and flood stories in Gen 1-11. Ritual tablets describe the Babylonian process of “making” a god from wood and introducing him into his temple (compare Isa 44:9-20). Babylonian prayers recall biblical psalms, depicting familiar religious concepts (such as sin and reconciliation) and practices (for example, prostration and hand raising). Babylonian tablets also provide evidence for ancient scribal techniques of editing, adapting, and copying traditional texts. This sheds light on how biblical scribes would have produced the Bible.
Why did the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and exile its people?
The Hebrew Bible presents the Babylonian exile as a theological issue: Judah broke the covenant with its god, and exile was their punishment (see Lev 26:27-39; Deut 28:58-68; 2Kgs 17:19-20, 2Kgs 24:1-4). It also depicts the exile as the result of several political miscalculations on the part of Judah’s leadership during its final decades (2Kgs 23-25).
In the late seventh century, the Judean kings found themselves in the middle of a political hornets’ nest. Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, had fallen to the Babylonians and Medes in 612 B.C.E., freeing Judah from Assyrian rule. In 609, the Egyptians rushed to support Assyria in their final stand in Syria. Josiah (640–609 B.C.E.), Judah’s king, was eager to see Assyria’s final demise, so he tried to block the Egyptians’ route at Megiddo; but the Egyptians killed him (2Kgs 23:29-30; 2Chr 35:20-24). Suddenly, Egypt was calling the shots in Judah.
The Egyptians took the kingship from one son of Josiah, Jehoahaz, and gave it to another, Jehoiakim (ruled 609-598 B.C.E.), who became their puppet (2Kgs 23:33-35). But Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Egyptians in 605 B.C.E. at the battle of Carchemish and took control of Syria and Judah. Jehoiakim was Nebuchadnezzar’s puppet now.
The Judean kings were restless under Babylonian rule. In 598 B.C.E. the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem to squelch Jehoiakim’s rebellion. He died before the Babylonians succeeded in taking the city. But in 597 B.C.E., his son Jehoiachin and many of Judah’s citizens, including the prophet Ezekiel, were taken into exile for their insurrection (2Kgs 24:12-16). Nebuchadnezzar appointed Zedekiah, another son of Josiah, as king. He, too, rebelled against his Babylonian master; the Babylonian army laid siege to Jerusalem again, and in 586 B.C.E. the Babylonians destroyed the city, leveled its temple, and exiled many of its people to Babylonia (2Kgs 25; Jer 52).
From the Babylonian perspective, the destruction of Jerusalem was necessary to maintain the imperial political order.
Alan Lenzi, "Mesopotamia - Babylon", n.p. [cited 13 Aug 2020]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/mesopotamia_babylon
Associate Professor, University of the Pacific
Alan Lenzi is associate professor of religious and classical studies at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He specializes in the study of first-millennium ancient Near Eastern religious traditions, including the Mesopotamian imperial context of the Hebrew Bible. A number of his publications are accessible at the following URL: http://pacific.academia.edu/AlanLenzi.
Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity
A region in northern Mesopotamia whose kings ruled most of the ancient Near East in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.
An ancient Mesopotamian text which includes stories of creation and flood that parallel Biblical accounts.
Ancient lower Mesopotamia, which for much of the second and first millenniums was the under the control of an empire centered in Babylon.
Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.
The writing system of ancient Mesopotamia, consisting of wedges pressed into clay.
A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.
A Babylonian creation myth that describes how the god Marduk triumphed over chaos, paralleling the Creation story of Genesis 1.
A Mesopotamian epic centered around the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and his quest for immortality, with themes of humanity, friendship, and the duties of kings.
Together with the Tigris, the Euphrates is one of the two defining rivers of Mesopotamia.
The crescent-shaped region stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Its fertile land made agriculture easy, making it the location of many early human developments.
A Mesopotamian king from ~2500 B.C.E.; he became the hero of a major epic poem and was addressed as a deity in later religious texts.
The king of Babylon from 1792-1750 BCE; he distributed a set of widely influential laws, the "Code of Hammurabi," throughout his kingdom.
The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."
Persons belonging to the ancient Parthian Empire in Persia (modern-day Iran), which lasted from the third century B.C.E. to the third century C.E.
Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.
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The period between 586 and 539 B.C.E., when the leaders and elite of Judea were exiled to Babylon. The exile ended when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return home.
Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.
Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.
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Defeat by Pharaoh Neco and Death of Josiah
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The Destruction of Jerusalem Reviewed
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Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).
A Babylonian deity who becomes the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, as recounted in the Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish.
The last ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, ruled from 555–539 B.C.E. Nabonidus promoted worship of the moon god Sin over the national god of Babylon, Marduk. Nabonidus spent much of his reign at the oasis of Tayma in the Arabian desert, leaving his son Belshazzar in charge of the empire. Nabonidus was defeated by the Persians under Cyrus in 539 B.C.E.
An ancient Mesopotamian temple, taking the form of a stepped pyriamid.
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1The oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw.
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1The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.
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Sit on the ground without a throne,
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