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 1 Oct 2022]. Online:


Alan Lenzi

Alan Lenzi
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:

Babylon was one of the most important political, religious, and cultural centers of ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Iraq.

Did you know…?

  • Although the Babylonians believed the name of their city meant “gate of the gods” (Babili), no one knows its orginal meaning. “Babylon” is what the Greeks called the city.
  • Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and exiled its people to punish the city for its rebellions and to protect his imperial interests.
  • The story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 pokes fun at cosmopolitan Babylon and its famous step-tower (ziggurat) dedicated to its chief god, Marduk.
  • Although some Hebrew prophets spoke of Babylon positively as the instrument of divine judgment (Jer 25; Ezek 21), they also delivered words of judgment of Babylon for its political hubris and treatment of Jerusalem (for example, Isa 13:1-14:23, Isa 21:1-10, Isa 47:1-15; Jer 25:12-14, Jer 50-51).
  • The Hebrew prophets were not all agreed that Babylon would judge Judah for its sins. Hananiah prophesied that Yahweh would deliver Judah from the Babylonians, disagreeing openly and strongly with Jeremiah (Jer 28).
  • The depiction of Nebuchadnezzar in Dan 4 is probably a reflection of a later Babylonian king, Nabonidus (555–539 B.C.E.), who absented himself from the capital city for many years.

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.

Gen 1-11

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

Isa 44:9-20

The Absurdity of Idol Worship
9All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they w ... View more

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.

Lev 26:27-39

27But if, despite this, you disobey me, and continue hostile to me,28I will continue hostile to you in fury; I in turn will punish you myself sevenfold for your ... View more

Deut 28:58-68

58If you do not diligently observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, fearing this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God,59then the ... View more

2Kgs 17:19-20

19Judah also did not keep the commandments of the Lord their God but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced.20The Lord rejected all the descendants of ... View more

2Kgs 24:1-4

Judah Overrun by Enemies
1In his days King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up; Jehoiakim became his servant for three years; then he turned and rebelled against ... View more

2Kgs 23-25

Josiah's Reformation
1Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him.2The king went up to the house of the Lord, an ... View more

2Kgs 23:29-30

29In his days Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up to the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates. King Josiah went to meet him; but when Pharaoh Neco met him at M ... View more

2Chr 35:20-24

Defeat by Pharaoh Neco and Death of Josiah
20After all this, when Josiah had set the temple in order, King Neco of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish on the E ... View more

2Kgs 23:33-35

33Pharaoh Neco confined him at Riblah in the land of Hamath, so that he might not reign in Jerusalem, and imposed tribute on the land of one hundred talents of ... View more

2Kgs 24:12-16

12King Jehoiachin of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself, his mother, his servants, his officers, and his palace officials. The king of Babylo ... View more

2Kgs 25

1And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, ... View more

Jer 52

The Destruction of Jerusalem Reviewed
1Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he began to reign; he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Ham ... View more

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.

Jer 25

The Babylonian Captivity Foretold
1The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah, in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Juda ... View more

Ezek 21

The Drawn Sword of God
1 The word of the Lord came to me:2Mortal, set your face toward Jerusalem and preach against the sanctuaries; prophesy against the land o ... View more

Isa 13:1-14:23

Proclamation against Babylon
1The oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw.
2On a bare hill raise a signal,
cry aloud to them;
wave the hand for th ... View more

Isa 21:1-10

Oracles concerning Babylon, Edom, and Arabia
1The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.

As whirlwinds in the Negeb sweep on,
it comes from the desert,
f ... View more

Isa 47:1-15

The Humiliation of Babylon
1Come down and sit in the dust,
virgin daughter Babylon!
Sit on the ground without a throne,
daughter Chaldea!
For you shall no more ... View more

Jer 25:12-14

12Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, says the Lord, makin ... View more

Jer 50-51

Judgment on Babylon
1The word that the Lord spoke concerning Babylon, concerning the land of the Chaldeans, by the prophet Jeremiah:2Declare among the nations a ... View more

Jer 28

Hananiah Opposes Jeremiah and Dies
1In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, the proph ... View more

Dan 4

Nebuchadnezzar's Second Dream
1 King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages that live throughout the earth: May you have abundant prosperity!2The ... View more

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