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.
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 (
- The depiction of Nebuchadnezzar in
Dan 4is probably a reflection of a later Babylonian king, Nabonidus (555–539 B.C.E.), who absented himself from the capital city for many years.
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
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
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 (
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 (
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 (
From the Babylonian perspective, the destruction of Jerusalem was necessary to maintain the imperial political order.