From its beginning Babylon represented human arrogance and rebellion; it would enjoy fleeting moments of glamour and glory on a global stage. Babylon the city, on the Great River Euphrates in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, would fade into oblivion, fulfilling the prophecies of the prophets. Babylon as metaphor endures.
In Genesis 10:10-11 Babel is reckoned as the beginning of Nimrod’s kingdom. Its better known origin story can be found in Genesis 11:1-9: the Tower of Babel, built by all humanity on the Plain of Shinar to stay together and to make a name for themselves in direct rebellion against God’s commands. The place is named “Babel,” Hebrew for confusion, because God confused human language there. In Akkadian the city was known as Babilim, the meaning of which is highly contested; it was rendered as Babulon in Greek, from which we derive “Babylon”; in the Hebrew Bible, the city is called “Babel” throughout.
Both archaeology and written texts attest to Babylon’s relatively late beginnings in Mesopotamia, established sometime in the 2300s to 2200s BCE, allegedly by Sargon of Akkad himself. The Hebrew Bible did well at speaking of Egyptians and Assyrians but not “Babylonians,” for Babylon was at least ruled over if not also inhabited by a series of different groups of people over its two thousand years in existence. Its original inhabitants were likely Akkadians; by the 1800s BCE the Amorites of the northwestern Levant had invaded and occupied much of southern Mesopotamia and inaugurated the Amorite, or Old Babylonian, period (ca. 1800s-1500s BCE; in Israel, the days of Egyptian sojourn). Babylon remained smaller and more obscure until Hammurabi built an empire dominating southern Mesopotamia and the Euphrates region northwest to Mari (ca. 1792-1750 BCE). Hammurabi became famous for the law code established in his name; it has served as a helpful tool as both to contextualize the Law of Moses and to prove a foil for it. After Hammurabi all of southern Mesopotamia would become known as “Babylonia,” just as northern Mesopotamia had become known as “Assyria.”
Amorite Babylon was overthrown by the Hittites around 1595 BCE; soon afterward it was overrun by a group of people known as the Kassites, likely from the Zagros Mountains area of Iran, inaugurating the Kassite, or Middle Babylonian, period (ca. 1595-1155 BCE; in Israel, the time of the Exodus and the Judges). Toward the end of this period the Assyrians and Elamites dominated the city. More “native” Akkadians overthrew the Kassites in 1155 and ruled for a short time before the city was overrun by Arameans from the west.
From 911 to 609 BCE Babylon was continually under Assyrian control. In the 700s BCE the Chaldeans, people who lived in the marshes of southern Mesopotamia, began to continually harass the Assyrian authorities, taking over in Babylon when Assyria was otherwise distracted and fleeing into the safety of the marshlands when the Assyrians returned with an army. So it went with Merodach-Baladan (Marduk-apla-iddina II) who sent envoys to Hezekiah king of Judah (722-710, 703-702 BCE; 2 Kings 20:12-19, Isaiah 39:1-8). In response Sennacherib king of Assyria leveled Babylon to the ground; and yet his son Esarhaddon would dedicate many resources to rebuilding the city.
In the period of 612-605 BCE Nabopolassar (Nabû-apla-uṣur), a Chaldean Babylonian ruler, allied with the Medes, overthrew the Assyrian yoke, and destroyed the cities and empire of the Assyrians. It would fall to his son Nebuchadnezzar II (Nabû-kudurri-uṣur; ca. 634-562 BCE) to fill the void in Mesopotamia and establish what is now known as the Neo-Babylonian Empire (605-539 BCE). Nebuchadnezzar defeated Pharaoh Neko of Egypt (cf. 2 Kings 23:28-30); he would besiege Jerusalem and exile Jehoiachin and the upper class of Judah in 597 BCE, and after another rebellion in the days of Zedekiah, again besiege and then completely destroy Jerusalem, ending the Kingdom of Judah as a going concern in 586 BCE (2 Kings 24:1-25:21). Nebuchadnezzar would besiege Tyre unsuccessfully for 13 years; attack Egypt; and also exile the Philistines (Ezekiel 29:17-21). Babylon reached the peak of its prominence and power in the days of Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Daniel 4:1-37).
We make much of the Neo-Babylonian Empire because of its role in destroying Jerusalem and exiling the Judahites to Babylon; in historical terms it was short-lived, a quick transition between the days of the Assyrians and the Persians. The genius of the Babylonian Empire died with Nebuchadnezzar; a few short-lived kings reigned after him, including Evil-Merodach (Amēl-Marduk), who elevated Jehoiachin according to 2 Kings 27:27-30). The longest reigning king was Nabonidus (Nabû-naʾid), the last official king of the Chaldeans, along with his son Belshazzar, famously condemned in Daniel 5:1-31 (ca. 556-539 BCE). In their day Cyrus king of Persia conquered Babylon at the Battle of Opis and established the Achaemenid Persian Empire.
Despite a couple of insurrections the Persians maintained generally and strong consistent rule over Babylon until the defeat of Darius III by Alexander, king of Macedon, at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE. Babylon flourished under Alexander; under the continual conflict of his successors Babylon began to depopulate. In 275 BCE its inhabitants and the Esagila temple were moved to Seleucia on the Tigris, which itself would later be swallowed up by Ctesiphon, which was made the metropolis of southern Mesopotamia throughout the Roman/Parthian/Sassanian period (ca. 120 BCE-700s CE). In the 700s Ctesiphon faded after the establishment of Baghdad by the Abbasid Muslims, which remains the prominent city to this day. By the time of Jesus Babylon was a small village; Christianity spread in the area, but by the second millennium CE Babylon was a ruin.
The Bible well recognizes the prominence of Babylon in Mesopotamian civilization. The city and its gates were most impressive; its wealth was immense; its temples were legendary, exemplified in the story of the Tower of Babel. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon was reckoned as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Their astrological and astronomical observations formed the basis of many scientific endeavors. Many of the mythological stories which were excavated in Mesopotamia are told in their Babylonian versions, especially the highly influential creation narrative known as Enuma elish.
And yet the words of the prophets were fulfilled (cf. Isaiah 13:1-14:23, 40:1-55:13, Jeremiah 50:1-51:64): Babylon, master of a mighty empire, vaunting over defeated Israel, tempting exiled Israelites to turn away from YHWH their God to Marduk and the Mesopotamian pantheon, faded into oblivion. Its location would be lost, rediscovered in modern times by western archaeologists confessing the God of Israel and looking to illuminate the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures. The story remains poignant for all who have ears to hear.
Even as Babylon in Mesopotamia faded, what Babylon represented for Israelites, the pagan human earthly power arrogating itself against God and His people, would endure. Peter and John both spoke regarding Rome and its Empire in terms of Babylon (1 Peter 5:13, Revelation 17:1-18:24). If Babylon’s heritage could be seen in Rome, we can see similar evidence of its heritage in every major human power since. Civilization may have developed along the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and magnified itself in the form of Babylon; God’s people have been called at times to seek the welfare of Babylon and to flee Babylon and its idolatry. To this day the people of God ought to live in unease in the “Babylon” of its day, seeking to embody the Christ to the lost and dying while not falling prey to the temptations “Babylon” would offer. May we faithfully serve God in Christ and obtain eternal life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry