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Babylon, History and Religion of

Holman Bible Dictionary

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Babylon was a city-state in southern Mesopotamia during Old Testament times, which eventually became a large empire that absorbed the nation of Judah and destroyed Jerusalem.

History The city of Babylon was founded in unknown antiquity on the river Euphrates, about 50 miles south of modern Baghdad. The English names Babylon and Babel (Genesis 10:10; Genesis 11:9 ) are translated from the same Hebrew word (babel ). See Babel . Babylon may have been an important cultural center during the period of the early Sumerian city-states (before 2000 B.C.), but the corresponding archaeological levels of the site are below the present water table and remain unexplored.

Babylon emerged from anonymity shortly after 2000 B.C., a period roughly contemporary with the Hebrew patriarchs. At that time, an independent kingdom was established in the city under a dynasty of Semitic westerners, or Amorites. Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.), the sixth king of this First Dynasty of Babylon, built a sizable empire through treaties, vassalage, and conquest. From his time forward, Babylon was considered the political seat of southern Mesopotamia, the region called Babylonia.

The political and socio-economic history of Babylonia in Hammurabi's time is well known thanks to extensive collections of cuneiform tablets discovered at various cities in Mesopotamia, especially at Mari. The famous stele containing the Law Code of Hammurabi was inscribed about 1765 B.C. in Babylonia. It was found, however, in Susa, where it had been taken as booty by the Elamites about 1160 B.C. This standing stone, now in the Louvre, preserves some 282 laws governing various aspects of life and regulating justice to three recognized levels of society. Similarities between the Law Code and biblical Mosaic laws are a result of the common Semitic culture. Wide divergences between the two are indicative of a different religious outlook.

The Amorite dynasty of Babylon reached its apex under Hammurabi. Subsequent rulers, however, saw their realm diminished, and in 1595 B.C. the Hittites sacked Babylon. After their withdrawal, members of the Kassite tribe seized the throne. The Kassite Dynasty ruled for over four centuries, a period of relative peace but also stagnation. Little is known up to about 1350 B.C., when Babylonian kings corresponded with Egypt and struggled with the growing power of Assyria to the north. After a brief resurgence, the Kassite dynasty was ended by the Elamite invasion in 1160 B.C.

When the Elamites withdrew to their Iranian homeland, princes native to the Babylonian city of Isin founded the Fourth Dynasty of Babylon. After a brief period of glory in which Nebuchadnezzar I (about 1124-1103 B.C.) invaded Elam, Babylon entered a dark age for most of the next two centuries. Floods, famine, widespread settlement of nomadic Aramean tribes, and the arrival of Chaldeans in the south plagued Babylon during this time of confusion.

During the period of the Assyrian Empire, Babylon was dominated by this warlike neighbor to the north. A dynastic dispute in Babylon in 851 B.C. brought the intervention of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. Babylon kings remained independent, but nominally subject to Assyrian “protection.”

A series of coups in Babylon prompted the Assyrian Tiglath-pileser III to enter Babylon in 728 B.C. and proclaim himself king under the throne name Pulu (Pul of 2 Kings 15:19; 1 Chronicles 5:26 ). He died the next year. By 721 B.C., the Chaldean Marduk-apal-iddina, Merodach-baladan of the Old Testament, ruled Babylon. With Elamite support he resisted the advances of the Assyrian Sargon II in 720 B.C. Babylon gained momentary independence, but in 710 B.C. Sargon attacked again. Merodach-baladan was forced to flee to Elam. Sargon, like Tiglath-pileser before him, took the throne of Babylon. As soon as Sargon died in 705 B.C., Babylon and other nations, including Judah under King Hezekiah, rebelled from Assyrian domination. Merodach-baladan had returned from Elam to Babylon. It is probably in this context that he sent emissaries to Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:12-19; Isaiah 39:1 ). In 703 B.C., the new Assyrian king, Sennacherib, attacked Babylon. He defeated Merodach-baladan, who again fled. He ultimately died in exile. After considerable intrigue in Babylon, another Elamite-sponsored revolt broke out against Assyria. In 689 B.C., Sennacherib destroyed the sacred city of Babylon in retaliation. His murder, by his own sons (2 Kings 19:37 ) in 681 B.C., was interpreted by Babylonians as divine judgment for this unthinkable act.

Esarhaddon, Sennacherib's son, immediately began the rebuilding of Babylon to win the allegiance of the populace. At his death, the crown prince Ashurbanipal ruled over Assyria, while another son ascended the throne of Babylon. All was well until 651 B.C. when the Babylonian king rebelled against his brother. Ashurbanipal finally prevailed and was crowned king of a resentful Babylon.

Assyrian domination died with Ashurbanipal in 627 B.C. In 626 B.C., Babylon fell into the hands of a Chaldean chief, Nabopolassar, first king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. In 612, with the help of the Medes, the Babylonians sacked the Assyrian capital Nineveh. The remnants of the Assyrian army rallied at Haran in north Syria, which was abandoned at the approach of the Babylonians in 610 B.C. Egypt, however, challenged Babylon for the right to inherit Assyria's empire. Pharaoh Necho II, with the last of the Assyrians (2 Kings 23:29-30 ), failed in 609 to retake Haran. In 605 B.C., Babylonian forces under the crown prince Nebuchadnezzar routed the Egyptians at the decisive Battle of Carchemish (Jeremiah 46:2-12 ). The Babylonian advance, however, was delayed by Nabopolassar's death which obliged Nebuchadnezzar to return to Babylon and assume power.

In 604,603 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B.C.), king of Babylon, campaigned along the Palestinian coast. At this time Jehoiakim, king of Judah, became an unwilling vassal of Babylon. A Babylonian defeat at the border of Egypt in 601 probably encouraged Jehoiakim to rebel. For two years Judah was harassed by Babylonian vassals (2 Kings 24:1-2 ). Then, in December of 598 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar marched on Jerusalem. Jehoiakim died that same month, and his son Jehoiachin surrendered the city to the Babylonians on March 16,597 B.C. Many Judeans, including the royal family, were deported to Babylon (2 Kings 24:6-12 ). Ultimately released from prison, Jehoiachin was treated as a king in exile (2 Kings 25:27-30; Jeremiah 52:31-34 ). Texts excavated in Babylon show that rations were allotted to him and five sons.

Nebuchadnezzar appointed Zedekiah over Judah. Against the protests of Jeremiah, but with promises of Egyptian aid, Zedekiah revolted against Babylon in 589 B.C. In the resultant Babylonian campaign, Judah was ravaged and Jerusalem besieged. An abortive campaign by the Pharaoh Hophra gave Jerusalem a short respite, but the attack was renewed (Jeremiah 37:4-10 ). The city fell in August of 587 B.C. Zedekiah was captured, Jerusalem burned, and the Temple destroyed (Jeremiah 52:12-14 ). Many more Judeans were taken to their Exile in Babylonia (2 Kings 25:1-21; Jeremiah 52:1-30 ).

Apart from his military conquests, Nebuchadnezzar is noteworthy for a massive rebuilding program in Babylon itself. The city spanned the Euphrates and was surrounded by an eleven-mile long outer wall which enclosed suburbs and Nebuchadnezzar's summer palace. The inner wall was wide enough to accommodate two chariots abreast. It could be entered through eight gates, the most famous of which was the northern Ishtar Gate, used in the annual New Year Festival and decorated with reliefs of dragons and bulls in enameled brick. The road to this gate was bordered by high walls decorated by lions in glazed brick behind which were defensive citadels. Inside the gate was the main palace built by Nebuchadnezzar with its huge throne room. A cellar with shafts in part of the palace may have served as the substructure to the famous “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” described by classical authors as one of the wonders of the ancient world. Babylon contained many temples, the most important of which was Esagila, the temple of the city's patron god, Marduk. Rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar, the temple was lavishly decorated with gold. Just north of Esagila lay the huge stepped tower of Babylon, a ziggurat called Etemenanki and its sacred enclosure. Its seven stories perhaps towered some 300 feet above the city. No doubt Babylon greatly impressed the Jews taken there in captivity and provided them with substantial economic opportunities.

Nebuchadnezzar was the greatest king of the Neo-Babylonian Period and the last truly great ruler of Babylon. His successors were insignificant by comparison. He was followed by his son Awel-marduk (561-560 B.C.), the Evil-Merodach of the Old Testament (2 Kings 25:27-30 ), Neriglissar (560-558 B.C.), and Labashi-Marduk (557 B.C.), murdered as a mere child. The last king of Babylon, Nabonidus (556-539 B.C.) was an enigmatic figure who seems to have favored the moon god, Sin, over the national god, Marduk. He moved his residence to Tema in the Syro-Arabian Desert for ten years, leaving his son Belshazzar (Daniel 5:1 ) as regent in Babylon. Nabonidus returned to a divided capital amid a threat from the united Medes and Persians. In 539 B.C., the Persian Cyrus II (the Great) entered Babylon without a fight. Thus ended Babylon's dominant role in Near Eastern politics.

Babylon remained an important economic center and provincial capital during the period of Persian rule. The Greek historian Herodotus, who visited the city in 460 B.C., could still remark that “it surpasses in splendor any city of the known world.” Alexander the Great, conqueror of the Persian Empire, embarked on a program of rebuilding in Babylon which was interrupted by his death in 323 B.C. After Alexander the city declined economically, but remained an important religious center until New Testament times. The site was deserted by A.D. 200.

In Judeo-Christian thought, Babylon the metropolis, like the Tower of Babel, became symbolic of man's decadence and God's judgment. “Babylon” in Revelation 14:8; Revelation 16:19; Revelation 17:5; Revelation 18:2 and probably in 1 Peter 5:13 refers to Rome, the city which personified this idea for early Christians.

Religion. Babylonian religion is the best known variant of a complex and highly polytheistic system of belief common throughout Mesopotamia. Of the thousands of recognized gods, only about twenty were important in actual practice. The most important are reviewed here.

Anu, Enlil, and Ea, were patron deities of the oldest Sumerian cities and were each given a share of the Universe as their dominion. Anu, god of the heavens and patron god of Uruk (biblical Erech; Genesis 10:10 ) did not play a very active role. Enlil of Nippur was god of the earth. The god of Eridu, Ea, was lord of the subterranean waters and the god of craftsmen.

After the political rise of Babylon, Marduk was also considered one of the rulers of the cosmos. The son of Ea and patron god of Babylon, Marduk began to attain the position of prominence in Babylonian religion in the time of Hammurabi. In subsequent periods, Marduk (Merodach in Jeremiah 50:2 ) was considered the leading god and was given the epithet Bel (equivalent to the Canaanite term Baal), meaning “lord” (Isaiah 46:1; Jeremiah 50:2; Jeremiah 51:44 ). Marduk's son Nabu (the Nebo in Isaiah 46:1 ), god of the nearby city of Borsippa, was considered the god of writing and scribes and became especially exalted in the Neo-Babylonian Period.

Astral deities—gods associated with heavenly bodies—included the sun-god Shamash, the moon-god Sin, and Ishtar, goddess of the morning and evening star (the Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus). Sin was the patron god of Ur and Haran, both associated with Abraham's origins (Genesis 11:31 ). Ishtar, the Canaanite Astarte/Ashtaroth (Judges 10:6; 1 Samuel 7:3-4; 1 Kings 11:5 ), had a major temple in Babylon and was very popular as the “Queen of Heaven” (Jeremiah 7:18; Jeremiah 44:17-19 ).

Other gods were associated with a newer city or none at all. Adad, the Canaanite Hadad, was the god of storms and thus both beneficial and destructive. Ninurta, god of war and hunting, was patron for the Assyrian capital Calah.

A number of myths concerning Babylonian gods are known, the most important of which is the Enuma elish , or Creation Epic. This myth originated in Babylon, where one of its goals was to show how Marduk became the leading god. It tells of a cosmic struggle in which, while other gods were powerless, Marduk slew Tiamat (the sea goddess, representative of chaos). From the blood of another slain god, Ea created mankind. Finally, Marduk was exalted and installed in his temple, Esagila, in Babylon.

The Enuma elish was recited and reenacted as part of the twelve-day New Year Festival in Babylon. During the festival, statues of other gods arrived from their cities to “visit” Marduk in Esagila. Also, the king did penance before Marduk, and “took the hand of Bel” in a ceremonial processing out of the city through the Ishtar Gate.

The gods were thought of as residing in cosmic localities, but also as present in their image, or idol, and living in the temple as a king in his palace. The gilded wooden images were in human form, clothed in a variety of ritual garments, and given three meals a day. On occasion the images were carried in ceremonial processions or to visit one another in different sanctuaries. It is very difficult to know what meaning the images and temples of the various gods had for the average person, and even more difficult to ascertain what comfort or help he might expect through worship of them. It seems clear, however, that beyond the expectations of health and success in his earthly life, he was without eternal hope.

Dan Browning

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Babylon, History and Religion of'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​b/babylon-history-and-religion-of.html. 1991.
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