Like many cities in ancient times, Babylon was a city-region in southern Mesopotamia during Old Testament times. It was located on the river Euphrates. It became a large empire that absorbed the nation of Judah and eventually destroyed Jerusalem.
The English names of Babylon and Babel (Gen. 10:10; 11:9) are translated from the same Hebrew word (babel).
To bring the people's monumental task to an end, God confused their language. This is thought to be the basis for the origin of the different human languages. When the builders were no longer able to communicate with each other, they fled from one another in fear. The city of Babylon became to the Old Testament writers the symbol of utter rebellion against God and remained so even into the New Testament (Rev. 17:1-5).
The Amorite dynasty of Babylon reached its apex under Hammurabi. Subsequent rulers, however, saw their realm diminished. 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. This was a period of relative peace but there was no advancement. Little is known up to about 1350 B.C. That was when the 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 Isinfounded 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, this warlike neighbor to the north dominated Babylon. 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 Chron. 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; Isa. 39). 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 (Jer 46:2-12). The Babylonian advance, however, was delayed by Nabopolassar's death that obliged Nebuchadnezzar to return to Babylon and assume power.
In 604 and 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 (person who received protection in return for homage and allegiance) of Babylon. A Babylonian defeat at the border of Egypt in 601 probably encouraged Jehoiakim to rebel. For two years Babylonian vassals harassed Judah (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; Jer. 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 (Jer. 37:4-10). The city fell in August of 587 B.C. Zedekiah was captured, Jerusalem burned, and the Temple destroyed (Jer. 52:12-14). Many more Judeans were taken to their Exile in Babylonia (2 Kings 25:1-21; Jer. 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 that 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. High walls decorated by lions in glazed brick behind bordered the road to this gate, 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 (Dan. 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.
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; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2 and probably in 1 Peter 5:13 refers to Rome, the city which personified this idea for early Christians.
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; Gen. 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 Jer. 50:2) was considered the leading god and was given the epithet Bel (equivalent to the Canaanite term Baal), meaning "lord" (Isa. 46:1; Jer. 50:2; 51:44). Marduk's son Nabu (the Nebo in Isa. 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 (Gen. 11:31). Ishtar, the Canaanite Astarte/Ashtaroth (Judges. 10:6; 1 Sam. 7:3-4; 1 Kings 11:5), had a major temple in Babylon and was very popular as the "Queen of Heaven" (Jer. 7:18; 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.
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.
Major reference: Holman Bible Dictionary
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