Biblical History of Ancient Babylon

Babylon in the Bible was a symbol for sin and rebellion

Babylon in the Bible
Illustration of the Ancient City of Babylon. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Babylon is referenced 280 times in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. God sometimes used the Babylonian Empire to punish Israel, but his prophets foretold that Babylon's sins would eventually cause its own destruction.

In an age when empires rose and fell, Babylon enjoyed an unusually long reign of power and grandeur. Despite its sinful ways, it developed one of the most advanced civilizations in the ancient world.

Babylon by Any Other Name

Babylon is referred to by many names in the Bible:

  • Land of the Chaldeans (Ezekiel 12:13, NIV)
  • Land of Shinar (Daniel 1:2, ESV; Zechariah 5:11, ESV)
  • Desert of the Sea (Isaiah 21:1, 9)
  • Lady of kingdoms (Isaiah 47:5)
  • Land of Merathaim (Jeremiah 50:1, 21)
  • Sheshach (Jeremiah 25:12, 26, KJV)

A Reputation for Defiance

The ancient city of Babylon plays a major role in the Bible, representing a rejection of the One True God. It was one of the cities founded by King Nimrod, according to Genesis 10:9-10.

Babylon was located in Shinar, in ancient Mesopotamia on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. Its earliest act of defiance was building the Tower of Babel. Scholars agree the structure was a type of stepped pyramid called a ziggurat, common throughout Babylonia. To prevent further arrogance, God confused the people's language so they could not overstep his limits on them.

For much of its early history, Babylon was a small, obscure city-state until King Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) chose it as his capital, expanding the empire that became Babylonia. Located about 59 miles southwest of modern Baghdad, Babylon was laced with an intricate system of canals leading off the Euphrates River, used for irrigation and commerce. Breathtaking buildings adorned with enameled brick, neatly paved streets, and statues of lions and dragons made Babylon the most impressive city of its time.

King Nebuchadnezzar

Historians believe Babylon was the first ancient city to exceed 200,000 people. The city proper measured four square miles, on both banks of the Euphrates. Much of the building was done during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, referred to in the Bible as Nebuchadnezzar. He built an 11-mile defensive wall outside the city, wide enough on top for chariots driven by four horses to pass each other. Nebuchadnezzar was the last truly great ruler of Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar
Zedekiah before Nebuchadnezzar. Wood engraving, published in 1886. Getty Images

His successors were insignificant by comparison. Nebuchadnezzar was followed by his son Awel-Marduk, the Evil-Merodach (2 Kings 25:27–30), Neriglissa, and Labashi-Marduk, who was murdered as a child. The last king of Babylon was Nabonidus in BC 556–539.

Despite its many wonders, Babylon worshiped pagan gods, chief among them Marduk, or Merodach, and Bel, as noted in Jeremiah 50:2. Besides devotion to false gods, sexual immorality was widespread in ancient Babylon. While marriage was monogamous, a man could have one or more concubines. Cult and temple prostitutes were common.

The Book of Daniel

Babylon's evil ways are spotlighted in the book of Daniel, an account of faithful Jews taken into exile to that city when Jerusalem was conquered. So arrogant was Nebuchadnezzar that he had a 90-foot tall gold statue built of himself and commanded everyone to worship it. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace tells what happened when they refused and stayed true to God instead.

Daniel tells of Nebuchadnezzar strolling the roof of his palace, boasting about his own glory, when the voice of God came from heaven, promising insanity and humiliation until the king recognized God as supreme:

Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird. (Daniel 4:33, NIV)

The prophets mention Babylon as both a warning of punishment for Israel and an example of what displeases God. The New Testament employs Babylon as a symbol of man's sinfulness and God's judgment. In 1 Peter 5:13, the apostle cites Babylon to remind Christians in Rome to be as faithful as Daniel was. Finally, in the book of Revelation, Babylon again stands for Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, the enemy of Christianity. 

Babylon's Ruined Splendor

Ironically, Babylon means "gate of god." After the Babylonian empire was conquered by the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes, most of the impressive buildings of Babylon were destroyed. Alexander the Great started to restore the city in 323 BC and planned to make it the capital of his empire, but he died that year in Nebuchadnezzar's palace.

Ruins of Babylon
Southern Palace, Babylon, Iraq. Ruins of the great palace built by the Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th century BC. Under his rule Babylon grew to become the greatest city in Mesopotamia. Vivienne Sharp / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Instead of trying to excavate the ruins, the 20th-century Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein built new palaces and monuments to himself on top of them. Like his ancient hero, Nebuchadnezzar, he had his name inscribed on bricks for posterity.

When United States forces invaded Iraq in 2003, they constructed a military base on top of the ruins, destroying many artifacts in the process and making future digs even more difficult. Archaeologists estimate only two percent of ancient Babylon has been excavated. In recent years, the Iraqi government has reopened the site, hoping to attract tourists, but the effort has been largely unsuccessful.

Sources

  • The Greatness That Was Babylon. H.W.F. Saggs.
  • International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. James Orr, general editor.
  • The New Topical Textbook. Torrey, R. A