Babylon and the Old Testament

When the word Babylon is said in today’s culture there is one of two reactions. The first reaction is one of not caring because it does not immediately affect one’s life. When asking about Babylon over the past few weeks this has been the predominant answer. The second reaction given was to describe the events in the recent past that have shaped political, and in some cases economic, policy of not only the United States but the world.

Many questions were asked to get to these reactions. Questions such as is Babylon relevant today? What was its role in the development of the Old Testament? Is it relevant that they were mentioned throughout the whole Old Testament? What effect did they have on the ancient Jewish people? In most, there were exceptions is some cases, the laity of the church seemed to be ignorant of the significant contribution that Babylon’s existence had in Old Testament history.   As W. Brueggemann states, “In biblical history Babylon’s chief significance is as a mighty empire that God used in the early 6th century B.C. as his agent for punishing his people for their stubborn and grievous covenantal disobedience and disloyalty, taking the residents of Judah and Jerusalem into exile[1].”

The purpose of this paper is to explore Biblical passages to elaborate not only on the history of Babylon, but on its effect on the writing of the Old Testament. Historical and extra-biblical documents will be used to assist in detailing the information. In the course of doing this research it became evident that Babylon had a very significant effect on the Jewish people, and subsequently the writing of the sacred Old Testament texts.


In speaking of Babylon in the Old Testament we must first look at a brief history of Babylon to help gain perspective of what the world was like at the time. Babylon was the most famous city in Mesopotamia, and the ruins of the city lie in Iraq about 59 miles southwest of Baghdad.

In the old Akkadian language   Babylon meant “City of the Gods”, and was found between   2334-2279 B.C[2].     When it was founded it as simply known as a large port town along the Euphrates river, but it was also close to the Tigris river. This area of the world would come to be known as the fertile Crescent, and they we right in the middle of it. Very little is known about Babylon until 1792 B.C. when King Hammurabi took power. Hammurabi “enlarged and heightened the walls of the city, engaged in great public works which included opulent temples and canals, and made diplomacy an integral part of his administration. So successful was he in both diplomacy and war that, by 1755 BCE, he had united all of Mesopotamia under the rule of Babylon which, at this time, was the largest city in the world, and named his realm Babylonia[3].”

When Hammurabi died the empire shrank in size and was sacked by the Hittites in 1595 B.C.   Under the reign of the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib, who reigned from 705-681 B.C., Babylon revolted.   At this point in history Babylon was known as a bastion of learning and culture.   In 604 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar II, of Biblical fame took over as Emperor of the empire. He built some of the most beautiful structures in all of Mesopotamia.  The exile of the Jews, and the construction of the hanging gardens also happened under his watch.  In 539 B.C. the Persian s under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, also mentioned in the Old Testament, invaded Babylon. They held Babylon in great regard and made it the administration capital of the Persian Empire.

In 331 B.C. the Persian Empire fell to a young general named Alexander the Great. Before his death, Alexander the Great “ordered the superstructure of Babylon’s ziggurat pulled down in order that it might be rebuilt with greater splendor. But he never lived to bring his project to completion. Over the centuries, its scattered bricks have been cannibalized by peasants to fulfill humbler dreams. All that is left of the fabled Tower of Babel is the bed of a swampy pond[4].” In 141 B.C. the Parthian Empire took over and Babylon was forgotten about and fell into ruin.


Babylon is mentioned very early in scripture. In fact the first mention of the city and its significance to the people of Israel is in Genesis 10:8, 10. Genesis 10:8, 10 states, “Cush was the father of Nimrod who came to be a mighty warrior on the earth. The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad, and Calneh, in Shinar[5].” This chapter in Genesis is known as the table of nations, and this verse in particular traces the genealogy of Noah’s son Ham. The name Nimrod Literally means “we shall rebel”.   If that is the case then He lives up to his name in regards to relationships with the Lord and the Jewish people.

The great Bible commentator Matthew Henry writes, “Nimrod’s aspiring mind could not rest; he was resolved to lord it over his neighbors[6].”From its founder we find the spirit of the great city of Babylon. One that is blessed with natural resources because of its location in the fertile crescent. They were not happy with what they had and always wanted more.  The Jewish historian Josephus has this to say about Nimrod, “Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God. He was the grandson of Ham, the son of Noah-a bold man, and of great strength of hand. He persuaded them not to ascribe it to God, as if it were through his means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness. He also gradually changed the government into tyranny-seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence upon his own power[7].”

There are some scholars who suggest that Nimrod was the Gilgamesh in the Gilgamesh epic. This epic was an ancient document that also spoke of a worldwide flood, but it was also significant for Gilgamesh starting the first “God is dead’ movement. If this is the case then Babylon and the Jewish people were bound to clash. According to the epic, Gilgamesh sets out to kill the person responsible for sending the flood upon the earth.


The story of the Tower of Babel is found in Genesis chapter 11. It describes a people of the same language who are building a monument that will reach the heavens so they could make a name for themselves. Genesis 11:1-4 state, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the earth[8].”   This story has great significance not on in scripture, but in world history. According to the Concise Bible Dictionary, Babel is also the Hebrew word for Babylon[9].”

According to scripture the founder of Babylon was Nimrod, who was a descendent of Noah’s son Ham. On that we could assume that this occurred after the flood. The flood happened so the earth could have somewhat of a fresh start with evil people being eliminated. The people gathered and decide to build Babylon, and erect a tower to show how great they are. Not only that, but they want to build it to the heavens. Perhaps this is where Babylon received the term “city of the gods.” The KJV Biblical Commentary states, “This is the cultural focus of mounting human arrogance. The tower could be a fortress. Parallels to the account of the building of Babylon and its temple tower (the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish) suggest that it was a prototype ziggurat, or temple-mound, first found in classical form in the early third millennium B.C.[10].”

The Tower of Babel is a prelude of things to come in the Old Testament. It shows the pride of a nation who see themselves as superior to those around them. The Tower of Babel, though a literal event, is also a symbol of rebellion. At the center of every sin is an I. The people had the attitude that they were better and they wanted to show that. They grew in power and would eventually overtake the Israelites.   That is also the spiritual message of the story.  The writer of Genesis knew that and incorporated it so future generations would know the dangers of pride an arrogance. John Collins writes, “Thematically, the story of the tower provides an apt conclusion to this phase of history as it reiterates the theme of human limitation and the dangers involved in trying to be like God or to rise to the heavens[11].”


Perhaps the greatest example on Babylon’s influence on the Old Testament could be seen in the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon. Because of the Israelites disobedience to God he allowed them to be conquered by Babylon. They were exiled for a period of seventy years, and then returned back to their land.

There is arguably no king in the history of Babylon as powerful as Nebuchadnezzar II. Under his rule the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians, and the Egyptian Pharaoh, Necho II, came to the aid of the Assyrians. The Babylonian military, under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar II, defeated the formidable foe which allowed him Babylon to take possession of all former Assyrian lands, which included Israel.

The vents of this takeover of Israel and Judah are recorded in 2 Kings Chapter 24. 2 Kings 24:1 states, “During Jehoiakim’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon invaded the land, and Jehoiakim became his vassal for three years. But then he changed his mind and rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar[12].” As previously stated Babylon defeated Egypt to acquire the territory which included Judah. For three years Judah lived under Babylon, but then they rebelled and Babylon came into the land by force.

In a strange twist of fate Babylon had become a means by which God disciplined his people for their disobedience. They were taken from their land, plundered, and the temple was destroyed in 587 B.C. A Babylonian Chronicle records, “Year 7, month of Kislimu: The king of Akkad moved his army into Haddi land, laid siege to the city of Judah, and the king took the city on the second day of the month Addaru. He appointed in it a new king to his liking, took heavy booty from it and brought it to Babylon[13].” Scripture has a similar recording in 2 Kings 25:9-10. 2 Kings 25:9-10 state, “He set fire to the Temple of the Lord, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down. The whole Babylonian army, under the commander of the imperial guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem[14].” The Lord used a foreign land, who did not even believe in him, as a divine instrument to help prepare their hearts for the future Messiah. Throughout the Old Testament we read stories of the people’s disobedience, but through is all God was faithful.

Throughout the Old Testament we read of the Lord saying how he was going to discipline his people. In Isaiah he names some, such as Cyrus, by name. This event had a huge impact on the writing and style of the Old Testament. Books such as Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Daniel were heavily influenced by the events that would take place during the seventy years of exile. In Jeremiah we read of God still loving the people, and will be giving them yet another chance. The Lord goes on to say that they will be his people in Jeremiah 32:38. After seventy years the people were permitted to return to their land, but many did not. J. Julius Scott writes, “We know only little about the captivity. The Hebrews spent the period of captivity in scattered locations. Their experiences were diverse. Many never returned to the land of Israel. In fact, from this time forward the majority of Hebrews, at every point in history, have lived in the Dispersion or Diaspora, that is, outside the boundaries of the land of Israel[15].”

The time of the Lord’s judgment will come. It is not a matter of if but of when, and the people of Israel and Judah never though they would see the day in which their sins would reap punishment. As previously stated, the heathen Babylonians were chosen by God to carry out the deed. This was prefaced as far back as Genesis and is mentioned throughout a majority of the Old Testament texts.


The Old Testament prophets Daniel and Ezekiel both performed their ministry in Babylon. They were involved in the exile and subsequently deported from Judah. It was Daniel who became a leader and loyal servant to the empire, but he maintained his faith in the Lord. In Daniel Chapter two Daniel comes to the aid of King Nebuchadnezzar, and assists him in interpreting a dream.   Daniel 2:24 states, “Then Daniel went to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to execute the wise men of Babylon, and said to him, ‘Do not execute the wise men of Babylon. Take me to the king, and I will interpret the dream for him[16].”

It was a very dangerous move for Daniel to make, because if he was wrong about the dream then he would be executed. Daniel was being a witness and thought of the needs of others. He was loyal to the king, but he wanted to save the lives of the wise men even more. The dream that Daniel would interpret for the king was one that predicted the end of the Babylonian Empire. The fall to the Persian Empire was further documented by Daniel in Chapter 5. The fall of Babylon is also written about by Isaiah in Isaiah 46:1-2. Isaiah specifically names the Persian Cyrus who will conquer Babylon which is the way the Lord chose to judge Babylon for its sins against his people.


In scripture Babylon is mentioned from Genesis all the way to the book of Revelation. When the Lord needed to discipline his people he chose the Babylonians to give it. However God was merciful and only let the exile last 70 years. The Lord also promised to punish it, as Jeremiah 25:12 states, “But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians for their guilt, ‘ declares the Lord, ‘and I will make it desolate forever[17].” Though it seems like those that are doing wrong have the upper hand that is not the case. Through Babylon we learn that evil will always be punished. William LaSor writes, “Daniel’s concern over the seventy years of Jeremiah’s prophecy is interpreted in terms of both the restoration of Jerusalem and also ‘the time of an appointed prince[18].”

The story of Babylon helped the Old Testament writers better speak of the faithfulness of God, the punishment of evil, and the coming of the Messiah. Babylon was a huge empire that seemed to be indestructible, but Daniel told the king that it was not to be. Through the characters in the Old Testament the love and mercy of God were spoken to Gentile nations.


[1] W.h.Mare, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 126.

[2] “Babylon,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, accessed December 6, 2014,

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Babylon,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, accessed December 6, 2014,

[5] Genesis 10:8, 10 (New International Version).

[6] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1, Genesis to Esther, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1979), 32.

[7] Josephus, Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 331.

[8] Genesis 11:1-4 (New International Version).

[9] Holman Concise Bible Dictionary, 1st ed., s.v. “Babel.”

[10] King James Version Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005), 38.

[11] John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 81.

[12] 2 Kings 24:1 (New International Version).

[13] Maxwell J. Miller and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1986), 314.

[14] 2 Kings 25:9-10 (New International Version).

[15] J. Julius Scott, Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1995), 74.

[16] Daniel 2:24 (New International Version).

[17] Jeremiah 25:12 (New International Version).

[18] William Sanford Lasor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic Wm. Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 568.

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