The earliest mention of Babylon is in a dated tablet of the reign of Sargon of Akkad (24th century BC short chr.), who made it the capital of his empire. Over the years its power and population waned. From around the 20th century BC, it was occupied by Amorites (nomadic Semitic tribes), flooding southern Mesopotamia from the the west, until it became the capital of Hammurabi’s empire (ca. 18th century BC). From that time onward, it continued to be the capital of Babylonia, though during the 440 years of domination by the Kassites (1595-1155 BC), the city was renamed “Karanduniash”.
The city itself was built upon the Euphrates, and divided in equal parts along its left and right banks with steep embankments to contain the river’s seasonal floods. Babylon grew in extent and grandeur over time, but gradually became subject to the rule of Assyria.
During the reign of Sennacherib of Assyria, Babylonia was in a constant state of revolt, led by Mushezib-Marduk, and suppressed only by the complete destruction of the city of Babylon.
In 689 BC, its walls, temples and palaces were razed to the ground, and the rubbish thrown into the Arakhtu, the canal bordering the earlier Babylon on the south. This act shocked the religious conscience of Mesopotamia; the subsequent murder of Sennacherib was held to be in expiation of it, and his successor Esarhaddon hastened to rebuild the old city, to receive there his crown, and make it his residence during part of the year. On his death, Babylonia was left to his elder son Shamash-shum-ukin, who eventually headed a revolt against his brother Assurbanipal.
Once again, Babylon was besieged by the Assyrians and starved into surrender. Assurbanipal purified the city and celebrated a “service of reconciliation”, but did not venture to “take the hands” of Bel. In the subsequent overthrow of the Assyrian empire, the Babylonians saw another example of divine vengeance.
On the fall of Nineveh (612 BC), Babylon threw off the Assyrian yoke, and became the capital of the Neo-Babylonian empire. Egypt had had a very large cultural influence prior to this, until the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of Carchemish and thus removed them as a major world empire.
With the recovery of Babylonian independence under Nabopolassar a new era of architectural activity ensued, and his son Nebuchadrezzar II made Babylon into one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Beautification of Babylon by Nebuchadrezzar II
It was under the rule of king Nebuchadrezzar II (605 BC-562 BC) that Babylon became one of the most splendid cities of the ancient world. Nebuchadrezzar ordered the complete reconstruction of the imperial grounds, including rebuilding the Etemenanki ziggurat and the construction of the Ishtar Gate — the most spectacular of eight gates that ringed the perimeter of Babylon. The Ishtar Gate survives today in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Nebuchadrezzar is also credited with the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), said to have been built for his homesick wife Amyitis. Whether the gardens did exist is a matter of dispute. Although excavations by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey are thought to reveal its foundations, many historians disagree about the location, and some believe it may have been confused with gardens in Nineveh.
Babylon under the Persians
After passing through various vicissitudes, the city was occupied in 538 BC by Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, who issued a decree permitting the Jews to return to their own land (Ezra 1). Under Cyrus and his heir Darius I, Babylon became a center of learning and scientific advancement. Babylonian scholars completed maps of constellations, and created the foundations of modern astronomy and mathematics. However, during the reign of Darius III, Babylon began to stagnate and degenerate.
In 331 BC, Darius III was defeated by the forces of the Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great at the battle of Gaugamela, and in October, Babylon saw its own invasion and occupation. A native account of this invasion notes a ruling by Alexander not to enter the homes of its inhabitants.
Under Alexander, Babylon again flourished as a center of learning and commerce. But following Alexander’s mysterious death in 323 BC in the palace of Nebuchadrezzar, his empire was divided amongst his generals, and decades of fighting soon began, with Babylon once again caught in the middle.The constant turmoil virtually emptied the city of Babylon. A tablet dated 275 BC states that the inhabitants of Babylon were transported to Seleucia, where a palace was built, as well as a temple given the ancient name of E-Saggila. With this deportation, the history of Babylon comes practically to an end, though more than a century later, it was found that sacrifices were still performed in its old sanctuary. By 141 BC, when the Parthian Empire took over the region, Babylon was in complete desolation and obscurity.
Archaeology of Babylon
Historical knowledge of Babylon’s topography is derived from classical writers, the inscriptions of Nebuchadrezzar, and several excavations, including those of the Deutsche Orientgesellschaft begun in 1899. The layout is that of the Babylon of Nebuchadrezzar; the older Babylon destroyed by Sennacherib having left few, if any, traces behind.
Most of the existing remains lie on the east bank of the Euphrates, the principal ones being three vast mounds: the Babil to the north, the Qasr or “Palace” (also known as the Mujelliba) in the centre, and the Ishgn “Amran ibn” All, with the outlying spur of the Jumjuma, to the south. East of these come the Ishgn el-Aswad or “Black Mound” and three lines of rampart, one of which encloses the Babil mound on the N. and E. sides, while a third forms a triangle with the S.E. angle of the other two. West of the Euphrates are other ramparts, and the remains of the ancient Borsippa.
Saddam Hussein installed a huge portrait of himself and Nebuchadrezzar at the entrance to the ruins. He also had part of the ruins rebuilt, to the dismay of archaeologists, with his name inscribed on many of the bricks, in imitation of Nebuchadrezzar. One frequent inscription reads: “This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq”.
This recalls the ziggurat at Ur, where each individual brick was stamped with “Ur-Nammu, king of Ur, who built the temple of Nanna”. These bricks became sought after as collectors’ items after the downfall of Saddam, and the ruins are no longer being restored to their original state.
List of kings of Babylon
Babel was the native name of the city called Babylon by the Greeks, the modern Hilla. It means “gate of the god” (not “gods”), corresponding to the Akkadian Bab-ili.
According to Genesis 11:1-9, mankind, after the deluge, travelled from the mountain of the East, where the ark had rested, and settled in ‘a plain in the land of Shinar’ (or Sennar). Here, they attempted to build a city and a tower whose top might reach unto Heaven – the Tower of Babel – but God miraculously confounded the languages of those who were working at its building so that they could not understand each other, and the project failed.
The Temple of Babel – Genesis 11:1-5
In this classic story from the Old Testament of the Bible, the people of the Earth were building a colossal staged temple-tower or multi-storeyed ziggurat – that would reach heaven. But did they really believe they could reach their Gods? Most likely the tower would be used as a place of worship.
Actually, the purpose of the tower was to provide a common religious center as a rallying point, lest the people be scattered. The builders of the tower were in open defiance of God’s command (Genesis 9:1) (53).
In the ninth chapter of Genesis, God commands Noah and his sons to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (9:1 NAS). On the fifth day of the creation of the Earth, God gave this command to the birds and fishes (Gen. 1:20-23). On the sixth day, God reiterated this command to the pinnacles of creation, man and woman (Gen. 1:26-28). Humanity was to subjugate the untamed Earth by dispersing themselves.
The builders in Shinar banded together for a common ecumenical purpose. Genesis 11:6 suggests that this assembly would have given rise to projects of a purely secular nature. The people did not consider that their misguided enthusiasm may have been just a bit shortsighted. Considering the benevolent, omniscient knowledge of God it appears that the long-term consequences of the Tower of Babel might have resulted in a plight similar to the apostate state of humanity (Gen. 6:1-5) prior to the sanctifying flood of the entire Earth (Gen. 6:6-24).
Genesis 9:18-19 and the entire tenth chapter of Genesis contain the Table of the Nations. All of the people alive at the time of Babel were descended solely from the three sons of Noah. Consequently, Shem, Ham and Japheth are the fathers of modern civilization. Hayes remarks that Genesis 10 is specifically written to demonstrate that all humanity descended from these three men (146). As Noah was a virtuous man in the eyes of God (Gen. 6:8-9), it is reasonable to presume that the commandments of God were passed on to his sons.
Genesis chapter 10, verses 5, 20 and 32 also suggest that the land of the Earth was physically divided at this time in response to Babel. Genesis specifies: “. . . the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided . . .” (10:25). Willmington comments that “Peleg” means “division” (53). The coastal outlines of the Earth’s continents suggest the likely prior unification of the various land masses. The terra firma can be viewed as a once-unified puzzle now separated into its various fragments.
It is important to note that although chapter 10 precedes the account of Babel in chapter 11, the events described in both chapters are not rendered in a chronologically consecutive fashion. Accordingly, it must be understood that the tenth chapter of Genesis details events prior, during and after those described in chapter 11. Chapter 12 of Genesis portrays the beginning of God’s redemptive plan commencing with the call of Abram.
Despite the bleak future of Babel, God had promised Himself never to destroy the Earth with a flood again due to the disobedience of mankind (Gen. 8:20-22). God also made a covenant with Noah, his descendents and “every living creature,” that He would never again destroy the Earth with a flood. Genesis 9:8-17 affirms that the rainbow serves as a personal reminder to God of His covenant.
Accordingly, God separated the people to different lands and languages to frustrate their self-destructive plans. Determined to stay faithful to His covenant, this was God’s only merciful alternative in response to the tower. If the people were punished, it was a light affliction administered. The reproof was quite mild compared to the prior worldwide flood (Gen. 7:21-23). Similarly, the rebuke of God at Babel hardly parallels the subsequent fiery obliteration of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-30).
Although at a casual glance this rebellion appears benign, it has been demonstrated that this autonomous or self-governing spirit would likely prove to be self-destructive. Willmington points out that the first person plural pronouns “us” and “we” occur no less than 5 times in this King James Version rendering of one sentence:
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth (Gen. 11:4) (50).
Nowhere in the entire passage referring to the Tower of Babel is there found the slightest indication that the builders considered God’s will in their plans. The Bible goes to great lengths to confirm God’s disdain for society’s self-ruling ecumenical pursuits. The Psalmist writes of God’s intervention into the affairs of humanity:
The LORD nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples (Psalm 33:10 NAS).
Archaeologists have long desired to locate the Tower of Babel. They have been unfruitful in their efforts. There may be Scriptural evidence for why the ruins have not been found. The land of Shinar is shown in Zechariah 5:11 as a site for the city of Babylon. The ancient city of Babylon was located some 80 kilometers south of modern-day Baghdad, Iraq (Douglas 111). The Bible confirms that Babel and Babylon were both located in Shinar. Of the history of the Tower of Babel, Hayes states:
This episode (Gen. 11:1-9) was included . . . as the capstone of . . . primeval history. . . . The original story was . . . to explain the existence of multiple language groups with its play on the words Babel (Babylon) and babal (“confuse”) (146).
Babylon is an apostate city frequently mentioned in the Old Testament. From 2nd Kings 17:24 through Zechariah 6:10 there are at least 257 direct references to Babylon (Strong’s 94-95). Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines ancient Babylon as: “. . . a city devoted to materialism and the pursuit of sensual pleasure” (122). In the 18th chapter of the Book of Revelation, Babylon epitomizes mankind’s final organized rebellion against the sovereignty of God and is utterly destroyed. This parallels the destruction of ancient Babylon, overthrown pursuant to the prophecy of the 13th chapter of Isaiah.
Babel’s founder was Nimrod the Hunter (Gen. 10:8-12), who also was a “king of Shinar” (Webster’s 798). Nimrod was a ruthless conqueror of the ancient day with ambitious political aspirations (Willmington 53). Willmington states: “Nimrod’s name means ‘let us revolt'” (53). Genesis 10:9-12 shows that Babel was the first of many cities that Nimrod established.
The Assyrian capital of Nineveh is enumerated (Gen. 10:11) as one of the many cities built by Nimrod. The prophecy of the Book of Jonah records God’s solemn warning to the city to repent of its evil ways. God sent the reluctant prophet Jonah to deliver the admonition. Nineveh immediately repented. However, the prophecy of the Book of Nahum declares that God’s judgment would fall on the subsequently backsliding and unrepentant Nineveh and that they would be pillaged by the Babylonians, Scythians and the Medes.
In Genesis 11:5-7 an exceptionally rare and uncommon event occurred. God personally visited the Tower of Babel to see what was going on. Later, God paid a visit to the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ascertain the degree of depravity of their inhabitants. These cities were completely disintegrated by a fiery earthquake metaphorically referred to as a “furnace” (Gen. 19:24-29).
The Tower of Babel is extremely significant to the epic of the Bible. The story is much more than God indiscriminately interrupting an insignificant building project. The Tower of Babel marks the origins of the nations of the Earth.
The variety of languages and the dispersion of mankind were regarded as a curse, and in Gen. 11:9, an etymology is found for the name of Babel in the Hebrew verb balal, “to confuse or confound,” regarded as a contraction of Balbel. In Genesis 10, Babel is said to have formed part of the kingdom of Nimrod.
It is not mentioned in the Genesis account that God directly destroyed the efforts of the builders; presumably, the building fell into disrepair. However, several other ancient versions (eg. Book of Jubilees) do state the tradition that God overturned the tower with a great wind. According to Cornelius Alexander (frag. 10) and Abydenus (frags. 5 and 6), the tower was overthrown by the winds; according to Yaqut (i, 448 f.) and the Lisan el-‘Arab (xiii. 72), mankind were swept together by winds into the plain afterwards called “Babil”, and were scattered again in the same way.
The original tower of the story has not been identified in Babylonia. It may possibly have been suggested by one of the temple towers (or ziggurats of Babylon. W. A. Bennet (Genesis, p. 169; cf. Hommel in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible) suggests E-Saggila, the great temple of Merodach (Marduk). A more recent theory is based on firm evidence that the original city named “Babel” was not Babylon, but rather the far older Eridu south of Ur, where there is a very large and abandoned ziggurat.
A tradition similar to that of the tower of Babel is found in Central America. It holds that Xelhua, one of the seven giants rescued from the deluge, built the great pyramid of Cholula in order to storm Heaven. The gods, however, destroyed it with fire and confounded the language of the builders.
Traces of a somewhat similar story have also been reported among the Mongolian Tharus in northern India (Report of the Census of Bengal, 1872, p. 160), and, according to Dr Livingstone, among the Africans of Lake Ngami. The Estonian myth of ” the Cooking of Languages ” (Kohl, Reisen in die ‘Ostseeprovinzen, ii. 251-255) may also be compared, as well as the Australian legend of the origin of the diversity of speech (Gerstacker, Reisen, vol. iv. pp. 381 seq.).
There is also a connection with Pentecost in Acts, inasmuch as there the Holy Spirit reverses the Babel process, and enables people to speak languages they do not know.