What Was Babylon in the Bible?
Babylon in the Bible was an important city-state on the banks of the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia (the southern part of modern Iraq). It played a great role in the ancient Near East and developed into a prosperous center of religion and trade (1895-539 BC). Its name stems from the narrative in Genesis 11:1-11, which concerns the construction of the Tower of Babel (bāḇel). It may have been a fortress but was more likely a temple. But a temple to what? To God? We will discover that in this article.
Noah’s great-grandson, Nimrod, was the first mighty man of the Bible (Genesis 10:10), and the Bible says Babel was one of the towns that encompassed the beginning of Nimrod’s kingdom in the land of Shinar.
The word, babel, means confusion, (by mixing), and it was there God confused the languages of men because the inhabitants said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). Babel was the foundation of Babylon.
Babylon in the Bible’s history includes Assyrian domination when Nineveh was its capital (Jonah 1), with Babylon’s location about 250 miles away. Nebuchadnezzar also factors into Babylon’s history as the Assyrian king who was in power when Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were deported there (Daniel 1:1-7). Ezekiel also prophesied from there (Ezekiel 1:1) and spoke of the detestable things that would occur in the temple (Ezekiel 8:5-6). We also learn of the Assyrians in the book of Jonah. They broke away from the Babylonian rule and then later reigned over Babylon for a few centuries around 1000 BC.
Babylon in the Bible is first mentioned by name in 2 Kings 17:24, when the king of Assyria displaced the people of Israel with those of Babylon, among others. That was a period when Israel and Judah were divided, and evil kings reigned over Israel and its unfaithful people and caused even Judah to follow their sinful ways. God “rejected all the descendants of Israel and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until He cast them out of His sight…The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did…so Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria…” (2 Kings 17:20-23). Assyria (Babylon as its capital) was the instrument the Lord used to punish His people. Babylon became the empire that wrecked Jerusalem, scorched the temple, and took the people of God into exile.
For all its renown in the ancient world, the Babylonian empire, in its second brief iteration, survived less than a century and disappeared from sight when the Medo-Persians under Cyrus the Great defeated the kingdom in 539 BC. No nation so set against God escapes judgment (Isaiah 47).
The book of Daniel gives us insight into the nations which emerged. In Daniel 2, King Nebuchadnezzar had a disturbing dream, which Daniel interpreted (giving all glory to God for the interpretation). In it, the king saw a great, bright image with a head of fine gold, chest, and arms of silver, middle and thighs of bronze, iron legs, and feet mixed with iron and clay. A stone (cut by no human hands) struck the image on its feet and broke them into pieces, followed by the whole image becoming as chaff and blown by the wind. The stone became a great mountain that filled the whole earth (Daniel 2:25-35).
With great deference, Daniel then gave the interpretation. Nebuchadnezzar was the head of gold (606-561 BC, kingdom of Babylon). After him came an inferior kingdom (538-539 BC Cyrus, Medo-Persia), and then a third kingdom of bronze (330 BC, Alexander the Great, Greek Empire). The fourth kingdom was to be strong as iron (146 BC, the Caesars of Rome-iron legs), and the iron mixed with clay kingdom would not stand (for they do not mix)—10 provinces of Rome. The mountain is the Lord, and He will set up a kingdom that will eclipse all others, and which will never end. It will stand forever. Daniel ends his interpretation by telling the king the interpretation is sure and certain because it has been ordained by God (Daniel 2:38-45).
Why Was Babylon so Evil?
The evil of Babylon in the Bible emanated from the objects of its worship and the actions of its rulers and subjects. The people who erected the Tower of Babel decided to make a name for themselves in opposition to God, and they proceeded with outright disdain for God’s rule. That in and of itself was enough to make them evil because they clearly defied the Lord. Babylon’s god was Marduk, one they considered the supreme deity over all others.
As rulers, their judges exacted punishments that make even the most hard-hearted person squeamish. They would cut off feet, lips, and noses. Added to that was the practice of blinding prisoners, gutting them, and tearing out their hearts. As if raising a defiant fist to the Lord God, their king alone decided what would happen to his opponents, often hacking besieged peoples and carrying them about as evidence of his “superiority.”
When we look at the account of Jonah and his seeming lack of concern toward the people of Nineveh (the Assyrian capital), we need to remember Jonah was a prophet. His immediate predecessors were Elijah and Elisha, and he was a contemporary of Hosea and Amos. He knew of the coming Babylonian (Assyrian) captivity, hence his predilection to flee and to want for their destruction.
Babylon carried Israel off in a two-stage deportation (597 and 587 BC), and Israel’s people were subject to their rulers. The accounts in Daniel— (1) of his three companions’ ordeal in the fiery furnace “heated seven times more than it normally was heated” (Daniel 3:20) because they refused to worship the image of Nebuchadnezzar, and (2) King Darius throwing Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6:16-18) because he refused to stop praying to the Lord—show us just a few examples of the heinous acts of punishment perpetrated by the Assyrian/Babylonian regimes.
Yet God is not to be mocked. He, in Deuteronomy 28:49-58, tells of sending people into exile if they disobey Him, which Israel did.
What Is Babylon in the End Times?
What happened that caused a short-lived Old Testament city-state to become such a New Testament symbol of evil? The term, Babylon, has been foisted upon everything from the world's system, to Rome, to a literal city in Iraq which was being rebuilt by Saddam Hussein, who considered himself a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar.
Babylon in the Bible is named six times in the book of Revelation, the hotbed of end-times discussions (along with the books of Daniel and Ezekiel). Much discussion has ensued regarding the meaning of Babylon as portrayed in Revelation. The context of the book of Revelation seems to suggest Babylon (Revelation 14:8, 16:19, 18:2, 10, and 21) and the Whore of Babylon (Revelation 17:5) are symbolic of a spirit of a seductive culture which will fall to God’s wrath.
We know that sin and evil on an individual basis entered the world when Adam and Eve sinned, therefore causing their spiritual death (Genesis 3). Shortly after, their son Cain killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8).
Corporate sin, however, was embraced by a group of people who decided they should exalt themselves over God by building “a tower with its top in the heavens,” in order to make a name for themselves, “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). It, in effect, became a worldly system of evil. God—in how He portrayed Babylon in Revelation—will bring an end to the sinful world. Babylon is a symbol for the world as ruled by the devil.
Revelation 14:8 says Babylon the Great is fallen, “she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.” She is only called great for her extensive tentacular reach, like the tentacles of an octopus.
Babylon is called, “mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations” in Revelation 17:5. Just as Satan is called the father of lies, the evil world system, Babylon—controlled by him—is mother to his evil acts. Because she encompassed such evil, she will be the “dwelling place” for “demons, unclean spirits and birds, and every unclean and detestable beast” (Revelation 18:2).
Revelation 18:21 reveals her final destiny, “Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, ‘So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more;’”
One day she will be gone, never again to tempt or lie.
Why Is Babylon so Important to Know About?
God can and will use evil people and nations to enact His will (Pharaoh in Egypt, e.g.) Babylon is an example for us to learn how not to live. Her inhabitants sought a life free from God—a life which defied instead of glorifying Him. That’s what Babylon was—a place where people traded worshiping God for self and idol worship.
From its inception, Babylon served as an opponent to God and His people and instead served as a symbol for man’s arrogance especially in rejection of God.
God has supremacy over all nations Man may try to usurp control, and God allows certain events for His purposes, yet our sovereign God has and will always reign supreme.
Other reasons to know of Babylon:
To understand Scripture when it’s referenced in prophecy (or revelation).
To learn about God’s sovereignty; Babylon was a superpower of the world at the time of Israel’s exile, but that didn’t matter. In the end, God determines the outcome of all things and raises up nations and destroys them just as easily (Job 12:23; Proverbs 21:1).
Daniel, while enslaved in Babylon, refused its pleasures in order to remain faithful to God and serves as a role model for believers.
As we learned from Jonah’s experiences—God cares about wicked people too. While we have breath, there is the hope of repentance.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/RobertoDavid
Lisa Loraine Baker is a rock & roll girl who loves Jesus. She and her husband, Stephen, inhabit their home as the “Newlyweds of Minerva” with crazy cat, Lewis. Lisa is co-author of the non-fiction narrative, “Someplace to be Somebody” (End Game Press, spring 2022). She has also written for Lighthouse Bible Studies and CBN.com.