Babylon in the Old Testament

Babel (Hebrew) means Babylon; so that "the tower" should be designated "the tower of Babel." Capital of the country Shinar (Genesis), Chaldea (later in the Old Testament).

The name as given by Nimrod (Gen. 10:10), the founder, means (Bab-il), "the gate of the god Il," or simply "of God." Afterward the name was attached to it in another sense (Providence having ordered it so that a name should be given originally, susceptible of another sense, signifying the subsequent divine judgment), Gen. 11:9; Babel from baalal, "to confound; .... because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth," in order to counteract their attempt by a central city and tower to defeat God's purpose of the several tribes of mankind being "scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth," and to constrain them, as no longer "understanding one another's speech," to disperse.

The Talmud says, the site of tower of Babel is Borsippa, the Birs Nimrud, 7 1/2 miles from Hillah, and 11 from the northern ruins of Babylon. The French expedition found at Borsippa a clay cake, dated the 30th day of the 6th month of the 16th year of Nabonid. Borsippa (the Tongue Tower) was a suburb of Babylon, when the old Babylon was restricted to the northern ruins. Nebuchadnezzar included it in the great circumvallation of 480 stadia. When the outer wall was destroyed by Darius Borsippa became independent of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar's temple or tower of Nebo stood on the basement of the old tower of Babel.

He says in the inscription, "the house of the earth's base (the basement substructure), the most ancient monument of Babylon I built and finished; I exalted its head with bricks covered with copper ... the house of the seven lights (the seven planets); a former king 42 ages ago built, but did not complete its head. Since a remote time people had abandoned it, without order expressing their words; the earthquake and thunder had split and dispersed its sun-dried clay." The substructure had a temple sacred to Sin, god of the mouth (Oppert).

The substructure is 600 Babylonian ft. broad, 75 ft. high; on it Nebuchadnezzar built seven other stages. God had intimated His will that "the earth should be divided," the several tribes taking different routes, in the days of Peleg (= division), born 100 years after the flood (Gen. 10:25,32; Deut. 32:8). Another object the Babel builders sought was to "make themselves a name"; self-relying pride setting up its own will against the will of God and dreaming of ability to defeat God's purpose was their snare.

Also, their "tower, whose top (pointed toward, or else reached) unto heaven," was designed as a self-deifying, God-defying boast. Compare Isa. 14:13; God alone has the right to "make Himself a name" (Isa. 63:12,14; Jer. 32:20). They desired to establish a grand central point of unity. They tacitly acknowledge they have lost the inward spiritual bond of unity, love to God uniting them in love to one another. They will make up for it by an outward forced unity; the true unity by loving obedience to God they might have had, though dispersed.

Their tower toward heaven may have marked its religious dedication to the heavens (sabeanism, worship of the tsaabaa', the hosts of heaven), the first era in idolatry; as also the first effort after that universal united empire on earth which is to be realized not by man's ambition, but by the manifestation of Messiah, whose right the kingdom is (Ezek. 21:27). "The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded," i.e. (in condescension to human language), Jehovah took judicial cognizance of their act: their "go to, let us," etc. (Gen. 11:3,4), Jehovah with stern irony meets with His "Go to, let us," etc.

The cause of the division of languages lies in an operation performed upon the human mind, by which the original unity of feeling, thought, and will was broken up. The one primitive language is now lost, dispersed amidst the various tongues which have severally appropriated its fragments, about to rise again with reunited parts in a new and heavenly form when Jehovah will "turn to the people a pure language, that they may all CALL upon the name of Jehovah, to serve Him with one consent" (Zeph. 3:9). "And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day shall there be one Lord, and His name one" (Zec. 14:9).

The fact that the Bible names in Gen. 1--10 are Hebrew does not prove it to have been the primitive tongue, because with the change of language, the traditional names were adapted to the existing dialect, without any sacrifice of truth. The guarantee of the coming restoration was given in the gift of tongues at Pentecost, when the apostles spoke with other tongues, so that "devout men out of every nation under heaven" heard them speak in their own tongues "the wonderful works of God." The confusion of tongues was not at random, but a systematic distribution of languages for the purpose of a systematic distribution of man in emigration. The dispersion was orderly, the differences of tongue corresponding to the differences of race: as Gen. 10:5,20,31, "By these were ... the Gentiles divided in their lands, every one after his tongue, after their families in their nations."

Origin of Babylon

Genesis (Gen. 10:8-10) represents Nimrod as the son of Cush (Ethiopia), and that "the beginning of his kingdom was Babel (Babylon)" Bunsen held that there were no Cushites out of Africa, and that an "Asiatic Cush existed only in the imagination of Biblical interpreters," and was "the child of their despair." But the earliest Babylonian monuments show that the primitive Babylonians whose structures by Nebuchadnezzar's time were in ruins, had a vocabulary undoubtedly Cushite or Ethiopian, analogous to the Galla tongue in Abyssinia. Sir H. Rawlinson was able to decipher the inscriptions chiefly by the help of the Galla (Abyssinian) and Mahra (S. Arabian) dialects.

The system of writing resembled the Egyptian, being pictorial and symbolic, often both using the same symbols. Several words of the Babylonians and their kinsmen the Susianians are identical with ancient Egyptian or Ethiopic roots: thus, hyk or hak, found in the Egyptian name hyksos or shepherd kings, appears in Babylonian and Susianian names as khak. Tirkhak is common to the royal lists of Susiana and Ethiopia, as Nimrod appears in those of both Babylon and Egypt. As Ra was the Egyptian sun god, so was Ra the Cushite name of the supreme god of the Babylonians.

Traces appear in the Babylonian inscriptions of all the four great dialects -- Hamitic, Semitic, Aryan, and Turanian -- which show that here the original one language existed before the confusion of tongues. The Babylonian and Assyrian traditions point to an early connection between Ethiopia, S. Arabia, and the cities on the lower Euphrates near its mouth. A first Cushite empire (Lenormant quoted by G. Rawlinson) ruled in Babylonia centuries before the earliest Semitic empire arose. Chedorlaomer (or Lagomer, an idol), king of Elam, is represented in Gen. 14 as leader of the other kings including the king of Shinar (Babylonia).

Now Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions show that Elam (Elymais or Susiana, between Babylonia and Persia) maintained its independence through the whole Assyrian period, and that at a date earlier than that commonly assigned to Abraham (2286 B.C.) an Elamite king plundered Babylonia. About this date, a Babylonian king is designated in the inscriptions "ravager of Syria." Originally, "the gate of the god's" temple, where justice used to be ministered, Babel or Babylon was secondary in importance at first to the other cities -- Erech, Ur, and Ellasar.

The earliest seat of the Chaldeans' power was close on the Persian gulf; as Berosus, their historian, intimates by attributing their civilization to Oannes, the fish god, "who brought it out of the sea." Naturally, the rich alluvial soil near the mouth of great rivers would be the first occupied. Thence they went higher up the river, and finally fixed at Babylon, 300 miles above the Persian gulf, and 200 above the junction of the Tigris with the Euphrates.

Size and Features of Babylon

So extensive was it that those in the center knew not when the extremities were captured (Jer. 51:31). Herodotus gives the circumference as 60 miles, the whole forming a quadrangle, of which each side was 15 miles. M. Oppert confirms this by examinations on the spot, which show an area within the wall of 200 square miles. The arable and pasture land within was enough to supply all its inhabitants' requirements.

The population has been conjectured at 1,200,000. The wall was pierced with 100 gates of brass, 25 gates on each side (Isa. 45:2). The breadth and height of the walls (the latter almost as great as that of the dome of Paul's Cathedral; 350 ft. high, 87 ft. broad) are alluded to in Jer. 51:58,53. A deep wide moat of water surrounded the wall, the 30 lower courses of bricks were wattled with reeds, and the whole cemented with hot asphalt from Is (Hit). The streets crossed at right angles, the cross streets to the Euphrates being closed at the river end by brazen gates.

The temple of Belus was a kind of pyramid, of eight square towers, one above the other, the basement tower being 200 yards each way, and a winding ascent round the tower leading to the summit, on which was a chapel sacred to the god but containing no statue. (Does not this favor the view that the words "whose top ... unto heaven" mean that it was dedicated to the visible heavens, to which it pointed, and of which therefore it needed no symbol or image?) The "hanging gardens" were a square of 400 ft. each way, which rose in terraces, the topmost being planted with large trees.

So the monuments of Nineveh speak of the mounds of the palaces being planted with rows of fir trees. Compare Nah. 2:3, "the fir trees shall be terribly shaken." Oppert thinks that the lesser measurement of the interior of Babylon given by Strabo, Ctesias, etc., is due to their giving the measurement of Herodotus' inner wall, which alone remained in their day; Herodotus speaks of the outer wall which could be traced in his time. Movable platforms of wood, stretching from stone pier to stone pier, formed a bridge uniting the two parts of the city.

Ctesias says there were 250 towers on the walls to guard the weakest parts. In the midst of each half of the city were fortifications, in one the palace, in the other the temple, of Belus. On the W. of the city was an artificial lake, into which the river was turned during the erection of the bridge; when the river was brought back the lake as a marsh defended the city.

Herodotus says the Greeks learned from Babylon the pole, the sundial, and the division of the day into twelve parts. The first eclipse on record, a lunar one, was accurately observed at Babylon, March 19th, 721 B.C. Ptolemy has preserved an account of lunar eclipses as far back as this date. Numerous canals intersected the country for drainage and irrigation. Ps. 137:1, "By the waters of Babylon ... we hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof." The largest, the royal canal, navigable to merchant vessels, connected the Euphrates and Tigris.

Sites and Present State of Babylon

Five miles above Hillah, on the left bank of the Euphrates, enormous mounds mark the site of the capital of S. Babylonia. The principal are three of unbaked brickwork; Babil, the Kasr or palace, and a high mound now surmounted by the tomb of Amram ibn Alb; two parallel lines of rampart, on the E. and parallel to the river, and enclosing between them and it the chief ruins; lower lines immediately on the river (which runs from N. to S.) and W. of the ruins, also a line on the N.; a separate heap in a long valley (perhaps the river's ancient bed); two lines of rampart meeting at a right angle, and forming with the river a triangle enclosing all the ruins except Babil. On the W. or right bank of the river the remains are few.

Opposite the Amram mound there is a kind of enclosed building. Scattered mounds of the same date with the general mass upon the river exist throughout the region. The Birs Nimrud (by G. Smith regarded as the tower of Babel) six miles S.W. of Hillah, and six from the Euphrates, is the most remarkable, 153 1/2 ft. high and 2,000 ft. around the base; surmounted by a tower. It is torn in two nearly the whole way down, and bears traces of fire. G. Smith reads an Assyrian fragment of writing in columns to the effect that "wickedness of men caused the gods to overthrow Babel; what they built in the day the god overthrew in the night; in his anger he scattered them abroad; their counsel was confused."

Sir H. Rawlinson found by excavation the tower consisted of seven stages of brickwork on an earthen platform three feet high, each stage of different color. The temple was devoted to the seven planets: the first stage, an exact square, was 272 ft. each way, and 26 ft. high, the bricks black with bitumen, probably devoted to Saturn; the second stage 230 ft. square, 26 ft. high, orange bricks, devoted probably to Jupiter; the third, 188 ft. square by 26 ft. high, red bricks, probably devoted to Mars; the fourth, 146 ft. square by 15 ft. high, probably plated with gold and devoted to the sun; the fifth, guessed to be 104 ft. square; the sixth 62 ft. ; the seventh 20 ft.; but these three, probably dedicated to Venus, Mercury, and the Moon, are too ruinous for measurement. The whole was probably 156 ft. high.

The slope with the grand entrance faced N.E.; the steeper was S.W. It was called "the temple of the seven spheres." It is thought from the inscriptions to mark the site of Borsippa, beyond the bounds of Babylon. The palace of Nebuchadnezzar, E. of the river Sippara, the ancient course of the Euphrates, and that of Neriglissar on the W. of the river, are still distinguishable. The Shebil canal anciently interposed between the Kasr and Babil. Babil is probably the ancient temple of Belus; 140 ft. high, flat at the top, 200 yards long, 140 yards broad (the temple towers of lower Babylonia had all this oblong shape). It was originally coated with fine burnt brick; all the inscribed bricks bear the name of Nebuchadnezzar, who rebuilt it.

The shrine, altars, and priests' houses were at the foot within a sacred enclosure. Kasr is Nebuchadnezzar's great palace, a square of 700 yards each way. The pale, yellow, burnt bricks are stamped with Nebuchadnezzar's name and titles; "Nebuchadnezzar, son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon." The enameled bricks found bear traces of figures, confirming Ctesias' statement that the walls represented hunting scenes in bright colors. The Amram mound is the ancient palace, as old as Babylon itself; its bricks containing the names of kings before Nebuchadnezzar; that king mentions it in his inscriptions.

The separate heaps close upon and W. of the river's ancient bed answer to the lesser palace, connected with the greater by a bridge across and a tunnel beneath the river (Ctesias). A mound in the middle of the ancient channel marks the site of the piers of the bridge. The inscription of the bricks with Neriglissar's name marks him as the founder of the lesser palace. The two lines of rampart parallel to the river are probably embankments of the great reservoir mentioned by Nebuchadnezzar in the monuments, and lying E. of his palace. With only "brick for stone," and at first only "slime for mortar," the Babylonians by the forced labor of multitudes erected monuments of genius so vast as to be still among the wonders of the world.

History of Babylon

For the last 3,000 years the world has owed its progress manly to the Semitic and the Indo-European races. But originally the Hamitic races (Egypt and Babylon), now so depressed, took the lead the arts, sciences, and power. The first steps in alphabetical writing, sculpture, painting, astronomy, history, navigation, agriculture, weaving, were taken by them. Berosus, their historian's account of their traditions of the flood, and of the confusion of tongues at Babel, accords with Scripture in most points.

Nimrod the son of Cush came over in ships to lower Mesopotamia, and built Ur on the right of the Euphrates near the mouth. Its inhabitants were Chaldi, i.e. moon worshippers. Hur means "the moon goddess." Its vocabulary is Cushite or Ethiopian. A dynasty of 11 monarchs followed. One Orchamar Urkhur, in the inscriptions, was the builder of gigantic works. Chedorlaomer of Elam established a short-lived empire, extending to the mountains of Elam and to Palestine and Syria.

This early Babylonian empire, which subsequently to Chedorlaomer's reign in Elam lasted 458 years, fell by the invasion of barbarian hordes, probably Arabs. For seven and a half centuries it was depressed, during which time it became gradually assimilated to the Semitic stock. Nimrod is not mentioned in the Babylonian remains; he probably answers to their god Bel. He united tribes previously independent. The cuneiform inscriptions often designate the people of the lower Euphrates region Kiriath Arbol, "the four nations;" such a confederacy appears in Gen. 14, of which the king of Shinar was one.

The southern tetrarchy (`arba lisun, "the four tongues," or kiprat `arbat, "the four nations") consisted of Ur, Huruk, Nipur, and Larsa or Laruncha, answering to the scriptural Ur of the Chaldees, Erech, Calneh, and Ellasar. The northern tetrarchy consisted of Babylon, Borsippa, and Sippara (Sepharvaim): Gen. 10:10-12. The Assyrians adopted the Babylonian number on their emigration to the N. The "four tongues" and the fourfold league of Chedorlaomer answer to the fourfold ethnic division, Cushite, Turanian, Semitic, and Aryan. Erech (Warka) and Ur (Mugheir) were then the capitals; the land was Shinar, and the people (according to the monuments) Akkadim (Accad, Gen. 10:10).

The remains from these two cities date about 2000 B.C. Writing had begun, for the bricks are stamped with their kings' names. The bricks, rudely molded and of various sizes, are some kiln-burned, others sun-dried; buttresses support their buildings: mortar is unknown, clay and bitumen being substituted. Reed matting compacts the mass, that it may not crumble away.

The first dynasty of 11 kings probably lasted from 2234 B.C. to 1976 B.C.; the dynasty succeeding Chedorlaomer's short lived Elamitic empire from 1976 B.C. to 1518 B.C., 458 years. Then it fell under Semitic influence, Arabia for two and a half centuries, and then (about 1270 B.C.) under Assyria for five. At the close of the earlier and the beginning of the later Assyrian dynasties it again rose to the importance which it had when it colonized and gave letters and the arts to Assyria, and had the supremacy during the second or great Chaldean dynasty. Rawlinson completes Berosus' chronological scheme.


International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).