(Map 2:H4). Babylon is the rendering of Akkadian Babilum (Babilim), the city that for centuries served as capital of the “land of Babylon” (Jer. 50.28). Cuneiform sources interpret its name as bāb‐ilim, “gate of the deity.” The Bible rejected this popular etymology in favor of a more scurrilous one that linked the name to the confusion of tongues (Gen. 11.9, Hebr. bālal, “[God] confused”), and so the city is called Babel.
Not until around 1900 BCE did an independent dynasty establish itself at Babylon. Like most of their contemporaries, its rulers bore Amorite (Northwest Semitic) names, but unlike some of them, they enjoyed lengthy reigns, passing the succession from father to son without a break; this may have helped Babylon survive its rivals in the period of warring states (ca. 1860–1760 BCE). Under the adroit Hammurapi (ca. 1792–1750 BCE), Babylon succeeded in restoring the unity of Mesopotamia under its own hegemony.
Babylon's triumph was short‐lived, though: under its next king, Samsu‐iluna (ca. 1749–1712 BCE), the extreme south was lost to the new Sealand Dynasty and the north to the Kassites at Hana. About 1600 BCE, the city itself was sacked by an invading army of Hittites from distant Anatolia (modern Turkey), and these rivals took it over, the Sealanders only briefly, but the Kassites for almost half a millennium (ca. 1590–1160 BCE).
It remained for the Second Dynasty of Isin (ca. 1156–1025 BCE) to restore Babylon to its earlier prominence. The recapture of the cult statue of Marduk from Elamite captivity by Nebuchadrezzar I (ca. 1124–1103 BCE) probably capped this development. Babylon was henceforth regarded as the heir to the millennial traditions of the ancient Sumerian centers of cult and culture. Marduk, the local patron deity of Babylon, was endowed with the attributes of the ancient Sumerian deities of those centers—notably Enki of Eridu and Enlil of Nippur—and exalted to the head of the pantheon. This exaltation was celebrated in new compositions such as enūma elish (when above; conventionally known as the Babylonian Epic of Creation) and can be compared in certain respects with the exaltation of the God of Israel as celebrated in the roughly contemporary Song of the Sea (Exod. 15).
In the early first millennium, Babylon could not sustain a military and political posture to match these cultural and religious pretensions, and it gradually declined into the status of a vassal state to Assyria, the powerful neighbor to the north. Occasional alliances with Elam in the east or, notably under Marduk‐apal‐iddina II (the biblical Merodach‐baladan), with Judah in the west (2 Kings 20.12–19; cf. Isa. 39), provided brief periods of precarious independence. The city was devastated by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (704–681 BCE) not long after his abortive siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE (2 Kings 18.13–19.37; cf. Isa. 36–37). It was restored by that king's son and successor Esarhaddon (680–669 BCE), only to be caught up again in the violent civil war (652–648 BCE) between the two sons of Esarhaddon that pitted Shamash‐shum‐ukin of Babylonia against Assurbanipal of Assyria. The resultant weakening of the Assyrian empire no doubt helped clear the path for the accession of the last and in some ways greatest Babylonian dynasty, that of the Chaldeans, sometimes referred to as the Tenth Babylonian Dynasty (625–539 BCE).
With this restoration, Babylon ranked as one of the major cities, indeed, in Greek eyes, as one or even two of the seven wonders of the ancient world, by virtue of its walls in some accounts and invariably for its famous “hanging gardens.” The gardens were more likely the work of Marduk‐apal‐iddina II than of Nebuchadrezzar II (as claimed by Berossos in one Hellenistic tradition), but the latter certainly rebuilt the city most grandly during his forty‐four‐year reign (605–562 BCE). He is remembered in biblical historiography as the conqueror of Jerusalem in 597 and 587/586 BCE (2 Kings 24–25; cf. 2 Chron. 36). The biblical record is supported and supplemented by the Babylonian Chronicle and other cuneiform documents. But the stories told in the book of Daniel about Nebuchadrezzar (especially chap. 4), as well as about Belshazzar (chap. 5), should rather be referred to Nabonidus, who proved to be not only the last king of the dynasty (555–539 BCE) but the last ruler of any independent polity in Babylon. The city surrendered to Cyrus the Persian in a bloodless takeover and thereafter, while continuing as a metropolis of the successive Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Parthian empires, ceased to play an independent role in ancient politics.
In the Bible, Babylon plays a dual role, positively as the setting for a potentially creative diaspora, negatively as a metaphor for certain forms of degeneracy. The “Babylonian exile” imposed by Nebuchadrezzar on the Judeans removed the center of Jewish life to Babylon for fifty or sixty years, if not the seventy predicted by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 29.10, cf. 2 Chron. 36.21). The exiled king Jehoiachin was released from prison by Nebuchadrezzar's son and successor Amel‐Marduk, the Evil‐merodach of 2 Kings 25.27 (cf. Jer. 52.31), and provided for from the royal stores, as indicated also by cuneiform sources. Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in God's name, advising them to enjoy the positive aspects of life in Babylon and to pray for its welfare (Jer. 29.4–7; contrast Ps. 122.6). Ezekiel lived among the exiles and prepared them for the restoration, while Second Isaiah welcomed the arrival of Cyrus (Isa. 44.28–45.1), which paved the way for the return of those exiles who chose to accept his proclamation (2 Chron. 36.22f.; Ezra 1.1–3).
Under Persian rule, Babylon continued to flourish as the seat of one of the most important satrapies of the Persian empire (cf. Ezra 7.16; Dan. 2.49; etc.), and the Achaemenid Artaxerxes I could still be called “king of Babylon” (Neh. 13.6). The Jews who chose to remain there enjoyed considerable prosperity, as indicated by business documents from nearby Nippur in which individuals identified as Judeans or bearing Jewish names (in Hebrew or Aramaic) engage in various agricultural and commercial activities. The foundations were thus laid for the creative role that Babylonia was to play in the Jewish life of the postbiblical period.
The Bible also reflects a negative view of Babylon. Already in the primeval history, the tower of Babel (Gen. 11.1–9) uses the traditional ziggurat present in each city of Sumer as a metaphor for the excesses of human ambition that led to, and accounted for, the confusion of tongues and dispersion of peoples. The Psalmists emphasized the negative aspects of exile (Ps. 137), and the fall of the “arrogant” city (Jer. 50.31) and “its sinners” (Isa. 13.9) was predicted confidently, even gleefully, by the prophets. In the New Testament, Babylon became the epitome of wickedness (Rev. 17.5) and a symbolic name for Rome (Rev. 17–18; cf. 1 Pet. 5.13).
William W. Hallo