There hasn’t been much to Babylon since the fourth century before Christ, when Alexander the Great died in Nebuchadnezzar’s old palace there (323 B.C.). Yes, there is mention of Babylon in the Book of Revelation, but most scholars believe that was a veiled reference to imperial Rome, the great power of its time.
Babylon has ancient roots, though, and was the cradle of civilization that gave rise to the entire Middle East. It is not far from the patriarch Abraham’s homeland of Ur and stands on the Euphrates River in southern Mesopotamia. Scholars believe Babylon was founded more than 2,000 years before the birth of Christ by the Akkadian ruler, Sargon (d. 2279 B.C.).
Bible scholars also say that Babylon — whose name means “Gate of the God” — is the same city as Babel, founded, according to the Bible, by Nimrod, a descendent of Noah (Gen 10:8-10) in the land of Shinar. (Shinar was the homeland of the Sumerians, from whom the first forms of writing came into history.) The tower of Babel (Gen 11) probably resembled the great ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia.
Babylon was later ruled as a city-state by the Amorites. Their most famous leader was Hammurabi (d. 1750 B.C.), whose code of law influenced the development of Mosaic Law (with such decrees as “an eye for an eye.’”
The Hittites overran Babylon in 1600 B.C. and it did not rise in power again for nearly 1,000 years. Then, in 626 B.C., the Babylonians gained independence from Assyria (who had destroyed the Hittite power around 1180 B.C.). Babylon’s rise to regional power, known as the neo-Babylonian Chaldean Empire, was rapid and Babylon became one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world.
The northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The southern kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital, remained independent until 587 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar II conquered it, destroyed the Temple and the city, and took most of the Jewish leaders and scholars into exile.
In the ongoing saga of war in the Middle East, Babylon was overthrown by the Persians in 539 B.C. and, two years later, the Persian ruler, Cyrus, allowed the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem. The Exile officially ended when the Temple was rededicated in 516 B.C.
The Babylonian Exile was a defining event in Jewish history and still affects Jews to this day. In 1996, Israel’s president, Ezer Weismann, gave a speech to both houses of the German Parliament: “I am no longer a wandering Jew who migrates from country to country, from exile to exile. But all Jews in every generation must regard themselves as if they had been there in previous generations, places and events. Therefore, I am still a wandering Jew … I was a slave in Egypt. … I entered Jerusalem with David and was exiled with Zedekiah. And I did not forget it by the rivers of Babylon. When the Lord returned the captives of Zion, I dreamed among the builders of its ramparts.”
In the Old Testament, prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, warned Israel about the upcoming exile and the loss of Jerusalem, and then comforted them during the Babylonian Captivity. The center of Jewish worship, the Temple, where the presence of God resided, was lost. But, as the prophets reminded the people, God was still with them.
Religious studies scholar Leonard Doohan said the “Babylonian captivity was a time for the Jews to examine their infidelity, against which Isaiah had spoken (6:11-13) and rethink their commitment to God.”
During Lent, we are called to examine the flaws in our own lives and how we live in a type of exile, longing to return to God, to dwell in peace in the eternal kingdom. Through Jesus, we have been given the means to do just that. And, as the Gospel for this Sunday — the midpoint of Lent — reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
That’s certainly a reason to rejoice.
Sources: www.TorahBytes.org; en.wikipedia.org; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; the American Bible Society; www.bible-history.com; and The Columbia Encyclopedia.