Babylon—Isaiah 13

The name “Babylon” appears 288 times in the Old Testament and 12 times in the New Testament and generally refers to the ancient city in the southern part of Mesopotamia, located near the Euphrates River 90 km south of modern Baghdad. The first occurrences in the Bible appear after the flood narrative in the context of the Table of Nations (Gen. 10:10) and then in the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:9). In Genesis 11:9, the biblical author employs a pejorative folk etymology of the term by associating it with the Hebrew root balal “confusion.” Scholars acknowledge that the original name for Babylon is neither Sumerian nor Akkadian but could have derived from a popular Akkadian etymology, Babilim, “gate of god,” and its cognate Sumerian “ka-dingirra.” In this way, the Akkadian plural form babilani, “gate of the gods,” resulted in the later Greek word Babilon from which we got the modern “Babylon.”

The first archaeological excavations in Babylon took place from 1899 to 1917 under the direction of Robert Koldewey. Later in the twentieth century, a group of German archaeologists excavated the site down to the levels of the Neo-Babylonian city. Among the most impressive finds were the ancient city’s two massive defensive brick walls with their eight gates. One of them, the Ishtar gate, had been decorated with lions and dragons. A processional street leading to it served as the site for important New Year celebrations. Also, the famous Esagil and the Ziggurat Etemenanki of the god Marduk—long associated with the Tower of Babel of Genesis 11—stood in the center of the city. Other important structures found in Babylon include several royal palaces as well as a museum displaying part of the war booty captured by King Nebuchadnezzar.

As mentioned previously, the readers of the Bible considered the name “Babylon” as meaning “confusion,” a concept that biblical writers used to characterize the city as a center of false worship. They regarded Babylon as the ultimate symbol of divine usurpation and hostility to Jerusalem, the holy city where God’s true dwelling place was located. The biblical text extensively documents Babylon’s contacts with the nation of Israel. The Old Testament mentions several Babylonian monarchs and military leaders such as Merodach-baladan (2 Kings 20:12; Isa. 39:1), Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24:10, 11; Jer. 27:6), Evil-Merodach (2 Kings 25:27; Jer. 52:31), Nebuzaradan (Jer. 39:11, 13), among others.

Because of Israel’s disobedience, God foretold through His prophets the exile, duration, and the end of the Babylonian exile. The exile was a turning point in Israel’s history and relationship with Babylon (Jer. 25). In the book of Daniel, the prophet describes how God delivered the Israelites as well as their king into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 1:1, 2). Daniel 1-5 takes up the antagonistic relationship between Babylon (Babel) and the people of God that began in Genesis (Gen. 10:8-10; 11:1-9) and extends to the last book of the New Testament, Revelation. Significantly, only the book of Daniel documents the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (Dan. 5). At the same time, the biblical author points to a future religious, political system that will reflect the image of the ancient one. Just as Scripture introduces Babylon as the object of divine judgment in Genesis 11, which led to the “confusion of tongues,” similarly in Daniel 5, the Babylonian empire ends as a result of the “confusion” of not being able to interpret the “writing on the wall” produced by a mysterious hand. The writing once again demonstrated divine intervention against Belshazzar and all those who dared to oppose the God of Israel.

The Old Testament forever condemned the atrocities, idolatry, divine usurpation, and oppression of Babylon against God’s people. The New Testament, especially in the book of Revelation, takes up all of Babylon’s idolatrous and blasphemous background attested in the Old Testament. Thus, John the Revelator refers to the end-time “spiritual” Babylon as “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations” (Rev. 17:5), symbolizing apostate Christianity in contrast to the woman clothed with the sun of Revelation 12, which symbolizes pure Christianity. The final judgment on end-time Babylon represents both the condemnation of worldly forces that oppose God and His people and the vindication of God’s righteous and true character.


Arnold, Who Were the Babylonians?

Dyck, “Babel or Babylon? A Lexical Grammatical Analysis of Genesis 10:10 and 11:9,” 237-242.

Gregory, “Its End Is Destruction: Babylon the Great in the Book of Revelation,” 137-153.

Hilton, “Babel Reversed—Daniel Chapter 5,” 99-112.

Ringgren, “Babel,Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 466-467.