It’s easy to confuse all of the aggressive nations in the Bible: the Assyrians, Syrians/Arameans, Persians, Chaldeans/Babylonians—just to name the larger ones. It is also easy to mix up when, where and how they interacted with Israel. It doesn’t help that when opposing empires conquered one another, they often morphed into the same conglomerate.
In this article, we’ll look at an empire mostly described fairly late in biblical history, yet an empire the Bible reveals as the foundational model of humanity’s empires and religions.
Let’s examine the Babylonians.
Beginnings—a Despotic Founder
Babylon began soon after the great Flood. The Flood dates somewhere in the middle of the third millennium b.c.e., probably around 2350 b.c.e. Genesis 10 discusses the first great post-Flood dictator who emerged after that time, Noah’s great-grandson Nimrod:
Cush fathered Nimrod, who was the first powerful man on earth. He was a powerful hunter in the sight of the Lord. That is why it is said, ‘Like Nimrod, a powerful hunter in the sight of [or against] the Lord.’ His kingdom started with Babylon … (Genesis 10:8-10; Holman Christian Standard Bible).
Nimrod was the founder of Babylon, or “Babel” as it is rendered in the King James Version (Bavel in Hebrew). The following verses state that Nimrod was also the founder of a slew of other cities that are confirmed by archaeology, such as Nineveh and Calah (also known as Kahlu, but better known by its more common name Nimrud).
Three classical historians—Berossus, Ctesias and Stephanus of Byzantium—use different sources that all date Babylon’s original founding to around 2250 b.c.e. This lines up perfectly with the time that Nimrod would have been on the scene, after his grandfather Ham survived the Flood 50 to 100 years prior. Babylon, the genesis of Nimrod’s empire, has been identified through archaeology. It is called, in the native Akkadian language, Babili.
Nimrod, whose name means “rebel,” led the way after the Flood in turning to paganism. He established a system of worship whose traditions are still heavily utilized around the world to this day. A study of this can be found in Alexander Hislop’s book The Two Babylons.
Ancient Jewish historian Josephus wrote about Babylon’s founder in Antiquities of the Jews (1.4.2; emphasis added throughout):
Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God. … He also gradually changed the government into tyranny—seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence upon his power. He also said he would be revenged on God, if He should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers!
Tower of Babel
And so work began on the tower of Babel. Josephus stated that it was deliberately built in a manner so as not to allow water to seep through. “And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’” (Genesis 11:4). Seeing their rapid progress and what they determined to do, God confounded the language of the people in order to disperse them and prevent them from gathering together into one small, tightly packed location. Consequently, the world began to be colonized.
Incredibly, just as with the Flood, the history of the tower of Babel isn’t just limited to the Bible. In fact, it isn’t limited to those nations of the Mesopotamian area. Various traditions that are similar to the tower of Babel and confusion of languages episode can be found all over the world—across Asia, the Americas, the Pacific, Africa, Europe and, of course, the Middle East. You can read more about these traditions in our article “The Tower of Babel: Just a Bible Story?” As with the Flood, if we take the Bible literally, we ought to find tower of Babel traditions all around the world—seeing that Genesis 11 states it was only after this event that populations were scattered across “all the earth.”
For the purposes of this article, we’ll briefly look at an eighth-century-b.c.e. Assyrian inscription and its similarities with the account of the tower of Babel. Though the tablet was badly damaged, its message is still clear:
… he the father of all the gods had repudiated; the thought of his heart was evil. … of Babylon he hastens to the submission, small and great he confounded on the mound. Their walls all the day he founded; for their destruction in the night … he did not leave a remainder. In his anger also his secret counsel he pours out; to confound (their) speeches he set his face. He gave the command, he made strange their counsel ….
The parallels are clear. So where is this tower of Babel today? There are various theories about its exact location, but we can’t be certain. It is generally believed that the tower of Babel was in the form of a ziggurat. These were massive ancient religious structures found throughout Mesopotamia—especially dating to the early, post-Flood centuries. A massive ziggurat at Borsippa, known as Birs Nimrud (Tower of Nimrod), is one contender for the tower of Babel. The massive, crumbling remains of this ziggurat are located within the Babylon province. Wherever the true site is, a building in the shape of a ziggurat would certainly fit descriptions from those such as Josephus, who commented on the tower’s mountainous supporting width rather than sheer vertical height.
Abraham and Beyond
The confusion of the languages and dispersion of the people dashed Nimrod’s hopes of a powerful, centralized Babylonian power. In the intervening time up to Abraham (c. 1900 b.c.e.), the Assyrians began to grow in power as the dominant regional empire. Their burgeoning might, however, was brought to a halt after Abraham and his servant army defeated an alliance of the Assyrian kings (Genesis 14). This paved the way for an age of Egyptian power and expansion—and it also allowed Babylonia to develop into its own unique power.
At this point, a distinction must be made between Babylon and Chaldea. Chaldeans are often referred to as Babylonians. The Chaldeans lived in the southern region of Babylon. Especially during the eighth to sixth centuries b.c.e., the Chaldeans are referred to synonymously as Babylonians, and many Chaldeans reigned as king over Babylon. After Persia’s conquest of Babylon, historians speculate that the name “Chaldean” referred more to social class than race. For the purposes of this article, we can consider the Chaldeans as more or less a large “tribe” of wider Babylonia.
Abraham himself grew up in Chaldea (Genesis 11:28, 31). He was well familiar with the Babylonian system of religion, culture and governance. He was on the scene at the rise of the Babylonian Empire, which was governed by what is known as the First Dynasty of Babylon. This dynasty appears to have begun just after 1900 b.c.e., gradually encompassing the surrounding territory. One of these early Babylonian rulers was Hammurabi, a man famous for a detailed code of laws for his society. Babylonia grew swiftly under his rulership.
It was probably around this time that we find another token mention of the Chaldeans in the Bible. The book of Job records the numerous curses that befell Job as a result of his self-righteousness.
“While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said: ‘The Chaldeans set themselves in three bands, and fell upon the camels, and have taken them away, yea, and slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.’” (Job 1:17).
Job was likely the very son of the patriarch Issachar, one of the 12 sons of Jacob (see Genesis 46:13). Job was a leading figure in the land of Uz, a territory believed to have encompassed the southeast region of modern-day Israel and southern Jordan. Evidently, this was within the reach of marauding Chaldeans.
After Hammurabi, the Babylonian Empire gradually fell into decline and was conquered by the Hittites. After the Hittite sacking, the eastern Kassite peoples swept in and took control of Babylon, beginning a Kassite dynasty around the 16th century b.c.e. Toward the end of the Kassite rule, Assyria broke away from Babylonian control, established its own empire, and became a powerful adversary. The Elamite Empire also grew in power and finally destroyed the Kassite dynasty in 1157 b.c.e.
A new line of Babylonian kings subsequently began to rule. King Nebuchadnezzar i soon defeated Elam (note, this is not the famous Nebuchadnezzar ii of the Bible), and he was successful in fending off Babylonia from Assyrian attacks.
Encyclopedia Britannica describes the ensuing complex devolution of Babylonia:
For several centuries following Nebuchadrezzar i’s rule, a three-way struggle developed among the Assyrians and Aramean and Chaldean tribesmen for control of Babylonia. From the ninth century to the fall of the Assyrian empire in the late seventh century b.c., Assyrian kings most frequently ruled over Babylonia, often appointing sub-kings to administer the government. The last ruling Assyrian king was Ashurbanipal, who fought a civil war against his brother, the sub-king in Babylon, devastating the city and its population.
This intervening time period in Babylonia’s history was one of dominance under the powerful Assyrian Empire. It is the period when Assyria is heavily featured in the Bible—and it conquers the northern kingdom of Israel.
It is in this intervening time period, just before Babylon’s greatest rise to power, that we must pause to examine some details.
Laying the Foundation for Babylon’s Rise
After the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered around 718 b.c.e., the Assyrian invaders uprooted virtually all the Israelites in the land. They were replaced with a variety of new inhabitants, among them Babylonians (2 Kings 17:24). These implanted peoples would later become known as Samaritans, whose strange religions were morphed with a skewed understanding of the laws of God (verses 25-28).
After the Babylonians had left, the Prophet Isaiah approached the king, querying him about the nature of the visit. Hezekiah affirmed that the men were from a “far country”—from Babylon—and that he had shown the ambassadors all the national treasures. Isaiah responded with harsh criticism from God for Hezekiah’s openness toward the Babylonians:
Behold, the days come, that all that is in thy house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, saith the Lord. And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, whom thou shalt beget, shall they take away; and they shall be officers in the palace of the king of Babylon. (Isaiah 39:6-7).
Ezekiel 23 also prophesied the deadly consequences of Judah’s “doting” on and fraternizing with the Babylonians. And just as described by the prophets, the Babylonians were about to burst onto the world scene in their greatest show of power and strength.
A New Babylonian Empire
Within a century, Assyria had descended into infighting and chaos. A Chaldean leader named Nabopolassar established himself as king over Babylon and began the most prolific period of Babylonian dominance, to that point. Babylon became his capital, and he sacked the powerful Assyrian city of Nineveh. Even the Egyptians united with Assyria to try to stop the emerging Babylonian Empire. This brings us to another important stage in the biblical story, involving King Josiah. In order for Egypt to assist Assyria in battling the Babylonians, they needed to travel through the land of Judah. Pharaoh Necho (a man not only mentioned in the Bible, but also thoroughly attested to in archaeology) rushed to the aid of the Assyrians, but Josiah, king of Judah, stood in his way.
After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Neco king of Egypt went up to fight against Carchemish by the Euphrates; and Josiah went out against him. But he sent ambassadors to him, saying: ‘What have I to do with thee, thou king of Judah? I come not against thee this day, but against the house wherewith I have war; and God hath given command to speed me; forbear thee from meddling with God, who is with me, that He destroy thee not.’ (2 Chronicles 35:20-21).
Josiah, however, wouldn’t be stayed. He mounted a resistance against the pharaoh in the valley of Megiddo, where he was wounded and later died. It is not known why Josiah fought against the pharaoh. Perhaps he disdained the idea of Egypt passing through the land. More likely, he harbored sympathies toward the Babylonians, as did his great-grandfather Hezekiah, and as described in Ezekiel 23. Knowing Egypt’s and Assyria’s track records with the Israelites may have made Josiah more naively willing to jump into bed with the Babylonians.
Although the Egyptians defeated the Jews at Megiddo, they were about to enter a world of trouble, suffering two separate defeats at the hands of the Babylonians.
The Fall of Jerusalem
In 605 b.c.e., the Egyptians and Assyrians were soundly defeated at the battle of Carchemish. The Prophet Jeremiah prophesied the fall of Egypt at the hand of the new king of Babylon—the infamous Nebuchadnezzar ii (see Jeremiah 46). History concurs that this happened. The scene was now set for the fall of Judah and the well-known story of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign.
The Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom of Judah in three separate waves. The first was around 600 b.c.e. Jehoiakim was on the throne of Judah and had served Babylon for three years before rebelling (2 Kings 24:1-6). Armies of Chaldeans, Syrians, Moabites and Ammonites set about plundering Judah. Nebuchadnezzar had Jehoiakim brought in chains to Babylon, along with various temple treasures and captives (2 Chronicles 36:5-8). It was at this same time that Daniel and his three friends were also captured and taken to Babylon (Daniel 1:1, 3-6; more on this later).
In place of Jehoiakim reigned Jehoiachin, his son. This man had one of the shortest lengths of reign in Judah—just over three months. Even in this short period of time, he managed to establish a reputation as an “evil” king. Jeremiah prophesied that this man would fall into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and none of his seed would assume the throne of Judah (Jeremiah 22). Subsequently, Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem a second time. Jehoiachin, his servants and his mother emerged and gave themselves up to the king of Babylon. More treasures were looted from the temple and were carried back by the Babylonians, along with 10,000 Jerusalemite captives. Among this captivity was Kish, a man who would become the great-grandfather of Mordecai (Esther 2:5-6). “[N]one remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land” (2 Kings 24:14). Jehoiachin, while taken captive, was kept alive in Babylon. We’ll see mention of him further down—biblically and archaeologically.
In place of Jehoiachin, Nebuchadnezzar made his uncle, Mattaniah, king. He is better remembered by another name given to him by the Babylonian king—Zedekiah.
Zedekiah reigned 11 years in Jerusalem. He too was an evil king and had the gall, even in his already weakened position, to rebel against King Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonian king must have been incredulous—for the third time, he amassed forces to descend on Jerusalem. Jeremiah the prophet warned Zedekiah of the punishment coming on Judah from the hand of God. He repeatedly warned the king to surrender to the Babylonians in order to spare his life, the lives of the people, and Jerusalem itself.
Zedekiah, though, was stubborn. He was an ineffective king. He secretly desired to remain in contact with Jeremiah to find out the will of God, yet he was too scared of appearing weak before his people by giving in to the Babylonians. Thus, Zedekiah was belligerent against God and against the Babylonians. He and his nobles took comfort in the fact that Egypt’s army, under Pharaoh Apries, was on its way to help them against the Babylonians. The Babylonians left Jerusalem, and as Jeremiah had prophesied, throttled the Egyptian army before returning to Jerusalem to continue the siege (Jeremiah 37).
Annoyed with Jeremiah’s words, the princes Shephatiah, Pashur, Gedaliah and Jehucal had Jeremiah thrown into a chamber filled with mire. He would have died in the chamber were it not for his rescue by Ebed-melech the Ethiopian. There has since been an amazing archaeological attestation to two of these evil princes who desired to kill Jeremiah. Within the royal palace area at Jerusalem, two royal bullae (clay seals) have been uncovered bearing the names “Jehucal son of Shelemiah son of Shovi” and “Gedaliah son of Pashur” (Jeremiah 37:3; 38:1).
It was a year and a half from the time that the Babylonians arrived in Jerusalem to the time that the siege was finished. Starvation had taken its toll on the inhabitants. The walls were finally broken through, and Zedekiah and the royal family attempted escape—only to be caught by the Babylonians and carted off to King Nebuchadnezzar. The last thing Zedekiah witnessed was the slaughtering of his sons, and then his eyes were burned out—an ignominious end for a pathetic king.
There is archaeological attestation to a number of the biblical names of Babylonian princes described at this defeat of Jerusalem. One of these princes was named Nergalsarezer (Jeremiah 39:13). Archaeology has revealed evidence of this prince, who was actually the son-in-law of King Nebuchadnezzar. He is known in Akkadian as Nergal-sar-usur (more commonly as Neriglissar). This man will feature again further down in Babylon’s story. Another is Nebo-sarsekim, the Rabsaris (poorly translated into English in Jeremiah 39:3 as two separate names: “Sarsechim, Rabsaris”). Another is Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard (verse 9). He is mentioned on Nebuchadnezzar ii’s prism as “Nabu-zer-iddin.”
The Babylonians treated the Prophet Jeremiah favorably. King Nebuchadnezzar ii himself had heard of this man, and personally gave orders for the above-mentioned captain Nebuzaradan to treat him well. As such, Jeremiah was set free with a reward. The king of Babylon established Gedaliah as governor over the cities of Judah, within which only the destitute were allowed to stay. Judah was thoroughly crushed.
But this would not be the last the surviving Jews in the land would see of the Babylonians.
Jews in Egypt, Jews in Babylon
A rogue Jew named Ishmael, who had some royal genealogy, gathered 10 men of dubious character and killed the Babylonian-appointed governor Gedaliah along with dozens of other Jews. Ishmael and his men then rounded up hordes of Jews and began herding them toward the land of the Ammonites, with whom Ishmael had an allegiance. Ishmael and his men fled, however, when the captain Johanan and his forces arrived to free the captive Jews.
Johanan began to govern the beleaguered Jews. Fearing retribution from Babylon for the death of Gedaliah, the Jews began an “exodus” into Egypt—against God’s warnings. Jeremiah prophesied that the Jews who would flee to Egypt would again face death at the hands of a Babylonian invasion. True to form, archaeology has revealed a Babylonian invasion into Egypt that occurred around 568-567 b.c.e.—18 years after the fall of Judah. The Bible’s account of these events largely ends with the Jews who fled into Egypt.
The story picks up again with the Jews who were taken to Babylon. You’ll remember that Jerusalem’s Jews were taken captive in multiple waves. The young Daniel and his three friends were part of the first wave, taken during the reign of Jehoiakim. The book of Daniel describes how Daniel and his friends were separated along with other captives for their wisdom and cunning in knowledge and science. These captives were chosen to learn the Chaldean language and to serve King Nebuchadnezzar.
Daniel and his three friends rose to high rank in the Babylonian kingdom, after Daniel interpreted one of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams. This was an incredible prophetic dream, illustrating the progression of four successive world-ruling kingdoms, beginning with Babylon and ending in our day with the coming of the Messiah.
It wasn’t long, however, before Daniel’s three friends fell out of Nebuchadnezzar’s graces. They refused to bow down before a great statue that the king had set up, so Nebuchadnezzar commanded that they be thrown into a fiery furnace. Miraculously, the three survived the flames, accompanied within the furnace by a fourth figure whom the astonished Nebuchadnezzar declared was in the form of “the Son of God” (Daniel 3:25; kjv). Nebuchadnezzar hastily decreed that anyone who spoke against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego would face death.
A clay prism, listing Babylonian officials during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, contains a very possible reference to Daniel’s three promoted friends. One of the names on the list is Ardi-Nabu, a direct equivalent to the Aramaic “Abed-nego.” Another name is Hananu—he could be Hananiah (also known as Shadrach—Daniel 1:7). The third, Mushallim-Marduk—possibly Mishael (also known as Meshach—same verse). The similarities are too close to overlook.
King Nebuchadnezzar later had another dream—this time of a mighty tree that was cut down and whose stump dwelt with the beasts of the field for seven years (Daniel 4). Daniel explained that this dream meant Nebuchadnezzar would lose his position reigning over Babylon and would become insane, living for seven years as one of the beasts of the field. This curse would come as punishment for Nebuchadnezzar’s colossal pride and self-exaltation. Daniel implored the king to humble himself, if only to postpone this punishment.
Yet within only 12 months, Nebuchadnezzar was mid-sentence glorifying his own accomplishments when a voice from heaven spoke and condemned Nebuchadnezzar to his fate.
The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar; and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hair was grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws. (Daniel 4:30)
This bout of madness has not been identified in Nebuchadnezzar’s history, outside of the Bible—so say the secular sources. But if we are to dig a little deeper, there are some interesting details that appear to directly relate to this time in Nebuchadnezzar’s life.
Not much is known about his later years. We see that from 562-560 b.c.e., his son Evil-merodach sits on the throne. From 560-556 b.c.e., Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law Neriglissar (mentioned above) sits on the throne. And from 556 b.c.e., for only 9 months, Neriglissar’s son Labashi-Marduk sits on the throne. These three, short-reigning men held Babylon’s throne for a collective period of about seven years. Could this have been the time that Nebuchadnezzar was mentally unfit to rule? Could these three men have taken the reins of Babylon for the duration of Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity? It would certainly have helped cover up the shameful degradation of Babylon’s once-greatest king.
Kings Evil-merodach and Belshazzar
Nebuchadnezzar’s short-reigning son, Evil-merodach (as mentioned above), is described in 2 Kings 25:27-30 as taking King Jehoiachin out of prison and showing him favor. This would have been around 562 b.c.e.—nearly 25 years after the final fall of Judah. Jehoiachin was given a change of clothes and was issued a daily allowance of food, “every day a portion, all the days of his life” (verse 30). Babylonian records show a very interesting correlation to this account. King Jehoiachin is mentioned a number of times on Babylonian tablets regarding oil rations/deliveries. The tablets variously refer to him as “king” and “son of the king of Judah.” The texts offer a unique snapshot into Jehoiachin’s life as a captive in Babylon. Babylonian King Evil-merodach is also attested to through archaeology by the native name Awel Marduk.
King Belshazzar is described in Daniel 5 as the last king of Babylon, killed when the city fell to the Persian Empire. There is the famous account in Daniel 5 of Belshazzar’s debauched feast, which utilized the utensils plundered from Jerusalem’s temple. A hand subsequently appeared in midair, writing strange words on the wall. The Prophet Daniel was brought in and correctly interpreted the words to mean that Belshazzar’s kingdom was fallen.
Yet historians have insisted this “Belshazzar” never existed. The Bible is the only known document that mentions him. Every real historian knew that King Nabonidus was the final king of Babylon, and that he was not killed by the Persians, but rather taken prisoner. Other historical documents clearly supported this. Here, it seemed, was an irreconcilable difference between the Bible and ancient history.
In 1854, British Consul John Taylor was excavating an ancient ziggurat, or temple, located in the area of ancient Ur, an area ruled by Babylon. There, he discovered what became known as the Nabonidus Cylinders. On these cylindrical clay documents, King Nabonidus recorded the history of the ziggurat and made a request: “[A]s for Belshazzar, the eldest son, the offspring of my heart, the fear of thy great divinity cause thou to exist in his heart, and let not sin possess him, let him be satisfied with fullness of life.”
In actual fact, Nabonidus had been spending a great deal of time in northwest Arabia, and had evidently left his son Belshazzar to rule as king over Babylon proper. This makes sense when you consider the reward that Belshazzar gave the Prophet Daniel for interpreting the “writing on the wall”—he offered him the third highest position of government (Daniel 5:16, 29). Why the third? Surely it was because Belshazzar himself was only the second in command—third was the best he could give!
And so, in only one night, Babylon fell to the emerging Medo-Persian Empire in 539 b.c.e. The way in which Babylon was taken—its leaders in a drunken stupor and its gates literally left open for the invaders—happened just as the Prophet Isaiah had prophesied nearly 200 years earlier. You can read more about that incredible invasion here.
After Babylon’s Fall
Babylon subsequently became part of the Persian Empire, the city now administered by King Darius, who himself continued a close working relationship with the Prophet Daniel. Under the benevolent leadership of King Cyrus, captive Babylonians were allowed to live freely, continuing Babylonian society, culture and worship just as before. This is attested to, famously, by the Cyrus Cylinder. These freedoms given to the Babylonians parallel directly what Cyrus offered to the Jews, allowing them freedom to return from captivity to the land of Judah and rebuild the temple.
From this point on, the Babylonians largely fade from view. Space here does not permit a proper investigation of where their descendants went. However, fascinating evidence points to later migration, in large part as slaves, into Italy. But that’ll save for another article.
Articles in This Series:
Uncovering the Bible’s Buried Civilizations: The Babylonians