Zelophehad’s Daughters

Babylon Gets Bad Press

Posted by Kiskilili

Yes, I realize it’s the whore of all the earth, the cipher not only for vermin-infested Rome but for the Great and Abominable Church itself. The ubiquitous symbol, for thousands of years, of all that is unholy and despicable. The locus from which we flee, internally, as a way of approaching God.

But I have to ask: what exactly does God have against Babylon?

We’ve all heard the tales: Babylon is the hellhole where sacred prostitutes ply their evil trade in that most noisome counterfeit to proper religious ritual. Or at least, Herodotus gave some indications along those lines–never mind that the indigenous evidence is considerably less clear on the subject.

In any case, those willfully wicked Babylonians undeniably practiced divination. (Aside from economic documents, more omens have been found in ancient Babylonia than any other type of text). But is it really so terrible to manipulate objects in an effort to understand the will of the gods? Misguided, some might contend, but morally wrong? Not so far off from a Urim and Thumim, or an ephod, really.

Of course, it is the Babylonians who are credited with fracturing the world’s linguistic unity by constructing perhaps the most famous religious eyesore in history–the Tower of Babel. (“Babel” is a transliteration of the Hebrew name of the city, where “Babylon” comes from the Greek version; the two are identical.) Apparently they believed that through their temple complexes they were able to approach deity. Is that really such a far-out, offensive notion?

Regardless, they were known among pious Israelites as idol-worshippers, deluded religious nuts so irrational as to attribute divine characteristics to icons they made with their own hands. And yet, is their enemies’ characterization of their concept of divinity really fairminded? Constructing a physical object and infusing it with sacred energy is not all that out of place among the nation who marched into battle behind the Ark of the Covenant. And, as with the Israelites, we have every reason to believe the Babylonians understood their gods to transcend their physical representations.

History has not been kind to the Vandals. Some historians attempt to rehabilitate our attitudes toward the Vikings, or the Huns, or the Ostrogoths. Why not reexamine our view of Babylonia, that culturally rich corner of the globe where, it seems, civilization first arose and where writing was first invented?

Flee to Babylon, I say! O Babylon, O Babylon, I bid thee hello!

19 Responses to “Babylon Gets Bad Press”

  1. 1.

    As a proud (Univ of Idaho) Vandal who has one foot in Babylon already, I salute thee!

  2. 2.

    Kiskilili, just last night Melyngoch and I were picking our way through a Horatian Ode in which the speaker admonishes a woman he may hope to seduce not to meddle with those Babylonian number-tablets. The prejudice was evidently very widespread.

    The time for revisionist history has come!

  3. 3.

    Great post! I love it when someone can take one of my basic assumptions and turn it all topsy-turvy.

    Babylon’s legacy is a hard one to shake, and Christians continue to give the present-day heirs of Babylon a hard time. I wonder how much of U.S. foreign policy and American attitudes towards the Middle East are influenced by such bad Biblical press?

  4. 4.

    Well, the Babylonians (Chaldeans) were also pretty heavily into divination by liver-gazing and the examination of deformed animal births, etc. The naughtiness of such behavior, from a biblical standpoint, is obvious. Then again, the big deal in Isaiah 13-14 seems to be pride, which is also the issue in the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s lycanthropy in Daniel 4.

    On a related point, it’s interesting to think of Israel as not too different from the surrounding nations. It makes their election seem all the more stark. The problem with the other nations was, chiefly, that they had not been chosen by the god of the Israelites as his people.

  5. 5.

    It is not neccessarily historical Babylon – nearly any large metropolis would do. Revelations chapter 18 has the description of the problem. There are certainly implications of sexual immorality, but the main sin of Babylon the Great is just not that (which is serious enough), but rather materialism or desire for worldly things in general, as well as pride, hubris, and all around self-indulgence:

    For all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies.

    How much she hath glorified herself, and lived deliciously, so much torment and sorrow give her: for she saith in her heart, I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow.

    And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more

    The association of Babylon with the desire for luxuries, as well as merchandising of such things in general (and all the ills that go along with the quest for worldly gain) seems to be rather more prominent than the association of Babylon with sexual immorality.

    So investors beware – the Lord’s strange act does not bode well for Madison Avenue, if not ill of Wall Street in general.

  6. 6.

    Amen, Kiskilili. I think 6th-4th century Babylon would have been a tremendously interesting, cosmopolitan place. It should be noted too that the majority of Jews did very well there, thank you very much. We see all this through the lens of a few zealots. By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and had a most delightful picnic…

  7. 7.

    I like the revised Psalm, Ronan. (As long as we’re rewriting, maybe we can get rid of dashing Edomite children’s heads against stones, too.) Let’s enter a time-warp. I was impressed by Etemenanki’s conjectural reconstruction (Etemenanki is Babylon’s ziggurat) in the Berlin museum, but I’d really love to see it in person.

    Mark, I think “Babylon” in Revelation is usually understood as a code-word for Rome. I think you’re right, though, that those associations also cling to Babylon for obvious reasons.

    Thanks, Septentrionalist–you bring up one of my favorite questions in biblical studies: is Israel special? And for those who decide Israel is not so terribly different from her neighbors, doesn’t this make the theological problem of God’s election all the more perplexing?

    Hepatoscopy (examining livers) doesn’t interest me so much, but some of the misbirth omens are fabulous. People born with multituple heads, or heads of lions? It raises all sorts of fun questions about the role empiricism did or did not play in this pseudo-scientific enterprise.

    But, just to quibble, I wonder about this statement: “The naughtiness of such behavior, from a biblical standpoint, is obvious.” If you mean obvious because Babylonia was the enemy, so their religious practices were prohibited among Israelites, I’m in full agreement. But it’s not clear to me that mantic inquiry itself would necessarily or universally be rejected in Israel on theological grounds.

    Regarding the issue of who the Chaldeans were vis-a-vis the Babylonians: apparently they lived in three tribal confederations (mentioned only from about the 8th century) mostly in the south/sealand region–the Bit Yakin, Bit Amukani, and Bit Dakuri, if memory serves–solid West Semitic names. They seemed to be a bit unruly, judging by the fact that they had a penchant for ousting Assyrian-installed kings and sticking their own on the throne, the most infamous being the indomitable Marduk-apla-iddina II (Merodach-Baladan of the Bible). But “Chaldees” (Kasdim) in the Bible does seem to refer to the entire territory we call Babylonia, although they were only one element of the population. I believe there’s even some speculation that Nebuchadrezzar (Nabu-kudurri-usur) II’s dynasty was of Chaldean extraction.

    (The Chaldeans are so terribly interesting partly because the word provides evidence that the Hebrew letter “sin” was pronounced as a lateral fricative–hence the s-l interchange. Exciting stuff, huh? :))

    Thanks, John Remy–your question is one I hadn’t really considered, but it’s very interesting.

    Go Vandals, Idahospud! (What a fantastic mascot–I bet that’s not a common one. Right up there with Philistines.)

  8. 8.

    I was personally enlightened as to the true nature of the Babylonians from Civilization II, which describes them as “rational civilized perfectionists” (as opposed to, say, the Greeks, who are “militaristic expansionists.”)

    Also, when I hear “Babylonian captivity,” I think of the years when the popes were at Avignon in the 14th century–so why don’t we sing songs about fleeing France? ;)

  9. 9.

    Most excellent post, kiskilili. I’m not all that knowledgeable when it comes to bibical scholarship, but it seems to me that often terms like Babylon come to represent anything “other”. And somehow its otherness makes it evil. As you aptly demonstrated, the actions of Bablyon weren’t necessarily intrinsically bad. They were eventually seen as bad because they were Babylonian. That usage marks a very ethnocentric worldview. As long as we can see another group of people as “other” and “bad” we can feel justified in destroying them or doing all manner of unkindness. Relating to John’s question about present day politics, if those we are at war with were part of our “we” instead of our “them” the world would be a more peaceful place.

  10. 10.

    Kiskilili, I’m sorry to hear you’re not a fan of hepatoscopy–perhaps it’s just because you’ve never tried. If you ever run across any practical courses on the subject in your studies, make sure you let me know! I have to admit, though, the misbirths are a good deal more fun. Here’s one I just dug up:

    If [when viewing] a malformed newborn, its normal head is situated, but a second head protrudes from the middle of its mouth, a king will execute a king with weapons and his hand will conquer his towns, the areas around his towns, his walls, his land, and his neighboring lands.

    It’s just baffling. Theoretically, you’d expect such a thing to have happened at least once for it to get recorded as an official omen. Crazy!

    As for your quibble, I had in mind the rather clear prohibition in Deut 18:10–naughty by injunction (plus inherent yuckiness).

    (Now that s-l interchange business is quite intriguing. Does that make Hebrew’s sin like the Chinese sound transliterated with an x? It’s between an ‘s’ and ‘sh’ with the tongue sort of curled back rather than flat. What about the samekh?)

    Returning to the post (A-hem!), wouldn’t it be great to see a city with walls like Herodotus described of Babylon? In truth, though, it seems like we’re caught between demonization and hyperbole in what we learn of Babylon from antiquity.

  11. 11.

    All I know about Babylon I learned from Age of Empires. Yesterday when I played against my son, I kept wondering if there was a secret level I was missing out on where they kept the whores who would tempt me with the wine of the wrath of their fornication. We people with boring lives need to get our cheap thrills somehow, after all.

    But you’re right, Kiskilili. Babylon gets bad press because it is the stand-in for everything bad. I’ve wondered if the way we think of Satan doesn’t cause him to have a worse reputation than he deserves, too. If I know something is wrong, but I choose to do it anyway, how is it legitimate to blame it on the adversary, or the destroyer, or the father of lies? Our doctrine of agency requires us, I think, to quit blaming Mephistopheles.

  12. 12.


    I don’t think it was so much that Israel or Jerusalem were not evil in so very many cases, but rather that the wickedness of Babylon (among other nations and cities) was far worse, from their perspective at any rate. I do not think Babylon got stuck with the association for being an ancient day Salt Lake, but rather for being an ancient day Las Vegas, a literal Sin City. Yet who can deny there is sin in Salt Lake and righteousness in Las Vegas?

  13. 13.

    I completely agree, Amy–obviously the problem with Babylon was that they destroyed Jerusalem and took Israelites captive. But in addition to that, they were one of the other cultures against which Israel defined itself, and it didn’t help that they were bigger, stronger, older, and more powerful. It reminds me of the (fortunately waning?) effort to connect Catholicism to the Great and Abominable Church. Our biggest grievance against Catholics is probably similar–they’re bigger, stronger, older, and more powerful.

    Nice omen, Septentrionalist. I’m not sure how Chinese “x” is pronounced (although I have a friend named Xiaoli–I just don’t think I pronounce her name right!). I think it’s something like Welsh ll.

    I love it, Mark IV–watch for the Bouncer’s upcoming post on how the devil gets bad press. ;) It’s a fair point! What makes us think Satan is the one leading us into sin and not just our own rotten selves?

  14. 14.

    Man, I thought this post was going to be about Iraq…

  15. 15.


    This one belatedly occurred to me — you know, Elder Stone recently gave a (very well received) conference talk titled “Zion in the Midst of Babylon.”

    And here you are now, arguing the reverse — Babylon, in the midst of Zion.

    And I think I agree with at least one of you. Maybe both. Which raises added questions: If Zion is in the midst of Babylon which is in the midst of Zion in the midst of . . . does it all become like those little Russian wooden dolls that fit inside each other, ad infinitum? Is it turtles all the way down?

  16. 16.

    I’d like to believe I was called to bring a little Babylonian culture to the midst of Zion . . .

  17. 17.

    [...] 22, 2006. Filed under: Relief Society Lessons | Tags: Babylon, Elder Stone, Zion | After reading Kisikilli’s post on Babylon (which I wholeheartedly agree with), I feel a little sheepish posting this RS lesson I gave on Elder [...]

  18. 18.

    In christian biblical study, babylon stands for a state of confusion in Biblical truth. Read the book of Danial.

  19. 19.

    I don’t disagree that in the Bible Babylon became a symbol for wickedness and a foil for Zion. But the book of Daniel was written during the second century BCE, centuries after Babylon fell to the Persians, by people whose knowledge of Babylonian history was shoddy. Recall that the author of Daniel believed Nebuchadrezzar II’s son was Belshazzar; even the author of Kings knew Nebuchadrezzar II’s son was Evil-Merodach. In Daniel Darius the Mede conquers Babylon; cuneiform and classical sources, however, agree it was Cyrus the Persian. Daniel is a fabulous book. But it’s no more a primary source for Babylonian history or culture than the movie Shakespeare in Love is a source for Shakespeare’s life.

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