Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Ancient Babylon's Religious History


My day job once brought me in contact with a man who introduced himself to me as “Pastor Pete.” I managed – barely – to refrain from introducing myself to him as “Blogger Bill.”

Why do the clergy, like most doctors, feel the need to stick a title onto the front of their name? Jesus called religious leaders of his day 'snakes and hypocrites' for their practice of insisting on special titles, and one would think 'Pastor Pete' would be familiar with that passage (Matthew 23:8-10) if he was doing his job.

But why should I expect a clergyman to know or follow the Bible?

In a previous column we discussed whether the harlot called Babylon the Great in Revelation 17:16 could properly be identified as the papacy, as some claim, or whether it could symbolize all of Catholicism, or all of Christendom; or, perhaps be symbolic of Vatican city, or Rome, or New York, or Las Vegas. Or could it mean something else?

A look at the history of ancient Babylon makes identifying the symbolic Babylon the Great much easier.

The original city of Babylon was started by Nimrod, whom the Bible calls ‘a mighty hunter before the Lord.’ The word translated “before,” in this case, doesn’t mean he was basking in the Lord’s approval. It’s more closely related to the modern slang, ‘In your face!’

History records that his prowess with weapons made him feared. Says Bible commentator Matthew Poole,

“When men were few…and wild beasts abounded, by the hunting and destroying of those beasts he got much reputation and favour with men, who thereby were secured in their dwellings. In confidence hereof, and having this occasion to gather great companies of the youngest and strongest men together to himself, by their help he established a tyranny and absolute power over men in snaring, hunting after, and destroying like beasts all those men who opposed his dominion.”

Aggrandizing himself in this way made him one of the human race’s first kings. Some  claim that, after his death, his mother convinced people he lived on as a god.

Early on the Babylonians earned fame as astronomers and mathematicians, and they seem to have kept accurate records. Consequently, there is significant secular evidence that puts the start of the city somewhere between 2286 B.C.E. and 2231 B.C.E. (That may not seem very precise, but for such a long time ago, it's not bad.) This dovetails nicely with the Bible's chronology which places the Earth-wide flood at 2370, and Nimrod's birth only two generations thereafter.

The inhabitants of Babylon began building a tower whose top would ‘reach the heavens'.

(Mormons please note: The intent of the builders was not for them to reach heaven, as your Book of Mormon states on its first page. Smith failed to understand that the tower’s top 'reaching heaven’ was hyperbole for 'very tall'. Deuteronomy describes the fearful Israelites saying of the Canaanites, ‘The cities are great and walled up to heaven;’ (Deuteronomy 1:28) Reading the whole Tower of Babel account tells us the intent of the builders was actually ‘to make a name for ourselves, and to keep from spreading over the surface of the earth.’)

Because they were defying Jehovah's order to spread out and fill the earth, God stepped in and miraculously divided their common language into multiple languages, so that families woke up unable to speak to their neighbors. A person’s only recourse was to seek out who else in the city might have woken up speaking his language. Language groups banded together and physically separated themselves from the others with whom they could not communicate.

Note, however, that God changed only their language. He did not interfere with their thinking in any other way. People have free will; they can believe what they want. Folks who wanted to worship Nimrod could still worship Nimrod (although they may have now called him ‘Marduk’), people who worshiped bulls or the sun or sex could still worship bulls or the sun or sex. They just gave their false gods different names. As they reluctantly complied with God's mandate to spread out, they took all their Babylonish beliefs with them.

Seventeen centuries later the city of Babylon had a population of over 200,000 and covered an area several miles square, surrounded by a massive double wall - the largest city in the world. Yet it was conquered in one night by the army of Medo-Persia under Cyrus. While its hanging gardens were considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the conquerors could not have failed to notice that there were temples on nearly every corner, dedicated to over 50 different gods.

The Medes and the Persians may well have been Zoroastrians, who believed in a single supreme being called Ahura Mazda, 'Lord Wisdom', who was perhaps assisted by a few other lesser gods. They also believed there were evil spirits fighting Lord Wisdom, so they may have viewed these hundreds of temples as houses of those demons. Especially if they got a glimpse of the disgusting practices of the worshipers at those temples. 

Cyrus placed his subordinate, Darius, on the Babylonian throne and went on with part of his army to conquer the remainder of the Babylonian empire, before returning to take the Babylonian throne for himself.

During that first year of Darius' kingship, an event occurred which even non-bible students have heard of, called 'Daniel in the lion's den.' Daniel was one of Darius' highest officials. The other attendants were jealous and looked to get rid of him, so they went to Darius with a suggestion for a law to be passed prohibiting petitions to "any god or man except you, oh king." (Daniel 6:7) Perhaps the king passed it because it stroked his ego. On the other hand, he may have passed it, in part at least, hoping to reduce the worship of those gods on every corner for which Babylon was famous.

200 years later, when the Medo-Persian empire succumbed to the Greek empire, Babylon became much smaller. By Jesus' day, it was little more than a village in comparison to its former glory. 

But it still had a reputation for 1. religions of every possible belief system, 2. mathematics and other higher learning, and 3. people who studied the stars.

The '3 kings from the east who followed a star' that people sing about at Christmas time were not kings; according to the original Greek of the Bible, they were magoi from Babylon. According to Strong's Concordance magoi means: "Oriental scientist; by implication, a magician; sorcerer, wise man." 

Bible commentator Adam Clarke speculated that "these eastern magi, or philosophers, astrologers, or whatever else they were," might have been influenced by the Jewish community that had been in Babylon since Daniel's day. 

Scholar Albert Barnes says, "The persons here denoted were philosophers, priests, or astronomers. They dwelt chiefly in Persia and Arabia. They were the learned men of the eastern nations, devoted to astronomy, to religion, and to medicine."

According to Brethren NT Commentary, "These were supposed to be priests and wise men in Persia who practiced the interpretation of dreams."

I admit to taking these quotes out of context. Even knowing what the Bible says about these practices, some of the learned men I quoted don't want to upset their readers who know the fable of the 3 wise men. So they try to twist the passage to make it look like the visitors from the east were somehow doing God's work. But since the Bible condemns sorcery, pagan religion, astrology, and magical interpretation of dreams, those easterners were clearly not doing God's work when they informed jealous Herod about the birth of a rival to his kingship, Jesus. 

As had been happening for thousands of years, Babylon was still working against God. Babylon the Great in Revelation, then, must symbolize all of the false teachings carried to all corners of the globe by those early Babylonians and being practiced by all who aren't sincerely trying to worship God in the way He approves. 

To read another of my columns about Babylon's influence, click here. 

Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at Amazon.com. You can help support this site by purchasing a book.

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