Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:9).
Throughout the Bible, which city or empire is used as an image to describe human power arrogating itself against God and God’s people?
You could make a strong case for Egypt. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites during the Exodus (Exodus 1:1-15:21). Pharaoh Neko II killed Josiah and considered Judah part of his empire; the final kings of Judah foolishly relied on Egyptian promises of assistance when they revolted against Babylon, and found themselves alone against the might of Babylon (2 Kings 23:28-25:21).
You could also make a strong case for Assyria. The Assyrians were universally feared and hated in the ancient Near East on account of their cruelty. They destroyed the kingdom of Israel and would exile most of its inhabitants; they invaded Judah, destroying all of the walled cities save Jerusalem, leaving Judah in a pitiful state (2 Kings 17:1-19:31, Isaiah 1:1-9).
You could make a case as well for Persia, the Seleucids, and the Romans, all of whom controlled the land of Israel. The Seleucids presented a great existential threat to the existence of Israel; the Romans defiled the Temple and would later destroy it and Jerusalem, making sure that no Jewish Temple would be built there again.
God did declare judgment on all of these nations and cities, but they are not used as images of human power arrogating itself against God and His people. In fact, God extends the promise of reconciliation and blessings upon Egypt and Assyria along with Israel in Isaiah 19:23-25! There is only one city-state empire for whom there is never any redemption in Scripture, only condemnation, and that is Babylon.
Babylon becomes the image of the human power arrogating itself against God and His empire. Isaiah, within his burden regarding Babylon, discusses the “day-star, the son of the morning,” who cut down the nations but was humbled in death (Isaiah 14:12-22; cf. Isaiah 13:1-14:22). Jeremiah, who lived to see when the Babylonians executed judgment against Judah and Jerusalem, thoroughly denounces Babylon and condemns them to their ultimate fate in Jeremiah 50:1-51:64. In the New Testament, the image is most likely attached to Rome, the current city-state empire arrogating against God and His people, rendering judgment on Judea and Jerusalem (cf. 1 Peter 5:13, Revelation 17:1-18:24).
But why Babylon? The Neo-Babylonian Empire under the Chaldeans did not last long, and was not nearly as brutal as the Assyrian menace. The fact that the Babylonians were the ones to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple of YHWH is likely partly behind the choice. Yet perhaps another part of the answer goes far back in time to the beginnings of Babylon.
We are introduced to an individual named Nimrod in Genesis 10:8-12. He is considered a mighty hunter before YHWH, and he is responsible for building cities and ruling over them, particularly the area of the land of Shinar and places northwest. The list of cities are all in Mesopotamia, mostly found in modern-day Iraq, and made up ancient Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, and Babylon: Babel, Erech, Akkad, Calneh, Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, Resin. He is the first person who has a “kingdom,” and thus is the first “king” described in Scripture. And if he is responsible for building and ruling over Babel, then he very well might have something to do with the Tower of Babel as described in Genesis 11:1-9.
The Tower of Babel is the representation of human effort directed toward his own self-glorification and honor, his quest for unity by his own works and effort independent from and often hostile to the purposes of God (cf. Genesis 11:1-9). God frustrated the effort by confusing the languages of humanity, and from Babel all humanity separated and went their own way (Genesis 11:7-9). From Babel all men spread forth; ever since, man has been trying to use power to control everyone else. The ideals of Babel remain their ideals, and they will seek to achieve a name for themselves and unity by the sword and their own ingenuity. It all started at Babel.
In Hebrew, Babel means “confusion”; hence, Babel’s name is a reminder of the confusion that exists among different groups of people. Our modern Bibles, though, ironically provide a bit of confusion when it comes to the name of Babel. Our Bibles distinguish between “Babel” and “Babylon,” the latter being the Greek word for the city in Mesopotamia. In Hebrew, they are both “Babel.” Babel is Babylon, and Babylon is Babel.
Therefore, Babylon is where man exhibits the desire to glorify himself by his own works and to maintain unity by such an end. All people scatter, confused, from Babylon. It seems likely that Nimrod began his empire-building from Babel/Babylon, and kingship and power exerted over others therefore began at Babylon. Thus, when Babylon will rise as a mighty world power, defeating the Assyrians and the Egyptians, conquering Judah and Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and exiling the Israelites, she is simply re-establishing what she was from the beginning, and to which every empire between and since has aspired. Humans keep wanting to make a name for themselves and to do so together under the pretense of unity, and seek to impose their values and ways as the means of accomplishing that unity through sheer power. Babylon’s power is an extension of the aspiration inherent in the Tower of Babel; it therefore must arrogate itself against God and His people who seek not their own glory, not the advancement of human purposes, but of God and His purposes.
Perhaps many Israelites remembered the story of the Tower of Babylon as they were brought into exile into Babylon; perhaps it gave some of them strength to maintain their faith in God, fully confident that this power arrogating itself against God would fail. The Neo-Babylonian Empire did fall, but the Persian one ruled in its place. Then came the Greeks and the Romans; in the east, then came the Muslims, Turks, Mongols, and Ottomans, and in the west, the German tribes, the “Holy Roman Empire,” the Spanish Empire, the French, the British, Napoleon, Hitler, and Communism, among others. Today there is the United States, China, and other powerful nations. We can seem to find shadows of Babylon in each of them; the human world power arrogating itself against God, His people, and His purposes seems ever-present.
True victory has never come through a world power and never will. The true victory must somehow transcend these human aspirations so as to return to God’s intentions for humanity. The true victory represents the Anti-Babel, and we find Jesus and His Kingdom standing as the Anti-Babel. It is Jesus’ Kingdom which Daniel sees as the rock which smashes world empires to pieces (cf. Daniel 2:31-45). World empires, or “Babylon,” are out for more land; Jesus’ Kingdom has no need for land, for it is not of this world (John 18:36). “Babylon” seeks to unify different nations through force, violence, coercion, or economic interest; Jesus’ Kingdom unifies through the killing of hostility among people, emphasizing their shared purpose in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18). “Babylon” uses great works to glorify humanity and to exert its own power, draining the resources of other nations to vaunt itself; Jesus’ Kingdom provides benefits for others, seeking not to glorify itself but the God who established it (Matthew 20:25-28, Galatians 2:10, 2:20-21, 6:10). “Babylon” is arrogant and arrogates itself against others; Jesus’ Kingdom is modeled on Jesus who humbled Himself, serving others, and in so doing receiving exaltation and glory (Philippians 2:5-11). “Babylon” keeps changing, with different empires rising and falling; Jesus’ Kingdom has endured for two thousand years and remains strong.
As long as man continues to exist on earth there will be some “Babylon” of a power, arrogating itself against God and His purposes, aspiring to the same goals frustrated on the plain of Shinar so long ago. The endeavor will never really succeed; the power of empire always has its limits, and it uses the wrong means to accomplish the wrong ends. No one finds salvation in “Babylon”; people must flee from “Babylon” to “Zion,” or to God and His purposes reflected in Jesus, to obtain salvation (cf. Jeremiah 51:6, Hebrews 12:22-24). Every “Babylon” and group of people who use the methods of “Babylon” will fail and perish (1 John 2:15-17); only Jesus’ Kingdom will endure for eternity (Daniel 2:44). Let us flee from “Babylon,” not putting our trust in worldly power and its trappings, and let us entrust ourselves to God in Christ, and obtain eternal life!
Ethan R. Longhenry