Ancient Babylon was a city located on the banks of the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia, whose name is derived from an old Persian word meaning “between rivers,” is the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. It also refers to the surrounding areas of the river plains, the lowlands, the Zagros and Caucasus mountains, the Syrian and Arabian deserts, and the Persian Gulf. Today, the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon can be found about 60 miles south of Baghdad in Iraq. The Euphrates, which once helped Babylon assume an important role in the area, has since changed its course and now lies about 10 miles west of the ruins.
The city existed well before the second millennium B.C. However, it became well-known when, in 1900 B.C., the Amorites, a people from Syria, moved into Mesopotamia and made it the capital of their small, newly conquered kingdom. Hammurabi was the sixth ruler in the Amorite dynasty. He increased the size of his kingdom by conquering neighboring peoples. The whole southern area of Mesopotamia became known as Babylonia. Hammurabi firmly established Babylon’s political power and influence throughout Mesopotamia. Babylon was now the capital of the empire. But within this empire were peoples of many different cultures, religious beliefs, and laws. Under Hammurabi's rule, all the different laws were combined. But the cultural diversity continued, making Babylon a great center of science and learning. Some of the emerging Babylonian scientists were responsible for coming up with the numbering system from which we get our 60-minute hour and the 360-degree circle. Babylon was also known for its expertise in astronomy, the study of the stars. (Exploring History, 78) Although Babylon remained a cultural leader, its political leadership shifted many times.
Neighboring peoples wanted a share in Babylon's power and wealth, and so Babylon was invaded many times. One invading group was the Kassites, who lived in the mountains east of Babylon. The Kassites took over Babylon around 1595 B.C. and made it a religious center. They elevated the local patron deity Marduk to the status of supreme god. The Enûma Elish was written to explain the rise of Marduk to supreme god. It contains the creation story of how Marduk defeated Tiamat. This story and the religious rituals and beliefs surrounding Marduk were common throughout Babylon. Regardless of one’s cultural background or religious beliefs, Marduk was a household name. This posed a challenge for people of other religious persuasions. For Jewish people living in Babylon, far away from their homeland, special attention needed to be given to learning about the Jewish faith and the belief in the one true God.
Kingdom of Judah
Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, was originally from the land of Mesopotamia. He lived there for many years. God called Abraham to become the father of the Chosen People. He told Abraham to leave his homeland and go to Canaan, which is modern-day Israel. The story of God’s call to Abraham is told in the Book of Genesis. It begins with the following verses:
The LORD said to Abram: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.”
Abram went as the LORD directed him. (Genesis 12:1-4)
Abraham and his family settled in the land of Canaan. This became the center of the Jewish religion.
We are first introduced to Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob, in the Book of Genesis. In Chapter 29 we learn that Rachel gave birth to Judah. In Chapter 37 Judah is responsible for saving his brother Joseph’s life when his brothers plotted to kill him. Eventually the 11 brothers and their father move to Egypt, where Joseph had been sold into slavery and rose to a position of power. There the families of Judah and his brothers settled, each one forming a tribe.
The tribe of Judah became the largest of the 12 tribes of Israel. When the Israelites left Egypt and returned to the land of Canaan, Judah’s tribe led the way in taking back the land from the people who had settled there while the Israelites were in Egypt. Judah became a prominent political influence in the area when David, a Judahite shepherd boy, came into favor with Saul, the king of the 12 tribes of Israel. David became the leader of Judah, and later succeeded Saul as the king of Israel. As king, David and later his son, Solomon, ruled the united kingdom of Israel. After Solomon’s rule, 10 of the tribes seceded and became known as the Northern Kingdom and kept the name Israel. The tribe of Judah, together with most of Benjamin's tribe, became known as the Southern Kingdom, or the Kingdom of Judah. They remained faithful to the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The Northern Kingdom lasted for just over 200 years. It was destroyed in 722 B.C. by the Assyrians. In 587 B.C., the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians. Many people were forced into exile in Babylon, which lasted until 538 B.C., at which time the people of Judah began to return to Israel.
The Kingdom of Judah, though smaller than the Northern Kingdom, was a place of great religious significance. Most of the Jewish people descended from this tribe. One of its own—David—would become an ancestor to Israel's ideal king, the Messiah. Many years later, a child from David’s line would be born to a Jewish woman named Mary. The rest, as they say, is history.
Exploring History: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, ed. Simon Adams (New York: Backpack Books, 2005), S. V. “Ancient Babylon.”
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, S.V. “Marduk,” en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marduk&oldid=45855560 (accessed April 7, 2006).
New American Bible
New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd. ed., S.V. “Babylon, City of.”
New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd. ed., S. V. “Judah.”