The Allegorical Babylon (400 BC -) is a city rooted in the Judeo-Christian imagination, first referenced in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Revelation. It is a bustling, cosmopolitan, decadent and oppressive place that symbolises human ambition and vanity in equal measure. It is the Mecca of the material world and the Ilium of the spiritual. Detractors see the Allegorical Babylon as the manifestation of the modern world and all its evils. Millenarian sects frequently invoke it in their theologies.
According to Genesis, Babylon (Babel in Hebrew) was founded by Nimrod, a mortal king and great grandson of Noah. He turned his people from the worship of Yahweh and had them construct a tower so big it would not only survive another deluge but reach to heaven itself. Yahweh punished the people of earth by turning their one language into many and scattering them across the globe so, in the resulting confusion, the tower of Babel could never be completed.
Following the ascendance of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and the sack of Nineveh, a war ensued between the Babylonians and a coalition of Egyptians, Assyrian remnants and Greek mercenaries led by the Pharaoh Necho. Jehoachim, the king of Judah, sided with the Egyptians and his kingdom was crushed. Three years later, in 586 BC, the Jews rebelled again. This time the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, destroyed its temple and enslaved its people. Nebuchadnezzar, their king, exiled the Jewish elite to Babylon. This was called the Babylonian Captivity.
In exile, the Jews penned the Talmud and gave form to their religion. Their writings immortalised their Babylonian oppressors as not only the enemies of the Jews, but of monotheism and spirituality in general. The book of Isiah prophesised Babylon`s doom, and the Jewish people rejoiced when the Persians destroyed their empire and returned its displaced peoples to their homes.
From Isiah chapter 21:
“ And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:
And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.”
The Book of Revelations, in the New Testament, talks of Babylon again. Described is the terrible ‘Whore of Babylon’, riding a multiheaded monster; an instrument of the antichrist in the End Days. The ‘Mystery Babylon’ is described in apocalyptic terminology as a sinful and corrupt but all powerful empire as it had been in the Old Testament.
The Book of Revelation was written in the 1st century AD however, centuries after the historical Babylon was destroyed. It is likely a reference to Ancient Rome, which fits the same characteristics as the Babylon of the Old Testament:
- A metropolitan and diverse state
- Seat of an empire oppressing different peoples and states
- Enemy of the Allegorical Zion
- Perceived as immoral, decadent and corrupt
The millenarian Jehovah’s Witnesses liken ‘Babylon the Great’ to the ostensibly corrupted world religions that govern the world today. Jehovah’s Witnesses hold them responsible for all the bloodshed suffered by mankind.
Some fundamentalist groups, including 7th day Adventists, explicitly identify the Whore of Babylon’s ‘purple and scarlet robes and golden cup’ with the Roman Catholic Church.
Identifying the African Diaspora with the exiled Jews of the Old Testament, Rastafari equates Babylon with the western world order. Babylon is the enemy of Zion. More broadly Babylon refers to any oppressive force – be it the slave trade, white imperialism, the Christian church, the USA, Great Britain, corrupt governance or the police. This is why references to Babylon appear frequently in reggae music. The capitalist world order, or ‘Babylon System’ clearly demonstrates characteristics 1,3 and 4, the British Empire all but 5. Similar discourse is found in the ‘African Zionism’ of Swaziland and South Africa.
Sources: King James Bible, JW.Org, Jewishhistory.org. Society of Biblical Literature
- The Historical Babylon
- Society of Biblical Literature – Babylon in Rastafarian Discourse
- The Melodians – Rivers of Babylon – The original reggae song Boney M famously covered. Alludes to the Babylonian Captivity.
- Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower – Based on the quoted Isiah passage. The original Bob Dylan track is also worth listening to but not available on YouTube.