I am eternally grateful for our English translations. On the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses, we remember how the Reformational belief in the priesthood of all believers drove men like John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and Martin Luther to translate the Bible into the language of common Christians.
That being said, I am still occasionally puzzled at the way proper names and places have been transliterated in our Bibles. Transliteration is when a translator writes out a Hebrew or Greek word phonetically in English. What puzzles me is when translators use different transliterations for the exact same name or place (e.g., this article I wrote a couple of years ago still gets hits daily: “Judah and Judas Are the Same Name“).
Today we look at one of those bizarre occurrences: Babel and Babylon. If you were to read these two names in your Bible, I wouldn’t blame you for assuming they are different places. But they’re not. Babel and Babylon are the same city.
In fact, Babel is a transliteration of the Hebrew word בָּבֶל (“Ba-bel”), while Babylon comes from the Greek Βαβυλῶνος (“Babylonos”). In all 233 occurrences of Babel in the Old Testament, it is translated Babylon in Greek. What is more, both the ancient Babel in Genesis 10-11 and the more recent Babylon of Daniel’s day are said to be located in the plains of Shinar (Gen. 10:10; 11:2; Daniel 1:2).
Why does this matter? Well, not so much for archealogical reasons as theological ones. Consider this: if we understand that Babel and Babylon are the same city then…
First, we realize the exile to Babylon is actually a return to Babel.
In Genesis 10, we are told that the first mighty king’s name was Nimrod, and he began his kingdom in Babel. The next chapter recounts how all of the kingdoms and peoples of the world were dispersed from the Tower of Babel erected in his city. As all of the 70 nations are scattered, Genesis 12 describes how the Lord selected out one man from among them to establish his covenant: Abraham.
God promised Abraham sons and daughters as numerous as the stars, a beautiful land, and a blessing to all nations through his offspring (Genesis 12:1-7; 15:5-6; 17:4-8). After 400 years of slavery in Egypt, God brought Abraham’s offspring out of Egypt to the promised land. But they sinned. A lot.
So, in 2 Kings 24-25 when King Nebuchadnezzar burned down the House of the Lord and the house of the king and all the houses in Jerusalem and carried all of Abraham’s offspring into exile in Babylon, it was a return to Genesis 10. The exile was kind of the Lord’s way of saying, “From whence it came.”
It was a way to wipe the slate clean. In fact, the Lord spoke through the prophet Jeremiah:
“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the LORD lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land.” (Jeremiah 23:7-8)
The exile in Babylon and the re-scattering among the nations is God’s way of demonstrating that a re-birth of the nation from among the nations needs to take place. The covenant of Moses inaugurated through the exodus from Egypt was unsuccessful (as the Lord knew it would be). What was needed was a new exodus and a new covenant:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
The Lord returns his people to the fount of the nations–to Babel–not because he has failed to keep his promise to Abraham, but in order that he might keep his promise through the true offspring: Jesus Christ.
Second, we recognize the bookends of Scripture.
Just this morning, I was telling my 8th grade Bible class that Genesis is a book about beginnings. The beginning of the universe, the beginning of mankind, of marriage, of sin, of music, of warriors, of languages and peoples. At Babel, we also have the beginning of the kingdom of this world. Headed by the mighty hunter Nimrod, Babel becomes the archetype of every earthly kingdom to follow. Here was their haughty objective:
“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.'” -Genesis 11:4
Babel, the kingdom of earth, is hell-bent on de-throning the God of the universe. It is a kingdom of pride, self-sufficiency, and defiance to the Creator.
Fast-forward several millenia, and we find the city of Babel relatively unchanged. King Nebuchadnezzar surveys the city, and in his pride and pomp he marvels at his own glory:
“At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king answered and said, ‘Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?'” -Daniel 4:29-30
So, when we turn to the final book of the Bible, it makes sense why John the Revelator personifies the Kingdom of Earth as the great whore Babylon. This city embodies the boastful, wicked pride of man:
“The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.'” -Revelation 17:4-5
You see, the Bible begins and ends with the toppling of this wicked city. Every man toiling away in the city of Babel trying to loft himself into the heavens in defiance of the Lord will be scattered (Genesis 11:8). Every proud Nebuchadnezzar will be humiliated like a beast of the field (Daniel 4:31-33). Every kingdom that breeds immorality and feasts on the saints of God will be eternally destroyed (Revelation 18:2).
On that day when Babel the birthplace of the kingdom of earth is overthrow, and Babylon the city of defiant immorality and evil, then shall come to pass the saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).