The Descriptions of Babylon
The Bible and history in general gives many overlay descriptions to this broad and ancient territory we call Babylon. It encompasses a vast area and region that has through the millenniums played a significant role in world affairs and biblical history. Babylon has been described in various ways that help fix in our minds the parade of history that has marched through this region.
The Plain of Shinar. The first biblical reference is Genesis 10:10 where this broad area is called the land of Shinar. The Old Testament refers to the land of Shinar eight times, with the last reference found in Zechariah 5:11.
The name Shinar (She’nar, Heb.) in the Old Testament refers in general to Babylonia, elsewhere called Babel or the land of Babel from the name of its greatest city. It is described in Genises 10:10 as the region in which were located the ancient cities Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh. It was here in the land of Shinar that Moses tells us Nimrod built his vast and influential kingdom.
The most common view of the word Shinar is that it comes from the early form of the Babylonian word Sumer, a dialectic form of the non-Semitic word Senger. Sumer is usually regarded as the Babylonian original of Shinar, though the word is often related to its sister state Akkad, as mentioned in v. 10.
From Shinar, Nimrod moved north into Assyria and established Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah (v. 11). By the time Abraham entered Canaan, there were at least four kings coming from the region of Shinar, who apparently were attempting to control the mining of salt in "the valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea)" (v. 3): "Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim" (14:1). After capturing Abraham’s Lot, the patriarch defeated them and rescued his nephew (v. 17).
Shinar is mentioned next in the book of Joshua, the narrative about the conquest of the land of Canaan. The Israelites were defeated in their first engagement because some of the Jewish invasion troops lusted for spoil, including "a beautiful mantle from Shinar" (Josh. 7:21). This mantle or cloak may have had religious significance making it doubly dangerous for the Jews to take as booty.
In a future millennial passage Shinar is one of the territories from which the Lord "will again recover the second time with His hand the remnant of His people, who will remain, from Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath" (Isa. 11:11).
In 605 BC Daniel is said to have been taken by Nebuchadnezzar and "brought … to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god" (Dan. 1:2). It is here of course that the setting for the book of Daniel is established!
In Zechariah 5:11, Zerubbabel describes a vision of a woman who is to have built "a temple for her in the land of Shinar, and when it is prepared, she will be set there on her own pedestal." An angel cried out that the woman transported to Babylon is "Wickedness!" (v. 8), meaning she is the personification of evil, more than likely religious evil. He writes
The word Chaldee or Chaldean (kas’ dim), though the exact meaning of the word is not known, usually encompasses what is included in the word Babylonia, not inclusive of Mesopotamia in the larger sense, but of the lower or land "between-rivers," i.e., the Tigris and Euphrates. The Assyrian expression is mat Kaidu, land of Chaldeans. The book of Daniel speaks of the hakkasdim, the wise men of Chaldee, who were the astrologers, soothsayers, and magicians to the king (Dan. 2:24).
In the prophetic books, Chaldean is a term of derision that reflects the worst of the pagan Gentile world. This fact amplifies the judgment of God and the tragedy of Daniel and the other deportees being taken to this terrible dark and evil land. In almost all the prophets, including the writing of Daniel, the word is used in an evil negative way. When Daniel uses Chaldee, he refers to those who keep the kings in fearful religious darkness (2:2, 4, 5, 10; 3:8; 4:7), and who brought seditious charges in an attempt to destroy the Jews. Daniel wrote often about the magicians, conjurers, and diviners, who performed their religious evil magic, and with this, controlled the kings and the people with demonic superstitious acts and incantations.
Mesopotamia. This Hebrew word means, "Aram of two rivers," with the
Greek equivalent meaning "between the rivers." Both the Greek historian Polybius (2nd century BC) and the geographer Strabo (1st century AD) described the area that lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Babylon. The word comes from Ba’bel and is a Hebrew word meaning confusion. Babel was founded by Nimrod (Gen. 10:10) and was later the city at which the tower was built "whose top will reach into heaven" (11:4). The name was later applied because we read that God confused the one language of the people, and this brought about the scattering of the tribal peoples throughout the world. We read that the city’s "name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth" (v. 9).
Later the city of Babel or Babylon was, from the period of Hammurabi on,
the capital of the Babylonian empire. With echoes from Genesis, the city was known for its great temple Seg-illa, literally meaning reaching to the clouds. There is also a temple at Nebo called E-Zidda, or house of eternity. No doubt these are holdover designations from that earlier period when the people decided to try to reach up to God in the heavenlies. Both the word Babylon, and the surrounding region, would come to be known as the place where men turned from God. False religious beliefs would mark forever the word Babylon.
With this ancient background, we come up to the time of Daniel and the events that would shape world history in the future. Daniel’s prophecies, given to him by God, would predict things that would transpire in both the near and far future.
The Neo-Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar would begin in 604 and end in 562 BC. It would extend its influence to Gaza in Canaan, to the Taurus Mountains on the border of Anatolia, and then all the way down to the Persian Gulf. The Achaemenid kings of Persia would then dominate and hold sway over much of this vast territory.
Through part of the reign of Cyrus, Daniel would play a larger-than-life role, and be a remarkable co-ruler and influence upon the story of ancient biblical and secular history.
- Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament, 2 Vols. (Chicago: Moody, 1981), 2:1992.
- Geoffrey W. Bromiley, gen. ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 3:329.
- Trent C. Butler, gen. ed., Holman Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), 483.