THE BABYLON EMPIRE
THE RISE AND FALL
OF THE CHALDEAN EMPIRE
The Chaldeans (also called Babylonians or Neo-Babylonians) moved to take over the former Assyrian empire. At the outset of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar (or Nebuchadrezzar, 605-562 B.C.) advanced west and encountered the Egyptian army at Carchemish. The Egyptians were also trying to step into the vacuum left by a collapsed Assyria, but their dream of reestablished empire ended when the Egyptian army was crushed at Carchemish (see Jeremiah 46). As Nebuchadnezzar advanced toward Egypt proper, he paused in Jerusalem, took hostages and made its king, Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.), declare his loyalty to a new master. The Chaldeans continued the Assyrian practice of deportation, and a teenager named Daniel was among those taken into exile. Judah had experienced freedom following the Scythian raids of 626 B.C., but that independence was now over.
This newly formed empire had to deal with repeated uprisings. In early 598 B.C., for example, Jehoiakim stopped paying tribute, provoking the Chaldean army to march on Jerusalem. A cuneiform tablet provides only the barest details of what happened. Concerning Nebuchadnezzar, "He seized the town on the second day of the month Adar. He captured the king. He appointed there a king of his own choice. He took much booty from it." The biblical account (2 Kings 24:10-17) describes some of the treasures taken, tells us that thousands more were herded into exile, and identifies ZedeMah (597-586 B.C.) as the new vassal king. Elsewhere we learn that Ezekiel was among those who were taken into the Babylonian captivity.
A few years later Zedekiah stopped paying tribute and, not surprisingly, the Chaldean army again set out for Jerusalem. In 586 B.C., after a siege of eighteen months, Jerusalem fell. The city was looted and the Temple torn down. Still more Judeans were deported, and this time one of the Judeans left behind was appointed as governor, not king. Judah was no more.
Babylon has a long history: Hammurapi ruled from there early in the second millennium B.C. But it is the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar that we can see today. Nebuchadnezzar was proud of how he enhanced the strength and beauty of the city:
A great wall which like a mountain cannot be moved I made of mortar and brick.... its top I raised mountain high. I triplicated the city wall in order to strengthen it. I caused a great protecting wall to run at the foot of the wall of burnt brick. ... A third great moat wall . . . I built with mortar and brick. . . . The palace ... I rebuilt in Babylon with great cedars....
Excavators found that the inner city occupied approximately 500 acres (205 hectares) and was defended by triple walls and a moat The whole city covered some 3,000 acres (1,230 hectares) and the wall surrounding this larger area was about 10 miles long in
[Administrative tablets found in Babylon list deliveries of oil by the royal household. This very fragmented cuneiform tablet lists delivery to "Jehoiachin, king of Judah," and to the "sons of the king of Judah"]
circuit. This outer wall is said to have been wide enough at the top for chariots to pass each other as they moved along the ramparts. Of the gates that gave access to the inner city, the Ishtar Gate is the best preserved. The walls of this gate, and of the Processional Street that led to it, were decorated with glazed relief panels of bulls, lions, and "dragons." In sharp contrast with earlier Assyrian decorations, there were no reliefs of bloody victory over enemies; rather, the decorations were more to please the eye. Nebuchadnezzar's palace was adjacent to the Ishtar Gate. The palace was built around five courtyards and Nebuchadnezzar called it his "shining residence, the dwelling of majesty." Today the ziggurat at Babylon is a disappointment; little remains of it contrary to what had been thought, the location of the famous "hanging gardens" (one of the seven ancient wonders of the world) is not certain.
Little is known about the last years of Nebuchadnezzar, but his affliction with boanthropy (a form of illness in which a man believes himself to be an ox; Daniel chapter 4) can be placed within that obscure period. There was some jockeying for the throne following his death, and Evil-Merodach was one of those to come briefly into power (561-560 B.C.). Jehoiakim had died just before Jerusalem fell in 598 B.C., and it was his son Jehoiachin whom Nebuchadnezzar had captured and sent into exile (2 Kings 24:15). Evil-Merodach later released Jehoiachin from house arrest in Babylon (2 Kings 25:27-30). Despite the astronomical odds against such a recovery, archaeologists found ration lists in Babylon that recorded provisions given to Jehoiachin and his family.
In 556 B.C. Nabonidus ascended the Chaldean throne. Scholars are divided in their evaluation of the man. Utilizing the same data they have variously concluded that he was everything from stupid to the most wise of rulers. But if wise, why did Nabonidus do nothing to halt the flow of history that was being set in motion? At the very time Cyrus the Persian was moving west from Iran, and slowly laying claim to more and more territory, Nabonidus removed himself to Tema, deep in the Arabian desert. One scholar finds this move "totally inexplicable."
The Babylonian Chronicles report that Nabonidus left his son Belshazzar as coregent in Babylon. The Bible refers to Belshazzar as king, and for all practical purposes he was. But Belshazzar was not able to stem the growing power of Cyrus. When Belshazzar ordered a banquet (Daniel 5:1), the Persians were just then pressing on Babylon itself. Knowing the defenses of the city, we can perhaps understand how Belshazzar could think himself safe. But only hours after Daniel saw the handwriting on the wall (probably in the central court of the palace) the city of Babylon fell. Belshazzar was killed in battle; the fate of Nabonidus is unclear. The year 539 B.C. marks the end of the Chaldean empire.
The Persians maintained control of Mesopotamia until 331 B.C., when they were defeated by Alexander. A few years later, when Alexander died in Babylon, political control passed to the Seleucids (311-126 B.C.). Under the Seleucids there was an influx of Greeks into Mesopotamia. Cities were laid out according to the polls plan, and older cities such as Babylon were partially depopulated to fill new centers of trade and culture. Seleucid interests shifted toward the Mediterranean and they began their role in Intertestamental history. By 126 B.C. the Parthians were in control of Mesopotamia and, in time, they became involved in the pre-king years of Herod the Great. More foreigners entered Mesopotamia, and more cities were built with a citadel and agora. Citadels were even perched atop old ziggurats! Cuneiform writing flickered out about A.D. 75 and Babylon was deserted before A.D. 200.
TO BE CONTINUED