Tower of Babel, World Empire and Human Presumption

Synopsis:  Presumptions to global empire are a legacy of the incident at the Tower of Babel, the first attempt at universal rule, and the backstory of Daniel finding himself at the center of the World-Power.

World City - Courtesy Unsplash.com
World City - Unsplash.com
In the opening paragraph of the Book of Daniel, Babylon is called the “land of Shinar,” a deliberate echo of the Tower of Babel incident in the Book of Genesis. Among other things, this reference recalls the origin of ancient Babylon.

The story of the Tower of Babel is reflected also in the third chapter of Daniel when Nebuchadnezzar gathered all nations to pay homage to the great image he had “set upin the Plain of Dura (Genesis 11:1-9, Daniel 1:1-2, 3:1-7).

The Neo-Babylonian Empire was not a new political creature; it had an ancient pedigree. The royal city in which Daniel found himself was the latest incarnation of an imperial effort that had been underway since the commencement of human civilization (SEE ‘Shinar’).

In the story from Genesis, God stopped the completion of a high tower in Shinar, which resulted in the diversification and distribution of language groups across the earth. The story provides the origins of the Babylonian Empire from a biblical perspective (Genesis 11:1-9).

The description in the opening paragraph of Daniel builds on this story from Genesis, a time when the “whole earth was of one language and one speech.” The descendants of Noah had migrated to Mesopotamia to dwell “in the land of Shinar.” Quite likely, the Hebrew name rendered ‘Shinar’ is the equivalent of the name of the ancient civilization of ‘Sumer.’

The people of Shinar began to build a city with a high tower to “reach the heavens and, thus, make us a name, lest we be scattered across the whole earth.” This parallels the Sumerian culture where cities featured temples built on ziggurats, tiered manmade mounds of mud and clay that formed the highest point in a city. Dedicated to its chief deity, the activities of each Mesopotamian city centered on its central sanctuary.

In the Garden of Eden, God commanded Adam to “multiply, replenish and subdue the earth.” This command was reiterated to Noah after the Flood. Nevertheless, instead of heeding the directive of Yahweh, humanity chose to move to Mesopotamia and build a new civilization centered in Shinar, and there to make a name for itself. In the Hebrew Bible, ‘Babylon’ is characterized by its presumptuousness (Genesis 1:289:1, Isaiah 14:13-14Jeremiah 32:20).
If humanity united under one language, the wickedness of mankind would know no bounds. By confounding languages, God caused the nations to spread throughout the earth and thwarted the first attempt to form a centralized world-power. 

The Bible called the city ‘Babel’, the place where “Yahweh confounded the language of all the earth.” The name may be related to the Hebrew word balal or “confusion,” although, in the ancient Akkadian language of Mesopotamia, bab-ili or ‘Babel’ means “gate of god.”

In the Book of Daniel, unwittingly, King Nebuchadnezzar attempted to reverse God’s judgment against ancient Shinar. He gathered different ethnic groups, cultures, and nations so representatives of each group would be educated in the language of Babylon, the “tongue” of the world-power. He also commanded all nations to render homage to the image he had “set up in the Plain of Dura” (Daniel 3:1-7).

Nebuchadnezzar was renowned as a builder who restored temples, constructed city walls and palaces and erected high towers.  His claim to be the builder of “great Babylon” was not an empty boast (Daniel 4:30).

Nimrod

The story of Nimrod is recorded in the so-called ‘Table of Nations’ of the Book of Genesis, a man linked to the origins of the Mesopotamian civilization and the founder of several of its chief cities (Babel, Asshur, Nineveh). He became “mighty one in the earth.” The “mighty men of name” or the gibborim, a group that existed before the Flood that was comprised of men with fearsome reputations due to their violent exploits (Genesis 6:4, 10:1-32).

Nimrod, also, was a “mighty hunter before the face of Yahweh.” This denotes his opposition to Yahweh, not God’s approval of his hunting abilities. The name ‘Nimrod’ is derived from the Hebrew word mārădor, meaning, “we will revolt.” He founded a kingdom in what became Assyria and, possibly, was an early ruler of the city-state of Babel.  Elsewhere, Nimrod typifies despotic rulers who oppress God’s people (e.g., Micah 5:6).

Parallels in Daniel

In the Tower of Babel incident, the “whole earth spoke one language” when men began to dwell in Shinar. They built a city and tower of “great height” in the “plain of Shinar” to mark their achievements, and to prevent the dispersal of humanity.

Likewise, in the Book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar brought captives to Babylon, the great city he had built, in order to be educated in the language of the Chaldeans and to prepare to serve in the administration of the World-Power.  To an extent, he succeeded where the original rulers of Babel failed.

The king “set up” a golden image of exceptional “height” in the “plain of Dura,” then decreed that, “all peoples, races, and tongues” should render homage to it.  He gathered representatives from every province and nation “to the dedication of the image.” The whole earth was to be united under Nebuchadnezzar and his image.

The literary parallels to the Genesis story are deliberate.  Just as the earlier inhabitants of ‘Babel’ united to build a city and high tower, so this later king of Babylon presumed to unite all humanity under his authority to worship an idolatrous image of “great height” (Daniel 3:1-7).

Likewise, at the height of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar boasted how his own might “built” the great city, Babylon. Immediately, an angelic figure pronounced judgment on him for this presumptuousness. For “seven seasons” he was driven out from Babylonian society to live like an animal in the field. Only when he acknowledged the sovereignty of the “Most-high God” was he restored to his throne (Daniel 4:1-37).

A Theology of History

The book begins by presenting a key theme that it develops through the dreams and pronouncements of Daniel:  God reigns over the kingdoms of the world and grants rulership to whomever He pleases:

(Daniel 2:20-21) – “Daniel responded and said, Let the name of God be blessed from age to age — in that wisdom and might to him belong, And he changeth times and seasons, removeth kings and setteth up kings — giving wisdom to the wise and knowledge to them who are skilled in understanding.”
(Daniel 4:17) – “By the decree of the watchers is the thing, and by the mandate of the holy ones the matter: to the intent that the living may get to know that the Most High hath dominion over the kingdom of men, and to whomsoever he pleaseth he giveth it, and one low among men he setteth up over it.”

The king of Babylon overthrew the king of Judah and removed the golden vessels from the Temple to the “treasure-house of his god in the land of Shinar,” a tribute to the superiority of his god, or so he thought. But the destruction of Judah occurred because “the Lord gave it into the king’s hand” (Daniel 1:1-2).

The overthrow of the nation of Judah created a theological dilemma for members of God’s chosen nation. The Neo-Babylonian Empire had destroyed what remained of the kingdom of Israel.  The Hebrew text repeats “house” three times, and “his god” twice, for emphasis. The name ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ includes the Mesopotamian god Nabu or Nebo. From a human perspective, the pagan gods of Babylon had triumphed over the God of Israel by taking sovereignty over Judah and ransacking His Temple and city (Isaiah 46:1).

Apparently, the new “king of Babel” was reversing the ancient decree of Yahweh by seizing God’s “house,” gathering scattered nations back to Shinar, and imposing the language of Babylon on one and all.  Judah’s tribute to Nebuchadnezzar included high ranking Jewish exiles sent to be educated in the ways of Babylon. This was a national catastrophe for the Jewish nation, yet the Book of Daniel declares it was the Lord who gave all this into the hands of the pagan enemy His people (Daniel 1:4).

The Hebrew verb rendered “gave” is applied several more times in the first chapter.  First, God gave Daniel “favor and sympathy with the prince of the eunuchs.” Second, He gave Daniel and his companions “knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom.” Furthermore, Daniel was “given” understanding in all visions and dreams.

The Babylonian king put Daniel and his friends to the test and “found them ten times better than all the scribes and enchanters that were in his realm.” Therefore, they were promoted to serve the king in his court. Despite the disaster that befell Israel, subsequent events demonstrated that God was using the lowly exiles from Jerusalem to achieve His purposes and direct the course of history (Daniel 1:17-20).
In Chapter 2, events occurred in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar before the completion of Daniel’s education. This suggests his successful interpretation of the king’s dream was not attributable to his newly acquired Chaldean knowledge; rather, it was due to the “discernment in all visions and dreams” given to him by Yahweh. 

Nebuchadnezzar dreamed a dream that troubled him. He commanded the wise men of Babylon to reveal its content and significance. This they were unable to do; “there is not a man upon the earth who can declare the matter of the king…there is none who can declare it before the king except the gods whose dwelling is not with flesh.” This enraged the king who ordered the destruction of the wise men of his court. Daniel intervened and requested a time when he could make the interpretation known to Nebuchadnezzar, then he prayed for the revelation of “this mystery” (Daniel 2:13-18).

Yahweh responded in a night vision and revealed the king’s dream.  He then praised the God who “removes kings and sets up kings…He is the One Who reveals the deep and hidden things…for the matter of the king have you made known to us.” Then Daniel revealed the king’s dream and its interpretation. Thus, God showed Nebuchadnezzar “what things must come to pass in latter days” (Daniel 2:19-45)

Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a large image with a head of gold, breast, and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron, and feet, partly of iron and partly of clay. A stone “cut out without hands" struck the image on its feet and broke it into pieces. Then the iron, clay, brass, silver, and golden parts were broken in pieces and became like chaff blown by the wind, but the stone became a “great mountain and filled the whole earth.”

The golden head represented Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler to whom God had given the World-Power. The silver breast symbolized an inferior kingdom that would succeed his domain, likewise, the brass belly and thighs. The stone that was carved “without hands” represented a final kingdom established by God, one that would “break in pieces and consume all” the preceding regimes. In this, “God had shown the king what things must come to pass after these things” (Daniel 2:37).

Nebuchadnezzar prostrated himself before Daniel and exalted him to rule over the province of Babylon. The king declared Yahweh to be “a God of gods, Lord of kings and revealer of mysteries.” Thus, the mighty pagan ruler acknowledged His sovereignty over nations and history. In this way, Yahweh revealed the future of the World-Power. The rise of empires is under His firm control.

The story in Chapter 3 is the second half of this drama. The king next attempted to implement his dream by “making an image of gold.” However, the entire image that he “set up” was covered in gold, not just the head. Nebuchadnezzar was determined to magnify his achievements and declare to all mankind that his kingdom was an everlasting realm. Had he not dreamed it?

At the command of the king, all the “satraps, nobles, pashas, chief judges, treasurers, judges, lawyers, and all provincial governors were assembled to the dedication of the image…and they stood before it.” All were commanded to “render homage to the image that the king had set up”; any who refused were cast into a fiery furnace (Daniel 3:1-6).

Nebuchadnezzar's Image - clipart.christiansunite.com
The “great image” represented the absolute sovereignty of the Babylonian ruler over all the “peoples, races and tongues.” Presumptuously, he demanded that all men venerate the image he “set up.” The Aramaic verb rendered “set up” is the same one used in Chapter 2 for the God who “sets up” kings (Daniel 2:21, 2:44).

In Daniel 3:1-18, nine times the text states that Nebuchadnezzar “set up” his image, a deliberate challenge to the claims of God. Thus, he claimed authority that belonged only to Yahweh.

Some of the learned “wise men” used the situation to settle scores for their earlier loss of face. Though loyal to the king, the Jewish exiles could not worship the image because of their greater loyalty to Yahweh. When Nebuchadnezzar heard that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego “refused” to worship his image, he gave them a stark choice:  give allegiance to the image or suffer a fiery death. After all, “Who is the god that shall deliver you out of my hand?

Consequently, the three Judean exiles were cast into the furnace but miraculously survived. Nebuchadnezzar saw them “walking in the fire” with a fourth figure, one described he described as “like to a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:13-25).

With trepidation, the king summoned the three men to exit the furnace and addressed them as “servants of the Most-High God.”  Because they had survived unscathed, he “blessed the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego,” for He had “changed the king’s word” by delivering His “servants who trusted in Him.” Nebuchadnezzar then issued a decree to “all peoples, nations and tongues” that anyone who spoke disparagingly of the God of Israel would be cut in pieces.

The Fiery Furnace - Clipart.christiansunite.com
As in the account of Chapter 2, praise and acknowledgment of God were heard on the lips of the powerful pagan ruler. Nebuchadnezzar described Daniel previously as a servant of the “God of gods and Lord of kings.” He next acknowledged the three Jewish exiles to be servants of the “Most-High God.” Once more, the ruler of the World-Power acknowledged the universal sovereignty of Yahweh.

As he did for Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, and thus, the command of Yahweh over historical events was again demonstrated. The presumptions and machinations of even the world’s most powerful political machine could not thwart His purposes.

Similarly, Chapter 4 begins and ends with Nebuchadnezzar, the sole ruler of the world empire, acknowledging the sovereignty of Yahweh over history, thus, reiterating the central theme of the book.

Blessed is the Most-High who lives forever! I praise and honor the One whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. Before Him, all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and according to his own pleasure, He deals with the Host of Heaven and the inhabitants of the earth.

History remembers Nebuchadnezzar as a great builder and military conqueror who established an empire from the Persian Gulf to the gates of Egypt, a realm mightier than any preceding kingdom. In contrast, Scripture remembers him as a tool employed by Yahweh to achieve His ends, despite the plans and whims of the pagan king.

Chapter 5 is set on the last evening of the final ruler of Babylon, Belshazzar. The chronological reference locates the event in 539 B.C. when the city fell to the “Medes and Persians.” In 550 B.C., the Persian ruler Cyrus II annexed the Median Kingdom to his own and established the empire of the “Medes and Persians.” That development set the stage for the conflict with Babylon and the eventual demise of the empire that Nebuchadnezzar had “set-up.”

On a fateful night in 539 B.C., Belshazzar threw a feast during which his retinue drank wine from vessels previously removed from Yahweh’s Temple, all while “praising the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone.” In that same hour, a hand began to write on the wall. Disturbed, Belshazzar summoned the enchanters, soothsayers, and the “wise men of Babylon” to interpret the writing. No one was able to do so.

As so often before, Daniel was summoned to interpret the writing on the wall:  Mene, Mene Tekel Upharsin.’ The clause represented Aramaic words that have to do with monetary weights; mene, the equivalent of the Hebrew “talent,” tekel of the Jewish shekel, and peres (from upharsin) for “half-pieces” or the “half-mina.” The last term was a double wordplay, first on the name “Persia,” the power about to overthrow Babylon, then on the Aramaic verb for “divide” (from the consonantal stem prs).

The Aramaic phrase signified that “God has numbered your kingdom and brought it to an end” (mene), “you are weighed in the balances and found wanting” (tekel), “your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (peres). Yahweh’s sovereignty was on full display in Daniel’s pronouncement; the world-empire was now transferred from Babylon to the Medes and Persians.

That very night, the Medes and Persians captured the city and slew Belshazzar. The first world-empire fell; the next became ascendant. Through the words of a Jewish captive, Yahweh deposed one mighty empire and established another of even greater magnitude.

Thus, the first half of the Book of Daniel demonstrates that Yahweh, the God of Israel, rules over the kingdoms of men and the course of history. The plans, intentions, and dictates of even the most powerful rulers cannot thwart His purposes, and the defeat of His people by a pagan power is no impediment to Him. God uses both good and evil rulers to achieve His ends. Rulers of any persuasion who assume they rule and conquer through their own wisdom and power ignore history and presume prerogatives that belong to God alone.

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