Babylonian Captivity

Ishtar Gate Babylon
replica of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, in a German museum

In our first reading at Sunday Mass, we hear about how they threw the prophet Jeremiah into a cistern to starve. Why? Jeremiah had prophesied that a foreign power, the Babylonian empire, would conquer Jerusalem and destroy it. [Spanish]

Was Jeremiah right about that? Yes. The Babylonians did conquer Jerusalem and destroy it. And they took the Jewish people into exile.

Babylon. The archaeological site lies outside Baghdad, in Iraq. The original Jew had lived in that area, before the Lord called him to the Promised Land. Correct: Abraham. Abraham’s hometown of Ur lay downriver from Babylon, towards the Persian Gulf.

The same Hebrew word gave us both “Babel” and “Babylon.” We know they had a tower in Babylon, of which God did not approve. Anyone know the ancient word for the tower of Babel? Ziggurat. Like a pyramid. In the pagan mind, a ziggurat served as a gateway between earth and heaven.

To punish that human presumption—our imagining that we can climb up to heaven by our own power—God Almighty allowed the human race to separate into different nations with different languages.

In our Sunday gospel reading, we hear the Lord Jesus declare that He came to bring division. But we must remember that human division actually began with our own delusions of grandeur, our own arrogance before God. Humbling ourselves before Him can unite us again. The Lord Jesus separates the humble from the arrogant. He unites the humble with God, and with each other.

Tower of Babel by Erich Lessing

…Getting back to the exile of the Jews: that exile fell like a hammer blow upon them. Let’s recall what had happened before that. Abraham had occupied the land that God promised. And, by a miracle, the old man became the patriarch of a very large family. A famine then threatened the family’s survival. Again, by a miracle, one of Abraham’s great-grandsons happened to have control of all the granaries of Egypt.

Then the pharaoh enslaved the numerous descendants of Abraham. By a series of miracles, God raised up Moses and led the people out of slavery. They returned to the Promised Land. They built the Temple, according to God’s instructions. They thought they would live happily ever after, in a powerful and prosperous kingdom, ruled by a wise king.

Instead they wound up exiles. Pretty much right back where it had all began. The exiled Jews might have thought: We have nothing to show for the previous thousand years of dramatic national history. They might have despaired and simply given up on Abraham’s covenant with God.

But, actually, they did have a lot to show for their years of history as God’s chosen people. They had the Ten Commandments. They had the annual Passover and the other liturgical observances. And they had the Holy Spirit of God, speaking to them through the prophets, teaching them to hope.

The Babylonian exile taught our spiritual ancestors to do the basic things we do. 1. Base our lives on our faith in the Word of God. 2. Gather together to listen to the Scriptures and pray. 3. Confess our sins and try to purify ourselves of worldliness and vice. 4. Look forward to the final fulfillment of God’s plan, trusting that He is the Lord of all things and all time.

Jeremiah Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo’s Jeremiah, Sistine Chapel

The Babylonian exile could have meant the end. When Nebuchadnezzar deported the last Jews from Jerusalem and burned the Temple to the ground, all the other nations of the Middle East certainly thought: that’s the end of the Jews.

But it wasn’t the end. It was the beginning of another chapter. A chapter that involved trying to live humbly and faithfully under the domain of a worldly pagan culture.

Does the word “Babylon” appear in the New Testament? You might think not, since the city fell to the Persians five centuries before the coming of Christ.

But, in their writings, St. Peter and St. John both called the Roman empire “Babylon.” In that sense, “Babylon” means: any adverse circumstances under which the Christian faithful must live. Any realm governed by empty pride, outward show, and deep godlessness.

They threw Jeremiah in a cistern because they did not want to hear the truth: God had not made His chosen people an invincible empire destined to attract the world’s attention. Rather, the Lord had united a struggling band of sinners, who shared one thing: Needing a Savior.

St. Peter wrote: “The church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings…Greet one another with the holy kiss. Peace to all who are in Christ.” Let’s receive that brotherly greeting, and share it with each other. It’s meant for us, because we share in the same brotherhood. Exiled in Babylon, striving to hold fast to the one, true God.

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