Between 4500 - 1500 BC, the Sumerians were an ancient people that occupied Sumer, that is, the southern region of Mesopotamia, which is now southern Iraq. It is unclear when the first settlers of the region arrived, but they were a non-Semitic people that historians believe may have come out of the Samarra culture in northern Mesopotamia or Assyria. The Sumerians established many city-states in southern Mesopotamia, and their culture thrived there until around 1700 BC when Babylonia subdued the Sumerians and took control of the region during the reign of Hammurabi, the last Sumerian king.
The Sumerians are credited with creating one of the first forms of writing, cuneiform, which is made of a series of wedge-shaped marks carved into clay with a stylus. The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in cuneiform and took archeologists a long time to decipher. Once it was translated, they found the Epic of Gilgamesh to be a heroic story about a Sumerian king. The manuscript describes the adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, a wild man who was first created by the gods to fight against Gilgamesh but who befriends him and fights alongside him. The epic also contains an account of a great flood with many similarities to the Genesis account.
The Sumerians were also the builders of the city-state of Ur and the Ziggurat of Ur, a structure built in the worship of the Sumerian moon deity, Nanna. Archeology suggests that the Sumerians were powerful warriors, skilled at agriculture, architecture, and literature.
The Sumerians farmed the fertile land by the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, and historians have even classified the Sumerians as “proto-Euphrateans.” The Tigris and the Euphrates are two of four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2:14 that flowed from the Garden of Eden. Today, these rivers still have a common source, in the mountains of Turkey, from which they flow through Syria and Iraq. That area later became known as the “Fertile Crescent” and the “cradle of civilization” because agriculture flourished there and the peoples of that region developed glass, the wheel, and irrigation techniques.
The Sumerians have a connection with biblical history. In the Bible, Ur is mentioned as the birthplace of Abram, or Abraham, who became the first Hebrew patriarch and later the spiritual father of all those who would have faith in the Lord (Genesis 17:5; Acts 3:25; Romans 4:12, 16). The Bible does not tell us Abram’s nationality, but he was likely a Sumerian, or perhaps a Babylonian. Abram was living in Mesopotamia when the Lord spoke to him and told him to leave his family and the land of his fathers and go to a new land (Genesis 12:1). By faith (Hebrews 11:8–9), Abram took his wife, Sarai; his nephew Lot; and all their possessions, and they left Ur and traveled to Canaan, which is present-day Lebanon and Israel. Many scholars also see the Bible’s references to “Shinar” in Genesis 10:10 and 11:2 to mean Sumer.
Between the 18th and 6th centuries BC, Babylon rose from a Mesopotamian city on the Euphrates River to become a powerful city-state and later the capital city and namesake of one of the greatest empires in history. The city was located on the eastern side of the Fertile Crescent about 55 miles south of modern Baghdad. Babylon’s history intersected the biblical timeline early and often. The influence of Babylonia on Israel and on world history is profound.
The Bible’s first mention of Babylon comes in Genesis 10. This chapter is referred to as the table of nations as it traces the descendants of Noah’s three sons. In the genealogy of Ham, “Cush was the father of Nimrod, who grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth” (Genesis 10:8). Nimrod founded a kingdom that included a place called “Babylon” in Shinar (Genesis 10:10).
The Tower of Babel is found in Genesis 11. In English it is easy enough to make the connection between “Babel” and “Babylon,” but in Hebrew it is the same word. This chapter cements Babylon’s reputation as a city of rebellion against God. From then on, the biblical writers consistently use Babylon as a symbol of evil and defiance (1 Peter 5:13 and Revelation 17:5).
Near the time of Abraham, Babylon became an independent city-state ruled by the Amorites. The first Babylonian dynasty included Hammurabi, the sixth king, known for his code of laws. Hammurabi expanded the kingdom, and the area around Babylon became known as Babylonia. During the second dynasty, Babylon was in communication with Egypt and entered a 600-year struggle with Assyria. After a time of subjugation to the Elamite Empire, a fourth dynasty of Babylonian kings thrived under Nebuchadnezzar I. Then Babylon fell under the shadow of Assyria.
By 851 B.C., Babylon was only nominally independent, requiring Assyrian “protection” and facing many internal upheavals. Finally, the Assyrian Tiglath-pileser III took the throne. The Assyrians and Merodach-baladan, a Chaldean, traded power more than once. During one of his times of advantage, Merodach-baladan sent emissaries to threaten Hezekiah, king of Judah (2 Kings 20:12-19; Isaiah 39). When the Chaldean chief Nabopolassar took control of Babylon in 626 B.C., he proceeded to sack Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.
Babylon is the setting for the ministry of the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel, who were both deportees from Judah. Daniel became a leader and royal adviser to the Babylonian and Persian Empires. He had been captured after the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C. (Jeremiah 46:2-12). The book of Daniel records Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2) and foretells the fall of Babylon to the Medes and the Persians (Daniel 5). Earlier, the prophet Isaiah had also foretold the fall of Babylon (Isaiah 46:1-2).
In the Bible, Babylon is mentioned from Genesis to Revelation, as it rises from its rebellious beginnings to become a symbol of the Antichrist’s evil world system. When God’s people required discipline, God used the Babylonian Empire to accomplish it, but He limited Judah’s captivity to 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11). Then, God promised to “punish the king of Babylon and his nation” (Jeremiah 25:12) “for all the wrong they have done in Zion” (Jeremiah 51:24). Ultimately, all evil will be judged, as symbolized by Babylon’s demise in Revelation 18:21: “The great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again.”