FREE Online Course

How to Thrive in a Polytheistic American Culture, Part 2

culture practical theology public theology Apr 27, 2023
The Polytheistic Culture

How does living in a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda impact Christians? Are there any defining characteristics of the polytheistic culture? Can they help us better understand ourselves? These are some of the questions we will tackle in this lesson. 


Overview of the Series

Allow me to remind you of the thesis of this series — Like the Hebrew people in Babylon, American Christians are living in a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda.

Add to that this observation — Christians are living in an earthly city but are citizens of a heavenly city — what Augustine calls, The City of God. This means that as a Christian, you are a foreigner and pilgrim simply passing through this world on the way to your true home. As such, you should consider yourself a  foreigner, living in a strange land.

The goal of this series is to study how the Hebrew people, as foreigners living in a strange land, were able to thrive in that foreign culture which was a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda.


The Babylonian Culture

In today’s lesson, I will give an overview of the Babylonian culture. Here’s how I want to tackle that task.

1. I will give a thumbnail sketch of the history of Babylon and the nature of the Babylonian culture.
2. I will glean four important ways that the Babylonian culture impacted the Hebrew people in general and Judaism in particular.
3. I will suggest five core characteristics of the polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda.

A Brief History of the Babylonian Empire

The Babylonian Empire was one of the most powerful and influential empires in the ancient world. Located in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the Babylonian Empire was a hub of trade, commerce, and culture that flourished for centuries. Its capital city, Babylon, was a marvel of engineering and architecture. This, by the way, is the area of the world where Abraham was born and lived the first half of his life.

The history of the Babylonian Empire dates back to 2000 BCE (about the time that Abraham was called away from that area of the world to travel west, to the land of Canaan). At that time, Babylon was a small city-state, but over time it grew in size and power.

In 1792, King Hammurabi became king of Babylon. Hammurabi united much of Mesopotamia under his rule and established Babylon as a true empire. Hammurabi is famous for his law code, which was one of the earliest and most comprehensive legal systems in the world. His law code is a testament to the Babylonian Empire's sophisticated society, where justice and fairness were highly valued.

Under the strong leadership of Hammurabi and the sophisticated legal system that valued justice and fairness, the Babylonian Empire began to flourish. Babylon became a hub of trade and commerce. It was located on the major trade routes between the East and West, and its merchants became renowned for their wealth and skill. The Babylonians were also skilled farmers and engineers. They developed sophisticated irrigation systems that allowed them to cultivate crops in the arid Mesopotamian climate.

The Babylonians were also skilled astronomers and mathematicians. They developed a sophisticated system of mathematics that included the use of fractions and decimal notation. They also made significant contributions to astronomy, including the development of the zodiac, which is still used today.

After the death of Hammurabi, the Babylonian Empire began a slow decline until 626 BC and the rise of two kings who ushered in a revival of culture and power for Babylon — King Nabopolassar (who took the throne in 626 BC), and King Nebuchadnezzar II (who took the throne in 605 BC and ruled for 43 years). Together they ushered in what has become known as the Neo-Babylonian Empire which was the empire found in the historical record of the Bible. 

Under Nebuchadnezzar II, the empire reached the height of its power and prosperity. Nebuchadnezzar was a great builder and undertook major construction projects, including the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He also expanded Babylon's fortifications and built impressive palaces and temples.

Nebuchadnezzar II was also a patron of the arts and sciences. He encouraged the study of astronomy and mathematics, and Babylonian astronomers made significant contributions to the development of the field. He also sponsored the creation of the Babylonian Chronicles, a series of historical texts that recorded the events of his reign and that of his predecessors.

Despite its many contributions, the Neo-Babylonian Empire was not without its conflicts and wars. The empire was constantly threatened by the Assyrians and the Egyptians, and Nebuchadnezzar II engaged in several military campaigns to protect his borders. One of the most significant conflicts was the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC, which resulted in the destruction of the city and the exile of many Jews to Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar needed Jerusalem and that entire land as a buffer zone between Babylon and Egypt. His ability to conquer that land led to a period of unprecedented growth in power and influence.


The Babylonian Religion

From the beginning, the Babylonians were a deeply religious people, with a complex and multifaceted religious system that incorporated many different gods and goddesses into their daily life. The religion of the Babylonians was an integral part of their culture, and the various religious practices and beliefs of the Babylonians shaped every aspect of their lives.

The Babylonians believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses, each of whom had their own specific domain and sphere of influence. Among the most prominent of these gods was Marduk, the patron god of Babylon; Nabu, the god of writing and knowledge; and Ishtar, the goddess of love and fertility. The Babylonians believed that these gods and goddesses were responsible for every aspect of their lives, from the fertility of their crops to the success of their military campaigns.

One of the most important religious practices of the Babylonians was the construction of temples and shrines dedicated to their gods and goddesses. These temples were often grand structures, decorated with intricate carvings and adorned with precious metals and gemstones. They were the center of religious life in Babylon and were staffed by priests and priestesses who performed daily rituals and ceremonies to honor the gods.

Another important aspect of Babylonian religious life was the practice of divination, which involved interpreting the will of the gods through various signs and omens. The Babylonians believed that the gods communicated with them through the natural world and that by observing the movements of the stars and planets, the flight of birds, and the behavior of animals, they could gain insight into the will of the gods.

Astrology, in particular, was an important form of divination, and the Babylonians were skilled astronomers who were able to predict eclipses and other astronomical events with remarkable accuracy.

Sacrifice was also an important aspect of Babylonian religious life. The Babylonians believed that by offering food, drink, and animals to the gods, they could appease them and gain their favor. Animal sacrifices were particularly common, and many of the temples in Babylon had dedicated areas for slaughtering and preparing animals for sacrifice.

With the rise of King Nebuchadnezzar II and the Neo-Babylonian Empire came a shift in the religious life of Babylon. It began to move (very slowly) from the traditional religious practice to the religion known as Zoroastrianism. This is important because this is the time that the Hebrew people come into the picture in Babylonian history.

Zoroastrianism is considered a monotheistic religion that worships Ahura Mazda, the god of wisdom and promotes the values of truth, righteousness, and good deeds. The religion was founded by Zoroaster, a prophet who lived in the 6th century BC.

During this period, Babylon was the cultural and economic center of the region, and the empire was known for its tolerance towards different religions and cultures. Religious tolerance is a characteristic of a polytheistic society. This religious tolerance allowed for the rise of Zoroastrianism in the region.

As a side note -- It was also the polytheism and subsequent religious tolerance of Rome that allowed for the rise of Christianity.


The Impact of the Babylonian Culture

The Babylonian Empire had a significant impact on the Hebrew people and the development of Judaism. This influence was felt both before, during, and after the Babylonian exile, which began in 586 BCE when King Nebuchadnezzar II, conquered the Kingdom of Judah and destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

Prior to the Babylonian exile, the Hebrew people had already scattered and were living in Egypt, Arabia, Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia (Babylon). The Hebrew people living in Palestine were also impacted by Babylon through communication with family and friends who were living there and through commercial trade (which was robust), as well as diplomatic relations. This exposure had a significant impact on Hebrew culture, including their religious practices.

One of the most significant Babylonian religious practices to influence the Hebrews was astrology. The Babylonians were known for their complex astrological systems, which were based on the movements of the stars and planets. The Hebrews began to incorporate some of these practices into their own religious beliefs, including the belief in angels, a more robust theology of the afterlife, and the use of astrology to predict future events (see the story of the Magi in the birth narratives of Matthew). 

After the Babylonian exile, the influence of Babylon on the Hebrew people and Judaism became even more pronounced. During their exile, the Hebrews were exposed to the Babylonian culture in a much more direct way. They were forced to live among the Babylonians and adopt their customs, including their language and religion.

Of all the Hebrews living throughout the Mediterranean world at that time, it was the Hebrews in Babylon who preserved the essence of the Hebrew faith. In this way, they saved Judaism from possible extinction.

One of the most significant Babylonian influences on Judaism (after the exile) was the development of the Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of Jewish laws and teachings that were compiled in Babylon during the 3rd to 5th centuries AD. The Babylonian Talmud became the primary source of Jewish law and tradition, and its influence can still be felt in Jewish communities today.

Another important Babylonian influence on Judaism was the development of the synagogue, which happened during the exile. Prior to the Babylonian exile, the Hebrews worshipped in the Temple in Jerusalem. However, after the Temple was destroyed, the Hebrews were forced to develop new ways to worship. The Babylonians had a tradition of gathering in community centers called ziggurats, and the Hebrews adopted this practice, developing the synagogue as a place of worship and community.

In addition to these cultural and religious influences, the Babylonian exile also had a profound impact on the Hebrews’ sense of identity and their relationship with God. The exile was a traumatic experience, and it forced the Hebrews to confront difficult questions about their faith and their relationship with God. This experience ultimately led to the development of a deeper and more complex understanding of God and the role of the Hebrew people in the world.

The attitude towards Babylon of those living through exile was mixed. There was certainly a certain degree of negativity because they had been brutally conquered by Babylon. But there was also a certain degree of respect toward Babylon. Especially for those who had to live there — and later, those who were born there.

The Hebrew leaders and prophets believed the Babylonians were instruments in the hands of God to punish the Hebrew people and teach them a lesson.

“All Israel was listed in the genealogies recorded in the book of the kings of Israel and Judah. They were taken captive to Babylon because of their unfaithfulness.”

EZRA 5:12
“But because our ancestors angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar the Chaldean, king of Babylon, who destroyed this temple and deported the people to Babylon.”

They knew that God would eventually free them and punish Babylon.

ISAIAH 13:19
“Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the pride and glory of the Babylonians,will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah.”

“Before your eyes I will repay Babylon and all who live in Babylonia for all the wrong they have done in Zion,” declares the LORD.”

But they also saw that Babylon treated them well, even in exile.

Jeremiah was given his freedom.

“But today I am freeing you from the chains on your wrists. Come with me to Babylon, if you like, and I will look after you; but if you do not want to, then don’t come. Look, the whole country lies before you; go wherever you please.”

King Jehoachin was eventually treated with kindness and respect. The king released him from prison and the Bible reports …

2 KINGS 25:27-30
"So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. Day by day the king gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived."

And the Word of the Lord to the Hebrew exiles was to submit to the Babylonian authorities because they too were created by God and they too were instruments in the hands of God and they were going to be used by God to teach the Hebrew people some important lessons.

JEREMIAH 27:4-12
"Give them a message for their masters and say, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: 'Tell this to your masters: With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. But if any nation will bow its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let that nation remain in its own land to till it and to live there,' declares the LORD. 'I gave the same message to Zedekiah king of Judah.' I said, 'Bow your neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon; serve him and his people, and you will live.'"

The Babylonian culture was used by God to teach the Hebrew people a certain lesson. More importantly, it was an incubator to protect, solidify and preserve the Hebrew faith.

That's an important point. Even a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda can be used by God to forge and strengthen your faith.


The Five Core Characteristics of a Polytheistic Culture

What are the characteristics of this polytheistic culture that impacts us? Allow me to list five of them and how these five characteristics impact the Christian life.


1. A polytheistic culture produces many different religious ideas.

Some of those ideas are interesting; some provocative; some profound; some wacko and crazy. Nonetheless, these ideas will force you to think deeply about what you believe. In a polytheistic culture, you’d better know, not only what you believe, but why you believe it.


2. A polytheistic culture threatens any monotheistic belief system.

A monotheistic belief system basically claims that there is only one God and that it has found him. Monotheism is inherently exclusive. That means that it will demand that, from time to time, you take a stand. It will require tremendous courage. 


3. A polytheistic culture is an open-source system where all voices have a platform.

This will teach you to listen with a discerning ear. So many different religious messages assaulting you on a daily basis will require you to develop a discerning ear. 


4. A polytheistic culture rewards tolerance.

It will often elevate tolerance as its greatest virtue. Tolerance is a poor substitute for love as a virtue. However, it will teach you to appreciate those who disagree with you. It will force you to live out the command of Jesus to "love your enemy." 


5. A polytheistic culture is deeply religious.

It has the built-in language of religion with faith stories, myths, rituals, and ceremonies that define most religions. This will give you unlimited opportunities and a common language to talk about your religion and your faith.


In the next lesson, we will begin to look at the biblical characters and how they flourished in their faith while living in a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda.



Get practical, Biblical Teaching delivered to your inbox.

Developing a faith that has a powerful impact on the world is a marathon, not a sprint. We’ll guide you to the finish line with weekly bite-sized bible teaching and other resources designed to elevate your spiritual life.

You're safe with me. I'll never spam you or sell your contact info.