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381. The Babylonian Period.—For more than fifty years after they were carried away captive, the Jews served a Chaldean race, and were governed by Assyrian despots, of whom Nebuchadnezzar1111   Instead of Nebuchadnezzar Jeremiah and Ezekiel use the form Nebuchadrezzar, which is nearer to the original Nabu-Kuduri-utzur, i.e. "Nebo is the protector against misfortune." was by far the greatest whether in peace or war. It is hardly too much to say that but for him the Babylonians would have had no place in history. A great soldier, a great statesman, a great builder and engineer, he knew how to consolidate and adorn his vast empire, an empire which is said to have "extended from the Atlantic to the Caspian, and from Caucasus to the Great Sahara." We owe our best conception of the personal character and public life of this great despot to the Book of Daniel. Daniel, although a Jew and a captive, was the vizier of the Babylonian monarch, and retained his post until the Persian conquest, when he became the first of "the three presidents" of the new empire. He therefore paints Nebuchadnezzar from the life. And in his Book we see the great King at the head of a magnificent court, surrounded by "princes, governors, and captains, judges, treasurers, councillors, and sheriffs," waited on by "well-favoured" eunuchs, attended by a crowd of astrologers and "wise men" who interpret to him the will of Heaven. He wields39 an absolute power, and disposes with a word of the lives and fortunes of his subjects, even the highest and most princely. All offices are in his gift. He can raise a slave to the second place in his kingdom (Daniel, to wit), and impose a foreigner (again, Daniel) on the priestly college as its head. Of so enormous a wealth that he makes an image of pure gold ninety feet high and nine feet broad, he lavishes it on public works—on temples, gardens, canals, fortifications—rather than on personal indulgence. Religious after a fashion, he wavers between "the God of the Jews" and the deity after whom he was named and whom he calls his god. In temper he is hasty and violent, but not obstinate; he suddenly repents of his sudden resolves; he is capable of bursts of gratitude and devotion no less than of fierce accesses of fury, and displays at times a piety and self-abasement astonishing in an Oriental despot. His successors—Evil-Merodach, Neriglissar, Laborosoarchod, Nabonadius, and Belshazzar—need not detain us. Little is known of them, and, with one exception, their reigns were very short; and their main task seems to have been the erection of vast and sumptuous structures such as Nebuchadnezzar had been wont to rear. Probably none of the Babylonian monarchs save Nebuchadnezzar made any deep impression on the Hebrew mind.

And, indeed, the people of Babylon were much more40 likely than their despots to influence the Hebrew captives; for with them they would be brought into daily contact. Now the Babylonians were marked by a singular intellectual ability. Keen to know, patient to observe, exact and laborious in their researches, they could hardly fail to teach much to subject races, and to inspire them with some desire for knowledge. They had carried the sciences of mathematics and astronomy to a high pitch of perfection. They are said to have determined, within two seconds, the exact length of the solar year, and not to have been far wrong in the distances at which they computed the sun, moon and planets from the earth; and they compiled a serviceable catalogue of the fixed stars. The Hebrew prophets often refer to their "wisdom and learning." They excelled in architecture. Two of their vast works, the walls of Babylon, and the hanging gardens, were reckoned among "the seven wonders" of the ancient world. Their skill in manufacturing and arranging enamelled bricks has never yet been equalled.1212   There is a curious allusion to these enamelled bricks, and the admiration the Jews conceived for them, in Ezekiel xxiii. 14-16. In all mechanical arts, indeed, such as cutting stones and gems, casting gold and silver, blowing glass, modelling vases and ware, weaving carpets and muslins and linen, they take a very high place among the nations of41 antiquity. With manufacturing and artistic skill they combined the spirit of enterprise and adventure which leads to commerce. They were addicted to maritime pursuits; the "cry," or joy, "of the Chaldeans is in their ships," says Isaiah (xliii. 14); and Ezekiel (xvii. 4) calls Babylonia "a land of traffic," and its chief city "a city of merchants."

But a larger, and probably the largest, class of the people must have busied themselves with the toils of agriculture; the broad Chaldean plain being famous, from the time of the Patriarchs to the present day, for an amazing and almost incredible fertility. Wheat, barley, millet, and sesame, all flourished with astonishing luxuriance, the ground commonly yielding a hundredfold, two hundredfold, and even ampler rewards for the toil of the husbandman.

With these abundant sources of wealth at their command, the people naturally grew luxurious and dissolute. "The daughter of the Chaldeans," says Isaiah (xlvii. 1-8), "is tender and delicate," given to pleasures, apt to live carelessly; her young men, says Ezekiel (xxiii. 15), are dandies, "exceeding in dyed attire," painting their faces, and wearing earrings. Chastity, in our modern sense of the term, was unknown.1313   See Herodotus, book i., chap. 199; Strabo, xvi., p. 1058; and the Book of Baruch, vi. 43. 42The pleasures of the table and of the couch were carried to excess. Yet, like many other Eastern races, the Babylonians hid under their soft luxurious exterior a fierceness very formidable to their foes. The Hebrew Prophets (Hab. i. 6-8; Isaiah xiv. 16) describe them as "a bitter and hasty," a "terrible and dreadful" people, "fiercer than the evening wolves," a people whose tramp "made the earth tremble, and did shake kingdoms;" and all the historians of the time charge them with a thirst for blood which often took the most savage and inhuman forms.

Of the horrible licence and cruelty of the worship of Bel, Merodach, and Nebo, which did much to foster the fierce and cruel temper of the people, it is not necessary, it is hardly possible, to speak. Roughly taken, it was the service of the great forces of Nature by a wanton indulgence of the worst passions of man. It is enough to know that in Babylon idolatry took forms which made all forms of idolatry henceforth intolerable to the Jews; that now, once for all, they renounced that worship of strange gods to which they and their fathers had always hitherto been prone. This of itself was an immense advance, a great gain. Nor was it their only gain; for if by contact with the idolatrous Babylonians the Jews were driven back on their own Law and Scripture, their intercourse with a people of so active an intellect and a learning so deep43 and wide led them to study the Word of Jehovah in a new and more intelligent spirit.

Nor is it less obvious that in the social and political conditions of the Babylonians we have a key to many of the allusions to public life contained in Ecclesiastes. The great empire, indeed, presents precisely those elements which, in degenerate times and under feebler despots, must inevitably develop into the disorder, and misery, and crime which Coheleth depicts.

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