Religion in Ancient Babylon During the Time of Hammurabi

The biblical Tower of Babel may have been a Babylonian ziggurat.
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Ancient Babylonia, a small section of southern Mesopotamia, was in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, near present-day Iraq. The Babylonian people, whose civilization dates back to 2900 B.C., worshipped a large pantheon of gods and goddesses. They were governed by kings, some of whom are discussed in the Hebrew Bible. These included Nebuchadnezzar and Hammurabi.

1 Babylon and Hammurabi

Babylon’s political history dates back to the Agade (Akkadian) Dynasty, which reigned from about 2900 to 2350 B.C. in southern Mesopotamia (Sumer). One of its kings, Shar-kalisharri, built a temple in Babylon to the deities then known as Annunitum and II-aba. Its sixth and most famous king, Hammurabi of the first (Amorite) dynasty, ruled from 1792 to 1750 B.C. The religious practices of the time included offerings of food (consumed by temple personnel), cleaning and purification of the temple and its statuary, and gifts of money for the upkeep of the temple and its priests. Elaborate processionals marked festivals to gods, including the New Year’s Festival, or “Akitu,” which honored Marduk.

2 The Code of Hammurabi

The laws of Ur-Nammu and Eshnunna may have predated Hammurabi’s code by a few hundred years, but his laws were said to be so fundamental that they could not be altered even by the king. The laws themselves were based on the “eye for an eye” approach and make no mention of the gods, the temples or any kind of worship. They all concern people’s dealings with each other: for example, the proper punishment for killing an ox that doesn’t belong to you, or proper wages for labor.

3 Hammurabi Pleased the Gods

According to the inscription on a black basalt stele recorded by Hammurabi’s scribe, “To give happiness to the people, Anum and Enlil pronounced my name ‘Hammurabi,’ me, the pious and god-fearing ruler, to decree equity in the land, to eradicate the wicked and the evil so that the powerful might not oppress the powerless, to rise like Shamash and illumine the land for the black-headed [people].”

The text of the code makes it clear that the king claimed favor from the gods and that it was they who commanded the people's obedience to these laws. The introduction of the laws lists in detail how Hammurabi, “the shepherd of the oppressed,” has benefited the people with his many conquests and accomplishments. Hammurabi is said to be giving the 282 laws as a blessing to the people and to please the gods.

4 Who Were the Gods?

Based on data prepared by the HEA-funded AMGG project, Anu/Anum was the supreme sky god of the Sumerian pantheon, head of the divine dynasty and father of many gods and goddesses. These include Inana or Ishtar, goddess of fertility, and Enlil, god of fate and destiny. His wife or consort is Urash, whose name evolved into Ki, goddess of earth, and Antu, probably a derivative of Anu. The Codex Hammurabi called him Anum rabu. The Creation Epic tells how Anu transferred his power to Marduk (god of the city of Babylon), who gradually became the new supreme god in Babylon. After the Old Babylonian period (about 2000 to 1595 B.C.) the final “m” of Anum disappears and the name Anum becomes A-nu or Anu. This god is later identified with the Greek supreme god Zeus.

5 The Ziggurat Temples

The people of ancient Babylon built ziggurats, temples for their priests to commune with the gods from an elevated place. These massive, stepped brick semi-pyramids may have originally been constructed on platforms to emulate a mountain or to protect their precious holdings from thieves and flood waters. Archaeologists have found cuneiform texts, artifacts made of precious metals and stone carvings of legal records in the ziggurats. Biblical scholars have suggested that the Towel of Babel may refer to a ziggurat.

Dee Shneiderman, former librarian and paralegal, has been writing for 40+ years. Published in Compute! Magazine, she helped found The Crescent Review literary magazine. Owner of Frugal-Foto Photography, she holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Master of Library Science and a North Carolina Truck Driver Training certificate.