The Moon-god at Babylon

While reading the Old Testament, you can be forgiven for wondering what was going on in the minds of the ancient Israelites. They’d been miraculously rescued from the Egyptians, Amorites, Amalekites, Midianites, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Arameans, Philistines, and Assyrians (the southern kingdom of Judah, anyway) over a period of more than six hundred years. The Israelites fell into a pattern that was repeated again and again: A neighboring people would oppress Israel until they cried out to God, He’d send a deliverer to free them from bondage, and a short time later, the people would be back to whoring after Baal, Asherah, Astarte and her cult prostitutes, worshiping golden calves, and sacrificing children to Molech.

Eventually, God ran out of patience. The wickedness of Manasseh, king of Judah, was even worse than that of the Amorites, according to the chronicler,[1] worshiping the whole host of heaven, which includes the moon-god, and burning his son as an offering. Manasseh, who reigned between 709 and 643 BC, even defiled the Temple, setting up pagan altars and a carved Asherah inside the house of the Lord.

God delivered the bad news through His prophets: The kingdom of Judah was toast.

Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.

2 Kings 21:12–13 (ESV)

It took a while, in human terms. Manasseh died in 643 BC. Forty-six years later, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captured Jerusalem, deposed king Jehoiakim, and put Zedekiah on the throne in his place.

Now, imagine similar circumstances here in the United States. Suppose prophets began declaring God’s judgment of doom on the United States because of, say, Richard Nixon. Do you think anybody today would believe that doom was still imminent after forty-six years of hearing that message? People being what we are—no, probably not.

But suddenly, there was the army of Chaldeans from Babylon outside the walls of Jerusalem. And even that wasn’t enough to wake up the people. Ten years later, despite the warnings of Jeremiah, who was imprisoned and then thrown into a cistern for speaking truth to power, the Judean kingdom rebelled against Babylon again. God’s message couldn’t have been clearer.

Thus says the Lord, God of Israel: “Thus shall you say to the king of Judah who sent you to me to inquire of me, ‘Behold, Pharaoh’s army that came to help you is about to return to Egypt, to its own land. And the Chaldeans shall come back and fight against this city. They shall capture it and burn it with fire. Thus says the Lord, Do not deceive yourselves, saying, “The Chaldeans will surely go away from us,” for they will not go away. For even if you should defeat the whole army of Chaldeans who are fighting against you, and there remained of them only wounded men, every man in his tent, they would rise up and burn this city with fire.’”

Jeremiah 37:7–10 (ESV)

Pharaoh Hophra sent a relief army into Judah in 587 BC. The Egyptian king wanted to keep Judah as a client kingdom for himself. It didn’t work; Hophra either decided saving Jerusalem wasn’t possible or was not worth a major showdown with Nebuchadnezzar, and he retreated into Egypt. When the Chaldean army returned to Jerusalem, it did exactly as Jeremiah foretold—the city and the Temple were looted and destroyed.

Fast forward to 539 BC. Exiles from Judah had been in Babylonia for more than fifty years, ever since Nebuchadnezzar’s first siege of Jerusalem in 597 BC. For reference, this includes most of the life of Ezekiel, who was in the first wave of exiles after that siege and likely died around 570 BC.[2]

By 539 BC, Nebuchadnezzar had been dead for more than twenty years. Nabonidus had been king since about 556 BC, when he led a coup against Nebuchadnezzar’s young grandson, Labashi-Marduk, who was apparently deemed unfit to rule. Nabonidus is an interesting character who might have been remembered as one of the great pagan kings of the ancient world if he hadn’t been caught on the wrong side of a supernatural war.

Bad Moon Rising

Nabonidus, whose name means “Nabu is praised” (Nabu being the Mesopotamian god of wisdom, literacy, and scribes), wasn’t a Chaldean like Nebuchadnezzar. His background is somewhat fuzzy. He may have been Assyrian based on his origin in Harran, where his mother served at the great temple of the moon-god, Sîn.

Nabonidus might be history’s first archaeologist.[3] It’s possible he tried to ingratiate himself to the home crowd by aligning himself with Babylon’s past glory, or maybe he genuinely loved history, but Nabonidus dug up artifacts all over Babylon and displayed them in museums. He also located and restored ancient temples of Shamash, the sun-god, and Ishtar, the goddess of sex and war, in the city of Sippar. He no doubt pleased his mother by doing the same for the sanctuary of Sîn at Harran that had been built more than fifteen hundred years earlier by the great Akkadian king Naram-Sîn. 

The most interesting aspect of Nabonidus’ life, for our purposes, is his devotion to the moon-god. That’s probably not a surprise, considering his mother’s lifetime commitment to Sîn. What’s unusual is the degree to which Nabonidus took it. While scholars aren’t completely agreed about this, evidence suggests he tried to replace Marduk at the top of the Babylonian pantheon with the moon-god. In addition, Nabonidus spent most of his seventeen-year reign outside of Babylon, living for ten years at Tayma,[4] an oasis in the Arabian desert probably named for one of the sons of Ishmael.[5]

And, surprise! Tayma was a center of moon-god worship.[6]

What was Nabonidus doing there? Some scholars suggest he was mainly after wealth. Tayma was situated on a trade route, the easternmost branch of the ancient incense road.[7] Like any king needing creative ways to balance his royal budget, Nabonidus may have felt that his presence was necessary to control the lucrative trade routes from south Arabia to Mesopotamia, especially as it became clear that the Medes and Persians to the north and east were becoming an existential threat.

There may be another explanation. A prayer attributed to Nabonidus found among the Dead Sea scrolls, an Aramaic text called 4Q242, suggests that his long stay at Tayma was for his health.

1. The words of the p[ra]yer which Nabonidus, king of [Ba]bylon, the great king, pray[ed] when he was stricken]

2. with an evil disease by the decree of G[o]d in Teman. [I Nabonidus] was stricken with [an evil disease]

3. for seven years, and from [that] (time) I was like [unto a beast and I prayed to the Most High]

4. and, as for my sin, he forgave it.[8]

The similarity of this account with the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness in chapter 4 of the Book of Daniel is obvious. Some scholars believe the biblical account may have inspired the text at Qumran.

On the other hand, there is evidence that Nabonidus’ time at Tayma was a spiritual quest. The oasis is believed to have been a center of moon-god worship as far back as the Bronze Age,[9] at least five hundred years before Nabonidus.

This oasis was in the heart of what had been Midian six hundred years earlier, in the days of Gideon. As we’ll see in a later chapter, worship of the moon-god continued in Arabia long after Babylon became a sand-covered ruin.

So, it appears that Nabonidus, born in Harran, the city of the moon-god in northern Mesopotamia, settled in the Arabian city of the moon-god for reasons beyond its strategic importance. It may be that he was waiting for a message from the moon-god—a prophecy or sign of some sort. While he stayed at Tayma, his son ruled as regent in Babylon. That was Belshazzar, the king we know from the Book of Daniel.

You know his story well. The party he threw on what became his last night on earth inspired the popular expression, “the writing is on the wall.”

But you don’t know the whole story. You will next week.

[1] 2 Kings 21:1–9.

[2] His last dated prophecy is in Ezekiel 29:17, “the twenty-seventh year, in the first month, on the first day of the month,” which was April 26, 571 BC.

[3] Mark B. Garrison, “Antiquarianism, Copying, Collecting.” In A Companion to Archaeology in the Ancient Near East, D. T. Potts, ed. (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 44–46.

[4] Also called Tema or Teman in the Bible.

[5] Genesis 25:15.

[6] Humphreys, op. cit., 300.

[7] Arnulf Hausleiter, “North Arabian Kingdoms.” A Companion to Archaeology in the Ancient Near East, D.T. Potts, ed. (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 828.

[8] Jin Yang Kim, “F. M. Cross’ Reconstruction of 4Q242.” Old Testament Story(, retrieved 11/8/18.

[9] Humphreys, op. cit., 300.


  1. I am constantly amazed by your insight. Thank you for delving into areas where few scholars venture. Always an educational experience.

  2. Fascinating information as always Mr. Gilbert! Thank you.

  3. Thank you for your valuable articles. They are incredibly insightful. The relevance of the moongod in what is currently happening in our world today, cannot be overstated.

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