The following is taken from a paper by Avraham Gileadi that I thought is worth sharing.
The name Babylon means many things to many people. The Hebrew word (babel) goes back to a kingdom Nimrod founded, where the ancients built the tower of Babel, or Babylon (Genesis 10:9-10; 11:1-9). This kingdom evolved into an idolatrous materialistic civilization that reached a zenith in the powerful neo-Babylonian empire of Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Daniel 2:37-38). The prophet Isaiah identifies Babylon typologically as both a people and a place: the sinners and the wicked; the earth and the world (Isaiah 13:1, 9, 11). He predicts latter-day Babylon will suffer the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, thus likening the world’s desolation to a fiery cataclysm falling upon the wicked (Isaiah 13:4-19).
Jeremiah calls Babylon a “destroying mountain” (har hammashît), an expression that in Hebrew also means a “corrupting” or “decadent” kingdom (Jeremiah 51:25). Babylon’s destiny is to become a burned mountain, desolate forever, because Babylon corrupts—and thus ultimately destroys—all the earth (Jeremiah 51:25-26). Babylon’s fall in the last days forms a key event ushering in the Millennium.76
Isaiah and Jeremiah single out something about Babylon that corrupts all, including the Lord’s people. Those who engage in it become “Babylon” themselves and in the end perish with it. This involves the manufacturing, promoting, and selling of idols—the works of men’s hands.
A story I heard in rabbinic school relates how Abraham’s father, Terah, in the land of Ur of the Babylonians, at times put young Abraham in charge of his store. When Terah, who made and sold idols, went into the forest to fetch wood for their manufacture, Abraham was to sell the idols in his father’s place. Typically Abraham would dissuade buyers, reproving the adults for esteeming statues as gods. One day, fed up with his duty, Abraham smashed all his father’s wares except a large idol that stood on a top shelf. When Terah returned from the forest, he flew into a rage, demanding an explanation. Abraham responded, “The big one did it!” implying that these were no gods at all, or they could have saved themselves. After that, Abraham became unpopular in Ur and the people sought his life. A sequel to this story appears in the book of Abraham, which commences with, “I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence” (Abraham 1:1).
As Hugh Nibley has often pointed out, the essence of this sort of idol worship is not that people really believed the idols to be gods, but that their manufacture, promotion, and sale provided them with a living. It formed a socioeconomic system that afforded urban dwellers a means of sustenance. One problem with this system lay in its false economic base and the instability it bred—it fed on itself.
Economic factors determined social behavior—the law of supply. Manufacturing the works of men’s hands yielded income but constituted idolatry, because what so many people worked at, oriented their lives around, was ultimately nonproductive. The work of idols did not sustain itself, but demanded to be sustained. It enslaved to a false idea not merely those directly involved with it, but also those who produced foodstuffs and raw materials. The latter labored additionally to provide for all the rest.
The reverse of this phenomenon also applied: false spiritual values influenced directions the economy would take—the law of demand. Because of their association with deity, idols represented something socially acceptable into which people might pour time and money. The prestige the idols furnished made people protective of the system. Those who prospered from it had found a niche. Their real source of subsistence—farmers and husbandmen—took second place in people’s minds. Society measured wealth in terms of money and the idols it could buy, rather than by how much food could be produced.
We can thus liken Babylon’s socioeconomic structure to an upside-down pyramid, which, as it grows, ever narrows at its base. In it, the many depend on the few for their support. Babylon’s mass of people, engaged in producing and selling idols, remain out of touch with their life source, rendering them vulnerable to catastrophe. The greatest height to which Babylon attains thus also forms her lowest point of stability. For when, through some unforeseen (divine) intervention, a single stone jars loose from the base, the entire structure collapses.
By way of contrast, Zion’s economy is not so structured. As Israel’s prophets outline, Zion possesses a broad rural base, in which every family works its inheritance of land.77 This makes Zion a stable, self-sustaining structure. In it abide neither poor nor those who appropriate what belongs to others. Zion’s people look to their Head, their cornerstone, to bless them with increase. Old Testament and Book of Mormon examples show that such a structure can weather most storms, endure most attacks, and quickly repair or rebuild itself. The direct means of sustenance— the capacity to produce foodstuffs and raw materials—is ready at hand. Even when a people must flee temporarily into the wilderness, this provides them with the greatest maneuverability.
In short, the works of men’s hands on which people set their hearts, on which they spend natural and human resources are, by definition, “idols” (Isaiah 2:8; Jeremiah 10:1-5). As the prophets describe them, these are idols that people invent, design, sketch, carve, forge, molten, cast, weld, plate, fit, hammer, rivet, and mass produce.78 Manufactured, promoted, and sold for gold and silver (Isaiah 44:9; 46:6), the idols form the fruits of a technology of well-nigh magical dimensions (Isaiah 47:10, 12). They follow trends and engage the whole of society (Isaiah 44:11; 47:13). Depending on the kind of idols, people both carry them about and set them in place in their homes (Isaiah 45:20; 46:7).
The entire production of idols, however, is erroneous and vain (Jeremiah 51:18). It causes people to become like the idols themselves—sightless and mindless to things spiritual, unaware and insensible to impending disaster (Isaiah 42:17-20; 44:9, 18; 45:16). It constitutes a “wine” that makes people drunk and mad—the wine of Babylon (Jeremiah 51:7).
A law unto herself, Babylon tyrannizes and enslaves; yet people do not discern her for what she is (Isaiah 44:20; 47:6-8, 10). In reality, Babylon suffers from gross defects, open wounds that no one can heal (Jeremiah 51:8-9). At her height, she mounts up to heaven, from whence the Lord suddenly and utterly casts her down (Jeremiah 51:8, 53). On her destruction, those intoxicated with her wine do not so much as wake up from their sleep (Jeremiah 51:39). Since their gods, the works of men’s hands, did not save them, they profited them nothing in the end (Isaiah 44:9; 46:7).
Although Jeremiah—at Judah’s exile—advised his people to serve the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 27:6-17; 40:9), Jeremiah did not mean, “When in Babylon, do as Babylon does!” Indeed, both Isaiah and Jeremiah looked forward to the time Israel would exit Babylon before the Lord destroyed her (Isaiah 48:20; Jeremiah 51:6). The time would come, as with Abraham, when it would no longer be advisable to remain in Babylon. The more she ripened in wickedness, the less possible it would be to live in Babylon but not be of Babylon.
Isaiah depicts the coming of the Lord’s people out of Babylon as a new exodus, patterned after the ancient exodus out of Egypt (Isaiah 48:20-21; 52:11-12). He likens the gathering of a repentant remnant of Israel from the ends of the earth to Abraham’s coming out of Babylonia into the wilderness (Isaiah 41:8-9; 51:1-3). The prophets, therefore, speak both of a literal, spontaneous exodus from Babylon on the eve of her destruction, and of a gradual, premeditated exit before that time.79 As Lot’s wife illustrates, those ensconced in Babylon find it hard to leave at a moment’s notice.
Doing “the works of Abraham”—in order to merit an exaltation that compares to his80—thus includes leaving and forsaking Babylon as he did, becoming wholly pure of her abominable idols (cf. Isaiah 51:2; 52:11). Not unexpectedly, the limits of any alternative to Babylon are extremely narrow. In prophetic thought, what is not Zion is Babylon and what is not Babylon is Zion. In effect, only two choices remain for the Lord’s people: either build up Zion or build up Babylon. This requires that we gain a clear idea about Zion and Babylon—how the prophets define them, what they stand for, and how to implement Zion.
Isaiah, for example, defines Zion as both a people and a place: those of the Lord’s people who repent, and the place to which they gather—a safe place in the wilderness during the Lord’s day of judgment.81 According to Isaiah, the Lord’s people must urgently repent of Babylonian idolatry—worshiping the works of men’s hands.82 Scriptural precedents prove the principle that those who leave Babylon under the Lord’s direction inherit a promised land.83 According to Jeremiah, a person leaves Babylon in order to go to Zion, throwing in one’s lot with the Lord by an everlasting covenant (Jeremiah 50:1-5). To leave Babylon means to go out from among the wicked to establish Zion somewhere else (D&C 38:42; 133:4-9). All who remain in Babylon do so at the peril of their lives.84
As for the works of men’s hands in today’s Babylon, we need say little more to recapture the ancient scene. Essentially the same materialistic economy that prevailed then prevails in our day. Like the ancient port city of Tyre, Babylon’s mercantile arm,85 latter-day Babylon encompasses every kind of trade and merchandise—whatever the souls of men lust after by way of material possessions (Revelation 18:1-24). The manufacture and promotion of contemporary works of men’s hands form virtually an unlimited enterprise. Reduplicating the socioeconomic structure of ancient Babylon is the very stuff of modernization.
Technology of almost magical proportions consumes humanity to the point of enslaving us to it. By orienting our lives around their production, sale, and maintenance, we set material things above the glory of God. Taking care of the works of men’s hands and servicing them are terms synonymous with loving and serving idols. And yet, as with her ancient counterpart, men do not discern modern Babylon for what she is. The wine with which all nations of the earth are drunk blinds men to life’s divine charge and to Babylon’s looming collapse (Revelation 17:2; 18:3). As with many other peoples who have grown up in captivity, we ourselves are not cognizant of, or else take for granted, the fact of our bondage.
The question remains, what will Abraham’s children do? Will they continue to imbibe the wine of Babylon, or will they ask the way to Zion?