🔼The name Marduk in the Bible
Marduk (or Merodach) was the chief deity of Babylon. He originally personified the power of thunderstorms but at the rise of Babylon as a world power, his association was promoted to that of conqueror of chaos (told in the story of Marduk defeating Tiamat). Marduk became known as King of the Gods of Heaven and the Underworld (Enuma elish 4.14), and the existence of all nature, including man, was said to be due to him. Even the destiny of kingdoms and subjects was said to be in his hands. Marduk was associated with a few sacred animals (particularly horses and dogs) but his prime pet was a dragon with a forked tongue called Mushussu, which means reddish or fiery serpent. Marduk was also often called Bel.
It's tempting to think of Marduk as a pure figment of the imagination upon which all these lofty qualities were in retrospect projected, but divinity worked quite the other way around in the ancient world. The natural phenomena were first observed and then personified in deities, but religion the way we know it didn't really exist back then. A culture's theology summed up its philosophies and observations of the natural world, its government, its hope and dreams but also its technology and sciences such as astronomy and medicine.
Back then, just like now, people wondered how the world worked, and then just as now would easily fall into the trap of believing that any progress made was due to their own ingenuity. Babylon's supremacy was thought to be due to the way things were done in Babylon, and all facets of rule, from administration to science and technology and the whole cultic circus around it, were grouped up as the person of Marduk, which in turn was manifested in an effigy — Marduk's image was swiped by the Assyrians in 649 BC and brought back to Babylon in 669 BC. Defeating a country was defeating the way that country worked and how efficient that country could harness and deploy powers (both technologically and military; see Daniel 3:19). In is in that sense that the national god of the victorious people had defeated the national god of the defeated people (2 Kings 18:33-35).
🔼Marduk and YHWH
Although YHWH was in the early days of Israel also known as a "Man of War" (Exodus 15:3), He appears to have retired His military pursuits when Israel turned out to be no match to the armies of the great empires. From the time of Solomon on, the almighty and omnipresent YHWH became primarily a God of wisdom (which means practical skill; see the name Hochma) and His revelations consisted mostly of insights into the natural world, which included humanity. As it happens, Marduk was also a god of learning and healing (see the Shurpu and Ludlul bel ne-meqi texts). But as yet another theological revolution, the Jews of the late kingdom years didn't recognize their military defeats as demonstrations of the impotence of their God, but began to see their God as everybody's God, who wanted everybody to know His wisdom, and would use whatever power He saw fit to stabilize a region. That would be His victory, and any king who would bring it was reckoned as His servant, including Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 25:9, 27:6).
The Bible the way we have it was finalized in a time during which the theology of the Jews competed most with that of Babylon, and it appears that the Bible writers agreed with much of the Babylonians' observations but disagreed with their final conclusions. Since theology tends to reflect the concerns of the times, the Bible writers used much of the imagery in which the Babylonians discussed their theology but reordered this imagery to fit their own conclusions. Centuries later Paul would do the same thing by first agreeing that certain phrases typical to Roman imperial theology (Lord of lords, Son of God, Savior of the world, etcetera) indeed reflected reality, but in reality didn't describe Augustus and the Caesarian administration but rather Jesus the Nazarene (Crossan and Reed In Search of Paul).
After Paul, the image of the humble, self-sacrificial Jesus of Nazareth transmogrified into Christ Pantokrator to reestablish the parallel with the Roman emperors. During the plague period He became the Man of Sorrows. And even today theology (and rip-offs) often uses phrases and imagery typical to our present obsessions — specifically horror and violence (Mel's Passion), the environment (Darren Aronofsky's Noah) or fashion and self-presentation (all those numbnutsical movie productions which depict Jesus as a Caucasian Colgate model, or according to what Susan Cain calls the "Extrovert Ideal").
Because Mardukology dominated the theological arena, the Bible writers discussed their theology in terms that were familiar to the folks they were debating. Hence in Hebrew scriptures we find YHWH defeating chaos (Isaiah 51:9), YHWH clothed in light and the heavens (Psalm 104:2), YHWH as the Lord of thunder storms (Exodus 9:23, Psalm 29:9) and YHWH as Master of kingdoms (Daniel 4:17). In the Bible, YHWH is the Lord of the gods (Deuteronomy 10:17, Psalm 82:1, 136:2), the Creator (Genesis 1:1), and God of Heaven and Earth (Psalm 24:1). YHWH didn't have an effigy, but His Ark was swiped by the Philistines and brought back to Israel by God Himself (1 Samuel 6:9).
But the Bible writers made it clear that YHWH was not a continuation or improvement of Marduk, but that Marduk was a misapplication of what Paul deemed clearly visible to be true (Romans 1:20). Hence Mordecai (means Mardukish) was depicted as a Jewish abductee who was raising his uncle's daughter Esther. Esther became Persia's queen and Mordecai was made second only to the king (Esther 10:3). And via the adventures of the prophet Daniel they showed that Marduk's perceived powers of action were in fact the actions of his lying priests (Daniel 14:1-22, which is commonly considered apocryphal). Daniel didn't only destroy Bel and his priests, he also had a go at the "huge snake which the Babylonians worshipped" (Daniel 14:23). What exactly the Mushussu represented to the Babylonians isn't wholly clear, but the Bible writers defeated it in all kinds of creative ways (read our article on the name Leviathan for more details).
Marduk is mentioned by name only once in the Bible, but in a context that makes it very clear that the battle against Babylon was mostly a theological one. Via the prophet Jeremiah, YHWH proclaims concerning Babylon: "Babylon has been captured, Bel has been put to shame, Marduk has been shattered" (Jeremiah 50:2) and although a "nation has come against her out of the north" (50:3) and "the Lord has aroused the spirit of the Medes" (51:11), her destruction is because Jacob is YHWH's weapon of war (51:20), in whom is found no iniquity (50:20). The world is established by the wisdom of YHWH, the heavens are stretched out by His understanding, and it's His voice that sounds in the thunder (51:15-16).
🔼Marduk and Jesus
A detail that many of us are eager to forget is that Christianity was originally a Jewish sect, but "by the time of Jesus, all Judaism was Hellenistic Judaism" (Mark A. Chancey, Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus). The Body of Christ personifies the Temple of YHWH in Jerusalem, which ultimately derived from the tabernacle of Moses. Although the tabernacle derived from patterns shown to Moses on the mountain by YHWH (Exodus 25:40, Hebrews 8:5), it and the Ark were heavily influenced by the Egyptian culture Moses and Israel were raised in (Richard A. Gabriel The Military History of Ancient Israel). The temple of YHWH which Solomon built was heavily influenced by Phoenician imagery and culture (see our article on the name Hannibal for more details). Solomon's temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, but upon returning from exile, Zerubbabel and associates rebuilt it. The Temple of Zerubbabel, however, was decreed, designed and paid for in full by the royal treasury or king Cyrus of Persia (2 Chronicles 36:23, Ezra 6:1-5), and it was in turn thoroughly expanded according to the tastes of the Idumean-turned-Roman client-king Herod the Great in the first century AD.
The Old Testament we have today was doubtlessly composed from older sources (which in turn were greatly influenced by Sumer and Egypt), but redacted in Babylon and Persia, in the same way that the later Christian authors used the Old Testament to create the New.
Not all Jews returned from Babylon and Persia. Many volunteered to stay behind and created a huge and influential Jewish community, complete with thriving academies. Tradition has it that king Jehoiachin built the first one, and before Ezra became the famous returnee, he had ran his own academy close to that of Jehoiachin. But there were many more, and there was regular scholarly contact between the communities in Babylon and the re-established one in Jerusalem. In Roman times, both communities published their version of the Talmud, but the Babylonian Talmud is still the most widely studied today.
According to the Matthean gospel, the Babylonian Jews had figured out that the King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem long before anyone in Israel did (Matthew 2:1). Luke also tells the nativity story but famously speaks of shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night (Luke 2:8). For centuries, folklore has placed local shepherds and eastern wise men together around the crib, but obviously, the Lucan shepherds abiding in the field were the same Babylonian Jewish scholars of Matthew, whose efforts were maintaining the Babylonian Jewish community at large.
The message is pretty obvious: those who congratulate themselves with their seat close to the fire might end up missing the main point of the whole affair, while those who are out in the darkness keeping vigil have an excellent chance of noticing when things start to shift (Isaiah 9:2, Matthew 25:35-46, Luke 18:9).
🔼Etymology of the name Marduk
It's not clear where the name Marduk comes from but Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes in The Encyclopedia Of Religion, that it was "probably pronounced Marutuk" and "probably derived from amar Utu, meaning Bull Calf Of [The Sun God] Utu". In other words: it's not really important what it originally meant, it's much more important what it meant to the Hebrew authors, who made it a sport to slightly alter the names of famous people into telling nicknames (see for instance the names Nebuchadnezzar and Amraphel). The name Marutuk can be perfectly transliterated into Hebrew (מרתוך or מערטך or even מרתק) but they chose to spell it מרדך, and there are a few ways to interpret that:
- Our name might be meant as a combination of the prefix מ, meaning "place of" or "instrument of" plus an expression of a root רדך (rdk). Unfortunately, this root does not exist in the Hebrew of the Bible and there's no telling whether it existed and if it did, what it meant.
- It may be derived from the verb מרד (marad), meaning to be rebellious or to revolt (see the name Mered). The final ך (kaph) could be ascribed to a second person feminine (Babylon is a she) singular pronominal suffix, and the whole combination might mean You Rebel or Your Rebellion.
- It may be derived from the same final ך, meaning the feminine "your," plus the word מורד (morad), which comes from the verb ירד (yarad), meaning to go down or descend (see the names Jared and Jordan). Thus the name Marduk would mean Your Downfall.
- It may have as its core the verbs רדד (radad) or רדה (rada), which have to do with to beat down, subdue, or have dominion over (see the names Sepharad and Raddai). Thus our name would mean Your Subdual
- It may be meant as a combination of two biliteral elements, such as the adjective מר (mar), meaning strong or bitter (see the names Mary and Mara), and the adjective דך (dak), meaning crushed or oppressed:
The name Marduk carries quite a few separate meanings in Hebrew but they all converge on the same or similar message. It's pretty obvious that the Hebrew authors transliterated the name Marduk in such a way that it unequivocally conveyed their conclusion that Mardukan theology bitterly oppressed its adherers, would cause Babylon's downfall and subsequent enslavement.