Friday, May 15th, 2020

An Aerial View of Manhattan
Skyscrapers, Audio Version

Does New York City have anything to do with the Book of Revelation?

New York City was originally named New Amsterdam. Manhattan Island, now the iconic sky-scraping heart of the city, was largely an unpopulated forest when it was purchased on May 24th, 1626. It was bought with some bartered seventeenth-century trade goods. The buyers were Dutch traders; the seller was Seyseys, chief of the Canarsee Amerindian Tribe. At that time, the Dutch estimated the value of their trade deal to be about sixty guilders. In economic terms, it’s possible a lopsided deal was struck. A novice realtor, Seyseys might have miscalculated a bit. He slightly underestimated the value of the rocky, then-forested island. Like many traders after him, Seyseys misjudged the net worth of his Manhattan holdings, and may have gotten ripped off.

In retrospect, many historical commentators have expressed amazement at the economic exploitation inherent in that initial trade. The urbanization of Manhattan Island was made possible by a massively disproportional deal. In that initial transatlantic deal, one trading partner exploited the naïveté of the other, because, well, they could. It was an intercultural economic injustice. 

In spite of their trading savvy, though, the Dutch were not able to keep control of Manhattan very long. Sovereignty over the island went back and forth between two imperial rivals, between Dutch and British authorities for several decades, until control was formally ceded to the British in November, 1674. All the while, construction projects on Manhattan Island and its surrounding environs proliferated as the European immigrant population grew. Geographically ideal as a port of trade, the British deemed the entire area a crucial imperial holding, and renamed it New York City. That name has stuck, in spite of another change of sovereignty and flag after the American revolution. As names go, though, another might fit the city even better — a much older name.

The Tower of Babel?

Nearly four hundred years have passed since the Dutch bartered their purchase of Manhattan. Over those four centuries, Manhattan caught and surpassed other world-class cities to claim the title of the world’s most important commercial center. That New York City both is in fact a global trade center and has a sky-scraping tower called the World Trade Center may matter much, by Revelation’s Reckoning. At the time the Book of Revelation was written and first heard, the de facto world trade center was indisputably the imperial capital city, that is, Rome. All roads led to Rome, by design. The wealth of the developed world was carried by soldiers, merchants, and slaves as tribute to Rome. Rome controlled the commerce of the entire Mediterranean World, and even beyond. Everywhere else was uncivilized hinterland, as far as the Romans were concerned. And if they could, they would take it someday, civilize it, and exploit it. 

However, in spite of its prominence, the name that the Book of Revelation uses for Rome is not Rome. Instead, Revelation refers to Rome with a code name. In Revelation, the code name for Rome is Babylon. And why does Revelation refer to Rome as Babylon? Rome is called Babylon because of how similarly Rome and Babylon behaved. In its monuments, conquests, and exploits, the Roman Empire resembled the earlier Babylonian Empire. Rome also recapitulated the worst of Babylon, especially in sieging Jerusalem and destroying God’s temple that stood there. 

Somehow though, Babylon reappears in the last days as a villainous vixen. While Babylon is repeatedly called “the Great City” in the Book of Revelation, it is also likened figuratively to a woman. The Romans depicted Roma as a female figure, resembling the Statue of Liberty. But in Revelation, Lady Babylon is always an exploitive seductress. She’s a woman of ill-repute, a harlot. And she lures the naïve until the end, until Christ’s appearance, the Parousia. Then Babylon is dealt her sudden and violent destruction. 

Lady Liberty

Is New York City a latter-day Babylon? In some ways, New York City fits Revelation’s description. The final great city Babylon is portrayed as exceedingly wealthy, as a massive maritime metropolis. But Babylon is even bigger than the Big Apple. Babylon represents a corrupt economic system and an entire commercial network of cities — a money-worshiping, laborer-exploiting, violence-dependent syndicate. Her/their ruin is sudden and fearsome. See Revelation 18:1-24. 

Do we need to be afraid? No and yes. It depends on your holdings. What is your source of security? In the end, the inhabitants of the whole world will experience unprecedented catastrophe and loss, not just those of one city. Money and assets won’t matter, at all. But God’s elect are assured that He is mighty to save, even while the foundations crumble. Cling to the security that only Christ can give. Everything else is destined to fall.

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