Standing with Babylon

One nice thing about reading the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon together is that it lets us expand our mental geography of Zion into a full cartographic plane. Zion’s geography isn’t static. At times it’s surrounded on every side or held in captivity, at other times forming alliances, at times resisting and at times commanded not to resist its more powerful neighbors.

To the east lies Babylon, less a geographic place or the capital of a foreign power than a synonym for sexual license, food and drink and revelry to excess. But carnal and worldly Babylon is also cosmopolitan, sophisticated, multicultural and tolerant in its own way, at least after initial frictions have been dealt with. All in all, you can (like Daniel) lead a productive life while residing in Babylon as a member of a minority faith with peculiar habits, and even rise to serve the king honorably and well. You can’t stay, though. Eventually Zion has to return from exile, but the experience of exile in Babylon can be remarkably fruitful. You can learn useful things from its scholars and astrologers. Babylon is fun; the temptation is to stay when it’s time to depart and rebuild Zion. Don’t forget: Babylon is not Zion. It opposes Zion in some essential ways, and will periodically try to kill you.

To the west is Egypt, also a place of captivity, and also where you can (like Joseph) rise to high esteem in the service of Pharaoh. Egypt is hierarchical, conscious of tradition, and less welcoming to outsiders. Egypt tends to be more straitlaced and orderly compared to Babylon’s chaotic revelry. Unlike wanton Babylon, Egypt is concerned about propriety, although sometimes hypocritically. But Egypt can build things, from century-spanning building projects to a seven-year grain supply to sustain you when the rest of the world is starving. As a religious minority, you will never be entirely accepted in Egypt, but you can do well there for a long time, at least until things get out of hand. As with Babylon, you can’t stay in Egypt. At some point, Egypt too will try to kill you. Egypt is better as a distant ally than as a long-term home. Eventually your time in Egypt will run out and you will have to depart for Zion.

On this mental map, there are no neighbors to the north, only a distant threat: the kings of the north, Gog and Magog. You might ally with Babylon against Egypt, or with Egypt against Babylon, in order to buy yourself a little breathing room in a treacherous world, but there can be no alliance with Gog and Magog, always lurking over the horizon. Those carried off to the north never return, not because they’re living under an ice cap somewhere, but because they assimilate to a wickedness that is utterly incompatible with Zion.

And the south? That is the way of the wilderness, where you flee when every other option is exhausted. To the south lie the desert, the sea, and perhaps a distant promised land. Even the south has its hazards, as eventually Zion will have to emerge from obscurity, but the south gets you out of the duality of Egypt and Babylon for a time, and puts you far from Gog and Magog.

We have not fled into the desert, physically or metaphorically, in nearly two centuries. I wouldn’t mind if a moment like that comes again. I had a pretty good experience on trek, after all. I’ll hoist my child on my shoulders—metaphorically, my youngest is a bit beyond the hoisting age—and march off into the wilderness. But for now, our job is to serve honorably in Egypt or Babylon, like Joseph or Daniel, rather than fleeing into the desert like Lehi or Moses.

In some ways I’m more at home in Egypt. But if you haven’t noticed, Egypt has been having a real one lately. I mean, if you’ve decided to help organize Pharaoh’s granaries, great, that’s important work. But could you maybe tell Pharaoh and his magicians to get a grip? Because Egypt has gone from building pyramids to filling its own bakeries with frogs just to own the Babylonians, and it has the rest of us kind of freaked out about what it might do next.

I freely admit that Babylon has its issues. I don’t enjoy living in Babylon. I disagree with some of its values. But having left Egypt, I’m not going to start longing to return to its flesh pots. I don’t stand for Babylon, but if I have to choose, I’ll stand with Babylon as long as I have to.

Not any longer than that, though. If I hear the creaking of handcart wheels rolling in the night—metaphorically or otherwise—I can have my five-gallon bucket packed within an hour.

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