man standing off to the side looking down at a marble bust of another man laying atop a pile of broken columns

By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét
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What event determines that John will one day be a priest in "By the Waters of Babylon"? How does John's life change after this event?  

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John becomes a priest when he touches the metal without dying.

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where we are considered gods.  The people are fascinated and afraid of these gods, but scavenge their former dwellings for metals and other valuables.  Most people feel that if they touch these metals they will die.  The priest class can touch them though.

John’s father is a priest.  One day he tests John to see if he has the ability to be a priest like his father.

Then my father came out with the metal—good, strong piece. He looked at me with both eyes but I had not run away. He gave me the metal to hold—I took it and did not die. So he knew that I was truly his son and would be a priest in my time. 

John is a special boy.  He has a vision of the place of the gods, and feels strongly enough about it that he has to follow it.  John is afraid, but determined.  He has to face many dangers on the way and does not know what he will find when he gets there.

John ends up in a place called newyork.  He sees many dead gods, and comes to a realization.  He returns home and tells his father what he found.

I said, "Father, they were men! I have been in the Place of the Gods and seen it! Now slay me, if it is the law—but still I know they were men."

John thought he was going to the place of the gods.  Instead, he went to New York City.

The story is a study of how we may misunderstand the past, and how we fear what we do not know.  The people of old did something that destroyed themselves.  That is probably why touching some of their stuff was deadly.  

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