By the Waters of Babylon Questions and Answers
by Stephen Vincent Benét

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What is the meaning of the title of the story "By the Waters of Babylon," and how does it connect to the story?

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The title of the story is an allusion to Psalm 137 from the Bible.  

By the waters, the waters of Babylon
We sat down and wept,
and wept, for thee, Zion.

The passage is a lament by the Israelite people. At that time in history, they were in despair over their capture and removal from Jerusalem and the promised holy land. Even back then, Jerusalem was one of the world's leading civilizations. It was a center of learning and knowledge, and the people were seen as members of a great nation; however, all of that changed when the Babylonians came and conquered it all. Israel and Jerusalem had fallen from power. It was now the Babylonian empire that took the lead for learning and civilization. And like all great empires do, the Babylonian empire eventually fell from power.

The allusion connects to the story because the allusion is about a former great civilization that fell from glory. Benet's story is about a great civilization that also fell from glory. Despite New York, the Place of the Gods, being a hub of culture, technology, and learning, it was destroyed and removed from power. In the story, John stands on the banks of the Hudson. He is looking at what remains of a great civilization. That is eerily similar to what the people of Israel must have gone through as they stood by the waters of the great Babylonians and wept at the loss of their own greatness.

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The title comes from a passage in Psalms which reads:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

In the passage, Zion is a reference to Jerusalem, which had been the cultural center of a civilization that had vanished. The title gives the reader a first clue to the content of the story. The setting of Benet's story turns out to be New York City after it has been destroyed, along with civilization, during a great war.

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This citation is an allusion to a Biblical passage in the Old Testament, Psalm 137, in which the Israelites lament their being estranged from their homeland and taken into captivity in a hostile land. It is a lament of better times, lost forever:

By the waters, the waters of Babylon
We sat down and wept,
and wept, for thee, Zion.

By the Waters of Babylon” is also a  cautionary tale, with an anachronistic twist:

The title suggests that this pattern of two steps forward, three steps back, is an ancient one, endlessly repeated.....History is cyclical. Great nations rise and fall. Just as mighty Babylon fell, forever losing its secrets and greatness, so, too, might New York fall....This story is prophetic about nuclear and human destructiveness, and seems more possible today than it did when first published, eight years before the first nuclear bomb was exploded.

- http://www.enotes.com/by-waters-babylon-salem/by-waters-babylon

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