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 John's future as a priest in "By the Waters of Babylon" and how does it change his life?

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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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Which event determines that John will one day be a priest? How does John's life change after this event? 

The event that determines John's readiness to become a priest is when John doesn't die when he holds the metal that his father hands him.  

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.

Holding onto a piece of metal and not dying is not the only prerequisite to become a priest. The first thing that is necessary to become a priest is to be the son of a priest. John tells readers that he is the son of a priest in paragraph two. Being the son of a priest gives John the privilege of accompanying his father to the Dead Places to search for metal. Being the son of a priest is not good enough, though. John has to be brave enough to hold the metal in the first place. He tells readers that his brothers were too scared, so they will never become priests.

Once John is identified as a future priest, he receives special treatment and begins special training. He gets the best cuts of meat to eat, and he gets the best spot around the fire. John is also allowed to search for metal by himself. Additionally, John receives training in basic first aid.  

l was taught how to stop the running of blood from a wound and many secrets.

Lastly, John is taught how to read and write. 

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