By Vicki Priest (c) 2014
[Update: If you’re interested in the newest Fallout game, I have a detailed (two-part) review here, Fallout 4. Sometimes Bigger Isn’t Better (Overview) and Fallout 4. Sometimes Bigger Isn’t Better (Story).]
- About Honest Hearts
- Psalm 137
- Stephen Vincent Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon”
- The Influence of Psalm 137 and the surmised influence of the By the Waters of Babylon story in Honest Hearts
About Honest Hearts
The Fallout video game series takes a player on dangerous adventures through various regions of the United States after a future nuclear war with China has taken place. The series is one of the more successful in the “role playing game” (RPG) genre, taking place in “post-apocalyptic” times (2161 and forward). “Honest Hearts” is a 2011 add-on to the Fallout New Vegas game of 2010, taking place in what is Zion National Park in the real world, year 2281. While it’s obvious that people died in the park due to the historic nuclear cataclysm, the park itself is mostly unscathed by this point in time.
There are two outside leaders, both Mormon and both from the recently destroyed “New Canaan,” who lead two neighboring tribes, the “Sorrows” and the “Dead Horses,” in Zion Canyon. However, these two leaders have wildly different backgrounds and, not surprisingly, their views on how to handle the invading “White Legs” tribe are miles apart. It is no secret that the White Legs want to kill the Zion Valley inhabitants, just as they destroyed New Canaan. But what will the player do? Aid Joshua Graham and the tribals that wish to stay in Zion by meeting the White Legs head on, or will you side with the more pacifist Daniel and help the Sorrows flee the valley for a new home?
The game puts the player in bit of a false dilemma by implying that you are either siding with the idea of vengeance through Joshua Graham, or taking your stand with Daniel against militaristic actions that kill innocents (Daniel uses this argument, but it’s absurd since the attackers are warriors only). It’s an odd and unrealistic dichotomy, which is acknowledged by the different possible game endings that have varying levels of regret expressed by Daniel; the tribals themselves saw it more clearly and realistically – they desired to not be killed and to stay in their home (defense of self and residence).
The vengeance aspect is pointed out, however, since it is included in the most memorable dialogue of Honest Hearts: the reciting by Joshua Graham parts of Psalm 137 from the Bible (Old Testament), referred to as “By the Waters (or Rivers) of Babylon,” and the subsequent conversation you have with him. Joshua is there to help the tribes defend themselves, since the White Legs are after the remaining New Canaanites (Joshua and Daniel), but he also wants revenge against Caesar. Fallout New Vegas sees the people of the Mojave Wasteland and area settlements fighting against the murderous and slaving Caesar and his invading army. Joshua used to be Caesar’s “right hand man,” but Caesar executed Joshua for losing a battle; obviously, and unbeknownst to Caesar at first, the execution via burning Joshua alive didn’t actually work. Joshua’s legendary name is the Burned Man.
Below is Psalm 137 rendered in the New King James translation. Zion is synonymous with Jerusalem, the City of David, but also refers to Mount Zion (or the Temple Mount). Mount Zion can also refer to the land of Israel. In Honest Hearts, Joshua Graham recites the King James Version, but only the verses indicated by highlighting.
1By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept
When we remembered Zion.
2 We hung our harps
Upon the willows in the midst of it.
3 For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song,
And those who plundered us requested mirth,
Saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song
In a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget its skill!
6 If I do not remember you,
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth—
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom
The day of Jerusalem,
Who said, “Raze it, raze it,
To its very foundation!”
8 O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed,
Happy the one who repays you as you have served us!
9 Happy the one who takes and dashes
Your little ones against the rock!
The ending is pretty grim sounding, is it not? The translated word for “little ones” can refer to any offspring, and thus they are expressing that their enemies, who killed them and took others as slaves far from home, should be left with no descendants. It is also figurative in that the Babylon area where they were living had no rocks for such deeds to be carried out.
The beginning of the last stanza is prophetic, saying “O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed.” There are other biblical passages referring to the destruction of Babylon or the daughter of Babylon. But while other biblical prophecies have come to pass, the total destruction of Babylon has not. However, there are two prophecies related to this Psalm/Israel’s captivity that have been fulfilled.
The first is that God remembered Edom for its hateful actions against Israel and destroyed them. Much more remarkably, though, as prophesied in the book of Isaiah (44:28-45:7) and Jeremiah (29:10), a named king would let the Israelites go after 70 years of captivity (the first wave of captives was taken to Babylon in 607 BC). This king was the Persian Cyrus II, and he overtook Babylon in 539 BC. Shortly thereafter the Israelites were not only allowed to go back to Jerusalem, but were even assisted in doing so. But, not all Israelites left Babylon, and in the 1st through 3rd centuries AD, many Jews returned to Babylon.
There is an unfulfilled prophecy concerning Babylon in Revelation chapter 17, and it is obvious from this and other verses in the Bible concerning Babylon that the name is also a term describing the mystery religions—false and satanic religions that have spread throughout the world—that shall be destroyed in the end times. It seems appropriate that the worldwide spread of Babylonian ideas and religions should be addressed as the daughter of Babylon. Historically, many interpreted Rome as the new Babylon, or descendant of Babylon, and in Fallout New Vegas there is the new Caesar accompanied by his military.
“By the Waters of Babylon” 1937
The Saturday Evening Post published Stephen Vincent Benét’s short post-apocalyptic story, “The Place of the Gods,” in its July 31, 1937, edition, but it soon became known as “By the Waters of Babylon” and was honored with the first entry in The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, 1943. It is popular today and can be found in a variety of sources. The story takes place is some future time–though seemingly not too far in the future–after New York City had been destroyed by bombing and lethal gaseous chemicals, and human survivors lived on in varying degrees of primitiveness in the surrounding countryside.
The gist of the story is as follows. The survivors, known as the Hill People and the Forest People, carve out a living after the destruction of civilization. They develop a tribal culture and religion, forbidding people to go to the City of the Gods and non-priests from going into other post-war structures. The central character, who we eventually discover is named John, narrates for us the story of his youth and his vision quest experiences that will lead him to becoming a man and a priest. His vision quest is to do the unlawful, to go to the City of the Gods. The chief priest, who is his own father, agrees to let him go.
John makes his way to the place of the Gods, which we discover is New York City, and is of course amazed. The heart of his experience comes from finding himself in the penthouse home of a highly educated and wealthy (unnamed) person. The apartment was not bombed and it was pretty much sealed, so rugs, paintings, books—even the man who had lived there—were preserved quite well. There were books in different languages, and all kinds of equipment that had lost its magic: “hot” and “cold” faucets, lighting fixtures that didn’t use wick or oil, a cooking area that didn’t use wood. Before he slept John used the fireplace, a place for fire but not for cooking, he correctly surmised.
While asleep he had an out-of-body experience (not a dream) where he saw the city as it had been, how far humans had gone in their knowledge and technology–“no part of the earth was safe from them” . . . . “but a little more, it seemed to me, and they would pull down the moon from the sky,”–and the actual attack on the city. After this he acknowledges that the “gods” had been only human. “Knowledge” is constantly referred to throughout the story, and it seems to be of the highest importance to John. Obtaining knowledge is the central theme of this story, but a part of that theme is the questioning of why and how a “good” like knowledge can lead to such a high-level “bad”– the virtual destruction of man.
Despite the destruction that “the gods” brought upon themselves, and his own self-warnings about his ancestor’s knowledge, John goes back home with the mind to tell his people the truth and lead them on the road to learning what the ancestors had learned. His father agrees, but tells John that the people must learn all this slowly. John concurs, and justifies his intentions by saying that “Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.” He doesn’t concern himself with thinking that war and killing are part of the human condition, whether a people have a lot or a little knowledge; the fact that humans nearly caused their own extinction at the height of their knowledge doesn’t deter him.
But why didn’t it? Earlier in the story John says, “If I went to the Place of the Gods, I would surely die, but, if I did not go, I could never be at peace with my spirit again.” This sentence is virtually a retelling of the Fall of Man in Genesis 2 and 3. God told man in Genesis 2:17, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Man was innocent prior to eating from that tree of knowledge; innocent in a judicial sense (they obeyed) and innocent in a moral sense (“they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed,” Genesis 2:25).
In Genesis 3, Satan (the snake) tempts Eve to eat of the tree, but when at first she rebuffs him, he shoots back, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5). So, being tempted in her desire for wisdom (her take on what being like God meant), Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and Adam—whom the command of God was given—went along with her.
Adam and Eve did not fall down dead, no. The death God spoke of was spiritual. In the story, John had continued his thought from that quoted earlier, saying, “It is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit, if one is a priest and the son of a priest.” This is a twisted view of God’s intention, and one that doesn’t seem too far removed from the thought of Eve; maybe if she just at that fruit a little bit slower . . . The story represents humanity, in its more innocent and holy state, wanting again what they desired in The Fall—to be like God.
The Influence of Psalm 137 and the surmised influence of the By the Waters of Babylon story in Honest Hearts
Vengeance, Righteous Wrath. Joshua Graham uses Psalm 137 and its relation to both biblical history and prophecy to justify fighting the invading White Legs tribe, which was influenced by, if not controlled by, the new Caesar. Historically, God saw to it that the real-life Edomites, who assisted the Babylonians in conquering Israel, were destroyed; the White Legs might be viewed in a similar vein, as helping the new Romans destroy the New Canaanites.
Joshua also uses Jesus Christ of the New Testament as a justifier, making the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament (NT) seem seamless:
“Happy are those who do the work of the Lord. Zion belongs to God and the people of God. It is a natural temple and monument to his glory. When our Lord entered the temple and found it polluted by money-changers and beasts, did he ask them to leave? Did he cry? Did he simply walk away? No. He drove them out. It is one thing to forgive a slap across my cheek, but an insult to the Lord requires… no, it demands correction. If they pollute the Lord’s temples on Earth, like Zion, who are we to stand by and let them continue?”
In the NT, Jesus twice went into the temple area and angrily scolded the cheats and money-changers there, zealously guarding the holy. And regarding the holy, Joshua states at one point, “Zion is a place, and a state of being, that has been lost to us several times in the past. Each loss is a new fall of man.”
The old places made taboo. As in By the Waters of Babylon, in Honest Hearts the innocent tribals made pre-war structures taboo (forbidden to enter). The tribals of the Zion Valley were the descendants of children who had survived the nuclear war and found their way into that unspoiled land. The tribals in By the Waters of Babylon were the descendants of those who escaped the cataclysmic destruction of New York City and its environs. But why make these pre-war places taboo?
Innocence lost, innocence kept. As discussed earlier, the Bible explains how humanity lost its innocence in Genesis chapters 2-3, universally referred to as “The Fall of Man.” Humans chose to disobey God so that they could be like Him, disregarding the consequences. In By the Waters of Babylon, humans almost caused their own complete destruction due to their intelligence combined with committing evil. Being like God doesn’t make humans do evil, of course, but makes humans guilty when they choose to do it. Not being God, weaker humans always seem to choose an evil action or path sooner or later; God recognizes evil but is incapable of it, whereas humans are more than capable.
In the Benét story, humans once again were choosing to be like “the gods,” despite the incredible destruction they knew resulted from such a choice by their ancestors. The story reflects not only human tendency, but the real-life history of many Jews who returned to live in Babylon–home of their pagan captors–instead of staying in their holy land. In Honest Hearts, the tribals continued on in their innocence, maintaining the taboo against going into pre-war buildings or going to the remains of civilization, the wasteland. The one Dead Horses companion you have for a time, Follows Chalk, either goes off into the wasteland (akin to going and staying in the decimated New York) and is never heard from again, or he stays with his tribe, helping them and maintaining both his life and innocence.
Joshua Graham said that each loss of “Zion” was a “new fall of man.” Zion wasn’t lost this round, and there was no new fall of man.
8 thoughts on “By the Waters of Babylon: Fallout’s Honest Hearts, S. Vincent Benet’s Short Story, and the Biblical Psalm”
This is an excellent look into the themes of honest heart. I personally found this DLC excellent but I preferred Old World Blues.
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Wow, thanks! It’s so nice to know that the article is even being found and read. And I agree, Old World Blues is an amazing DLC.
Wow, I’m really sad that 1.) It took me so long to play Honest Hearts after so many times through the game and 2.) that it took me even longer to find this article. As soon as I met Joshua my theology alarms started going off, and I was really interested at how the whole portrayal was going to go. Thanks for an extremely well written article! I honestly wasn’t expecting much when I searched on Google (It turns out that when you type ‘Christian’ with the name of a game you get flooded by parental advisory sites) but all of the background info here has been really great to read! Thanks!
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Wow, thank you so much, Louis, and I’m very glad to hear I could help in some way. I wish I had more time and energy to write more articles like this. I just don’t have a journalist’s mentality . . . And trying to find anything on games with Christian analysis is indeed very hard to find on the internet. So it’s so nice to know that someone like yourself found my article!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the analysis, well done.
What a good read! Joshua is my favorite character and actually made me a christian again. Loved the article. Good work!
Thank you so much, Victor! So nice, of course, to get positive feedback, but also very good to hear that you got back to faith.