Nimrod, Mighty Hunter and King - Who Was He?
Following the great flood, which destroys all of humanity except the family of Noah, Genesis 10 presents a family tree in the form of a branched or segmented genealogy, tracing the 70 male descendants of Noah’s three sons, Japheth, Ham and Shem. Many of the names of these descendants are names of nations, tribes, lands and cities, known to us from elsewhere in the Bible and from extra-biblical sources: Yavan (Greece), Madai (Medea), Ashkenaz (not Germany, but perhaps the Scythians, a nomadic steppe people north of the Caspian Sea), Cush (Nubia), Mizraim (Egypt), Canaan and so forth. Accordingly, scholars refer to this chapter as the “Table of Nations.”
Generally speaking, the descendants of Japheth mostly represent nations and lands that are situated northeast, north and northwest of the Land of Israel, the descendants of Ham represent nations that are situated to its south (and include Canaan itself), while the descendants of Shem are mostly situated to the east of the Land of Israel—making the Land of Israel into “the center of the world.”
The geographical and ethnic focus of the list is accentuated in the closing verse of each section, and the chapter ends with:
בראשית י:לב אֵלֶּה מִשְׁפְּחֹת בְּנֵי נֹחַ לְתוֹלְדֹתָם בְּגוֹיֵהֶם וּמֵאֵלֶּה נִפְרְדוּ הַגּוֹיִם בָּאָרֶץ אַחַר הַמַּבּוּל.
Gen 10:32 These are the groupings of Noah's descendants, according to their origins, by their nations; and from these the nations branched out over the earth after the Flood.
The picture that emerges, uniquely in the ancient world, is of all of humanity as a single extended family. Many scholars would assign its core to the Priestly source of the Pentateuch due to its language and literary style, and the function it serves in the primeval narrative.
Nimrod the Hunter: A Digression from the Nations List
The Table of Nations has two digressions that appear to be supplements. One is brief— v. 19, which the NJPS translation puts in parentheses—and outlines the borders of Canaan. The other is much more extensive, comprised of five verses about Nimrod (8–12), beginning with:
בראשית י:ח וְכוּשׁ יָלַד אֶת נִמְרֹד הוּא הֵחֵל לִהְיוֹת גִּבֹּר בָּאָרֶץ.
Gen 10:8 And Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty man on earth.
A number of phrases in the passage are difficult to interpret.
גִּבֹּר /gibbōr—The noun גִּבֹּר could mean anything from “giant” (so translated in the Septuagint) to “hero” to “mighty man/warrior” to “champion” to “man of power” to “potentate.”
בָּאָרֶץ/baʾareṣ—This could be translated “on earth,” giving Nimrod’s might universal significance, or “in the land,” in the sense of his country, making him a local hero.
Beginning to be Mighty—Verse 8 tells us that Nimrod הֵחֵל לִהְיוֹת גִּבֹּר בָּאָרֶץ. The word החל means “began,” but “he began to be mighty” makes little sense in this context. The NRSV translates “he was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior,” suggesting a role for him similar to Jabal, Jubal and Tubal-cain, “fathers” of all herders, musicians and metalworkers in Genesis 4:20–22, namely the originators of these professions.
The idea of his being “the founder” of some profession works even better with the opening of the next verse, which describes him as a mighty hunter, perhaps making him the first hunter.
בראשית י:ט הוּא הָיָה גִבֹּר צַיִד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה עַל כֵּן יֵאָמַר כְּנִמְרֹד גִּבּוֹר צַיִד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה.
Gen 10:9 He was a mighty hunter before YHWH; therefore it is said: “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before YHWH.”
This Nimrod, the “mighty hunter before YHWH” is never mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. The anecdote then shifts from describing Nimrod as hunter to king.
Nimrod’s Kingdom Begins in Southern Mesopotamia
Verse 10 describes Nimrod establishing his kingdom in southern Mesopotamia:
בראשית י:י וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר.
Gen 10:10 The beginning of his kingdom was Babylon and Erech and Accad and Calneh in the land of Shinʿar.
The land of Shinʿar is mentioned seven other times in the Bible. In Genesis, the tower of Babel was built in “a valley in the land of Shinʿar” (Gen 11:2), and Shinʿar is the home of King Amraphel in Genesis 14:1, 9. The name Shinʿar refers to southern Mesopotamia, more or less equivalent to the Mesopotamian “Sumer and Akkad,” in which (almost) all the cities listed are found.
Babylon is the capital of the empire which would eventually destroy Judah; it is in southern Mesopotamia.
Accad is mentioned in the Bible only here. It refers to the city of Akkad (Sumerian Agade), which was capital of the Sargonic dynasty’s empire in the late 24th to early 21st centuries B.C.E. The ancient Semitic language Akkadian is named after this city.
Erech is also mentioned only here, although “Erchevites,” are listed together with the Babylonians, Susanites and Elamites, in an Aramaic letter quoted in Ezra 4:9. This likely refers to the well-known city of Uruk, one of the oldest and most prominent of the Sumerian cities, fortified by none other than the legendary Gilgamesh.
The location of Calneh is a mystery. A city named Calneh is mentioned in Amos 6:2; in Isaiah 10:9 it is spelled כַּלְנוֹ, “Calno.” These texts, however, refer to a place in northern Syria rather than southern Mesopotamia. A tradition preserved in the Babylonian Talmud Yoma 10a identifies Calneh with “Nopher Ninphi,” perhaps referring to Nippur, about half-way between Uruk and Babylon; this would work well here.
In 1944, William Foxwell Albright suggested that the MT vocalization וְכַלְנֵה should be emended to וְכֻלַנָה, “and they were all.” The verse would then read “Babylon and Erech and Accad, and they were all in the land of Shinʿar.” Many, but not all, scholars and translators have accepted this attractive emendation. Since there is no agreed identification for “Calneh,” this proposal may be correct.
Nimrod Goes North
Verses 11–12 then describe Nimrod moving from the region of Shinʿar to northern Mesopotamia:
בראשית י:יא מִן הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא יָצָא אַשּׁוּר וַיִּבֶן אֶת נִינְוֵה וְאֶת רְחֹבֹת עִיר וְאֶת כָּלַח. י:יב וְאֶת רֶסֶן בֵּין נִינְוֵה וּבֵין כָּלַח הִוא הָעִיר הַגְּדֹלָה.
Gen 10:11 From that land (=Shinʿar), he [Nimrod] went forth to Assyria and built Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah 10:12 and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.
Ashur could refer to the ancient city (modern Qal'at Sherqat in northern Iraq) that served as the original capital of the Assyrian empire. Nevertheless, this city is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, and it seems more likely that this term is parallel to “the land of Shinʿar” in the preceding verse, and refers to the land of Assyria in general.
Nineveh was the last, and best-known, capital of Assyria, from about 700 B.C.E. to its destruction in 612. It is mentioned multiple times in the Bible.
Rehoboth-Ir remains a mystery. The name means something like “plazas of the city.” There are several places called “Rehob,” “Rehoboth” and the like in the Bible, but no such place is known in Assyria.
Calah (Kalḫu in Assyrian), near today’s Mosul in northern Iraq, was the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 B.C.E.) until about 706.
Resen may be a reference to a city that served as the capital of Assyria for a very brief time, during the reign of Sargon II, who ruled from 722 to 705, and who destroyed Samaria. Sargon II built his own capital, called Dur-Šarrukin, “Fortress of Sargon,” present day Khorsabad, near a place called Res-ini, modern Ras al-ʿAin, in the same region. The late Victor Avigdor Hurowitz suggested that this was none other than “Resen.”
It is unclear what the Great City refers to. The syntax suggests Resen, but as Jonah 1:2; 3:2-3; 4:11 suggest, from the biblical perspective, Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire at the height of its power, was truly “the great city.”
In sum, verses 8–12 tell the story of a mighty hunter-hero-king, who began his reign in the ancient great cities of southern Mesopotamia, and continued from there to the great cities of Assyria, in northern Mesopotamia.
The Dissonance between the Nimrod Passage and Its Context
The Nimrod passage interrupts the genealogy of Ham, which continues in verse 12. Moreover, the verses seem to diverge from the structure of the larger genealogical list: it focuses on one individual and the cities he founded, not on the sons he begat.
Finally, the geographic picture it presents is problematic. As noted, Shinʿar is in southern Mesopotamia and Ashur in northern Mesopotamia, all in “Shemitic” territory. Cush, however, ostensibly Nimrod’s father, like other descendants of Ham, represents the well-known land of Kush, also known as Nubia, the Septuagint’s “Ethiopia,” roughly today’s Sudan. How are we to make sense of this?
Critical scholarship is almost unanimous in the assessment that verses 8–12 were taken from a different source than the preceding and following verses. Most scholars would assign verses 1–7 and 13–32 to the Priestly school, and verses 8–12 to the J source.
This suggests that we may explain the Nimrod narrative independently of the surrounding Table of Nations. This leaves us with two questions: What was its original meaning, and why was it linked to the genealogy of Cush?
Why Is a Cushite in Mesopotamia?
There are three possible explanations for the connection between Nimrod and Cush.
1. A Cushite in Mesopotamia
Some argue that the Nimrod the hunter figure indeed has a Cushite/Nubian background, and they try to make the biblical text fit that interpretation in some way.
2. Artificial Connection
It is possible that Nimrod originally had nothing to do with Cush but that the scribe who inserted this J text into P, or a later scribe, added him as Cush’s son to anchor the Nimrod story to the larger context of “begats.”
3. Crossing Cushes
A third option interprets the Cush in verse 8, Nimrod’s father, not as Nubia, but as a place in Mesopotamia. For instance, in his classic treatment of the subject, Ephraim A. Speiser identified Nimrod’s Cush with the Iranian people that we call the Kassites, who ruled Babylonia from the 16th to the 12th centuries B.C.E. According to this, whoever inserted the J tradition into its present place mistakenly conflated the two.
This final option, i.e., a Mesopotamian Cush, is embraced by most scholars and is likely correct.
We know of no ancient Mesopotamian figure, mythic or historical, named Nimrod. Thus, scholars have struggled to identify who the biblical authors are describing.
The cities that Nimrod “founds” do not point to any historical period; some of these cities did not even exist at the same time. Uruk was one of the oldest cities in the world and remained an important place throughout antiquity. Akkad, on the other hand, was founded in the 24th century, and destroyed in the 21st. Calah and Nineveh only rose to prominence in the 9th century and were destroyed in the late 7th, and Dur-Šarrukin was even shorter-lived, thriving only a handful of years in the 8th century.
Thus, some scholars have suggested that Nimrod is based on a legendary god or demigod, such as the Sumerian gods Ninurta or Nergal or the Babylonian Marduk—all of whom were renowned as great hunters—which the biblical version humanized. Others have equated Nimrod with legendary Mesopotamian heroes such as Gilgamesh. Speiser, however, correctly notes that despite the epic aspects of the biblical story, there is no textual evidence of Nimrod’s being anything other than mortal.
I suggest that instead of trying to explain all the details of these verses, we consider the larger picture of a Mesopotamian ruler that the biblical passage is trying to convey. For this, we need to look back to a very ancient Mesopotamian figure, as far back as the 23rd century B.C.E.
The King of Kish
The mid-third millennium B.C.E. was a time of great change in Mesopotamia. After several centuries of rivalry between various Sumerian city-states such as Ur, Uruk, Lagash and Umma, the rulers of the city of Kish managed to establish supremacy over much of southern Mesopotamia. This was the first time one Sumerian city succeeded in doing this.
In successive generations, the title “King of Kish” (šar-kiššati) would come to mean a divinely authorized ruler over all of Sumer and would be claimed at different times by the rulers of various cities. Use of the title “King of Kish” implied being victorious at war, a righteous judge and a builder of cities. Kish, I would argue, is the basis of the Cush of the Nimrod passage (v. 8).
The First Semitic-Speaking Emperor
Legend has it that Sargon, the man who would become what some would call history’s first emperor, was born in the town of Azipiranu on the Euphrates. At birth, his priestess mother hid him in a basket of rushes, which she then set afloat on the river. The basket floated to Kish, where he was adopted by Aqqi the gardener, eventually becoming cup-bearer to Urzababa, king of Kish.
Somehow, he managed to become king and expanded his rule over all of southern Mesopotamia, pushing north to conquer Mari, Ebla, Ashur and Nineveh, and even reaching Anatolia and the Mediterranean. At some point, he moved his capital to the previously unknown city of Akkad (its location is unknown), adding the title “King of Sumer and Akkad” to his previous designation “King of Kish.”
We do not know this person’s birth-name, but as king, he adopted the throne-name Šarru-kîn, which, in the Eastern-Semitic language that came to be known as “Akkadian,” means “the true (or legitimate) King,” indicating that some people doubted his legitimacy. In English, he is known as “Sargon,” following the conventional “biblical” spelling.
Sargon was the first known Semitic-speaking Mesopotamian ruler to adapt the Sumerian cuneiform script to his own language, and he reigned over a vast territory for 56 years.
Nimrod’s depiction is based on Sargon. Both Nimrod and Sargon began their reigns in Sumer/Shinʿar, building Akkad and Babylon and continuing north to Assyria. Both were credited with extraordinary prowess. Both were considered to be the first postdiluvians to wield royal power. Thus, Sargon is likely the figure behind Nimrod, though as we will see, he has been amalgamated with his grandson, Naram-Sin.
Naram-Sin: Sargon’s Grandson
Sargon was succeeded by his sons Rimush and Manishtushu and then by Manishtushu’s son Naram-Sin. Naram-Sin ruled for 36 years. He survived a rebellion led by the city of Kish and then restored the empire. Naram-Sin, besides appointing himself the new deity of the city of Akkad (an act of heresy that was later seen as the cause of the empire’s downfall), restructured the bureaucracy, economy and defenses of the kingdom and was known as a patron of the arts. He was also the first to adopt the title šarru kibrâtim arbaʾim, “King of the four corners of the Earth.”
Naram-Sin was succeeded by his son Shar-kali-shari, and during his reign the empire fell apart. A few additional Akkadian rulers are known, but they were no longer powerful emperors, and the city of Akkad was eventually abandoned and lost.
By the time the Bible was written, the kingdom of Akkad had been gone for more than a millennium, so how did this amalgamated character of Nimrod enter the Bible?
Sargon and Naram-Sin in Later Historiography
We know very little about the historical Sargon or Naram-Sin, but to the Mesopotamian literati of the Late Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian periods, the age of Sargon and Naram-Sin was one of the important stages in human history. According to the Sumerian King List, after the flood, kingship came down from heaven and was granted to the city of Kish.
Over a thousand years after the Akkadian empire collapsed, the Neo-Assyrian kings used Sargon’s royal title of šar-kiššati, taking it to mean, quite literally, “King of the Universe.” Most strikingly, Sargon’s Neo-Assyrian namesake, Sargon II, had his full title, “the Great King, the Mighty King, King of the Universe (šar-kiššati), King of Assyria, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad” inscribed on numerous inscriptions all over his royal palaces.
In short, to people of the second and first millennia B.C.E., the great myths and legends of the past—tales of the Flood, of Etana the shepherd, the struggle between Agga of Kish and Gilgamesh of Uruk and the ascension of Sargon and Naram-Sin—were important history. The same was true for the Canaanites and the Israelites living in the second and first millennia B.C.E. at the other end of the Fertile Crescent.
Sargon in the Levant
Although our knowledge of the West Semitic versions of the primeval history are extremely limited, it is clear from the few sources we do have (the Bible included) that Western and Eastern Semitic (i.e., Mesopotamian) traditions shared many common elements. This similarity was due, initially, to the common origin of all Semitic peoples. During later periods, the different versions would be occasionally updated through continuous contact between Mesopotamia and the Levant.
Hittite versions of the Sargon and Naram-Sin accounts have been found in Anatolia. Increasing Assyrian and Babylonian influence and eventually domination of Syria and Israel during the ninth through sixth centuries would have influenced the written biblical version of the story.
The ancient Hebrews, like their Mesopotamian counterparts, probably had their own version of the bringing down of kingship after the flood. At some early age, stories of the Great King, Šarru-kin of Kish, who ruled Shinʿar and Akkad and even conquered Assyria and her cities, reached the Levant, as proven by the version found at El-Amarna (Egypt).
Apparently, time and distance blended the names and deeds of Sargon and his almost as famous grandson Naram-Sin, whose name was corrupted in the biblical account from Naram to Nimrod. The author of the J source may very well have known a longer, epic poem, which he condensed. Israelite tradition made the hero “a mighty hunter before YHWH,” but retained his role as the original human monarch.
A Neo-Assyrian Period Updating
The Hebrew Nimrod tradition may have indeed been updated by the addition of cities like Calah and Resen, ruled by the more recent Sargon, the second Assyrian king to take that name. The Assyrian monarch might have even chosen this throne name to use the comparison for propaganda purposes.
The Nimrod tradition is known by the eighth century Judahite prophet Micah, who referred to “the Land of Nimrod” when predicting the future destruction of Assyria.
מיכה ה:ה וְרָעוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ אַשּׁוּר בַּחֶרֶב וְאֶת אֶרֶץ נִמְרֹד בִּפְתָחֶיהָ וְהִצִּיל מֵאַשּׁוּר כִּי יָבוֹא בְאַרְצֵנוּ וְכִי יִדְרֹךְ בִּגְבוּלֵנוּ.
Mic 5:5 Who will shepherd Assyria’s land with swords, the land of Nimrod in its gates. Thus he will deliver us from Assyria, should it invade our land, and should it trample our country.
No other prophet, however, uses this designation.
The Loss of Nimrod’s Story
The compilers of the “Table of Nations” included Nimrod as one of the typological seventy descendants of Noah. Later Jewish tradition, noting the fact that Shinʿar appears both in relation to Nimrod and in the Tower of Babel story, makes Nimrod the builder of the tower and understands him as the archetypical evil king. His wickedness was understood to inhere in his very name, derived from the verb מרד, “to rebel.” Instead of a great hunter before YHWH, he becomes the ultimate rebel against God.
The biblical Nimrod, however, is neither a wicked king, nor even a character unique to Israelite historiography. Instead, he is the composite Hebrew equivalent of the Sargonic dynasty’s two most famous Kings of Kish: Sargon, the first Semitic emperor, and his grandson Naram-Sin. The later editors of the Book of Genesis dropped much of the story and mistakenly identified the Mesopotamian Kish with the Hamitic Cush. The Nimrod tradition was thus lost, save for five verses in Genesis 10.
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October 20, 2020
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Prof. Yigal Levin is associate professor at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University. He received his Ph.D. in Land of Israel Studies from Bar Ilan University. Specializing in historical geography and in biblical genealogies, Levin is the author of The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah: 2 Chronicles 10-36 and co-editor of War and Peace in Jewish Tradition from Biblical Times to the Present.
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