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Carol Bakhos

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2021

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Nimrod: The Making of a Nemesis

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https://thetorah.com/article/nimrod-the-making-of-a-nemesis

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Carol Bakhos

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Nimrod: The Making of a Nemesis

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https://thetorah.com/article/nimrod-the-making-of-a-nemesis

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Nimrod: The Making of a Nemesis

Genesis describes Nimrod as a great hunter before YHWH and a powerful king. In late Second Temple writings, Nimrod is connected to the Tower of Babel and seen as a rebel against God. This negative view of Nimrod persisted through the centuries in the writings of the Church Fathers, and was further expanded in rabbinic midrash and medieval Islamic literature.

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Nimrod: The Making of a Nemesis

The Tower of Babel built under Nimrod's supervision. Attributed to Symon Novelanus, 1577-1627. Rijksmuseum

A Mighty Hunter Before YHWH

Nimrod is tucked away in the list of Noah’s descendants, where he is described as an especially mighty man:

בראשית י:ח וְכוּשׁ יָלַד אֶת נִמְרֹד הוּא הֵחֵל לִהְיוֹת גִּבֹּר בָּאָרֶץ.
Gen 10:8 Cush fathered Nimrod; he began to be mighty on earth.

The text then describes his legendary prowess as a hunter:

בראשית י:ט הוּא הָיָה גִבֹּר צַיִד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה עַל כֵּן יֵאָמַר כְּנִמְרֹד גִּבּוֹר צַיִד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה.
10:9 He was a mighty hunter before YHWH; therefore, it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before YHWH.”[1]

In its context, this description is complimentary. A comparison “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord,” signals greatness, as if one were to say, she serves like Serena, or sings like Sinatra.

Medieval peshat commentators already noted the positive description of Nimrod but debated its exact meaning. According to Rabbi Joseph Kara (11th cent.),[2] Nimrod was blessed by YHWH with great success:

...פירושו: על פי הדיבר. אף כאן פירושו: ממרום נגזר על נמרוד שתצלח רוח גבורה עליו ויתפוש נצחון בכל אשר ילך.
…Its meaning [in general] is, “through the intervention of God,” and that is its meaning here too: From above it was determined that Nimrod would be infused with a spirit of greatness, and he would succeed at whatever he did.

For this reason, Kara explains, later generations would bless their sons with the hope that they would be as successful as Nimrod in their military endeavors.[3]

R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167), trying to clarify what words לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה, “before YHWH” modify, suggests Nimrod would sacrifice the game he caught to YHWH:

וטעם לפני י"י – שהיה בונה מזבחות ומעלה אותם החיות עולות לשם. וזו דרך הפשט,
The meaning of “before YHWH” is that he would build altars and offer the game upon them as burnt offerings to the Lord, and this is the simple meaning.

Other peshat commentators are not as complimentary, but still see the phrase “before YHWH” as a good thing. Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, 1085–1158) interprets “before YHWH” to mean בעולם “in the world,”[4] while Radak (R. David Kimhi ca. 1160–1235) suggests it is just a way to express the superlative:

הוא הגדלת הגבורה, כי כן מנהג הלשון כשמגדיל הדבר סומך אותו לאל...
It is a way of emphasizing something’s greatness, for it is a common way of speaking when emphasizing something’s greatness, one connects it to God…[5]

However we understand the exact meaning of the phrase, the peshat commentators appear to agree that thrust is rather positive.

Nimrod the King

Nimrod is also described as an early king over many important cities in the land of Shinar, the biblical name for southern Iraq:

בראשית י:י וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר.
Gen 10:10 The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, and Akkad, all in the land of Shinar.

From there, Nimrod moves north into Assyria, building its most famous cities:

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, he went forth to Assyria and build Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah 10:12 and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.[6]

No ancient Mesopotamian king bore the name Nimrod,[7] and the description of one man building all these cities telescopes history: these cities were established at different periods, and some never existed at the same time. Putting aside these historical problems, it seems clear that the description of Nimrod’s achievements here are also complimentary. He is being credited with building the first major cities after the flood, whose fame could not fail to impress the readers.[8]

Nevertheless, from the Second Temple period and on, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim reception of this figure have been overwhelmingly critical. What prompted this negative evaluation of Nimrod?

Shinar and the Tower of Babel

The next chapter in Genesis opens with the story of the Tower of Babel that takes place in Shinar,[9] Nimrod’s native land:

בראשית יא:א וַיְהִי כָל הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים. יא:ב וַיְהִי בְּנָסְעָם מִקֶּדֶם וַיִּמְצְאוּ בִקְעָה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם.
Gen 11:1 Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. 11:2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.

The text here does not mention a leader, but who else could it be but Nimrod, king of Shinar, who was mentioned in the previous chapter? The story continues with the idea to build the city and tower “to make a name for themselves”:

בראשית יא:ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן נָפוּץ עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ.
Gen 11:4 And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name/renown for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

Again, who could this be but Nimrod, who established multiple cities in Shinar. Later, after YHWH confuses their languages and many of the people leave, we are told that this city was named Babylon (v. 9), the very city where Nimrod begins his reign.

A Mighty Man Making a Name

The desire of the people “to make a name (shem)” (bolded above) connects to an earlier verse in Genesis, which tells of divine beings mating with human women:

בראשית ו:ד הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְגַם אַחֲרֵי כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם.
Gen 6:4 It was then that the Nephilim (demigods) appeared on earth—and later too, whenever the divine beings cohabit with the daughters of men, who bear them offspring. These are the mighty ones of old, the men of name/renown.

The children born are described as gibborim (mighty ones), here referring to demigods with superhuman powers.[10] This would explain the legendary hunting prowess of Nimrod, who is also called gibbor, and his desire to build the tower to establish a shem. Furthermore, the very name Nimrod can be translated as “let us rebel,” from the root מ.ר.ד, meaning “rebel,” the perfect name for the man who led the initiative to build the Tower of Babel.

All these points of connection led ancient interpreters to reimagine Nimrod as the primeval enemy of YHWH.

Philo: Nimrod Represents the Desertion of God

The earliest source we have for this understanding of Nimrod is Philo of Alexandria (ca. 25 B.C.E.–50 C.E.), who discusses Nimrod in his work on the story of gibborim, which the LXX Greek rendered as “giants” (gigantes [γίγαντες]).[11] True to form, Philo read this story as an allegory,[12] with divine beings representing the spiritual and intellectual, and humans the material, and the product of such a union, like Nimrod, is someone who has deserted the life of philosophical perfection for a life of physical gratification.

Thus, he writes at the end of his essay (Περί Γιγάντων [De gigantibus], “On Giants,” §65–66)

It was Nimrod who began this desertion. For the lawgiver says, “he began to be a giant on the earth” (Gen 10:8), and his name means “desertion.”[13] To that most wretched of souls, it was not enough to stand neutral, but he went over to the enemy…[14]

Philo presents Nimrod the same way in the commentary he wrote later in life, Questions on Genesis (2.81-82).[15]

For in truth, he who is zealous for earthly and corruptible things always fights against and makes war on heavenly things and praiseworthy and wonderful natures, and builds walls and towers on earth against heaven.[16]

Philo reads the phrase “before the Lord” (Gen 10:9) negatively, “against the Lord.” This reflects the Greek word ἐναντίον, which can mean either,[17] rather than the Hebrew לִפְנֵי (though this does not stop Rashi from reading it this way too).

Finally, Philo adds another level of symbolism based on Nimrod being the son of Kush, who, as the father of the Ethiopians, was generally identified in Jewish interpretation as the progenitor of black people:

Thus the name (Nimrod son of Kush)[18] is a clear indication of the thing (signified), for it is to be translated as “Ethiopian,” and his skill is that of the hunter. Both of these are to be condemned and reprehended, the Ethiopian because pure evil has no participation in light, but follows night and darkness, while hunting is as far removed as possible from the rational nature. But he who is among beasts seeks to equal the bestial habits of animals through evil passions.

In describing blackness as a negative symbol, Philo follows an unfortunate Greco-Roman convention, found also here and there in rabbinic literature.[19] His negative view of hunting is par for the course for a philosopher who values mental accomplishments over physical prowess.[20]

Josephus: Nimrod’s Insurrection

Not long after Philo, Josephus Flavius (37 C.E.–ca. 100), another Jewish author writing in Greek, describes Nimrod as a power-hungry tyrant, who tricks the people into building the Tower of Babel as a way of cementing his control over them (Jewish Antiquities 1.109–121). According to Josephus, God wished for people to spread out (see Gen 1:28; 9:1) to avoid creating conflict over land, but the people preferred to stay together in the valley of Shinar, and believed that God’s advice was disingenuous, since God had proven to be their enemy by bringing the flood:

Ant. 1.113 They were incited to this insolent contempt of God by Nimrod, grandson of Ham, the son of Noah, an audacious man of doughty vigor. He persuaded them to attribute their prosperity not to God but to their own valor, and little by little transformed the state of affairs into a tyranny, holding that the only way to detach men from the fear of God was by making them continuously dependent upon his own power. He threatened to have his revenge on God if He wished to inundate the earth again; for he would build a tower higher than the water could reach and avenge the destruction of their forefathers.[21]

Here Josephus adds a political spin to Nimrod’s wickedness, believing that he only pretended to focus on fighting God, when all the while it was about aggrandizing himself and his own power.

This account appears also in the Talmud (b. Ḥagigah 53b and Chullin 89a), where the Tower of Babel is even referred to as the “Temple of Nimrod,” and in the 8th century C.E. Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 24, Nimrod takes center stage in the attempt to overcome God, and makes a speech to this effect.

The Giant Against God who Builds the Tower: Augustine

The expansions on Nimrod’s story in Philo and Josephus, easily accessible since they were written in Greek, in one way or another made their way to Christian interpreters as well. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), one of the most important early Christian theologians, offers a retelling of the Tower of Babel story that puts together these earlier interpretations of Nimrod (City of God 16.4):

For Babylon means Confusion. Whence we conclude that the giant Nimrod was its founder, as had been hinted a little before, where Scripture, in speaking of him, says that the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon, that is, Babylon had a supremacy over the other cities as the metropolis and royal residence; although it did not rise to the grand dimensions designed by its proud and impious founder.

The plan was to make it so high that it should reach the sky… But what did these vain and presumptuous men intend? How did they expect to raise this lofty mass against God, when they had built it above all the mountains and the clouds of the earth's atmosphere? What injury could any spiritual or material elevation do to God?

…[T]his giant is said to have been a "hunter against the Lord." This has been misunderstood by some through the ambiguity of the Greek word, and they have translated it, not "against the Lord," but "before the Lord;" for ἐναντίον means both "before" and "against."… And what is meant by the term "hunter" but deceiver, oppressor, and destroyer of the animals of the earth?[22]

Thus the wicked Nimrod, though he does not appear as such in the Bible, makes its way into Christian biblical historiography. But the imagery of the wicked Nimrod did not end with just rebelling against God and building the Tower of Babel. The rabbis find more sins to pile upon him.

Nimrod Throws Abraham into the Fire: Rabbinic Midrash

According to the Bible, Abraham grows up in a city named Ur,[23] in the region of Shinar. The word Ur means “fire” in Hebrew, and Biblical Antiquities[24] and the rabbis read Genesis 15:7— אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים “I am YHWH who took you out of Ur of the Chaldees”—in light of Daniel 3, in which God rescues three young men who refuse to worship idols from Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. The Biblical Antiquities and the rabbis thus claimed that God saved Abraham from a similar fate.[25] While Biblical Antiquities names Joktan as the person who throws Abraham into the fire,[26] for the rabbis, it was Nimrod.

One of the earliest versions of this account appears in Genesis Rabbah 38,[27] which tells how after Abraham smashes his father’s idols and humorously pretends they smashed each other in a fight, his father turns him over to the king:

נסתיה ומסרתיה לנמרוד, אמר ליה נסגוד לנורא, אמר ליה נסגוד למייא דמטפין לנורא, אמר ליה ונסגוד למיא, אמר ליה נסגוד לענני דטעני מיא...
He (Terah) took him and handed him over to Nimrod. [Nimrod] said to him: “Worship the fire.” [Abraham] responded: “Let us worship water, that puts out fire.” [Nimrod] said: “So worship the water.” [Abraham] responded: “Let us worship the clouds, which hold the water.”…

This continues for a while until Nimrod too has had enough:

אמר ליה מלין את משתעי לא נסגוד אלא לאור הריני משליכך בו ויבוא אלהיך שאתה משתחוה לו ויצילך ממנו,
You are just saying words. We will worship only the fire, and I will throw you into it, and let your God, to whom you bow, come and save you from it.[28]

This, of course, God does, showing Nimrod who is the greater power and the futility of Nimrod’s fire worship.[29]

Nimrod is King Amraphal: Babylonian Talmud

Some rabbis further identify Nimrod with אַמְרָפֶל מֶלֶךְ שִׁנְעָר, Amraphel king of Shinar, one of the four kings who took Lot prisoner, and against whom Abraham went to war (Gen 14). As Nimrod is already identified as king of Shinar, the rabbis concluded that this was an alternative name or a throne name[30] (b. Eruvin 53a):

ויהי בימי אמרפל מלך שנער רב ושמואל חד אמ' נמרוד שמו ולמה נקרא שמו אמרפל שאמר והפיל את אברהם אבינו לתוך כבשן האש וחד אמ' אמרפל שמו ולמה נקרא שמו נמרוד שהמריד את כל העולם כולו במלכותו עליו
“And it was in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar” (Gen 14:1)—Rav and Samuel; one of them said: “His name was Nimrod, and why did they call him Amraphel? Because he spoke (amar) and dropped (hippil) our father Abraham into the fiery furnace.” The other said: “His name was Amraphel, and why did they call him Nimrod, because he caused the whole world to rebel (himrid) in his kingship against Him (God).”[31]

In this retelling of Genesis, Abraham defeats Nimrod twice: Once at the fiery furnace and again in battle.

Islamic Interpretation

Although the Quran does not refer to the Tower of Babel or Nimrod’s role, extraquranic sources, such as the History of the Prophets and Patriarchs of Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) [32] and the Tales of the Prophets (qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ) of Abū Iṣḥāq Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm al-Thaʿlabī (d. 1035),[33] retell it in detail. For example, al-Thaʿlabī writes:

When Nimrod the tyrant argued with Abraham about his Lord, he said to himself, “If what Abraham says is true, I shall not rest until I know who resides in Heaven.” So he built a tall tower in Babylon, desiring to climb from it into Heaven in order to look at the god of Abraham, as he imagined. According to Ibn ‘Abbās and Wahb the tower reached five thousand cubits [approx. 1.5 miles] into the sky, while Muqātil and Ka‘b said it was two parasangs [approx. 7.45 miles][34] tall.[35]

In Islamic literature, Nimrod (Arabic Namrūd), like Pharaoh, symbolizes the boastful, arrogant ruler. He is a tyrant, a giant (Arabic jabbār; Hebrew gibbor), and an unrelenting force of evil that keeps humanity from righteousness.

While searching out Abraham, Nimrod slays all first-born males, which is reminiscent of the Jewish midrash about Pharaoh looking for Moses,[36] and Herod’s search for baby Jesus in Matthew (2:8–18). Nimrod dies from a gnat entering his nostril and gnawing on his brain, in some renditions for four hundred years, which parallels the well-known story of the demise of Titus in the Talmud (b. Gittin 56b).[37]

The story of Abraham’s debate with Nimrod is especially popular among the Islamic sources. Kisāʾī’s rendition of this tale is elaborate and one of the most captivating tales among the collections. When his mother delivered him at birth, “a thin serpent came out of her womb and entered the boy’s nose.” When she took him into the wilderness to a shepherd to raise him, even the cattle would not go near the boy. The “black, flat-nosed boy”[38] was suckled by a tigress.

When he grew up, he became a highway robber, plundered towns and cities, stole from people and took women captive. Iblis (Satan) teaches him the sciences of sorcery and soothsaying; he deems himself the creator of all and expects humans to worship him. He distributes food to his subjects who confess his supremacy over the God of Abraham. Those who do not worship him suffer the consequences. Nimrod asks Abraham to follow his religion and worship him, but Abraham refuses, thus setting off a series of contests between Nimrod and Abraham.[39]

Can Nimrod Be Saved?

As we’ve seen, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sources all present Nimrod as an enemy of God. Yet not all treatments of Nimrod are negative. In Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 24, for instance, Nimrod inherits the coats made for Adam and Eve, which give him regal status and omnipotence.[40]

Similarly, in some Islamic traditions quoted in Thaʿlabī’s collection, Nimrod recognizes God’s greatness after Abraham succeeds in walking through the fire into which he was cast; in other traditions, Abraham convinces Nimrod through argument. In one version, Nimrod announces his desire to sacrifice four thousand cows to God. Abraham tells him that God will not accept his offering unless he abandons his religion, which Nimrod claims he cannot do. He nonetheless slaughters the cattle, forbids anyone to harm Abraham and proclaims the greatness of Abraham’s god.

In modern times, reclaiming Nimrod as a heroic character has been especially important in African American circles, who connect to this legend of the son of African Kush, and among Jews of Mandatory Palestine participating in the Canaanism movement of the 40’s.[41]

Narrative embellishments and adaptations are part and parcel of how stories maintain their cultural purchase and staying power throughout the centuries. This is certainly the case when taking into account the vast literary circulatory system of the Near East that includes not only accounts of biblical and qurʾānic heroes, but also their antagonists.

This examination of the elements that contributed to the molding of Nimrod’s character obligates us to consider how we adapt, appropriate, and subvert his legacy. Considering how the Torah itself, as acknowledged by peshat commentators, portrays Nimrod positively, we can appreciate the continuity between the modern retellings of Nimrod as a heroic character, and the Bible’s first great king and hunter “before YHWH.” [42]

Published

October 8, 2021

|

Last Updated

December 6, 2021

Footnotes

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Prof. Carol Bakhos is Professor of Late Antique Judaism, Director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Religion, and Chair of the Study of Religion Interdisciplinary Program. She received her M.A. in Theological Studies from Harvard, and her Ph.D. in rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is author of Ancient Judaism in its Hellenistic Context (Brill 2005), Ishmael on the Border: Rabbinic Portrayals of the First Arab (SUNY 2006), winner of a Koret Foundation Award, and most recently, The Family of Abraham: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Interpretations (Harvard University Press, 2014), which was translated into Turkish. She edited Current Trends in the Study of Midrash (Brill 2006), and co-edited The Talmud in its Iranian Context (with Rahim Shayegan, Mohr Siebeck 2010), Islam and its Past: Jahiliyya and Late Antiquity in Early Muslim Souces (with Michael Cook, Oxford 2017), and Das jüdische Mittelalter (with Gerhard Langer, Kohlhammer 2020). She is currently working on the second volume of the Posen Jewish Anthology of Culture and Civilization.