Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire from 705 to 612 B.C.E., is well-known not only because of its important role in ancient history but also because of its “press.” The city and the empire for which it stands feature prominently in entertaining biblical stories such as Jonah, and major museums around the world proudly display larger-than-life Assyrian sculpture, feeding our knowledge—and imagination—about this ancient foe of biblical Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom).
What do we know about the history of Nineveh?
Perhaps founded as early as 6000 B.C.E., Nineveh was located on the Tigris River near modern-day Mosul in northern Iraq. Significantly enlarged and improved in the eighth century during the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the city surged when the Assyrian king Sennacherib moved his capital there in 705 B.C.E. Excavations by Sir Austen Henry Layard in the mid-nineteenth century unearthed the king’s massive palace decorated with colossal sculpture, wall reliefs, and monumental architecture, as well as an extensive library of Assyrian-period documents, including records of the king’s military campaigns. According to ancient documents such as the Fall of Nineveh Chronicle, a coalition of forces destroyed Nineveh in 612 B.C.E.
At its peak, the Neo-Assyrian Empire was a formidable force, dominating populations from eastern Egypt to the Persian Gulf, demanding agricultural goods and other resources as tribute. The art excavated from royal palaces bears violent witness not only to actual military tactics (besieging cities, impaling enemies, and deporting prisoners) but also to the Assyrian ideology of kingship: the king was a semidivine figure whose power and splendor overwhelmed all opposition.
The remains of Nineveh unearthed by Layard created a sensation in the late nineteenth century when they were displayed in the British Museum, the Louvre, the Berlin Museum, and even private homes. Engravings of the lion-headed bulls that once flanked Assyrian palaces, along with images of native Bedouin, were extravagantly printed and widely produced, soon included among biblical illustrations in both scholarly and popular publications. Publications that try to illustrate the biblical world still rely heavily on Assyrian art.
How is Nineveh portrayed in the Bible?
Various biblical documents find theological significance in Assyria’s success and eventual fall. Second Kings 15-23 depicts Israel’s God as orchestrating Assyrian control over Israel and Judah, the destruction of Samaria in 722 B.C.E., and Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah in 701 B.C.E. Prophetic books such as Isaiah also attribute the people’s defeat by the Assyrians to God’s punishment, while Zeph 2 and the book of Nahum eagerly anticipate Nineveh’s destruction at God’s hands.
Drawing on the memory of Assyria as an enemy, later biblical writers made Nineveh the literary setting of their stories. The book of Jonah, likely written over a hundred years after Nineveh’s destruction, narrates the rapid repentance of this great city’s king in order to make a point about divine forgiveness. Nineveh also serves as the setting for the Hellenistic compositions Judith and Tobit. According to Jdt 1:1, Nebuchadnezzar (a king of Babylon) ruled over “the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh,” an historical inaccuracy that marks the book as moralistic fiction in which the Assyrians symbolize the Great Foe. Tob 14 also conflates the Assyrian and Babylonian periods of Israel and Judah’s history, perhaps drawing its knowledge of Nineveh from the book of Nahum. New Testament references to Nineveh in Matt 12:41 and Luke 11:30 allude to the book of Jonah.
Julia M. O’Brien, "Nineveh", n.p. [cited 18 Nov 2017]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/nineveh
Julia M. O’Brien is Paul H. and Grace L. Stern Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA. Specializing in prophetic literature, she currently serves as editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies and is completing a feminist commentary on Micah. Her publications include Challenging Prophetic Metaphor: Theology and Ideology in the Prophets (Westminster John Knox, 2008) and Nahum (Sheffield Phoenix, 2009).