Nineveh by Julia M. O’Brien

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 2 Dec 2022]. Online:


Julia M. O’Brien

Julia M. O’Brien
Professor, Lancaster Theological Seminary

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).

Biblical references to the Neo-Assyrian city of Nineveh reflect not only the historical situation of the eighth century B.C.E. but also the city’s notoriety as a place of great wickedness.

Did you know…?

  • At its greatest extent, the city of Nineveh was 3 miles in width and 7 miles in circumference, far smaller than suggested by Jonah 2.
  • The exclusive focus of the book of Nahum is the destruction of Nineveh, depicted as a woman being violated.
  • In several documents of the Jewish midrashic tradition, the king of Nineveh is equated with the pharaoh of the exodus.
  • The Taylor Prism, a cuneiform document excavated at Nineveh, chronicles Sennacherib’s military campaigns against Judah and the deportations of 200,150 people.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

The kingdom of Judah, according to the Hebrew Bible ruled by a king in the line of David from the 10th century B.C.E. until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.

Semitic tribe known since antiquity for being nomadic pastorialists.

Dug up, often from an archaeological site.

A region in northern Mesopotamia whose kings ruled most of the ancient Near East in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Those biblical books written by or attributed to prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Zeph 2

Judgment on Israel's Enemies
1Gather together, gather,
O shameless nation,2before you are driven away
like the drifting chaff,
before there comes upon you
the f ... View more

Jdt 1:1

Arphaxad Fortifies Ecbatana
1It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. In those days Ar ... View more

Tob 14

Tobit's Final Counsel
1So ended Tobit's words of praise.2Tobit died in peace when he was one hundred twelve years old, and was buried with great honor in Nineve ... View more

Matt 12:41

41The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something ... View more

Luke 11:30

30For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation.

The writing system of ancient Mesopotamia, consisting of wedges pressed into clay.

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Jonah 2

A Psalm of Thanksgiving
1Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish,2saying,
“I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me; ... View more

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