Nineveh as Sin City by Thomas M. Bolin

“This is the city.” The popular 1960s television crime drama Dragnet began every episode with these words. The city—in this case, Los Angeles—embodied the best and worst of human life: the mundane, dramatic, and tragic. So it has always been. Cities are morally ambivalent places that hold out the promise of excitement and the threat of danger, at once sites of corruption and of great human achievements. In the Bible, the first murderer, Cain, is also the builder of the first city (Gen 4:17).

Nineveh is one of the most prominent foreign cities in the Hebrew Bible. Its portrayal is a complex blend of historical reality, symbolic force, and legendary embellishment.

The historical Nineveh was the capital of the neo-Assyrian empire in the late seventh century B.C.E. There was no love lost between the ancient Israelites and Nineveh. The city’s king, Sennacherib, laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E. (2Kgs 18:13-19:37Isa 36-37). The prophetic book of Nahum is an Israelite taunt-song over Nineveh’s destruction by the Babylonians in 612 B.C.E. For Nahum, Nineveh is a “city of bloodshed” (Nah 3:1). The Assyrians’ ruthless military tactics are also pictured in reliefs from the king’s palace in Nineveh, now in the British Museum.

The other biblical depiction of Nineveh is in the book of Jonah. There, Nineveh is described as huge—taking three days to walk across—and thoroughly evil. But Jonah gives no specifics about the city’s evil beyond the king’s command that citizens turn away “from the violence that is in their hands” (Jonah 3:8).

Jonah’s Nineveh is thematically connected to Sodom, another biblical city of evil (Gen 18-19). God tells Abraham that the outcry against Sodom is such that he “must go down” to investigate (Gen 18:21). Similarly, God sends Jonah to Nineveh, “the great city,” telling him that its evil “has come up” before him (Jonah 1:2). Gen 19:25 describes God’s destruction of Sodom using a term usually translated as “overthrow,” the same term Jonah uses in his prophetic preaching to Nineveh (Jonah 3:4).

Outside of the Bible, Nineveh was known for having been a great, lawless, and ruined city. Greek literary giants like Herodotus and Aristotle catalog its sinfulness, describing Sardanapalus, its legendary last king, in unflattering (and problematic) terms. Diodorus of Sicily (first century B.C.E) describes Sardanapalus’ violations of the rigid gender boundaries of Greco-Roman antiquity. According to legend, his subjects rebelled against his taboo behaviors, whereupon the king piled his wealth into a mountain, climbed atop it with his eunuchs and concubines, and torched it all with a fire that burned his palace to the ground.

Readers also added detail to Jonah’s vague depiction of Nineveh. The 1589 morality play by Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene, A Looking Glass for London and England, retells the book of Jonah with a lengthy description of Nineveh’s sinfulness, complete with evil kings, usurers, demons, murderers, and forced incest.

Nineveh is a metaphor for the ambiguity of all cities. It is a screen onto which readers project their own values in order to reaffirm them. It is a mirror that reflects back readers’ faults and offers them a moral lesson.

Thomas M. Bolin, "Nineveh as Sin City", n.p. [cited 24 Sep 2022]. Online:


Thomas M. Bolin

Thomas M. Bolin
Professor, St. Norbert College

Thomas M. Bolin is professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College. He has published extensively on the biblical books of Jonah and Ecclesiastes and on the question of ancient Israelite historiography. His most recent book is Ecclesiastes and the Riddle of Authorship (Routledge, 2017.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

fourth century BCE Greek philosopher

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

Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.

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

Relating to the cultures of Greece or Rome.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

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.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

Gen 4:17

Beginnings of Civilization
17Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch.

2Kgs 18:13-19:37

Sennacherib Invades Judah
13In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured ... View more

Isa 36-37

Sennacherib Threatens Jerusalem
1In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and capt ... View more

Nah 3:1

Ruin Imminent and Inevitable
1Ah! City of bloodshed,
utterly deceitful, full of booty—
no end to the plunder!

Jonah 3:8

8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is ... View more

Gen 18-19

A Son Promised to Abraham and Sarah
1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.2He looked ... View more

Gen 18:21

21I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”

Jonah 1:2

2“Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

Gen 19:25

25and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.

Jonah 3:4

4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

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