“You have made the gods prostrate themselves before you. […] Ninurta, you are made complete by heroic strength. […] it is sweet to praise you.” — The Return of Ninurta.
The most characterization we get in the list of names found in Genesis 10 belongs to a guy named Nimrod. He’s a called a gibbor (mighty one), the same term used to describe the giants and heroes back in Genesis 6, and a hunter (literally “one who catches”) before Yahweh (literally translated as in Yaweh’s face). From the text it seems Nimrod wasn’t necessarily hunting in the literal sense, but rather capturing and building cities.
Genesis 10:10-12 states that “His kingdom started with Babylon, Uruk, Akkad, and Kalneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Kalhu, and Resen, between Nineveh and the great city Kalhu.” Many of these cities are well known to archaeologists and are located along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern Iraq. Surely the man who conquered all of them, if he existed, would be well documented by history! However nowhere does an empire builder named Nimrod appear outside of this singular passage in Genesis.
So who the f*** was Nimrod? Well let’s look at the list of clues given to us. According to Genesis 10:8-12, Nimrod
- Was a son of Kush (also spelled Cush).
- Was a hunter.
- Grew into a mighty warrior, perhaps implying he came from humble beginnings.
- Began to rule in Sumer (Southern Iraq).
- Spread his kingdom to northern cities.
- Was thought to have nearly god-like power, being a rival of Yahweh.
It is very likely that the Yahwist had a composite image in mind consisting of various rulers of the Sumerian, Akkadian, and Assyrian kingdoms. However two figures stand out, one a god and one a man. They are the warrior god, Ninurta, and King Sargon of Akkad.
Originally known as Ningirsu, Ninurta was worshiped by the people of Sumer, Akkad, and Assyria as the god of war, hunting, agriculture, and civilization. His major rival was Enki, the trickster god who spared Ziusudra from the flood. These traits match well with the general character of Nimrod who loved to hunt and make war, and who was a rival of the God who spared men from a flood. If nothing else, Ninurta serves as a base template for Nimrod, with the more historical aspects of Nimrod belonging to king Sargon.
Sargon of Akkad
Sargon of Akkad, also called Sargon the Great, was the founder of the Akkadian Empire. He ruled from 2334 to 2279 BCE. According to archaeological records, Sargon claimed to have been humbly born in the city of Kish, which matches the Yahwist’s claim that Nimrod was a son of Kush. Since no vowel markers exist in written Hebrew it would have been easy to change Kish to Kush to better fit with the genealogy of Noah’s sons.
Sargon claimed to have been sent down a river in a basket made of reeds (which of course seems very similar to a later biblical story cough-Moses-cough). He was found by a man named Akki, became a gardener and eventually found favor with the king, becoming his second in command (cough-Joseph-cough). They conquered together until Sargon’s popularity among the small folk eclipsed the king’s. As a man of the people, Sargon conquered all of Sumer.
After conquering Sumer, Sargon went north, capturing cities up to Nineveh and beyond. His daughter helped integrate the religions of the Sumerians with those of the Akkadians. He built the city of Akkad and restored the city of Babylon. In life and death he was considered a hero, nearly god-like in power and authority. All of this clearly parallels Nimrod’s conquests.
While it is obvious that the Yahwist had Sargon in mind when writing the story of Nimrod, it seems strange that she did not simply mention him by name. Perhaps blending the real exploits of the real Sargon with the persona of the god Ninurta was a way to keep her story more mythical. Besides, it wouldn’t do to remind people of the figure from whom Israel’s greatest hero, Moses, was plagiarized.
In the 1st century AD Jewish historians and theologians would credit Nimrod with building the Tower of Babel and serving as a foil for a young Abraham. He became cast as a villain, a symbol of the evils of Babylon and empire in general, thus serving as an allegory for Rome and the Jews or Christians of the time. Even today, among Christians obsessed with the end times, Nimrod and the Tower of Babel are frequently mentioned as symbols of the Antichrist and an evil one-world-government. Our next post will look at the Tower of Babel, what it was, and what the story says about the character of the biblical god.
Van der Toorn, K. & Van der Horst, P. W., “Nimrod Before and After the Bible” in: Harvard Theological Review 83/1 (1990) 1-29.