In the middle of a genealogy about the descendants of Noah in Genesis 10, the author inserts a brief and obviously incomplete narrative about a great king named Nimrod who founds and rules several of the great cities of Babylonia and Assyria. The story cannot be described as historical, of course. No ruler named Nimrod can be found in the archaeological record, and the cities in question — to the extent that they can be identified — were established at different times over the span of several millennia.
It might seem strange that ancient authors would invent or tell stories about fictitious founders of great cities, but this was, in fact, common practice. Ancient Greek authors were particularly interested in the founding stories of Nineveh and Babylon, even though they possessed very little reliable knowledge about those cities and their histories.
The best-known foundation story of Nineveh is the one by Ctesias, a Greek physician who wrote a history of Persia called the Persica around 400 BCE after spending some years in the Persian court. Ctesias attributed the founding of Nineveh (Ninos in Greek) to Ninos, whom Ctesius said was the first great king of the Assyrians. But like Nimrod, King Ninos never actually existed. As historian Menko Vlaardingerbroek puts it, despite efforts to equate him with various known Assyrian kings,
…none of the attempts to identify Ninos is totally convincing. Greek historians needed a founder for the city they called Ninos and therefore they created a king after whom the city allegedly has been named. The story of Ninos is mainly a Greek invention, based on the idea that a city needs an herōs epōnumos [eponymous hero/founder]. (p. 234)
Later historians added to the Ninos legend and fleshed out his genealogy. Abydenus made Ninos the seventh in a line of kings who all had the names of other famous Mesopotamian cities (Babylon, Calah, and so on). Without going so far as to say that Nimrod is based on Ninos (though some have suggested it), it’s clear that the Greek approach to history was similar to the biblical approach. Both were interested in the legendary founders of great cities, and both were willing to rewrite “history” by inserting those founders into fictional genealogies. (Nimrod, of course, is described as a son of Cush the grandson of Noah, even though Cush’s five sons have already been named in a previous verse. More on that in a bit.)
It is similar with Babylon, whose founding the Greek historians attributed either to the god Belos or to Queen Semiramis, the supposed successor of Ninos. While Semiramis might be a faint echo of the Neo-Assyrian queen Shammuramat, the latter lived a thousand years after Babylon’s founding, and the story of Semiramis told by Ctesius is “mainly a Greek invention” based on the goddess Ishtar with elements from Sargon’s birth legend. (Vlaardingerbroek, p. 235)
Nimrod and Cush
The past century of Bible scholarship has produced no small number of proposals regarding the “true” identity of Nimrod. These attempts typically consist of trying to match up the characteristics of a certain king, god, or legendary hero with coinciding elements of the brief Nimrod passage. Most are plausible, but none convincing enough to spur any consensus.
A better approach might be to understand Nimrod as a character of pure legend much like Ninos and Semiramis, invented to fill a hole in some forgotten storyteller’s historical knowledge.
The supposed Cushite ancestry of Nimrod has long been considered a problem for who Nimrod was, since Cush represents Nubia, the region of the upper Nile. (It’s often referred to as Ethiopia, but the borders of modern Ethiopia are not a good fit.) Of all Noah’s descendants, why make Nimrod a son of Cush? The answer I find most convincing also reveals the influences behind the Nimrod legend.
In a nutshell, the original Israelite legend of Nimrod probably involved a name very similar phonetically to Cush: Kish, one of the oldest cities of ancient Sumer. (See Burkitt.) Associating Nimrod with Kish puts the legend in a whole new light.
According to the Sumerian King List, Kish was the city where kingship first descended from Heaven after the great flood. It was also in Kish that Sargon the Great first came to power. After making himself king, Sargon led his armies to conquer first Sumer (Babylonia) to the south and then Assyria to the north. This was probably the first real empire to have existed in Mesopotamia — at least, the first that we know of. Even though Sargon made Akkad the capital of his kingdom, he retained the title King of Kish. The same cuneiform word also had the meaning of “totality” in Akkadian, and by dropping the silent “KI” symbol that identified Kish as a city, Sargon was able to use the title as a description of universal kingship. From then on, “king of Kish” meant “king of the world” whenever it appeared on royal monuments and in royal inscriptions. (For all this, see Maeda 1981.)
This title remained in occasional use by other kings after the Akkadian empire fell, but it was particularly the Neo-Assyrian kings who revived its use over a thousand years after Sargon. The reigns of Sargon and his grandson Naram-Sin had taken on mythical proportions by then, and two Neo-Assyrian kings even named themselves Sargon in imitation of the original Sargon of Akkad.
According to Old Testament scholar Yigal Levin, Nimrod is best understood as a composite character that reflects the glory of the ancient Sargonid kings, the title of Kish as a name that represented divine authority, and the Neo-Assyrian motif of the king as a great hunter who protects his people from harm (Levin, pp. 364–366). He was originally seen as a positive character who probably received his kingship from Yahweh, and not as the villain of the Tower of Babel story that biblical interpreters turned him into.
Unfortunately, we will never know the details of the Israelite Nimrod legend, which survives in Genesis 10 in only its barest form. The decision of the author to insert it into Noah’s genealogy is best understood as either an error or an inspired editorial decision based on the similarities between Kish and Cush.
- Menko Vlaardingerbroek (2004). The founding of Nineveh and Babylon in Greek historiography. Iraq, 66.
- F. C. Burkitt (1920). Note on the Table of Nations (Genesis X). Journal of Theological Studies, old series, 21/2.
- Yigal Levin (2002). Nimrod the Mighty, King of Kish, King of Sumer and Akkad. Vetus Testamentum 52/3.
- Tohru Maeda (1981). “‘King of Kish’ in Pre-Sargonic Sumer”. Orient 17.