Even though Nineveh did not take “three days to cross” (Jonah 3:3), the famous Assyrian capital was a remarkable place. At its peak in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., it boasted temples, sophisticated irrigation systems, a game reserve, lush gardens, and imposing royal buildings. The remains of ancient Nineveh are situated along the eastern bank of the Tigris River across from modern day Mosul in northern Iraq. Despite its ruinous end, Nineveh remains an important topic of study for students of the Hebrew Bible, primarily because Nineveh was once the center of an imperial power that influenced Israelite history and the composition of the Hebrew Bible.
The northern kingdom of Israel, for instance, was destroyed in the eighth century B.C.E. by the Assyrians, a fact attested to in both Assyrian and biblical sources (see 2Kgs 17). Were it not for the Assyrians, the northern kingdom would probably have endured, and it is very likely that the Hebrew Bible as we know it—which primarily has a Judahite or “southern” stamp—would be quite different. The two prophetic books, Jonah and Nahum, moreover, are specifically concerned with the fate of Nineveh, though they depict its fate in different ways. Clearly, if we want to understand the Hebrew Bible as a product of its environment and historical setting, we must deepen our knowledge of this great ancient Near Eastern city.
The luster of Nineveh’s former glory is still detectable in its remains, most famously in the reliefs from the palaces of the kings Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal. Assyrian kings frequently adorned their palaces with wall reliefs and other forms of sculpture. These often-elaborate reliefs were not merely decorative, nor were they historical “records,” as we might think of them today. Palatial wall reliefs were religious, political, and mythological in nature and were primarily concerned with demonstrating the king’s legitimacy, piety, and prestige. Dominating the reliefs are scenes of the king’s deeds, especially in battle.
Sennacherib had a palace at Nineveh that contains some 70 rooms adorned with finely crafted limestone relief work. Room 36 is of particular interest. It depicts Sennacherib’s siege of Lachish, a Judahite city that Sennacherib attacked while on his third campaign (701 BCE). The remains of the siege ramp used by Sennacherib’s army, in fact, are still visible at the site. In one scene, the king is shown siting on a throne, receiving captives and observing the battle. To the left of the king, several Assyrian soldiers publicly flay captured Judahites. Sennacherib has his armies represented as brutal, even savage warriors whose overwhelming power assures them victory at every turn.
The palace of Ashurbanipal (ruled 668–circa 630 B.C.E.) at Nineveh also preserves a stunning set of wall reliefs. Chief among them are reliefs depicting Ashurbanipal in mortal combat with fierce lions. In one, the king dominates the lions from a chariot, thrusting a long spear into his prey. Elsewhere in the sequence, Ashurbanipal fights on foot, with only his hands and a sword (see also 1Sam 17:34-35). Aspects of these sculptures have been noted for their realism, especially in their depictions of lions in the throes of death. These dramatic scenes demonstrate the king’s power, dominance, and favorable status before the gods.
For students of the Hebrew Bible, Nineveh is of interest not only because two biblical books focus exclusively on its fate but also because the Assyrian Empire
had such a profound impact on the history and literature of ancient Israel. The discussion above only cracks the door to an expansive body of evidence, much of which has the potential to illuminate the biblical texts.