Gary Greenberg's blog on biblical studies and related matters

Who is Nimrod? An Answer

Genesis 10 contains a list of Noh’s descendants through his three sons, Ham, Japheth, and Shem. The roster is divided into three branches, one for each son and lists a series of descendants from each son. Each branch is associated with different geographic territories. According to Genesis 10:32, “These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.”

A number of the names closely align with the names of ancient nations in the Near East but many, if not most, are obscure and unknown from the historical records. One particularly glaring problem scholars have with the list is that it omits the various Mesopotamian empires that flourished in the first two millennia B.C.E.

There are many other problems with the list, including such issues as when it was composed and what it can tell us about geo-politics at the time of its publication. Here I want to focus on one particular issue. Who does Nimrod represent? The question puzzles biblical scholars and near eastern archaeologists and some academic contortions have been used to resolve the matter. I have a more sensible solution.

Genesis gives the names of Ham’s sons as Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. In the name Ham, the Hebrew letter translated as H is more closely pronounced like the “ch” in “chemistry” rather than the “h” in “home.” Ham, then, is pronounced Chem, or Km and this is the name of ancient Egypt and signifies the influence of Egypt among its neighbors. The name “Egypt,” given to the son of Ham, comes from the Hebrew word “mizraim,” which was the Hebrew name for Egypt and probably represents a geographical subset of Egypt, such as the Delta area where Israel resided prior to the Exodus per the biblical accounts.

Ham’s son Canaan is the father of the various Canaanite tribes mentioned in the bible. As to Put, there is some debate as to which country it applies to. Some say Libya and some suggest the land of Punt, mentioned in Egyptian literature. The fourth son is Cush, which name comes from the Hebrew word for “black” and it is widely accepted that this son represents the land of Ethiopia. Ham, therefore, represents the geographic region running from Ethiopia, through North Africa, and into Canaan.

Cush is the father of Nimrod, and this is where some problems arise. Unlike all the other descendants, who are set forth in simple lists of names, Nimrod is not associated with the name of any countries but he is the subject of a major legend. The story has the sense of being an insert into an already existing genealogy. Here is the Genesis story.

Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria, and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.

The nations and cities mentioned in the story include the Mesopotamian empires missing from the list of descendants. The essence of the story is that a ruler of Ethiopia, descended from the founder of the Egyptian empire, marched into Mesopotamia, conquered all the territories, built famous cities and created Mesopotamian empires. This never happened in history and signifies a legend integrated into the story to somehow account for the missing Babylonian Empire.

Scholars are unhappy about this and try to associate the story with a non-Cushite (i.e., non-black) ruler from Mesopotamia. For this reason, several scholars have argued that Cush also signifies the Mesopotamian land of Cossaea, home of the Cassites, an important political group in Babylonian history.[1] In line with this argument, some claim that Nimrod is descended from the Babylonian Cush, and due to confusion with the Ethiopian Cush, Nimrod’s story was erroneously appended to Ham’s genealogy.

Speiser, who has written extensively on the Family of Nations, offers the following historical model for this biblical account. “The biblical Nimrod is said to have combined effective authority over both Babylon and Assyria. The first Mesopotamian ruler to do so on a solid basis was Tukulti-Ninurta I (thirteenth century BC); he was certainly the first Assyrian conqueror of Babylon.”[2] This solution has problems.

Implicit in Speiser’s argument is that the event described by the Nimrod story took place in the thirteenth century B.C.E., a date close to or shortly after the Exodus. But the perspective of the Table of Nations is that Nimrod rose to power shortly after Noah’s Flood (assuming for the sake of argument that the Flood story belongs at the date given rather than earlier.)

Another problem with Speiser’s model is that it doesn’t accurately reflect the historical claim of Genesis. He clouds the issue by pointing out that the story depicts someone who was the ruler of both Assyria and Babylon. He then looks for the earliest example of someone who fits that bill, an Assyrian conqueror. But that is not the situation described in Genesis 10. The biblical account says that Assyria was conquered by a military force advancing from Babylon, the reverse of the situation in Speiser’s model.

A closer historical model, also problematic, might be the conquest of Assyria by the Chaldean (a Babylonian territory)/Mede (a Persian territory) alliance in the seventh century B.C.E. The Chaldeans first emerge as an historical polity in the ninth century B.C.E.[3] The Medes rose to power around the seventh century BC. The first known reference to these people comes from a ninth century Assyrian record.[4] Prior to that time they were unknown in the biblical world. In 614 the alliance captured the city of Assur (= Asshur?) and in 612 it captured Nineveh, capitol of Assyria. The greatest king to arise out of this alliance was Nebuchadnezzar, the conqueror of Jerusalem who forcibly removed the Jews (or Jewish elite) to Babylon.

Although the politics of the Mede/Chaldean conquest parallels the biblical account of Nimrod, the chronological framework is not synchronous with the biblical chronology. It is highly unlikely that the Redactor could confuse the events of the sixth and seventh centuries, long after the time of David and Solomon, with events that happened long before the time of the Exodus.

At this point, I’d like to look at a thoroughly ignored model for this story, based on a passage in Herodotus’s account of Egyptian history. Writing in the fifth century B.C.E., he tells us of an Egyptian king named Sesostris, who, he says, was the only Egyptian king to rule Ethiopia.[5] He sent his armies to march out across Asia, starting at the Indian coast, and continuing into Europe, conquering everything in their path.[6] The route would have included all of the nations associated with the conquests of Nimrod. We find, therefore, in this Egyptian legend, that the ruler of Ethiopia marched through the Mesopotamian regions and conquered every nation he encountered. Sesostris and Nimrod appear to be either the same character, or the subject of identical legends.

Although the conquest never happened, Sesostris really was an Egyptian king. Although some scholars have speculated that he might been based on one of the great Egyptian military kings such as Thutmose III or Ramesses II, Manetho, the author of a history of Egypt written in the third century B.C.E., says he was the third king in Egypt’s Twelfth Dynasty.[7] The name appears to be a Greek corruption of the Egyptian name Senwosre, the name of four different pharaohs in the Twelfth Dynasty. In Manetho, the name may have confusingly incorporated both Senwosre II and Senwosre III under the single name of Sesostris. Manetho adds to Herodotus’s story, saying that “in nine years he [Sesostris] subdued the whole of Asia and Europe as far as Thrace.”[8]

Not only does this legend coincide precisely with the biblical Nimrod story—a descendant of the Egyptian empire, ruling Ethiopia, and conquering all of the Mesopotamian kingdoms—it fits chronologically. Senwosre II ruled around 1897 B.C.E. or close there to. The Flood, following the traditional Jewish Creation date of 3761, occurred in 2105. If we can equate Sesostris/Senwosre II with Nimrod, he ruled just two centuries after the Flood. Nimrod is in the third generation after Noah, and, according to the biblical chronology, Shem and Noah, were still around. So, Sesostris/Nimrod fits both the Egyptian legend and comfortably falls within the biblical chronological scheme.

This is not to say that the legend itself is true. But Herodotus got the story from the Egyptians. An Egyptian historian corroborates the legend as an Egyptian tale. The details coincide precisely with both the Nimrod legend and the biblical chronology for Nimrod’s time frame. I strongly suggest that this Egyptian legend was the source for the biblical story of Nimrod.

[1] (Speiser, 1962), 66.

[2] (Speiser, 1962), 72.

[3] (Freedman, 1992), s.v., “Chaldea.”

[4] (Freedman, 1992), s.v. “Media (Place).”

[5] (Herodotus, 1972, reprinted 1978, 1980), 169.

[6] (Herodotus, 1972, reprinted 1978, 1980), 166–67.

[7] (Waddell, 1940; reprint 1980), 67.

[8] (Waddell, 1940; reprint 1980), 67.

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