I knelt under the burning sun and carefully removed dust and dirt from the dead man’s face. It was a gruesome task, and I had been working for hours. I was hot and thirsty, but I continued brushing, carefully exposing the man’s forehead and nose. He was young, maybe in his 20s. As I uncovered his mouth, I was appalled to see that it was frozen open. The burning gate had crushed him as it fell, and his mouth, open in a scream, had been filled with dirt. A dagger was on the ground next to him where it had fallen. His life hadn’t needed to end this way.
God, through the prophet Nahum, prophesied what I was excavating. He saw the burning of the Halzi Gate at Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, years before it happened. He saw the warriors fighting in the narrowed passageway leading into the city and said, “The gates of your land are wide open for your enemies; fire shall devour the bars of your gates” (Nahum 3:13). It was both thrilling and sobering to be excavating in Nineveh where I and others on our University of California, Berkeley, team uncovered more than a dozen warriors who had died a violent death. One had landed facedown with his arms outflung; another had tried to cover his face from the falling debris; yet another had fallen in a running position. The contorted bodies extended into the unexcavated portions of the gate, stunning visual realizations of the words of the prophet: “There is a multitude of slain, a great number of bodies, countless corpses—they stumble over the corpses” (verse 3). Among the bodies that we excavated were found treasures that had escaped the hands of the looters: a string of carnelian and lapis lazuli beads; an ivory scarab; bronze and iron arrowheads; iron armor; a pike, spearhead, and dagger; a duck-shaped stamp seal of white chalcedony; and a dome-shaped stamp seal of blue chalcedony in a silver mount.
The inevitability of Nineveh’s destruction was clear to the prophets of Israel. In fact, God’s extension of mercy to Nineveh in the mid-eighth century B.C. elicited rage and confusion from the prophet Jonah, who had carried the initial warning of judgment. He could not understand how the enemies of his people had been forgiven, because he had hoped for their destruction. A century later Assyria had returned to its cruel ways with a vengeance. God’s patience had run out; He had seen enough suffering.
Sometime after 660 B.C. and before 630 B.C.—probably during the reign of Ashurbanipal, when the Assyrian empire was at its height—God gave Nahum a message about the future of Nineveh. Nahum refers to Nineveh as the “bloody city,” “full of lies and plunder” (Nahum 3:1, ESV),1 and a prostitute, “graceful and of deadly charms, who betrays nations with her whorings, and peoples with her charms” (verse 4, ESV). God, through the prophet, declared that Nineveh would be “cut off” (Nahum 1:14, 15, ESV), completely destroyed. Through Jonah, forgiveness and reconciliation had been offered and received, but Assyria had again rejected God, and this time there would be no mercy.
The seething fury of those who had experienced Assyria’s brutality swelled to a climax that resulted in the fulfillment of Nahum’s prophecy. To the south, Babylonia had been dominated for centuries by the Assyrians. Finally, in 627/626 B.C., a Chaldean of royal lineage named Nabopolassar (Nabuˆ -apla-uṣur in the Babylonian language), defeated the Assyrians in a battle near Babylon. By 616 B.C. Nabopolassar was in firm control of Babylonia and turned his attention north against the Assyrian homeland. Meanwhile, the Medes, to the northeast in the Zagros Mountains, who had also suffered humiliation from Assyria, were organizing under the leadership of King Cyaxares (625-585 B.C.). The two emerging powers, Babylonians and Medes, initiated independent military attacks against the Assyrian royal ceremonial city of Aššur. Cyaxares also attempted to sack Nineveh, but failed. Not strong enough to succeed by themselves against the powerful Assyrians, Nabopolassar and Cyaxares formed an alliance in 614 B.C., sealed with a kiss—the marriage of Nebuchadnezzar, crown prince of Babylonia, to Amytis, princess of Media. The Scythians, a powerful warrior nation from the north, joined the Babylonians and Medes, and together they besieged the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh in 612 B.C.
Nineveh was a formidable city. The great Tigris River flowed along the western flanks of the city, providing natural protection. Along the eastern flank, where the city was most vulnerable, King Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) had constructed a deep moat that was filled with water—a moat that remains to this day. The powerful walls of Nineveh had been built by Sennacherib when he moved the Assyrian capital from Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) in the north to Nineveh. The walls were massive and comprised of two distinct walls. The outer wall was built of a rough stone core, faced with a facade of well-dressed limestone masonry, and capped with continuous crenellated parapets. At the top, which was often 20 feet (six meters) high, was a walkway. Every 82 feet (25 meters) a tower was set into the wall. The wall itself was 7.5 miles long and enclosed an area of more than 1,852 acres (750 hectares). On the inside of this massive stone wall was a second, much higher mud-brick wall that was about 49 feet (15 meters) thick and at least 82 feet (25 meters) high. A paved causeway ran between the two walls. Fifteen gates allowed entrance into the city. Distinct communities occupied the city within these walls: palaces and temples on the high mound of Kuyunjik; below them industrial and merchant quarters, the wealthy, and the homes of the commoners.
Much of the interior of the city was comprised of expansive open spaces through which the Khosr River flowed and where the king had his gardens, groves, and zoological area. Part of this area was specifically reserved for lions, which figured prominently in royal lion hunts and the worship of Ishtar, whose attribute animal was the lion. Lion hunts are graphically depicted on the limestone wall reliefs of the North Palace of Ashurbanipal, now housed in the British Museum. How appropriate, then, are Nahum’s words, depicting the Assyrians: “Where is the den of the lions and the feeding place of the young lions, where the lion, lioness and lion’s cub went with nothing to disturb them? The lion tore enough for his cubs, killed enough for his lionesses, and filled his lairs with prey and his dens with torn flesh” (Nahum 2:11, 12, NASB).2
The city of Nineveh was besieged at its most vulnerable points: the north and the east. Archaeological excavations have uncovered fascinating details from three of the 15 gates—the Halzi, Adad, and Shamash gates—where the battles were most evident. Fighting was fiercest at the Halzi Gate in the southeast and the Adad Gate in the north. Following the failed Median attack on Nineveh at its Halzi Gate in 614 B.C., the Assyrians had preemptively narrowed the entrance to this gate from 23 feet (seven meters) to seven feet (two meters), resulting in a logjam of bodies during the final destruction of the city.
Babylonian Chronicle ABC 3 details the conquest of Nineveh by Nabopolassar and Cyaxares, describing the fulfillment of Nahum’s prophecy: “From the month Simanu until the month Abu—for three months—they subjected the city to a heavy siege. . . . They inflicted a major defeat . . . . They carried off the vast booty of the city and the temple and turned the city into a ruin heap.”3
Just this spring, on March 16, 2021, fragments of the Nahum scroll were discovered in the “Cave of Horror,” Nahal Hever Cave 8 (8Hev), in the cliffs near the Dead Sea in the Judaean Desert of Israel—the first discovery of new Dea
d Sea scroll fragments in 60 years. Although a scroll of Nahum already had been found many years ago, these new findings remind us of Nahum’s continued relevance, both to the ancient community that preserved it and the Christian community today.
Nineveh’s destruction may be history. But Nahum’s warning against gratuitous cruelty, power grabbing, and idolatry invite a critique of many selfish modern power structures. The good news is that God who hates oppression will not allow it forever. He will soon bring redress: “He will make an utter end of it. Affliction will not rise up a second time” (Nahum 1:9).
Constance E. Clark Gane is a Mesopotamian archaeologist, research professor at Andrews University, mother of one beautiful daughter, and grandmother of two little volcanic angels.