The Ancient Past – Nimrod the Hunter

Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before YHWH. Therefore it is said, ‘Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before YHWH’. [Genesis 10:8-9]

As we read through Genesis, there a number of these anecdotal references to individuals. The writers assumed that this information was important to their audience, although the significance is often lost on the modern reader. Unfortunately, much of Christian scholarship is tainted by the questionable scholarship of writers of a past era when often groundless theories and scant evidence often became the foundation of subsequent generations.

Some Thoughts on Critical Thinking

Consider one example. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, based much of his religion on the thesis that two Hebrews named Nephi and Lehi left southwest Asia in c. 600 BCE and settled in the Western Hemisphere. The descendants of these two men eventually merged into one church when Jesus appeared to them after His resurrection. Then a group broke off, rejected the church and became known as the Lamanites (descendants of Lehi). They eventually wiped out the Nephites and are the ancestors of the Native Americans the Europeans encountered when they “discovered” the Western hemisphere’s landmasses.

While today most scholars scoff at the idea of a Jewish settlement in the Americas for many reasons, in Joseph Smith’s day, the theory was widely hailed as possible. It was used as an explanation for the disappearance of the “lost tribes” of Israel. It was a commonly held opinion and not nearly as out of step with the known archaeology and history of the day.

The problem with this kind of thinking is it moves lock-step with an ideology. Those who follow a belief system structured around such conjecture – whether there are grounds for it or not – must adhere to it. They cannot bear the idea of rejecting it because it has become intricately connected to everything else. The Mormon church cannot reject Smith’s ideas. To do so would unravel their entire faith.

Faulty Nimrod Scholarship

Unfortunately, the Mormons are not the only ones who adhere to tenuous theories based on reading into texts and general assumptions. Nothing demonstrates this more than some of the absurd theories that have sprung up about Nimrod and, amazingly the Catholic Church. You can check out some of these ideas by reading The Two Babylons by Alexander Hislop or surfing over to www.chick.com (Chick Publications has produced a number of tracts based on Hislop’s ideas.)

Without diving into too much detail, Hislop’s thesis – which was shared by a number of Puritans at the time – is that Nimrod is the archetype for any cults involving a mother goddess and male deity pairing such as the cult of Isis and Osiris/Horus in Egypt. He creates, virtually out of thin air, an entire cult of Nimrod and Semiramis (his mythical wife, possibly based on the actual Assyrian queen Shammuramat). He weaves together vague monument references, some poor linguistics and pure conjecture to create this archetypical religion that is the foundation of post-Nicean Christianity.

All of this was done in the context of Hislop’s ecclesiology, which had taken Martin Luther’s statements about the papacy as New Babylon to the extreme and classified the entire Roman system as not theologically incorrect but actually apostate. In essence, Hislop wished to restore the “pure church”, stripped of all symbol – even the cross!

Hislop’s eccentricities have unfortunately affected a lot of evangelical and fundamental thinking – both ecclesiological and eschatological. Worse, his theories are completely based on extra-biblical twigs bound together by the threads of tenuous logic and a predisposition toward hostility.

Rebuilding the Nimrod Archetype

Let’s start from the assumption that the Genesis record has something to tell us about this ancient character, Nimrod. Let’s also assume for the moment that he is an archetype – just as we have done with Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel. Again, let me caution that we are not denying that an actual figure lived in history and was truly a “mighty hunter before YHWH.” But let us assume that even if there was a historical figure, he serves as an archetype of something larger – a development in human culture.

With these assumptions in hand, let’s proceed. What do we see in the Nimrod archetype?

  • He is the first mighty man (Hebrew gibbor, literally, one who rules)
  • He is a mighty hunter before YHWH (Hebrew, tsayyad, derived from the word for wild game)
  • He established a kingdom (Hebrew, mamlakah) that comprises well known population centers in the Fertile Crescent

This is all the Genesis record has to say about Nimrod. The only other place the name occurs in the Scriptures is a late reference to “the land of Nimrod” [Micah 6:5].

What we see then is a gibbor who presides over a mamlakah and the source of his power is apparently his hunting skills. We must ask how this fits into the archaeological record – not with an individual but with the development of human society in southwest Asia.

Social Development

In southwest Asia, human beings began to draw together into population centers around 8500-8000 BCE. Some of the first population centers, such as Akkad and Erech, are mentioned in the Nimrod list. Perhaps we need to ask the question why these people began to centralize their populations. There were a number of factors that precipitated the movement.

The Domestication of Founder Crops

The connection between crop domestication and population center development is a definite one, but it is still debated whether domestication is the cause of center development or vice versa. The two are most definitely symbiotic. You cannot have one or the other; you must have both.

Thus, in the 9th millennium BCE, we have the domestication of founder crops in southwest Asia. When you survey the various places that human society developed crop domestication, there is a broad spectrum of crops that were domesticated but they generally reduce to three categories: cereals for carbohydrates, pulses for proteins, and fibers for oils and cloth production. In southwest Asia, the following were domesticated around 8500 BCE.

  • Cereals – emmer wheat, einkorn wheat and barley
  • Pulses – lentils and chickpeas
  • Fiber/Oil – flax

These founder crops provide a solid basis for a balanced diet. When domesticated, they also allow for greater population growth and density because more can be grown on a smaller area. In the 20th century, this was further intensified by genetics and industrialization, but even in the ancient world, it caused a population explosion.

Technological Development

Part of the domestication of crops involved the development of tools necessary to plant and harvest them.

Tools

One of the earliest challenges to agriculture was the soil itself. In natural alluvial plains, the annual flooding of rivers would provide some turn over of the soil. It also replenished the soil with nutrients for sources up river.

Agriculture would have rapidly moved population centers away from the river front. Means needed to be discovered to turn over the soil in less frequently flooded soil. The earliest tools for this were simple digging sticks or hoes, as still used in some remote areas of the world.

It was a short leap from the hoe to the ard, or hand plough. Sometime around 6000 BCE, southwest Asian farmers began to put use sharpened points of wood, stone or bronze on a shaft to provide better leverage. This allowed them to turn the soil over, circulating the nutrients and allowing the plants to take a deeper root. It also aerated the soil.

The ard would remain the primary tool for this purpose until the Greeks developed the aratrum millennia later. Even the aratrum was derivative. It would not be until the Middle Ages that a true advance – the mouldboard plough – would again change agricultural on the same scale.

Curved scythes of stone and metal began to appear around the same time. These allowed faster harvesting, which in turn encouraged greater planting.

Finally, the cultivation of flax provided these early populations with a material suitable for making cord. This allowed them a convenient, strong rope that could be used to capture and domesticate larger mammals such as oxen and camels. (Smaller mammals and birds had bee domesticated in early prehistory.)

Weapons

While the plough and scythe were revolutionizing farming, the sling and the bow were doing the same to hunting and ultimately, as we shall see, warfare.

These weapons were long-range and accurate when handled properly. Hunters could strike fleeing animals from a greater distance than they could with throwing sticks, spears and thrown rocks.

Beside this, the introduction of better techniques of making arrow and spear heads – first from stone and then from bronze – made for more effective weapons. In short, man could now keep his produce closer and kill his prey from farther away.

Hunting drove the large, wild mammals from the populated regions. The chief quarry, a type of gazelle, was hunted from the region at about the same time as agriculture began to take hold.

Population Challenges

The technologies of farming and advanced hunting were intricately linked to a sudden explosion of population. Tribes quickly organized into villages, which of course competed with each other for farm land and hunting grounds. These conflicts probably gave rise to the first gibborim – chieftains who united villages into regional governments and ultimately constructed cities and towers.

Now, Nimrod

This is what we see as the Nimrod archetype. These first chieftains emerged from the pack because they were “mighty hunters.” Perhaps their abilities on the hunting grounds made them prime candidates for warfare against other human beings. The skills required for killing game animals are much the same as those required for killing competing hunters.

As the wild game grew sparse in the Fertile Crescent, hunting would have become a more specialized endeavor. Hunters would have needed to be free to move, which means they could not have been full-time farmers. This specialization of labor is the basis of trade and economics.

Specialization of Labor

One can assume that this specialization allowed the hunters to become good at what they do, which in turn allowed them superiority over the farmers. Moreover, the farmers were probably more than happy to allow the hunters to act in defensive and then judicial roles since it allowed them to become more specialized.

If Cain and Abel represent the domestication of crops, then Nimrod represents the urbanization of human society. Strata are present in the societies; leaders become a class above the laborers.

Uniting of Cities into Regional Governments

If Nimrod represents the ruling class of the region, then it makes sense that they would unite the urban centers of Shinar (modern central Mesopotamia) and then encourage movement to other fertile areas. This may be what is represented by the statement that Nimrod, “went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.” [Genesis 10:11-12]

Most of the urban centers are readily identified with archaeological remains, but Resen, the “great city” or major urban center, is not known. Calah is identified with the ruins of Nimrud and served as an Assyrian capital twice. Nineveh is likewise well known.

These very definite place names were well known to the readers of Genesis; and archaeology dates the earliest settlements in Calah(Nimrud) and Nineveh to 2200 and 1800 BCE respectively. Assur, the eponymous early capital of Assyria was settled sometime before both, probably around 2700 BCE.

Another Possibility

Before closing this entry, I should mention a possible theory about Nimrod. Many of the names in Genesis apply to societal movements; others are applied in a broad sense to the people perceived as descendants of an individual. This was not necessarily biological (Israel was populated mostly with people who were not related to Jacob/Israel, but people who joined the nation-confederacy).

Thus, Nimrod could simply be meant as a patronymic label for the peoples who populated the Fertile Crescent to the east and south of Aram (Syria).

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