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Nineveh as Sin City

“ This is the city .” embodied the best and worst of human life : the mundane , dramatic , and tragic . So it has always been . Cities are morally ambivalent places that hold out the promise of excitement and the threat of danger , at once sites of corruption and of great human achievements . In the Bible , the first murderer , Cain , is also the builder of the first city ( Gen 4:17 ). Nineveh is one of the most prominent foreign cities in the Hebrew Bible . Its portrayal is a complex blend of historical reality , symbolic force , and legendary embellishment .
The historical Nineveh was the capital of the neo-Assyrian empire in the late seventh century B . C . E . There was no love lost between the ancient Israelites and Nineveh . The city ’ s king , Sennacherib , laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 B . C . E . ( 2Kgs 18:13-19:37 , Isa 36- 37 ). The prophetic book of Nahum is an Israelite taunt-song over Nineveh ’ s destruction by the Babylonians in 612 B . C . E . For Nahum , Nineveh is a “ city of bloodshed ” ( Nah 3:1 ). The Assyrians ’ ruthless military tactics are also pictured in reliefs from the king ’ s palace in Nineveh , now in the British Museum . The other biblical depiction of Nineveh is in the book of Jonah . There , Nineveh is described as huge — taking three days to walk across — and thoroughly evil . But Jonah gives no specifics about the city ’ s evil beyond the king ’ s command that citizens turn away “ from the violence that is in their hands ” ( Jonah 3:8 ). Jonah ’ s Nineveh is thematically connected to Sodom , another biblical city of evil ( Gen 18-19 ). God tells Abraham that the outcry against Sodom is such that he “ must go down ” to investigate ( Gen 18:21 ).
Similarly , God sends Jonah to Nineveh , “ the great city ,” telling him that its evil “ has come up ” before him ( Jonah 1:2 ). Gen 19:25 describes God ’ s destruction of Sodom using a term usually translated as “ overthrow ,” the same term Jonah uses in his prophetic preaching to Nineveh ( Jonah 3:4 ).
Outside of the Bible , Nineveh was known for having been a great , lawless , and ruined city . Greek literary giants like Herodotus and Aristotle catalog its sinfulness , describing Sardanapalus , its
legendary last king , in unflattering ( and problematic ) terms . Diodorus of Sicily ( first century B . C . E ) describes Sardanapalus ’ violations of the rigid gender boundaries of Greco-Romanantiquity . According to legend , his subjects rebelled against his taboo behaviors , whereupon the king
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