THE SIEGE AND FALL OF NINEVEH
Nahum 2:1-13; Nahum 3:1-19
THE scene now changes from the presence and awful arsenal of the Almighty to the historical consummation of His vengeance. Nahum foresees the siege of Nineveh. Probably the Medes have already overrun Assyria. The "Old Lion" has withdrawn to his inner den, and is making his last stand. The suburbs are full of the enemy, and the great walls which made the inner city one vast fortress are invested. Nahum describes the details of the assault. Let us try, before we follow him through them, to form some picture of Assyria and her capital at this time.
As we have seen, the Assyrian Empire began about 625 to shrink to the limits of Assyria proper, or Upper Mesopotamia, within the Euphrates on the southwest, the mountain-range of Kurdistan on the northeast, the river Chabor on the northwest, and the Lesser Zab on the southeast. This is a territory of nearly a hundred and fifty miles from north to south, and rather more than two hundred and fifty from east to west. To the south of it the Viceroy of Babylon, Nabopolassar, held practically independent sway over Lower Mesopotamia, if he did not command as well a large part of the Upper Euphrates Valley. On the north the Medes were urgent, holding at least the farther ends of the passes through the Kurdish mountains, if they had not already penetrated these to their southern issues.
The kernel of the Assyrian territory was the triangle, two of whose sides are represented by the Tigris and the Greater Zab, the third by the foot of the Kurdistan mountains. It is a fertile plain, with some low hills. Today the level parts of it are covered by a large number of villages and well-cultivated fields. The more frequent mounds of ruin attest in ancient times a still greater population. At the period of which we are treating, the plains must have been covered by an almost continuous series of towns. At either end lay a group of fortresses. The southern was the ancient capital of Assyria, Kalchu, now Nimrud, about six miles to the north of the confluence of the Greater Zab and the Tigris. The northern, close by the present town of Khorsabad, was the great fortress and palace of Sargon, Dur-Sargina: it covered the roads upon Nineveh from the north, and standing upon the upper reaches of the Choser protected Nineveh’s water supply. But besides these there were scattered upon all the main roads and round the frontiers of the territory a number of other forts, towers, and posts, the ruins of many of which are still considerable, but others have perished without leaving any visible traces. The roads thus protected drew in upon Nineveh from all directions. The chief of those, along which the Medes and their allies would advance from the east and north, crossed the Greater Zam, or came down through the Kurdistan mountains upon the citadel of Sargon. Two of them were distant enough from the latter to relieve the invaders from the necessity of taking it, and Kalchu lay far to the south of all of them. The brunt of the first defense of the land would therefore fall upon the smaller fortresses.
Nineveh itself lay upon the Tigris between Kalchu and Sargon’s city, just where the Tigris is met by the Choser. Low hills descend from the north upon the very site of the fortress, and then curve east and south, bow-shaped, to draw west again upon the Tigris at the south end of the city. To the east of the latter they leave a level plain, some two and a half miles by one and a half. These hills appear to have been covered by several forts. The city itself was four-sided, lying lengthwise to the Tigris and cut across its breadth by the Choser. The circumference was about seven and a half miles, enclosing the largest fortified space in Western Asia, and capable of holding a population of three hundred thousand. The western wall, rather over two and a half miles long, touched the Tigris at the other end, but between there lay a broad, bow-shaped stretch of land, probably in ancient times, as now, free of buildings. The northwestern wall ran up from the Tigris for a mile and a quarter to the low ridge which entered the city at its northern corner. From this the eastern wall, with a curve upon it, ran down in face of the eastern plain for a little more than three miles, and was joined to the western by the short southern wall of not quite half a mile. The ruins of the western wall stand from ten to twenty, those of the others from twenty-five to sixty, feet above the natural surface, with here and there the still higher remains of towers. There were several gates, of which the chief were one in the northern and two in the eastern wall. Round all the walls except the western ran moats about a hundred and fifty feet broad-not close up to the foot of the walls, but at a distance of some sixty feet. Water was supplied by the Choser to all the moats south of it; those to the north were fed from a canal which entered the city near its northern corner. At these and other points one can still trace the remains of huge dams, batardeaux, and sluices; and the moats might be emptied by opening at either end of the western wall other dams, which kept back the waters from the bed of the Tigris. Beyond its moat, the eastern wall was protected north of the Choser by a large outwork covering its gate, and south of the Choser by another outwork, in shape the segment of a circle, and consisting of a double line of fortification more than five hundred yards long, of which the inner wall was almost as high as the great wall itself, but the outer considerably lower. Again, in front of this and in face of the eastern plain was a third line of fortification, consisting of a low inner wall and a colossal outer wall still rising to a height of fifty feet, with a moat one hundred and fifty feet broad between them. On the south this third line was closed by a large fortress.
Upon the trebly fortified city the Medes drew from east and. north, far away from Kalchu and able to avoid even Dur-Sargma. The other fortresses on the frontier and the approaches fell into their hands, says Nahum, like "ripe fruit." [Nahum 3:12] He cries to Nineveh to prepare for the siege. [Nahum 3:14] Military authorities suppose that the Medes directed their main attack upon the northern corner of the city. Here they would be upon a level with its highest point, and would command the waterworks by which most of the moats were fed. Their flank, too, would be protected by the ravines of the Choser. Nahum describes fighting in the suburbs before the assault of the walls, and it was just here, according to some authorities, that the famous suburbs of Nineveh lay, out upon the canal and the road to Khorsabad. All the open fighting which Nahum foresees would take place in these "out-places" and "broad streets" the mustering of the "red" ranks, the "prancing horses" and "rattling chariots" [Nahum 3:2] and "cavalry at the charge." [Nahum 3:3] Beaten there the Assyrians would retire to the great walls, and the waterworks would fall into the hands of the besiegers. They would not immediately destroy these, but in order to bring their engines and battering-rams against the walls they would have to lay strong dams across the moats; the eastern moat has actually been found filled with rubbish in face of a great breach at the north end of its wall. This breach may have been effected not only by the rams but by directing upon the wall the waters of the canal; or farther south the Choser itself, in its spring floods, may have been confined by the besiegers and swept in upon the sluices which regulate its passage through the eastern wall into the city. To this means tradition has assigned the capture of Nineveh, and Nahum perhaps foresees the possibility of it: "the gates of the rivers are opened, the palace is dissolved."
Now of all this probable progress of the siege Nahum, of course, does not give us a narrative, for he is writing upon the eve of it, and probably, as we have seen, in Judah, with only such knowledge of the position and strength of Nineveh as her fame had scattered across the world. The military details, the muster, the fighting in the open, the investment, the assault, he did not need to go to Assyria or to wait for the fall of Nineveh to describe as he has done. Assyria herself (and herein lies much of the pathos of the poem) had made all Western Asia familiar with their horrors for the last two centuries. As we learn from the prophets and now still more from herself, Assyria was the great Besieger of Men. It is siege, siege, siege, which Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah tell their people they shall feel: "siege and blockade, and that right round the land!" It is siege, irresistible and full of cruelty, which Assyria records as her own glory. Miles of sculpture are covered with masses of troops marching upon some Syrian or Median fortress. Scaling ladders and enormous engines are pushed forward to the walls under cover of a shower of arrows. There are assaults and breaches, panic-stricken and suppliant defenders. Streets and places are strewn with corpses, men are impaled, women led away weeping, children dashed against the stones. The Jews had seen, had felt these horrors for a hundred years, and it is out of their experience of them that Nahum weaves his exultant predictions. The Besieger of the world is at last besieged; every cruelty he has inflicted upon men is now to be turned upon himself. Again and again does Nahum return to the vivid details, he hears the very whips crack beneath the walls, and the rattle of the leaping chariots; the end is slaughter, dispersion, and a dead waste.
Two other points remain to be emphasized. There is a striking absence from both chapters of any reference to Israel. Jehovah of Hosts is mentioned twice in the same formula, [Nahum 2:13;, Nahum 3:5] but otherwise the author does not obtrude his nationality. It is not in Judah’s name he exults, but in that of all the peoples of Western Asia. Nineveh has sold "peoples" by her harlotries and "races" by her witchcraft; it is "peoples’" that shall gaze upon her nakedness and "kingdoms" upon her shame. Nahum gives voice to no national passions, but to the outraged conscience of mankind. We see here another proof, not only of the large, human heart of prophecy, but of that which in the introduction to these Twelve Prophets we ventured to assign as one of its causes. By crushing all peoples to a common level of despair, by the universal pity which her cruelties excited, Assyria contributed to the development in Israel of the idea of a common humanity.
The other thing to be noticed is Nahum’s feeling of the incoherence and mercenariness of the vast population of Nineveh. Nineveh’s command of the world had turned her into a great trading power. Under Assurbanipal the lines of ancient commerce had been diverted so as to pass through her. The immediate result was an enormous increase of population, such as the world had never before seen within the limits of one city. But this had come out of all races and was held together only by the greed of gain. What had once been a firm and vigorous nation of warriors, irresistible in their united impact upon the world, was now a loose aggregate of many peoples, without patriotism, discipline, or sense of honor. Nahum likens it to a reservoir of waters [Nahum 2:8] which as soon as it is breached must scatter, and leave the city bare. The Second Isaiah said the same of Babylon, to which the bulk of Nineveh’s mercenary populace must: have fled:-
"Thus are they grown to thee, they who did weary thee, Traders of thine from thy youth up Each as he could escape have they fled None is thy helper."
The prophets saw the truth about both cities. Their vastness and their splendor were artificial Neither of them, and Nineveh still less than Babylon, was a natural center for the world’s commerce. When their political power fell, the great lines of trade, which had been twisted to their feet, drew back to more natural courses, and Nineveh in especial became deserted. This is the explanation of the absolute collapse of that mighty city. Nahum’s foresight, and the very metaphor in which he expressed it, were thoroughly sound. The population vanished like water. The site bears little trace of any disturbance since the ruin by the Medes, except such as has been inflicted by the weather and the wandering tribes around. Mosul, Nineveh’s representative today, is not built upon it, and is but a provincial town. The district was never meant for anything else.
The swift decay of these ancient empires from the climax of their commercial glory is often employed as a warning to ourselves. But the parallel, as the previous paragraphs suggest, is very far from exact. If we can lay aside for the moment the greatest difference of all, in religion and morals, there remain others almost of cardinal importance. Assyria and Babylonia were not filled, like Great Britain, with reproductive races, able to colonize distant lands, and carry everywhere the spirit which had made them strong at home. Still more, they did not continue at home to be homogeneous. Their native forces were exhausted by long and unceasing wars. Their populations, especially in their capitals, were very largely alien and distraught, with nothing to hold them together save their commercial interests. They were bound to break up at the first disaster. It is true that we are not without some risks of their peril. No patriot among us can observe without misgiving the large and growing proportion of foreigners in that department of our life from which the strength of our defense is largely drawn-our merchant navy. But such a fact is very far from bringing our empire and its chief cities into the fatal condition of Nineveh and Babylon. Our capitals, our commerce, our life as a whole are still British to the core. If we only be true to our ideals of righteousness and religion, if our patriotism continue moral and sincere, we shall have the power to absorb the foreign elements that throng to us in commerce, and stamp them with our own spirit.
We are now ready to follow Nahum’s two great poems delivered on the eve of the Fall of Nineveh. Probably, as we have said, the first of them has lost its original opening. It wants some notice at the outset of the object to which it is addressed: this is indicated only by the second personal pronoun. Other needful comments will be given in footnotes.
1. "The Hammer is come up to thy face! Hold the rampart! Keep watch on the way! Brace the loins! Pull thyself firmly together! The shields of his heroes are red, The warriors are in scarlet; Like fire are the of the chariots in the day of his muster, And the horsemen are prancing. Through the markets rage chariots, They tear across the squares; The look of them is like torches, Like lightnings they dart to and fro. He musters his nobles. They rush to the wall and the mantlet is fixed! The river-gates burst open, the palace dissolves. And Hussab is Stripped, is brought forth, With her maids sobbing like doves, Beating their breasts. And Nineveh! she was like a reservoir of waters, Her waters. And now they flee. "Stand, stand!" but there is none to rally. Plunder silver, plunder gold! Infinite treasures, mass of all precious things! Void and devoid and desolate is she. Melting hearts and shaking knees,"
"And anguish in all loins, And nothing but faces full of black fear."
"Where is the Lion’s den, And the young lions’ feeding ground? Whither the Lion retreated, The whelps of the Lion, with none to affray: The Lion, who tore enough for his whelps, And strangled for his lionesses. And he filled his pits with prey, And his dens with rapine."
"Lo, I am at thee (oracle of Jehovah of Hosts): I will put up thy in flames. The sword shall devour thy young lions: I will cut off from the earth thy rapine, And the noise of thine envoys shall no more be heard."
2. "Woe to the City of Blood, All of her guile, robbery-full, ceaseless rapine!"
"Hark the whip, And the rumbling of the wheel, And horses galloping, And the rattling dance of the chariot! Cavalry at the charge, and flash of sabres, And lightning of lances, Mass of slain and weight of corpses, Endless dead bodies-They stumble on their dead For the manifold harlotries of the Harlot, The well-favored mistress of charms She who sold nations with her harlotries And races by her witchcrafts!"
"Lo, I am at thee (oracle of Jehovah of Hosts): I will uncover thy skirts to thy face; Give nations to look on thy nakedness, And kingdoms upon thy shame; Will have thee pelted with filth, and disgrace thee, And set thee for a gazing-stock; So that everyone seeing thee shall shrink from thee and say,"
‘Shattered is Nineveh-who will pity her? Whence shall I seek for comforters to thee?’
"Shalt thou be better than No-Amon, Which sat upon the Nile streams-waters were round her-Whose rampart was the sea, and waters her wall? Kush was her strength and Misraim without end; Phut and the Lybians were there to assist her. Even she was for exile, she went to captivity: Even her children were dashed on every street corner; For her nobles they cast lots. And all her great men were fastened with fetters."
"Thou too shalt stagger shalt grow faint; Thou too shalt seek help from the foe All thy fortresses are fig-trees with figs early-ripe: Be they shaken they fall on the mouth of the eater."
"Lo, thy folk are but women in thy midst: [Jeremiah 50:37;, Jeremiah 51:30] To thy foes the gates of thy land fly open; Fire has devoured thy bars."
"Draw thee water for siege, strengthen thy forts! Get thee down to the mud, and tramp in the clay! Grip fast the brick-mould! There fire consumes thee, the sword cuts thee off. Make thyself many as a locust swarm, Many as grasshoppers Multiply thy traders more than heaven’s stars, -The locusts break off and fly away, They are as locusts and thy as grasshoppers, That hive in the hedges in the cold of the day":
"The sun is risen, they are fled, And one knows not the place where they be. Asleep are thy shepherds, O king of Assyria, Thy nobles do slumber; Thy people are strewn on the mountains, Without any to gather. There is no healing of thy wreck, Fatal thy wound! All who hear the brunt of thee shall clap the hand at thee. For upon whom hath not thy cruelty passed without ceasing?"
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Nahum 3". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany