Ninveh and Teshuva: Where The Glorious City Is

Everyone is familiar with the story of Ninveh, the city that did Teshuva and escaped destruction. It’s read on Yom Kippur for that reason, and at first sight, has nothing very exciting about it.

Upon closer examination, however, we find that Ninveh is a very old city. The Torah lists it among the cities built following the mabul: From that land [of Nimrod], Ashur [Shem’s second son] went out and built Ninveh (Bereishis 10:11). Based on the Midrash, Rashi explains that Ashur saw that his sons were influenced by Nimrod’s evil plan to build the tower of Bavel. As he was worried for their spiritual welfare, he moved from Nimrod and built the town of Ninveh (Bereishis 10:11). This is probably the basis for the halacha of moving away from a city full of wicked people.

A Forty Years’ Repentance in Ninveh

This article will discuss what happened to Ninveh after Yonah induced its citizens to re­pair their evil ways. It will explore how the city backslid, how the prophet Nochum pre­dicted the city’s doom, and how a particular detail of Nochum’s prophecy is corroborated in ancient historical records.

Nowadays, little remains of ancient Ninveh. The ruins of the city huddle on the east­ern bank of the Tigris River in northwest Iraq, far distant from any ocean. Yonah must have traveled inland after leaving the fish’s belly. The ruins are surrounded and dwarfed by Mosul, the capital of Iraq’s Ninawa province and the second-largest city in Iraq. Archeolo­gists complain that Mosul’s urban sprawl is encroaching onto Ninveh’s ruins and eradi­cating the secrets buried in its dust.

Not really Ninveh

Included in the ruins are two large mounds named Koujunjik and Nabi Yunus (the Proph­et Yonah), both surrounded by the remains of a massive 7.5-mile-long rampart that was once topped by a lofty, thick wall lined with defen­sive towers and massive gates. Later, we will discuss how a natural disaster helped Ninveh’s enemies break through the city’s massive for­tifications.

On top of the Nabi, Yunus hill stands a beautiful shrine erected on what Muslim tra­dition identifies as Yonah’s burial place, a spot also venerated by Iraqi and Kurdish Jews. In keeping with his story, a whale’s tooth is said to be preserved somewhere on the premises.

Yonah’s burial place is actually subject to controversy. Some Mus­lims claim that Yonah’s kever is lo­cated inside a mosque in the town of Chalchul, north of Chevron, while Jews identify this mosque as the burial place of Nosson HaNovi and Gad Hachozeh. Another tradition places Yonah’s grave in a mosque in the village Mishad near Natzeret Illit.

This last opinion is mentioned by the 12th-century traveler, Rav Pesachya of Regens­burg, who describes how the mosque’s Arab guard honored Jewish visitors.

“When Jews arrive,” Rav Pesachya wrote, “he receives them pleasantly, saying to them, ‘Yonah the prophet was a Jew; therefore, it is fitting that you eat of his [fruit growing near the grave],’ and he gives the fruit to the Jews.” Mishad is next to the remains of Gat-Chefer, mentioned in Sefer Melachim (II, 14:25) as Yonah’s hometown.

The repentance of Ninveh was a passing phase. Last year, we mentioned that Chazal even disagree to the extent of their repen­tance in the first place. While the Gemara in Ta’anis (8b) cites the people of Ninveh as sincere baalei teshuvah whose example we should emulate, the Yerushalmi (Taanis 2:1) says that “a deceptive teshuvah was carried out by the people of Ninveh” (Pirkei d’Rebi Eliezer). They only returned stolen goods that were publicly visible and kept the hidden items for themselves.

One way or another, Ninveh backslid and reached a point of no return. “He [Hashem] lengthened their [survival] for forty years corresponding to the forty days that He sent Yonah to Ninveh. After forty years they re­turned to their evil deeds to a great extent and they were buried like the dead in the bottom­most pit.”

Ninveh’s Lowest Level

Ninveh reached a material high and a spiritual low during King Sancheirev’s reign. Thanks to the city’s strategic position on the Tigris River, the city became the capital of Ashur’s empire during his rule, replacing the old capital in nearby Kalach. At this time, Ashur be­came the rod of Hashem’s wrath (Yeshayahu 10:5), exiling the Ten Tribes and attacking the towns of Yehudah. His campaign against Yerushalayim failed when an an­gel of Hashem eradicated his army in one night and he perished soon afterward. As sefer Melachim (II 19:36-37) tells us: Sancheirev king of Ashur left, and went and returned, and dwelled at Ninveh. And as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adramelech and Sharatzar his sons struck him with the sword.

Exploring the ruins of Ninveh, arche­ologists found that Sancheirev had built a massive palace for himself decorated with massive statues weighing up to thirty tons, and adorned the city with myriad carvings depicting his prowess in hunting and battle and with inscriptions that described his true or untrue historical exploits.

An example of the latter is the description of Sancheirev’s battle against Yerushalayim that makes no mention of Sancheirev’s even­tual defeat: “Chizkiya of Yehuda who had not submitted to my yoke… I shut him in Jerusalem, his royal city, like a caged bird. Earth­works I threw up against him and anyone coming out of his city gate I made pay for his crime. His cities which I had plundered I had cut off from the land.” At this time, Ninveh had over 100,000 inhabitants and numbered among the largest cities in the world.

But the city was on its way to doom. Dur­ing the reign of King Chizkiyahu’s wicked son, Menashe, the prophet Nachum devoted almost the whole of his sefer to predicting Ninveh’s terrible end.

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The burden concerning Ninveh. The book of the vision of Nochum the Elkoshi. G-d is jealous and Hashem’s revenge; Hashem re­venges and is furious; Hashem will take ven­geance on his adversaries and He reserves wrath for His enemies… Hashem is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows them that trust in him. But with an overrunning flood, He will make an utter end of the place, and darkness will pursue His en­emies (1:1-8).

Tzefania HaNavi (2:14) also predicted that Ninveh would come to a bitter end: And He will stretch out His hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and will make Ninveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness.

Day of Judgment

The day of judgment struck forty years after Yonah inspired the people to repent. In coalition with other nations, the Babylo­nians, Scythes, and Medes besieged Ninveh for three months and razed it to the ground in about 3318 (447 BCE). Most of its populace was massacred or deported.

An ancient clay tablet called “The Fall of Ninveh Chronicle” (British Museum no. 21,901) describes the four-year campaign against Ashur and Ninveh’s swift defeat in great detail, providing exact dates of many of the events.

“The king of Akkad [Bavel] and his army crossed the Tigris. [His ally], Cyaxares had to cross the Radanu, and they marched along the bank of the Tigris. In the month Simanu [Sivan], on the [missing text] day, they en­camped against Ninveh. From the month Simanu until the month Abu, for three months, they subjected the city to a heavy siege. On the [missing text] day of the month Abu [Av], they inflicted a major defeat upon a great peo­ple. At that time Sin-sar-iskun, king of Ashur, died. They carried off the vast booty of the city and the temple and turned the city into a heap of ruins.”

Now, this report ignores a detail mentioned in Nochum’s prophecy cited earlier. Nochum had predicted that the defeat of the city would involve a great flood: With an overrunning flood He will make an utter end of the place, and darkness will pursue His enemies (1:8). The gates of the rivers will be opened, and the palace will be dissolved (2:6).

This gap in the historical record is filled by Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian from Sicily who lived about 350 years after the fall of Ninveh, in his historical work, Bibliotheca Historia. Although he describes the siege with many inaccuracies (such as saying that the siege lasted for three years and that the Euphrates river was involved, when Ninveh is actually on the Tigris), he also mentions that if not for the flood predicted by Nochum, Ninveh could probably have withstood together with all of them.

“The rebels, hearing of the end of Sardana- pallus, burst into the city where the wall was down and captured it, then arrayed Arbakes in the royal robe, saluted him king, and in­vested him with supreme authority” (Diod. II 27: 1-3).

Never again did Ninveh ever achieve a shadow of its former greatness. Even the small town that sprang over the ruins was eventually deserted. The first person to begin surveying and mapping the ancient ruins was the archeologist Claudius J. Rich in 1820. Later, in 1847, the British explorer, Sir Austen Henry Lavard discovered Sancheirev’s sev­enty-one-room palace in addition to a library with 22,000 inscribed clay tablets. European explorers transported the city’s priceless trea­sures back to Europe with no questions asked.

Nowadays, Ninveh’s archeological trea­sures are threatened by pillaging, vandalism, and Mosul’s urban development. Last year, the Global Heritage Fund counted Ninveh as one of twelve historical sites on the verge of irreparable destruction and loss. For us, Ninveh lives forever as an example of Hashem’s mercy to those who repent, and His wrath against the city that oppressed His people.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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