Who was Nimrod?
If you are like me, you may have been baffled to see long stories posted on social media by members of fringe Christian groups (and some atheists) claiming that Nimrod was the founder of most ancient pagan worship, that he was the husband of Semiramis, the father of Tammuz, and the inspiration for many of the beliefs and practices of mainstream Christian churches.
Nimrod appears in the Bible in three places. First, in Genesis 10:8-12 “Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, ‘Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.’ The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria, and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah, which is the great city.” Cush was the son of Ham, one of the sons of Noah.
This is from the RSV, probably the most literal of the reliable modern translations. But the Hebrew can just as well and probably better be read “From that land came Ashur, who built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir..” etc. Ashur was one of the sons of Shem. The same word is used for both the person and the empire. Ashur is also the name of one of the gods of Assyria.
Nimrod is also mentioned In Micah 5:6 “They will shepherd the land of Assyria with the sword, the land of Nimrod at its entrances.” This does not mean two different places. It is the typical parallelism of Hebrew poetry. Here Assyria and the land of Nimrod are the same place.
And in 1 Chronicles 1:10 “Cush fathered Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one on the earth.”
In a social media discussion I was told that the word “mighty” (gibbor in Hebrew) in the verses from Genesis and Chronicles actually means despot, so Nimrod was a mighty despot and hunter of those who belonged to the Lord. While the word gibbor can mean despot or tyrant, it more usually simply means mighty, as when applied to God in Deuteronomy 10:17, Psalm 24:8, and Isaiah 9:6. Neither Genesis nor either of the two other Biblical references and surrounding context give any basis for claiming Nimrod was a hunter of those who belong to the Lord.
Another Facebook conversation claimed that “before the Lord” means “in rebellion against the Lord.” But this is not the plain meaning of the text. Exodus 29 repeatedly speaks of worship and offerings before the Lord. Deuteronomy 16:11 instructs the Jews to rejoice before the Lord. 1 Samuel 2:18 tells us Samuel ministered before the Lord. In 2 Samuel 6:14 David danced before the Lord. Psalm 37:7 tells us to be silent before the Lord.
For people whose basis of belief is sola scriptura, the most that can be said of Nimrod is that he was the son of Cush, the great-grandson of Noah, that he was a mighty hunter, and that he later became associated with the land of Assyria.
Like Enoch and Melchizedek, Nimrod seems to be important, but the Bible doesn’t give much information about him. As with the former two, this has led to speculation and the development of further legends, none of which can be substantiated by reference to other historical records.
The Jewish historian Josephus records some Jewish legends about Nimrod. In book 1, chapter 4 sections 2 and 3 of his Antiquities of the Jews he wrote:
“It was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God. He was the grandson of Ham, the son of Noah, a bold man, and of great strength of hand. He persuaded them not to ascribe it to God, as if it was through his means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness. He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power. He also said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers!
… When God saw that they acted so madly, he did not resolve to destroy them utterly, since they were not grown wiser by the destruction of the former sinners; but he caused a tumult among them, by producing in them diverse languages, and causing that, through the multitude of those languages, they should not be able to understand one another. The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion.”
In this story, Nimrod built a great tower to the heavens because he was determined to avenge the destruction of humanity in the flood.
But there are other traditions. For example, the Targum Yerushalmi, also known as the Targum Pseudo-jonathan, a Judean interpretation and explanation of the Torah, reports the belief that Nimrod left Shinar and moved to Assyria in northern Mesopotamia, refusing to take part in building the tower of Babel, and that God rewarded him for his faithfulness by giving him four cities in Assyria. Ephrem the Syrian, a Christian theologian and hymn-writer who lived from 306AD to 373AD, likewise recorded that Nimrod was mighty for the Lord, and opposed the rash actions of those who built the tower.
None of these older sources, nor any other historical document before 1850, claim any association between Nimrod, Semiramis and Tammuz. Who then were Semiramis and Tammuz?
Semiramis is a legendary figure in Assyrian and Babylonian history. She was the daughter of fish goddess Derkato and a human male. Abandoned by her mother at birth, she was found by the royal shepherd and brought up in the palace. She married Onnes, a general under king Ninus, and came to the king’s attention as a military advisor. After she proved herself not only as a strategist but a fighter, leading a successful raid which led to the capture of the city of Bactra, Ninus fell in love with her and married her following the death of Onnes by suicide. Ninus and Semiramis had a son called Ninyas. When Ninus died, Semiramis ruled in Ninyas’s place for forty-two years, during which time she conquered much of the Middle East, extending the boundaries of the empire as far as India, and restoring the city of Babylon. There is no evidence for any of this in any historical records or in the comprehensive king lists of Assyria or Babylon.
It is possible the character of Semiramis is based on that of queen Shammuramat, wife of King Shamshi-Adad V, who ruled between 824BC and 811BC. The legendary accounts of Semiramis are placed much earlier than this, and as myths and legends usually are, not at any specific time. It is possible that when Shamshi-Adad V died, Shammuramat ruled as regent until their son Adad-nirari III came of age. Later writers and traditions ascribed many military campaigns and building projects to her, but the only reference to her that is close in time to this period is a stele (obelisk like monument) she had built in the city of Ashur, which reads: “Stele of Shammuramat, queen of Shamshi-Adad, King of the Universe, King of Assyria, Mother of Adad Nirari, King of the Universe, King of Assyria, Daughter-in-Law of Shalmaneser, King of the Four Regions of the World.” Regent or not, Shammuramat was a woman of considerable skill and power.
The Bible records that Nimrod was Noah’s great-grandson. Using Ussher’s chronology and reconstructing from genealogies, it is possible he could have been alive when Abraham was born in about 2,000BC. He could not have been alive in 811BC. There is no possible link between Nimrod and the historical Shammuramat.
Tammuz was a minor early Mesopotamian god of sheep and herding. His father Enki was one of the great gods of Sumeria. His mother Duttur was symbolic of ewes. Later Tammuz was absorbed into the Assyrian pantheon, and possibly from there to Babylon, though there are very few references to Tammuz in the Babylonian period. Over this time, his role changed from pastoral (herding) to agricultural (cropping). Historians believed that In Assyria he was a dying and rising god, but this view is no longer held. It seems more likely he was like Persephone in Greek mythology, not dying, but spending half the year in the underworld, and the other half on Earth or in the heavens.
The only record of Tammuz in the Bible is Ezekiel 8:14. In a vision, along with many other sins and abominations, Ezekiel was shown saw women sitting in the North entrance to the temple, weeping for Tammuz. This was sympathetic magic. The women were not weeping as in mourning, but on his behalf. It was believed his tears watered the crops, so their sharing in his weeping would make the grain more productive.
The temple no longer existed at this time. Ezekiel, who was born into a priestly family and was familiar with the temple, was taken to Babylon at the fall of Jerusalem in 597BC when he was about twenty-five, and died there in his early fifties. All of the book of Ezekiel was written in Babylon during the Exile. Ezekiel’s purpose is to explain that the temple was destroyed and Israel (actually the Southern tribes, the Northern tribes having been dispersed by the Assyrian Empire some one hundred and twenty years earlier) was taken into exile because of their failure to keep the law, and especially because of their defiling of the temple with idols and the worship of other gods.
It is worth remembering that Ezekiel does not say that he ever actually saw Tammuz being worshipped in the temple, nor is there any evidence that the worship of Tammuz was common in Israel. It is very likely, on the other hand, that some of the exiles adopted some of the religious practices of the society in which they now lived. This needed to stop before God would return them through the Northern entrance to Jerusalem and allow the temple to be rebuilt. There is no evidence that Tammuz or any other of the old Assyrian or Babylonian gods was ever worshipped, or even remembered in Israel after the return from exile.
None of this has anything to do with Nimrod or Semiramis. There is no connection in any ancient literature between Nimrod, Semiramis and Tammuz. Nimrod was not married to Semiramis, Tammuz was not Semiramis’s son. Where did this idea come from? The answer is a pamphlet called “The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife,” written by a Free Church of Scotland minister called Alexander Hislop. This pamphlet was published in 1853, and expanded into a book in 1858. It has been in print since, going through several new editions.
Before going on, let’s note that mainstream Christian worship and belief does have some things in common with some pagan cults.
We offer worship to a god we believe is personal, and who takes an interest in us. So did pagans. We sing songs of praise. So did pagans. We participate in a memorial meal which brings us into God’s closer presence. So did some pagans. We use images to remind us of the love and justice and generosity of God. So did pagans. We read from sacred texts inspired by God to lead us to Him. So did pagans. We use water for baptism. Some pagans also used water to symbolise the washing away of sin. These are simply universal aspects of all human worship. They are not in themselves pagan, and there is no reason Christians should stop reading from the Bible or gathering for worship or singing just because pagans did.
Hislop claims are much stronger than this. For example, he claims the reason Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th is that this was the birthday of Tammuz. Leaders of the Catholic Church know this, he claims, and celebrate Christmas on this date because they know their religion is a continuation of the Babylonian cult of Nimrod, Semiramis and Tammuz (despite the fact there is no evidence any such cult ever existed). In the same way he claims Christians honouring Mary are actually worshipping Semiramis. Asking our friends in the great crowd of witnesses to pray for us, belief in the real presence of Jesus in Holy Communion, the baptism of children, and the celebration of Easter, are all also, he claims, evidence that the Catholic faith, and the faith of other churches including the Orthodox churches, and most mainstream protestant denominations, is actually worship of Nimrod, Semiramis and Tammuz.
Hislop claims that all major pre-Christian pagan religions were adoptions or transformations of his Babylonian/Nimrod religion. How did he get this idea? The simple fact is, he made it up. No archaeologist or historian believes Hislop’s pamphlet is any more than a collection of disconnected fantasies.
Nimrod does not appear in any of the comprehensive king lists of Assyria or Babylonia, but this is no hindrance to Hislop. He simply asserts that the mythical tale of Semiramis and Ninus is history, and that Ninus was Nimrod. Ninyas was, he claims, is another name for Tammuz. This makes as much sense and has as much basis as claiming Robbie Burns is the same person as Robin Hood, and Eddie van Halen is the same person as Einstein.
How does he get a birthdate of 25th December for Ninyas/Tammuz? Hislop claimed that Adonis, Apollo, Bacchus, Cupid, Dagon, Hercules, Lucifer, Mars, Merodach, Mithra, Moloch, Narcissus, Ninus, Odin, Orion, Osiris, Pluto, Saturn, Typhon, Vulcan, and Zoroaster, were all the same person, and that stories of all these other monsters, gods, and heroes were in reality stories about Nimrod. Since Semiramis was the wife of Ninus, and Ninus is Nimrod and all the other aforementioned deities, then Aphrodite, Artemis, Astarte, Aurora, Bellona, Ceres, Diana, Ishtar, Iris, Juno, Mylitta, Proserpine, Rhea, Venus, and Vesta, were all really Semiramis, all really the wife of Nimrod, and all the stories about them are stories about Nimrod’s wife.
Working on from this point, Hislop argues that Egyptian goddess Isis (whom he insists is Semiramis) and her husband Osiris (whom he tells us is Nimrod) had a son Horus (whom he tells us is Tammuz), and that Horus was born on December 25th.
These Egyptian gods are mentioned in the Pyramid texts from 2350BC on. Shammuramat, the likely basis of the legends of Semiramis, did not live until 1500 years later, making it impossible that she could be the inspiration for the legends of Isis. That would cause most people to have second thoughts. But Hislop ploughs on regardless.
Hislop relies for his belief that Horus (Tammuz) was born on December 25th on Egyptian legends that the son of Isis was born about the time of the Winter solstice. Since all the other gods and monsters he mentions are all Nimrod, and therefore they are all married to Semiramis, and therefore all the firstborn sons ascribed to them are actually Tammuz, all of them were also born on December 25th. Hislop comes to this conclusion despite the fact that not a single legend concerning any of them names that date as their birth date.
In addition and obviously, about the time of the Winter solstice (December 22nd) is not necessarily the 25th of December. Egyptians celebrated the birth of Horus in Spring, not Winter.
Hislop relied on a book called The Ancient Egyptians by Sir J Gardner Wilkinson. Wilkinson was a careful and accurate collector of facts and stories. His work is still held in high regard, and he is considered the founder of modern Egyptology. Wilkinson records that the son of Isis who was born about the time of the winter solstice was not Horus, her older son, but a younger son, Harpocrates. Wilkinson may not be correct here. In some versions of the story, Harpocrates is the childhood name of Horus. But Hislop did not even quote Wilkinson correctly, instead simply grabbing what he thought supported his views, leaving anything out that did not.
Easter, claims Hislop, is the celebration of Semiramis as a fertility goddess (which she was not) under the name of Ishtar (no one except he has ever claimed any connection between the two). He claims Ishtar was pronounced Easter (it wasn’t), and therefore the Christian celebration of Easter is really about her, which means it is really about Nimrod, Semiramis and Tammuz.
I have written about the date and name of Easter here: https://qohel.com/2017/04/17/easter-ishtar-and-eostarum/
And the date of Christmas here: https://qohel.com/…/04/03/christmas-yule-and-sol-invictus/
Names and dates are not the only instances where Hislop misquotes Wilkinson and other sources, or quotes selectively and deceptively.
For example, Hislop claimed one of the proofs that Catholicism was a continuation of the Babylonian mystery religion of Nimrod, Semiramis and Tammuz is that Catholic churches use round wafers in Communion. Relying on his Isis equals Semiramis theory, he quotes Wilkinson’s The Ancient Egyptians, noting that Egyptians used round cakes on their altars, and claims that since all these stories are really stories about Nimrod, they must have been used in Babylonian mystery religion. That is, the religion he made up, for which no evidence exists. He leaves out the surrounding sentences in Wilkinson’s book, which note the Egyptians also used square and folded cakes, and cakes in the shape of animals.
The real reason many churches use round wafers is twofold. First, it is a reference back to the manna provided by God in wilderness: “When the dew that lay had gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, like hoarfrost on the ground. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, “What is this?” For they knew not what it was. And Moses said unto them, “This is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat.” Exodus 16:14-15. Holy Communion is the new manna, the new bread from heaven. Secondly, the bread used by Jesus at the Last Supper was the unleavened bread of Passover. This is a flat round bread like naan or pita. The Apostles continued to use round flat bread so that they were following Jesus’ instructions as closely as possible.
Paganism all began with Nimrod! No, it didn’t. There are a few ambiguous lines about Nimrod in the Bible, and some contradictory later Jewish traditions, none of which associate him with Assyrian or Babylonian deities. Nimrod appears nowhere in the lists of ancient kings. No ancient texts mention any link between Nimrod and Semiramis, and Semiramis and Tammuz. No text anywhere mentions this until Hislop’s’ pamphlet in 1853.
The Babylonian mystery religion of Nimrod, Semiramis and Tammuz never existed. It was entirely the invention of a bored Scottish Presbyterian with no knowledge of ancient Middle eastern history or languages.
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