Construction and Destruction: The City of the Enemy as Portrayed in the Hebrew Bible

Dr. Karolien Vermeulen

Postdoctoraal onderzoeksproject betoelaagd door het FWO-Vlaanderen.
Promotor: Prof. dr. Vivian Liska

Cities in the Hebrew Bible are crystallizations of physical places, of symbols for the nations, and of the heart of empires. The perception of their rise and fall is intimately connected with these various referents. The city is a polysemous sign, so to speak. In the biblical text the sign is created by means of language. The current project focuses on this linguistic construction of city space, more in particular, the hostile city.


The books of Jonah and Nahum feature the city of Nineveh as site of events and actor in a soon-to-beended conflict. Yet the texts do more than telling the readership that Jonah sees unexpected behavior (repentance) in a city he does not wish to visit and whose end Nahum  describes in graphic detail. Reading the book of Jonah from Nineveh’s point of view radically reframes the events and opens unexplored avenues. The language of the text which creates the textual city world for the reader presents a city that evolves from a figure to a ground, in other words, from a place drawing much attention to one disappearing in the background. Jonah’s prophecy in Jonah 3:4 forms the pivotal point in this evolution. The announcement itself retains both possible outcomes for the city: upright and saved or down and sacked. The spatial construction of the city throughout the book highlights the fundamental similarity between the Nineveh of Jonah and that depicted by Nahum. Both present notably dark cityscapes.

The book of Nahum relates an additional story of the city, that of a strong body weakening and ultimately dying. This conceptual metaphor gives rise to a variety of comparative devices that may initially seem unconnected but which actually make sense in light of the underlying metaphorical concept. Literary metaphors, similes, and metonymies in the text explore the bodily features of their source domains (e.g., the prostitute, the grasshopper) to speak of the target domain of the city. Furthermore, the unusually numerous references to body parts (mostly literal, and to a lesser degree metaphorical) assist the reader in detecting the body metaphor on the conceptual level.


The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9) relates the early days of Babylon. Its space is foregrounded, upward, and good, at least in the first part of the story. The second part, where God intervenes, retains many of the stylistic features which created this positive image,
yet it also alters the direction and interpretation in an unexpected way. For example, both parts draw on paronomasia, that is, combining similarly formed words so that the reader will connect their meanings. However, in the first part this wordplay expresses the building of the city, whereas in the second part it presents the lack of building. Focusing on the orientation of movement in the story, one sees that the initial upward and vertical orientation changes into a centrifugal and horizontal orientation. The example suggests that, on a general conceptual level, destruction may be the spatial counterpart of building the city, but that this opposition is not necessarily between the directions ‘up’ and ‘down’ in the concept ‘city’ as developed by the text. Rather, the lack of centrality and the presence of centrifugal movements are characteristic for the biblical conceptualization of the fall of Babel in Genesis 11.

The above-mentioned examples show how basic linguistic features construct complex city spaces in the Hebrew Bible. Further research will ascertain whether these singular readings of the sign ‘city,’ such as the story of the body in the case of Nineveh (Nahum) and the upward-centrifugal directional pair of Babylon (Genesis 11), translate into readings that are essential to a more general concept of hostile city in the biblical text.