Dire days of destruction are coming – or rather, have come, if we decide to take that approach to the first chapter of Nahum, which we are studying for Sunday, December 26. That is: the dire predictions of the prophet of the destruction of the Assyrian city of Nineveh have already come to pass. The question is what they have to say to readers since that time. Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of the prophet Nahum concerns the city of Nineveh, the principle city of the ancient Assyrian empire. This is the same city that is the destination of the prophet Jonah, the city that Jonah does not want to see spared by God. Jonah would have liked the short book of Nahum, presumably, because Nahum prophesies the destruction of Nineveh, as the just
desserts deserts of its monstrous cruelty.
This short book, one of “the twelve” or “minor prophets,” tells us that it is a set of oracles about the city of Nineveh given to the prophet Nahum of Elkosha. We don’t know anything else about the identity of Nahum. We don’t know the location of Elkosha, either.
The text addresses the city of Nineveh, as existing but about to be destroyed. It speaks in passing of the city of Thebes, the one in Egypt, as already destroyed. We do know that the city of Thebes in Egypt was sacked by the Assyrians in 663 BCE. We also know that the city of Nineveh was sacked by the Babylonians and Medes sometime later, with 612 BCE a very popular date for that event. Rabbinic tradition has it that Nahum prophesied during the reign of Manasseh, which we date to the first half of the 7th century. That could fit the timeline established by the destruction of those two historic cities.
Even though the book is short, there are several different ways we could think of dividing it into sections. But the first chapter definitely dwells on the character of the God of Israel, and how God’s passionate devotion to justice [in the sense of avenging wrongdoing] sets up the rest of the book. There are reassurances to Judah – your oppression will end – and in the two following chapters, detailed depictions of the total destruction that will come to Nineveh. We could divide those up even further, if we wished.
Our text, however, samples the verses of the opening meditation on the character of God, and what that character leads us to expect as the future of Nineveh, and the consequences of that future for Judah.
Nahum does not appear in the lectionary. If we prefer not to deal with the concept of God as an Avenger, we may feel that’s for obvious reasons. In any case, the existence of the prophecy of Nahum is something you will not know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees be warned.
CLOSER READING: We can think of verse 1 as the title of the book – and it is really two titles, “the oracle (literally, “burden”) concerning Nineveh” and also “the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite.” So the oracle – that is, the sayings that come directly from beyond, as through a medium – and the prophet’s vision are equated.
In v2, the participle avenging repeats three times. Three times in a single verse tells us to get it through our thick heads, God avenges – being jealous and angry and clearly in no mood to put up with the enemies and foes or oppressors any longer. In this context, God’s being “jealous” seems to be less a matter of competing with idols for the people’s affection, and more about zeal and passion for the welfare of the people.
V3 repeats a portion of the language that summarizes the character of the God of Israel, which is familiar from Exodus 34:6-7, and elsewhere. But it emphasizes that God is literally great in greatness – sometimes we say “mighty in power.” And then begins describing God as a storm God. This is actually a motif that shows up not only in the Bible, but in other Ancient Near Eastern literature – as does the idea that the opponent of the Storm God is the Sea. So these verses position the God of Israel as a deity the Assyrians, too, would understand – but definitely a superior one.
Verses 6-8 underscore the wisdom of the “fear of the LORD.” Verse 6 poses a rhetorical question: who can stand and who can, literally, rise or stand up in the face of God’s anger? No one, we must know. But immediately in verse 7, this divinely angry God is identified with good – because the God who can’t abide oppression is also a stronghold for those oppressed, whom the LORD protects, those on whose behalf the divine anger is being poured out.
In verses 9-11, a complex conversation ensues. The “you” in verse 9 seems to mean the [masculine, plural] Assyrians; while the “you” in verse 11 seems to mean the [feminine, singular] city of Nineveh. Then, in verses 12-13, the speaker – the LORD – turns to address the people of Judah, with words of reassurance. The message is that the destruction of the oppressor is on the horizon.
In v12, the word translated by the NRSV as “full strength” is an adjective that refers to the idea of shalom, peace or well-being, or “wholeness” or “completeness.” Hence, “full strength.” There are several ideas about how to translate this verse – but the message seems to be that the Assyrians’ current, apparent strength is no match for God.
In Hebrew Bibles, verse 15 appears as the first verse in the next chapter. The beautiful feet of those who bring good news and proclaim shalom is probably the most recognizable line from Nahum – thanks to its being similar to Isaiah 52:7, familiar from being quoted by Paul in Romans, and then set to music by various composers, like Mendelssohn. “Celebrate your feasts” is literally “feast your feasts,” an emphasis on the feasting associated with sacrificial peace offerings. The wicked or worthless who will not be having free run of the country any more are in Hebrew belial, a word some may think of as an alternate name for the devil. That’s a connotation the word seems to have gained by early Christian times.
For some reason, Christian readers sometimes have qualms about embracing this image of a God who is wiping out the enemy. It may help us to remember that most of us do not have similar qualms when watching action films, which are usually required to feature the explosive demise of the evil villains. In this text, the Ninevites are the evil villains, and God is the Marvel Avenger. And the people who have been suffering from the villains’ evil villainy have permission to be happy about being rescued from it, without worrying overmuch about whether that’s going to be very nice for the villains. Who clearly never worried about whether their evil villainy was very nice for anyone else.
The main open question we might want to keep in the back of our own minds is just how much evil villainy we ourselves might have to answer for. That’s assuming we think that what Nahum has to say might be of more than merely historical interest, but might actually apply to us moderns as well as those ancients, if only in general principle.