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Old Testament: Nahum

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JerusalemNahum addresses the afflicted community of Judah to announce the demise of Assyria and its capital Nineveh. The community of Judah, along with many other countries, has suffered from Assyrian tyranny and violence. The question of whether or not anyone can escape the cruelty of Assyria is answered by God's standing against Assyria. The destruction of Assyria is announced through speeches formally addressed to the king of Assyria and Nineveh, but the actual audience is Judah. Both the past affliction that Judah has experienced and the coming destruction of Assyria are the work of God, as well as the usual ebb and flow of turbulent political forces.

So What?

The book asserts that oppressive violence is not enduring in the face of God's opposition to it. God is involved in the ebb and flow of history to provide refuge, even from God's own wrath.

Where Do I Find It?

Nahum is the thirty-fourth book of the Bible, the seventh of the twelve "minor" (or shorter) prophets. It lies between Micah and Habakkuk.

Who Wrote It?

The opening verse of the book attributes the book to Nahum, the Elkoshite. Neither Nahum nor Elkosh are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.

When Was It Written?

The book is written after the Assyrian destruction of Thebes (3:8-10). How much after is not clear. The successful revolt of Babylon in 626 B.C.E. marks the beginning of the unraveling of the Assyrian empire. The destruction of Nineveh in 612 B.C.E. marks the end. It is common to presume that the book was written close to the latter date.

What's It About?

The book of Nahum announced the imminent destruction of the Assyrian empire and its capital Nineveh. Assyria had been a yoke on Judah's neck, a condition that was understood to be the Lord's affliction of Judah (1:12). That affliction was declared to be at an end; Assyria/Nineveh will face the consequence of its own destructive impact on peoples it has ruled.

How Do I Read It?

The reader should take the posture of one both afflicted by the Lord and by violent political forces. If the affliction of the Lord is not factored in, the appropriation of the book can become a self-serving tirade against enemies. Even Judah must face the indignation of the Lord (1:6), but, unlike the situation for Assyria/Nineveh, for Judah the Lord is also a refuge. For contemporary readers, there are destructive forces equivalent to Assyria/Nineveh. The question all readers must face is whether they see themselves in Assyria/Nineveh or in Judah. The latter are promised deliverance from the very forces that up to this point have also been instruments of God's action. The former must face the end of its destructive impunity.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

I. Superscription (Nahum 1:1)
The book is ascribed to Nahum of Elkosh.

II. Appearance of God's Wrath (Nahum 1:2-8)
Nahum opens with an acrostic poem depicting the wrath of God, which, as the book unfolds, is directed specifically against Assyria and its capital Nineveh.

III. Destruction of God's Opponents and Restoration for God's People (Nahum 1:9-15)
Before Nahum focuses exclusively on Assyria, Judah's own status is depicted as afflicted by God through Assyrian oppression. Assyria's own defiance of God will be punished, and Judah will be released from affliction and have its communal life restored.

IV. The Destruction of Assyria and Its Capital Nineveh (Nahum 2:1-3:19)
This section offers a graphic and extended depiction of the military destruction of Nineveh, capital of Assyria. The furiousness of Assyria's conduct toward others will be directed toward it.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

The book of Nahum addresses Judah in the context of Assyrian dominance and points to its pending demise. Under Asshurbanipal's leadership (669-633 B.C.E.), Assyria had achieved widespread political power. By 663, its reach extended to Egypt, marked most notably by its destruction of Thebes (see Nahum 3:8-10). Assyria's fall was rapid; Babylon successfully rebelled within a few years after Assurbanipal's death. The historical record shows that a combination of Medes and Babylonians destroyed Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, in 612 B.C.E. Babylon emerged as the next dominant power in the ancient Near East.

In Nahum, Assyrian dominance is construed as affliction that has been sent by God, but which is soon to be over (1:12). The capacity of God to overturn Assyrian dominance appears to be a question before the Judean audience. Nahum points to God as a refuge in a world of political turmoil--a turmoil that will lead to the demise of Assyrian domination. The nation or nations that will overthrow Assyria are not named. It is reasonable to place the date of composition within the reign of Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.), but precise dating is not possible. Even if the book were written after the actual fall of Nineveh, the claim of the book would be audacious: Assyria's defeat was not due merely to the rough and tumble of politics but was the deed of God. That claim would have been disputed by Babylonian conquers and perhaps by doubters within Judah.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

Lack of prophetic judgment on Judah. At most, Nahum chides Judah for not imagining that God is capable of overturning Assyrian domination. The lack of a direct and forceful indictment of Judah leads some interpreters to regard Nahum as an instance of the false prophets of hope whom Jeremiah condemned. Nahum's ire is directed against Assyria and its capital Nineveh. Chapters 2 and 3, as well as portions of chapter 1, name only Assyria as the adversary of God. The subject of the verb translated "plot" (both in the NRSV and NIV) in 1:9 and 1:11 is not clear, but some interpreters find an indictment of Judah in these verses. The indictment, in those interpretations, charges Judah with doubting God's capacity to reverse their subservience to Assyria. Clearly, Judah is not indicted for crimes against social norms and standards of justice.

Alternatively, the lack of explicit prophetic judgment against Judah can be attributed to the specific context of its address. Judah has been and is currently under judgment. Those addressed have been indicted and are currently serving their sentence. The hope announced is not shallow avoidance of judgment; rather, the hope is over against a judgment that is already in place. The "festivals" are not being observed (1:15), and the affliction of God (1:12) is in place. The condition of judgment will be reversed.

Pronoun antecedents in chapter 1. The initial section of the book (1:2-8) has sentences starting with words that begin with the first eleven letters of the alphabet (an acrostic). No direct addressee is stated. The second person pronouns that first appear in 1:9 shift from masculine plural to feminine singular in 1:11-13, to masculine singular in 1:14, and finally back to feminine singular in 1:15, where Judah is explicitly named. While it is easy to read all the second-person pronouns beginning in 2:1 as referring to Nineveh, readers must decide between Judah and Nineveh in 1:9-14. The NIV inserts Nineveh in 1:11 and 1:14 (as well as 1:8 and 2:1) and Judah in 1:12. The NRSV retains the ambiguity. The ambiguity opens up the possibility of a chiding word directed to Judah in 1:9 or 1:11, but the issue cannot be resolved definitively. Readers must settle for the overall flow of the account, which clearly points to Nineveh's demise and Judah's restoration from affliction.

Relationship to Jonah. The chronological relationship of Jonah and Nahum is in dispute. The sequencing of the books has theological implications. In Jonah, Nineveh is spared after it repents and God does not do what God commissioned Jonah to announce (Jonah 3:4, 10). In Nahum, there is no mention of repentance. There is no summons for Nineveh to repent; the judgment is final. There is no future for Assyria beyond a grave (Nahum 1:14); the wound will be mortal (3:19).

If Jonah precedes Nahum, the theological message is understood as a warning against lapsing after one has been forgiven. Jonah is construed as a call for repentance that Nineveh heeded; the city was, as a result, spared from destruction. At a later point, it returned to its prior wickedness and Nahum announces its destruction without a possibility for repentance. A second chance is not to be squandered. Historically, this chronological construal connects the author of Jonah to the prophet Jonah mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 and places the book of Jonah at least a century prior to Nahum.

If Nahum precedes Jonah, the theological message is that, even with the vilest offenders, God has options that humans resist. Can God forgive "endless cruelty"? The answer is negative if that means violence has the last word; this is the question before the book of Nahum. But the answer may be positive, as it is in Jonah, when the human community seeks to restrain the extent of God's graciousness. Historically, this chronological construal usually posits Jonah as a postexilic composition.

Understanding the glee at the destruction of Nineveh. Does Judah's return to celebrations and vows (1:15) consist of clapping over the news of Assyria's mortal wound (3:19)? Since the book asserts that no one has escaped the "endless cruelty" of Assyria, it would be reasonable to assume that Judean readers would join the international applause. There are no projected mourners or comforters for Nineveh (3:7). There are, however, restraints on a simplistic, vengeful appropriation of Nahum's message about Assyria and its capital Nineveh. First, Judah is not appointed as the executioner in the day of Assyria's judgment. Instead, Judah, at the point of address, bears a yoke and is in bondage (1:13). Assyrian strength is an affliction for which God assumes responsibility and which God will now reverse (1:12). In Nahum's depiction, Judah knows what it is to be termed an enemy of God. Judah's first step in a different direction is to take refuge in God (1:7). The book does not directly eliminate the potential for a self-serving, triumphal reading, but it does set up rhetorical restraints. Judah has experienced, albeit in a less final form, the consequences of being an adversary of God.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

Destruction of embodied evil. The depiction of the destruction of Nineveh is very vivid and concrete. War looked like that in the ancient Near East, as Assyria's own artistic representations make clear. The violence and cruelty that Assyria visited upon its conquered victims is matched by the description of Nineveh's own destruction. There is no reason to suspect that the actual conquest of Nineveh by a coalition of Medes and Babylonians in 612 B.C.E. was any less severe than Nahum's depiction. The details may not be exact, but the intensity of the terror and violence is accurate. The book of Nahum asserts that God's defeat of evil is embodied. The challenge to contemporary theological readers is to reflect honestly on equivalent embodied possibilities.

Jealousy and vengeance of God versus adversaries. No one, the book assumes, is able to stand against God's indignation and anger (1:6). God's vengeance and jealousy bring about days of trouble and judgment. The key difference in such events is whether or not one takes refuge in God or persists as an enemy of God. Nahum, however, keeps that from being an easy distinction; Judah, which is promised refuge and even restoration, has been afflicted by God (1:12) and, as such, has had its turn as the adversary of God. The very jealousy and vengeance of God that Judah has suffered is ironically the source of hope for its future restoration. Neither Judean sin nor Assyrian cruelty can have the last word.

"Celebrate your festivals…fulfill you vows" / "Never again shall the wicked invade you" (1:15). The future depicted in Nahum is stated unconditionally. In negative terms, the destruction of Nineveh is articulated without condition. Nahum does not summon Nineveh to repent in order to redirect its future. The flipside is an unconditional statement of a positive future for Judah. The directive to celebrate festivals again is predicated on God's promise never to permit Judah to be invaded again. Contemporary readers know that some decades later Judah was invaded and devastated by Babylon. Other invaders and destroyers followed in later centuries. Yet, the book of Nahum, with this direct, unconditional promise, has been retained in the canon by both Jews and Christians. It is canonically appropriate to ask with the lament psalms and the book of Lamentations, "How long before this promise is kept?" Canonically, the book asserts a promise that God must keep with the addressees.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament