Notes on Nahum

Nahum is an elusive figure. Some suggest he lived during the fall of Nineveh to the Babylonians or the Persians, or perhaps just prior to the downfall of Assyria. The intent of the text is to show the “vision” of Nahum, as identified at the outset. Ironically, Nahum means something like “comforter” in Hebrew, though there is very little that is comforting about his text.

What is the vision? Nahum begins by outlining the furious wrath of the Lord, and the many ways that He will bring suffering upon the land (Chapter 1). After Chapter 1 ends, the text focuses on the impending doom of Nineveh. Woe is brought upon Nineveh, a city “full of lies and robbery” (3:1), and as a result God will lay waste to the city, and to the rest of the Assyrians. They will receive a wound from which they cannot heal (3:19). There are only three chapters in Nahum but they all share a common tone of vengeance toward the Assyrians occupiers. Unlike other writings from the prophets, the book of Nahum does not end on a high, with promises of hope and redemption. It is a short text prophesying, and perhaps praising, the downfall of Assyria.

What is Assyria? Prior to the rise of Babylon, and the Persian (Mede) empire, the great imperial power of the Mesopotamian region was Assyria. The empire was at its height under Ashurbanipal who built his great library at Nineveh, from which we have recovered ancient classics like the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, an account of cosmic origins. Nineveh was the zenith of the ancient world. Apparently, the city was destroyed by a fire around 625 BC. We imagine Nahum living within this milieu, in a quiet region of Israel, where he was free to preach against Assyria.

As the Biblical texts have progressed, we observe a shift away from the early establishment of Mosaic law and the hope for a future land or city to call home for the Jewish people. In the latter texts (particularly the “minor prophets”) there is great skepticism towards cities, and the spiritual is toward God as a merciful and just God. Metropolitan areas of all kinds are not to be trusted for they are compared to “harlots” – even Jerusalem -as cities bring immorality to the people. Great cities like Babylon and Nineveh are particular targets of the prophets and their politically-inspired visions of destruction. The “minor prophets” are focused more on tearing things down, rather than establishing things (like cities or laws), and their focus has turned to a more ethereal God as his earthly dwelling place (the temple in Jerusalem) is either under constant threat of destruction.

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