Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are finishing the first chapter of Nahum and reading the second chapter. Normally, I try and keep our weekly readings nice and clean, assigning whole chapters, but I thought Nahum’s Divine Warrior Hymn had to be separated from the rest of the book’s pronouncements of judgement against Assyria and oracles of hope for Judah. Nahum 1:9 marks that transition point from hymn to prophecy.
In most of the Bible canons, Nahum is placed before Habakkuk and after Micah. This placing makes thematic and chronological sense. Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah emphasize God’s punishment while the first six prophets focus on Israel and Judah’s rebellion. But in the Septuagint, Nahum follows Jonah as a continuous discourse on God’s relationship with the Ninevites who at one time evoke his compassion and at another time provoke his wrath. In Jonah, Nineveh’s sparing displayed God’s power. In Nahum, His power is displayed in Nineveh’s destruction.
Around 150 years separate the life of Jonah from the life of Nahum with Jonah being the earlier of the two. If you read the prophets with no awareness of their relative chronology, it would be easy to assume that Nahum preceded Jonah and that his prediction of Nineveh’s fall was the oracle eventually delivered by Jonah. Or worse yet, reading Jonah and Nahum in tandem makes it appear that their messages contradict each other. Are the people of Nineveh recognized for their repentance and forgiven for their wickedness or not? Did God forgive the Ninevites and then change His mind?
In a sense, Nahum is the sequel to Jonah. In Jonah, the wickedness of Nineveh came up before Yahweh and He determined to destroy the great city (Jonah 1:1). In response to Jonah’s reluctantly delivered warning, however, the whole of the people and their king repented. Their repentance was so humble, sincere, and forthright that Yahweh relented and withdrew His punishing hand. In fact, the repentance of the Ninevites is one of the only two times in the entirety of the Book of the Twelve that people heard the words of a prophet and responded with a sincere change of heart on a national level. (Joel is the other example.)
Based off everything we know about Assyria from 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and ancient historical records, Nineveh’s revival did not last beyond a generation. Not only did they return to their violent and evil ways, but they also crossed a red line. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, ravaging the land, slaughtering the Israelites, and scattering the survivors throughout the empire. They proceeded to terrorize all the towns of Judah and only failed in their attempted takeover of Jerusalem. The Assyrian empire had exhausted the limits of God’s mercies.
No wonder Nahum states at the outset, “The Lord will by no means clear the guilty” (1:3). As the prophet Jeremiah said, God cannot “let the way of the guilty prosper” (Jer. 12:1). Nineveh’s punishment may have been delayed by repentant hearts during Jonah’s day but God’s forgiveness of the Ninevites was not eternal or unconditional. In the words of Nahum: “No adversary will rise up twice” (1:9).
In Jonah, Yahweh speaks gently to the rebellious prophet, like a patient teacher asking rhetorical questions to nudge the student to the correct answer. In Nahum, Yahweh rides on the clouds, melting mountains and shaking the earth’s foundations with each step. Still, it is not Yahweh whose fundamental character has changed from one book to the next. “For I the Lord do not change,” wrote Malachi, the last of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Nahum shows that it is the kingdoms of men that are capable of evil and the Assyrians in particular who God has judged as “utterly deceitful” (3:1).
After the Divine Warrior Hymn, Nahum asks, “Why do you plot against the Lord?” (1:9) The subject of his address is uncertain from the initial pronoun “you.” The mysterious “you” is addressed again when he declares, “from you one has gone out who plots evil against the Lord, one who counsels wickedness” (1:11). Until this point, the prophet has yet to clarify the identity of the accused. Nineveh is not named directly until the next chapter (Nahum 2:9). It seems that Nahum, a clever writer, is intentionally building suspense.
The last section of chapter 1 is a message of comfort delivered directly to Judah. Yahweh acknowledges that He has allowed for Judah’s affliction, as He used Assyria as the “rod of his anger” (Isa. 10:5). We know from the earlier prophecies of Isaiah and Micah why Judah was deserving of judgement. But Nahum does not spend any time describing Judah’s sins or rebellion, only her coming relief from the bonds of Assyrian oppression (1:13).
What God expects first upon Judah’s release is that they fully return to free worship of Yahweh, keeping to their religious calendar of feasts and festivals (1:15). Remember after the locust invasion devastated the land in Joel, the prophet’s foremost desire was to renew sacrificial worship at the Temple. We do not know why Temple sacrifice had stopped during the lifetime of Nahum while the Temple still stood. One theory is that the Assyrians demanded such a high tribute that there was no financial reserve to maintain the sacrificial system.
In further consoling Judah, Nahum wrote, “Behold, on the mountains, the feet of him who brings good tidings, Who proclaims peace!” (1:15). This verse is an example of one prophetic text mirroring another. Isaiah used that exact phraseology and imagery at an earlier time: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings” (Isa. 52:7).
The context of each verse was different. Isaiah was addressing a Judah experiencing the start of the Assyrian rise to power while Nahum was envisioning the empire’s end. Still, in the Bible, revelation builds on revelation and there is a close relationship in all the prophetic literature. Even the apostle Paul repurposed the messenger imagery of Nahum and Isaiah in his letter to the congregation in Rome: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Rom. 10:15).
The last two chapters of Nahum provide a rough sketch of the sequence of events that lead to Nineveh’s takeover. During the life of the prophet, Assyrian power seemed impenetrable. The battle scenes he vividly describes were unthinkable to his audience so accustomed to Assyria’s domination.
Nahum 2:1 warns Nineveh that a scatterer has come up against them. In the Revised Standard Version, it is translated “shatterer.” In the New King James, it is translated “he who scatters.” In the New International Version, it is “attacker.” Despite the translation discrepancies, the scatterer or shatterer is a cryptic reference to Yahweh.
The way Nahum exalts the name of Yahweh and keeps a focus on the power of Yahweh is meant to minimize the actual agents of His revenge. However, the agents are an alliance of Babylonians and Medes. The prophecy does not identify the attackers, other than the description of their red shields and crimson uniforms. (Ezekiel 23:14 also described the Babylonians as wearing red.)
In the not-too-distant future, the Babylonians will become the greatest villains in the long story of God’s people. One bad actor is uprooting another, but they are all acting out the will of Yahweh at that time.
Nahum is an effective writer, communicating the chaos of war. Nahum maintains a drumbeat to his poetry, blurring the distinctions between the actions of the attackers and the defenders. He describes chariots rambling about in the streets of Nineveh, but they could be the chariots of the Babylonians who managed to enter through a break in the wall or they could be the chariots of the Assyrians trying desperately to defend the city, but it is too late.
Soon after the attacking army invades, the plundering of the city begins. Nahum writes, “There is no end of treasure, or wealth of every desirable prize” (2:9). Here, Assyria is getting a taste of its own medicine. For centuries, the Assyrian empire had a policy of growth through warfare. They conquered every land within reach and promptly dispersed the captured peoples throughout the empire. The irony here is that the empire known for its system of robbing is being robbed. The perpetrator is now the victim.
Nahum’s account of Nineveh’s fall also hints at a watery ruin for the city. Nahum wrote, “the river gates are opened, the palace trembles” (2:6). He continued “Nineveh is like a pool whose waters run away” (2:8). Interestingly, the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote his own account of the fall of Nineveh. According to his slightly confusing version of events, an abundance of rainfall overwhelmed the canals and reservoirs. The floods weakened a portion of the protective wall and destabilized the palace. The alliance of Babylonians and Medes took advantage of the weakened walls and launched their attack.
At the time of Nineveh’s collapse, it was the largest city in the world. So of course, some legacies built up around its fall and were passed down through the centuries, making their way into first century BCE Greek writings.
However, the Babylonian annals describing Nineveh’s last days do not describe the method of their attack on Nineveh. Nahum’s vision of divine import had yet to happen. The description of Nineveh as a pool with open river gates could have been literal and therefore collaborate with the Greek historical account. Or it could have been figurative as a way of describing the rush of Assyrian refugees fleeing the city.
Personally, I like the idea of a literal destruction of Nineveh by flood. Yahweh, in control of nature, used a war strategy that only He can devise. He was able to weaken the fortifications of the city that no other nations had dreamed of penetrating. This reduces the role of the Babylonians and Medes from victor to opportunist.
Lions and Lairs
The prophet often alludes to the symbols of Assyria as a means of taunting the enemy. One of the most obvious symbols of Assyrian royalty was lions. Assyrian art and reliefs depict lions as Assyrian royalty. In the annals of King Ashurbanipal (668-627), the king bragged about his successes in lion hunts, even claiming that he killed lions with his bare hands. Nahum, using Assyrian symbology against them, paints an image at the end of chapter two of lion cubs and lionesses hunting. Even when they are successful at the hunt, however, they have no lair to devour their prey (2:11-12). The lion represents the king and the lionesses his wives and concubines. For centuries, the Assyrians roamed the lands taking whatever they desired, but now none of their empire remains, not even a single cave.
For next week, please read the last chapter of Nahum. We will talk about the universal message of Nahum and some of the ways Nahum has been interpreted and applied from the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls until the modern day.
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