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 studying the last chapter of Nahum. As you close out your reading of this prophet, you may wonder how a text explicitly focused on the rise and fall of one ancient empire, Assyria, applies to your life or our world today. But let me explain a little bit about why their seems to be a prophetic obsession with Assyria in the Bible.
Prophetic Obsession with Assyria
At its highpoint, the Assyrian empire covered northern Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Syria, and Turkey. Truly, Assyria’s expansionist policies and aggressive military tactics built the first huge empire in the Middle East. We probably know more about Assyria in the seventh century BCE than we know about Europe in the Middle Ages. That is mostly thanks to Assyrian King Ashurbanipal’s library discovered during excavations of the ruins at Nineveh in the mid-1800s which contained 30,000 clay tablets.
Nineveh became the capital of Assyria during the reign of Sennacherib (704 to 681 BCE). By Nahum’s day, it was the largest city in the world. The city’s fortifications combined with its beauty and size created an imperial standard in the region that subsequent empires like the Babylonians aspired to attain.
Assyria funded their army’s exploits and the kings’ ambitious building projects by imposing heavy tax burdens on their vassal states and plundering their victims. Assyria’s military was its greatest asset. Based off the Assyrian tablets and the preserved iconography in their estate buildings, their reputation for brutality was well earned. Beheading prisoners, gouging out the eyes of the elites, and burning captured monarchs alive are examples of the gratuitous violence that made them infamous.
Mass deportation was the Assyrian method for preventing organized uprisings. We know of their deportation policy because of the fate of Israel’s ten lost tribes, but historians believe the Assyrians are responsible for at least 157 other deportations (The World Around the Old Testament 2016: 63).
If you spend any time in the prophets or Chronicles and Kings, you will get an education on the national mood in Judah and Israel while living with Assyrian domination. In the book The World Around the Old Testament, Assyrian experts summarize the prophets focus this way: “Assyria took on a literary and ideological role as the second nation, alongside Egypt, to represent the prototypical foreign imperial power that is judged by God” (2016: 103).
The Northern and Southern Kingdoms had different philosophies in their international policies towards Assyrian oppression. The Northern Kingdom of Israel opposed the Assyrians by both withholding tribute and building an anti-Assyrian alliance. Failure to pay tribute would have been enough grounds for Assyria to attack, but Israel’s attempt to organize resistance against Assyrian oppression sealed her fate.
From 734-731 BCE, Tiglath-pileser led a campaign westward against Israel and her allies, killing Israel’s King Pekah and replacing him with Hoshea as a puppet leader. King Hoshea later withheld tribute himself and reached out to Egypt to build a coalition against Assyria. As payback for their resistance, Assyria sacked Israel in 722 BCE.
At first, Judah did not oppose the Assyrian taxes and therefore outlasted Israel. Only during the heavy-handed reign of Assyrian King Sennacherib did Judah put up any resistance. In response, Sennacherib led a campaign throughout Judah, destroying every city except Jerusalem. In Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, he celebrated his conquering of Judah’s second most important city, Lachish, by commissioning detailed reliefs of the Lachish siege. Still, they did not manage to conquer the capital of Jerusalem so Judah as a nation lived on a bit longer.
During the reign of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian empire began to show signs of weakening. The Assyrians had overextended their reach internationally, ignoring the internal discord and civil unrest back home until it was too late. With Ashurbanipal’s death, the subjugated vassal states saw their chance to reclaim their independence. After the alliance of Medes and Babylonians captured Nineveh, they swallowed up what remained of Assyria.
The Assyrian tablets provide a curated version of their history of battles and victories. The book of Nahum offers us the other side of the story, telling of Assyria’s reputation among its many victims. Nahum calls Assyria a murderous deceptive nation. According to Nahum, Nineveh is a “city of bloodshed” (3:1). Nahum begins his third chapter as a woe oracle, a style of speech used in funeral rituals. However, he does so ironically, because not a single nation will mourn Assyria’s passing. He is writing a woe speech with no woes.
Nahum’s last chapter is like his second chapter with snapshots of battle scenes that evoke the sounds of war: cracking whips, rumbling chariot wheels, and galloping horses (3:1). Corpses are piled up high in the streets. Nahum, master of the taunt, writes that Nineveh’s skirts will be lifted over their faces (3:5).
Nahum then asks rhetorically, “Are you better than Thebes?” (3:8). Nahum’s audience would be very familiar with the story of Thebes fall at the hands of the Assyrian army. The conquering of Thebes was a huge point of pride for Assyria. Afterall, Egypt was their strongest enemy and Thebes was their most important populous city. However, Nahum turns the event into an omen for Nineveh’s own fate. Both Nineveh and Thebes possessed fortifications like no other and rivers on one side as part of their defense system. And yet, what Assyria had done to the Egyptians now the Babylonians will do to Nineveh. Nahum’s account is graphic. The Babylonians will smash Nineveh’s babies to pieces. Nineveh’s elite will be put in chains. The captives will be exiled. All this horror is the kind of violence the Assyrians were known for, and now they are getting a taste of their own medicine.
Nahum predicts that overcoming Nineveh’s defenses will be as easy as shaking ripe figs down from a tree (3:12). In reality, the Babylonians fought hard for fourteen years before they were able to push all the way to the gates of Nineveh. But this is classic prophetic hyperbole.
Nahum describes the war preparations of Nineveh as they draw water and strengthen their defenses. They do all of it in vain because the enemy has already entered through the open gates. In the New International Version, Nahum’s slur in 3:13 is translated “Look at your troops—they are all weaklings.” That is an intentional attempt to soften the insensitivity of the prophet’s original language which should be translated: “Look at your troops: they are women in your midst” (3:13). I do not love prophetic insensitivities either, but I do prefer to know what the text actually says. If Nahum has the ancient equivalent of a prophet telling Assyria “you fight like a girl,” I want to know that. (Considering that today the Israel Defense Forces are one of the few armies in the world that have a mandatory draft for women, and 18% of the IDF’s combat soldiers are women, the insult does not carry the same weight in today’s Judah as it might have then.)
Nahum 3 ends with an almost giddy tone. The nations are reveling in Assyria’s ruin. Nahum writes, “All who hear the news about you, clap their hands over you.” The book ends with a rhetorical question, “For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” (3:19).
Only two books in the whole of the Bible end with rhetorical questions: Nahum and Jonah. The book of Jonah ends with God asking the rebellious prophet, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city?” (Jonah 4:11). It is as if the prophets have a starting point and end point on a timeline, beginning with Jonah’s question which shows God’s willingness to hold back his punishment of Nineveh and ending with Nahum’s question which shows the limits of God’s patience when it comes to the wickedness of the Ninevites.
Yahweh cannot allow for wickedness to persist forever. As Nahum writes, “no adversary will rise up twice” (1:9). Habakkuk will flesh out this point further in trying to understand God’s interaction with all of humanity.
History of Application
Nahum, in its original intent, provided comfort to the people of Judah who had been living under Assyrian oppression for two centuries. God’s promise of coming judgement for Nineveh was an expression of his continued care for the Jewish people. Indeed, every word spoken by Nahum came true. Nineveh was destroyed in short order, and the city was lost to history in 612 BCE.
Even though Nineveh is the target of Nahum’s oracle, as he notes explicitly in the superscription, the prophet holds back from naming Nineveh repeatedly in the text. This allows Nahum to expand with a universal message of the guarantees of Yahweh’s superiority over evil human empires. In an application reading, Nineveh can be allegorical for anything or anyone opposing Yahweh. The chilling pronouncement given twice in Nahum to Nineveh, “Behold, I am against you” (2:13), is extended to other empires and sects who stand in opposition to Yahweh’s will.
Nahum 1:1 cryptically points to the Assyrian King as the wicked counselor. But by the end of Nahum, the Assyrian king is the focal point but Nahum never names the king. Not naming the king extends the universality of Nahum’s message through the ages. Interestingly, the King of Judah is not named or addressed at all. Most likely, at the time of Nahum’s prophecies, King Manasseh was on the throne in Jerusalem. Nahum has no desire to give Manasseh credit. This is not his battle. The victory belongs to Yahweh, the Divine Warrior King.
Not surprisingly, Jews living centuries after Nahum’s prophetic utterances, took Nahum’s promises and applied his message to their own situation. The Essenes, the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, often projected their story onto prophetic passages. With Nahum, the Essenes saw clear parallels between the people of Judah living under Assyrian oppression with their own tribulations living in an isolated community in the Judean wilderness during the first century. We know this because one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Pesher Nahum, is an Essene commentary on Nahum. The Essenes had a propensity for interpreting prophetic texts in light of their own experiences.
In the Pesher Nahum, Assyrian brutality pointed to the violence of the Hasmonean rulers who opposed the Essene sect. The fall of Nineveh was considered a prediction of the fall of the Essene’s rivals living in Jerusalem. Nahum’s elect were those Essenes living at Qumran, the ones God chose to save and preserve.
Early Christians also read Nahum as a reflection of their reality living in the Roman empire. The darkness of the widespread cultural influence of Assyria felt like the darkness surrounding them. They read Nahum’s prophecies of Nineveh’s fall alongside Revelation 17’s foretelling of the fall of godless empires. Both use the language of prostitution to describe the abominations. Christians connected the second coming of Jesus to the avenging God of Nahum as both determined to end the evil forces of the day.
Even today, if you hear Nahum preached in sermons, the application is something along these lines: Yahweh can defeat even the greatest of enemies despite the odds to protect those he has called His own.
In Bible Fiber, I try to resist the urge to put too much modern-day application on any of the prophets. I believe they have so much to offer on their own terms. However, Nahum has such a rich history of application that I feel like it is important to know how Jewish and Christian believers through the centuries approached the text that on the surface is about Nineveh but under the surface is about Yahweh’s faithfulness.
In March of 2020, the Israel Antiquities Authority made a stunning announcement that they had discovered dozens of small Dead Sea Scroll fragments. These small pieces of parchment were the first Dead Sea Scrolls found in sixty years. When the Dead Sea Scroll Unit reconstructed the fragments, they discovered that they were verses from Nahum 1:5–6:
“The mountains quake before him and the hills melt away. The earth trembles at his presence, the world and all who live in it. Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him.”
In the spirit of extrapolating hope from the prophet whose name means comfort, I cannot read these words without whispering a prayer for the people of Ukraine right now at this moment. The Lord is sovereign overall. Deliverance comes by Him and through Him.
For next week, please read the first chapter of Habakkuk, the prophet not afraid to question Yahweh’s methods.
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