Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Nahum: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The biblical book of Nahum is a book of seemingly unintentional irony.  It was written shortly after the destruction of Assyria by Babylon in 612 B.C.E.  If you recall, Assyria was the powerful empire that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E.  Written from the southern kingdom of Judah, Nahum’s book is an unapologetic gloat over the destruction of Israel’s enemy.  The book is ironic, however, because 25 years after it was written, Judah would be destroyed by the same enemy (Babylon).

The picture of God presented by Nahum is, at times, quite disturbing.  He is the jealous, nationalistic warrior God of wrath and vengeance.  The book opens with these lines:

“A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and rages against his enemies.”

Here we are a far cry from Jesus, who urged his followers to “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek.”  Nahum’s God has no love for his enemies, and describes their destruction in brutal, self-satisfied detail.  Here are a few excerpts…

“I will make your grave, for you are worthless…
It is decreed that the city be exiled,
its slave women led away,
moaning like doves
and beating their breasts…
Plunder the silver,
plunder the gold!
There is no end of treasure!…
Devastation, desolation, and destruction!
Hearts faint and knees tremble,
all loins quake,
all faces grow pale!…
piles of dead,
heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
they stumble over the bodies…
I am against you,
says the Lord of hosts,
and will lift up your skirts over your face;
and I will let the nations look on your nakedness
and kingdoms on your shame.
I will throw filth at you
and treat you with contempt,
and make you a spectacle.”

Technically, it was not God who brought this devastation on Assyria.  It was Babylon.  But God takes the credit.  Assyria is described as a “cruel” and “wicked” oppressor of God’s chosen people.  This is why they were destroyed.  This is, of course, a religious view of history.  Historians today would say that Assyria was defeated because Babylon was the more powerful empire, and because they allied with the Medeans.

How, then, are we to understand a book like Nahum, with its jealous, wrathful, nationalistic God?  Maybe it is to be understood ironically, as a kind of cautionary tale, whose message is something like:  Don’t gloat over your enemy’s destruction, because you reap what you sow and you might be destroyed too.  I don’t get the sense that Nahum intended this interpretation, but from the hindsight of history, we can see it this way.  However you interpret it, the book of Nahum is, without a doubt, disturbing.

"The Fall of Nineveh (Capitol of Assyria)" by John Martin (1827)

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