An Angry Poet
Nahum is a vicious book.
It begins with a quote from Exodus 34, which includes the divine self-revelation:
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7 NRSV)
In contrast to Jonah’s citation of this text, Nahum attends to the more wrathful bits1:
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.
The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
(Nahum 1:2–3 NRSV)
The wrath of the Lord is focused in this text on Judah’s imperial enemy Assyria. the burning poetry flows from the trauma of the Assyrian destruction of the northern tribes and near destruction of Jerusalem. The prophet’s message is that though the Empire is still “at full strength and many”, their reign is coming to an end.2
However, the good news Nahum envisions being proclaimed is the destruction of Nineveh—a destruction which is imagined in vivid detail.
Because of the countless debaucheries of the prostitute,
gracefully alluring, mistress of sorcery,
who enslaves nations through her debaucheries,
and peoples through her sorcery,
I am against you, says the Lord of hosts,
and will lift up your skirts over your face;
and I will let 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.
(Nahum 3:4–6 NRSV)
Nahum is a challenging book for missional readers, providing no easy forgiveness or reconciliation for Assyria, no word of hope for the poet’s enemy. It is revenge poetry, much like Obadiah, written in solidarity with a victimized people.
One way of reading it is to enter into that solidarity. Reading Nahum alongside those who have received trauma and exploitation prepares us to be allies of the oppressed in our own age.
When Bad News is Good News
Readers might be surprised to read the familiar text of Nahum 1:15 in its context. In Romans 10:15, Paul alludes to this text, which is a parallel of sorts to Isaiah 52:7. Nahum’s version reads:
Look! On the mountains the feet of one
who brings good tidings,
who proclaims peace!
However, here there is no real word of a full, Messianic peace. The only peace Nahum can envision comes from the impending destruction of Assyria. The utter flattening of this imperial power is Good news for her victims.
Let’s not scoff at this vengeful spirit too quickly—it needs to be heard. The corrupted, devastating power of Assyria had to be stopped, and the word of Nineveh’s collapse could only be received as good news by those victims who had struggled under her power and longed for relief. To read this text in solidarity with the victimized means celebrating the end of terror. Is there any other way to enter into communion with those who have been broken by others than to stand with them as they ask for justice?
Is There Any Room For Mercy Towards Assyria?
But what about the other side? Is there any place for solidarity with Nineveh? Nahum (justifiably) cannot imagine it. God will have a hard time lining up mourners at the funeral:
Then all who see you will shrink from you and say,
“Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?”
Where shall I seek comforters for you?
(Nahum 3:7 NRSV)
Nobody sheds a tear for the oppressor. Indeed, Nahum recognizes that Assyria’s cruel reach has been universal—and celebration over her downfall will surely be so as well.
All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?
(Nahum 3:18–19 NRSV)
Only after we have read this text in solidarity with the victims, wept for them and stood with them while they have we lashed out can we understand what it means to reach toward the oppressor. It’s hard to find a leverage point for mercy, a place where we can begin to see that they have been broken, too. Though they have exercised agency in the process, they have also been acting out a role, been victims of the corrupted structures of the world, the game laid out for them. Did they truly understand their own evil? What forces were they swept up in?
Eventually we might find a way to ask, “Is there any hope for their redemption?” We may struggle towards an imagination of what repentance might look like for them. The struggle is a good sign, an indication that we are reading Nahum on its own terms. But ultimately, Nahum needs a conversation partner, and the Minor Prophets oblige us, bringing Jonah to the table.3
Nahum’s Conversation Partner: Jonah
Although Jonah is the more familiar book, it makes sense to me to read NAhum first, absorbing its pathos before turning to Jonah. The dissonance of Jonah emerges more clearly when we read Nahum, absorbing the trauma and finding solidarity with the victims. Then, all of a sudden, Jonah doesn’t seem like simply a foolish, begrudging simpleton. His response, even if comically tragic, makes sense coming from the perspective of Nahum. The big differences between the prophet Nahum and Jonah?
- Nahum received a word for Judah, Jonah was sent to Nineveh.
- Jonah gets eaten by a fish and vomited.
The perspective of the two prophets towards Nineveh are likely in alignment with each other. Jonah shouts Amen all through Nahum’s sermon, and Nahum screams in protest when God sends Jonah to the Assyrians.
On the other hand, the books Nahum and Jonah are pointed in different directions. Jonah is an astonishing, dumbfounding, stupefying answer to Nahum’s rhetorical question, “Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?”. The whole book points towards a final question: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Who mourns over Nineveh’s destruction? God does.
Is Judah’s pain real? Yes.
Does Nineveh need to be stopped? Yes.
Is retribution in order? Yes.
Does God care? Yes.
God cares for the Jew and the Assyrian.
Reading Like an Assyrian
One last thing. Nahum expresses Judah’s anguish over Nineveh’s oppression and to provide hope for relief from that oppression. As readers from afar, I think that reading in solidarity with the oppressed Jews is the priamry mode of reading the text, we should also consider another perspective: reading as Assyrians. It’s worth considering whether our position is most naturally that of the underdogs in the story. We might, rather, be the empowered empire that inflicts suffering on others and exploits them for our own ends. There are certainly those in the world that see the tribes that I belong to (American, White, Christian) in that light. This angle too can be over simplified, but it’s worth considering.
It may be that, as I learn to read in solidarity with the oppressed who cry out for justice, I have to own my role in the empire. It may be that such a reading provokes me to really see my own complicity with violence and runaway power, and calls me to repent.
The missional way stretches towards justice in the whole world, longing with God for all of creation to flourish, with each human freely obeying God, receiving God’s grace and mercy. We long for each person and every nation to experience the abundance of creation, God’s love, and the community of loving, just humanity. Following such a way demands that I continually repent, gaining new self-understanding and turning again to follow God.
When I read with the possibility that I am more likely Potiphar than Joseph, Pharaoh than Moses, Nebuchadnezzar than Daniel, it opens up my heart to repent of corruption and the exploitation of the less powerful. Nahum stands in that space, and I can either cry out with him, or I can hear the prophet call out against me from a distance, and seek change. It may be that a different moments of my life, I need to do both.
- The first part of that language also points us towards the decalogue itself. The second command reads: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4–6 NRSV) ↩
- Nahum 1:12 ↩
- This is a great example of the kinds of conversations bouncing between the prophets. If we read them like something of a symposium, rich connections emerge. Obadiah, and Habakkuk, come to mind as equally rich conversation partners for Nahum. ↩