Saturday, February 11, 2023

Mining the Minors: Nahum (1)

Nahum is the seventh Minor Prophet in our modern Bibles and the fifth in the chronological order we are following in these studies, as well as one of the four shortest. (I promise not to turn this mini-series into 42 instalments!) Today’s post provides general background information on Nahum’s oracle and examines the terminology used in its first verse.

Boring? Maybe for some. Not for me. I figure we can all use a reminder that God keeps his promises about dealing with the wicked when their time has come, especially in the current year, when the wicked of our own day are in the process of taking off their masks of respectability and letting their true characters be seen.

Nahum as a Sequel

Some have called Nahum the sequel to Jonah, which it is in the sense that both books are concerned with the fate of the city of Nineveh, though written more than a century apart. In the first episode, against his will Jonah preaches coming destruction and Nineveh repents, to the prophet’s chagrin, delaying the judgment of God and allowing Nineveh to be named Assyria’s capital city around 700 BC. In this episode, Nahum details the impending judgment of Nineveh.

As a description of Nahum, I prefer “bookend” to “sequel”. After all, sequels are usually written by the same author in the same style as the original. Their appeal is their familiarity. Nahum and Jonah have little in common other than their subject matter.

Jonah is written in the third person. It’s a story, not a prophecy. In English at least, the prophecy component of Jonah is a mere eight words, and one that doesn’t even come true. The book of Jonah is far more the story of a man than a prophecy against a city. Its narrative arc is concerned with the prophet’s reluctance to serve a God he knew was gracious and merciful, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” by delivering his message to an enemy Jonah hated with a consuming nationalist passion, and the lesson God teaches Jonah in the process. Jonah’s prophecy was also specific to the city of Nineveh rather than the Assyrian Empire generally. Its style is literary, though it contains a lengthy prayer. The absence of a plethora of dire, specific predictions, the style of its prose, the fact that no actual judgment happens and quasi-mythical quality of its “big fish” story have led some call the book of Jonah a comedy, a claim I have countered here.

Jonah and Nahum Compared

Nahum, on the other hand, is a true prophetic word, or oracle, which he received in the form of a vision. Unlike Jonah, Nahum has no personal learning curve or narrative arc, and his book contains next to nothing certain about its author. There is nothing remotely comedic about it, and nobody would ever claim that. It is not a story at all, but rather a prediction, and one that played out historically. Unlike Jonah’s prophecy, the purpose of Nahum is not to encourage Nineveh to repent a second time. It is highly unlikely any Ninevite ever read Nahum, as it does not appear Nineveh was its intended audience, even though Nahum addresses the city and its king repeatedly. Rather, Nahum’s intended audience appears to have been the nation of Judah (Israel was already in Assyrian captivity). Where Jonah reveals God as gracious, merciful and relenting from disaster, Nahum reveals a God at the outer limit of his seemingly endless patience, taking vengeance on his adversaries and keeping wrath for his enemies. There is much comfort for Judah here, and the promise that their mortal enemies would be utterly destroyed.

Between the lines, we might also note that Judah had a fair bit of wrath stored up for it as well. Devout Judeans would recognize that just as Nineveh’s sins eventually caught up with it, so one day soon would Judah’s.

Where Jonah’s prophecy was specific to the city of Nineveh, Nahum’s is not just about the fall of a city but of the entire Assyrian Empire. The successful siege of Nineveh was really the end of Assyria as a world power. So where Jonah speaks of the “king of Nineveh”, Nahum addresses the “king of Assyria”. Like Jonah, Nahum is full of graphic imagery. Unlike Jonah, Nahum is full of poetry, a fact probably more recognizable in Hebrew than English.

Nahum 1:1 — A Brief Introduction

“An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.”

It’s a good thing Nahum tells us his oracle is “concerning Nineveh” in his first verse, because otherwise modern readers might find themselves perplexed as to who he is talking about for a chapter and a half. The name of the “bloody city” only appears three times in the entire book, the first reference to it within Nahum’s oracle being in 2:8.

An Oracle

The Hebrew word for “oracle” is maśśā', usually translated “burden”. Sometimes the burden is literal, and sometimes it refers to a task or responsibility. Sometimes it means the burden of carrying important information, or even a song. The first time we find references to a prophetic burden in scripture is that of Agur in Proverbs 30. This is one of those.

How translators got “oracle” out of that in English is a bit mysterious. In ancient pagan cultures, the word “oracle” often referred not just to the prophetic word itself, but also to the shrine to which one went to get one, or to the prophet, priest, priestess or diviner who uttered it. The oracle was the person through whom a deity was purported to speak. The oracles with which I am familiar are mostly Greek, and came in the form of enigmatic statements or allegories, often leaving the person who was seeking direction from the gods going away perplexed, only to find out as events unfolded in his life what the “oracle” may have intended. Actually, no. Often the poor sucker died before figuring anything out, and making sense of the oracle’s obscure predictions was left to creative biographers like Plutarch. That is apparently the Greek way.

The obscurity of ancient oracles served a useful purpose for the seer who gave them, in that they kept him or her in a job. It is difficult to prove somebody wrong when they won’t speak clearly. Nahum was not like that. Prophetic scripture can sometimes be obscure in its details, but there are always screamingly obvious broad strokes. You can only miss the prophet’s general intent by failing to listen to him at all.

Concerning Nineveh

Our studies to date repeatedly mention the wickedness of the Assyrian Empire, so I won’t recycle all that information here. If you are unfamiliar with the sort of thing Assyrians did that was richly deserving of God’s judgment, all you have to do is Google a little history, or read this summary from our study in Jonah. The “unstoppable war machine” was a merciless enemy and a false friend.

Nineveh was a major city in an eroding empire. At its peak, that empire had stretched from Babylon in the east to Egypt in the southwest. Assyria lost Egypt about 650 BC and Babylon around 625 BC, so the empire was already shrinking during Nahum’s lifetime. Still, Nineveh was its capital, and it was one of the most impressive civilizational achievements of its day. You can find a bunch of historical and geographical details here related to the city, again from our study in Jonah.

The Book of the Vision

Sometimes prophecies were given orally and written down later — and not even (necessarily) by the prophet himself. Jeremiah, for one, worked with an amanuensis. This prophecy is called a ̄sēper, which means a book, letter or document, suggesting that the original form of the prophecy was written rather than oral. That may explain the literary and poetic qualities, which many scholars have remarked on. This being the case, it is likely the writer was Nahum himself.

The word translated “vision” may refer either to the word received or to the trance-like state into which a prophet would fall in the process of receiving it. In the case of false prophets, they too fell into what appeared to be trance-like states, and perhaps they were, but these were either fakery or else ecstasies achieved, some think, by way of psychedelic drugs. That they were not the real deal was obvious from the fact that God had not truly spoken. True prophets often saw the events they predicted. Other times, God gave them specific words to pass on. These too are occasionally referred to as “visions”.

Nahum the Elkoshite

The name Nahum occurs exactly once in our Bibles. There is no historical record of the man. Of course that doesn’t mean he was not historical. The accuracy of his predictions eliminates that possibility, as well as the fact that his nation preserved his words as they did the word of the Lord.

The city of Elkosh is equally obscure. Again, the word occurs exactly once in the Old Testament. The New Testament city of Capernaum means literally “the city of Nahum”, so it’s not impossible Nahum lived there, or that he was born there. Then again, so many Israelites had the same name that it’s impossible after all these years to be certain any particular reference to a Nahum would be to the prophet in question. Some writers assume Nahum was a Judean because he wrote to Judah. Others think he was an Israelite, because Capernaum was in Galilee. There is little evidence either way.

Ballparking the Timing

This absence of introductory detail makes the precise timing of Nahum’s prophecy a little difficult to determine, but there is a fair bit of internal evidence to help us ballpark it. Chapter 3 refers to the destruction of Thebes (a city in central Greece) in the past tense, which means Nahum wrote some time after that had become public knowledge, but prior to the destruction of Nineveh. (A Judean religious community well trained to distinguish false prophets from true would never have bothered to preserve and revere a “prediction” written after the fact.) That gives us a window from 663-612 BC.

We should consider one additional factor in ballparking Nahum’s prophecy, and that is that everything the prophet says to Judah is comforting rather than judgmental: “Though I have afflicted you, I will afflict you no more”, “the Lord is restoring the majesty of Jacob”, “Keep your feasts, O Judah; fulfill your vows, for never again shall the worthless pass through you.” This makes it likely Nahum wrote during the reign of a godly king rather than a wicked one, as the evil reigns of Amon or Manasseh would hardly be times for God to send comfort to his people.

My vote goes to the reign of Josiah, a period of unprecedented spiritual revival between 640 and 608 BC.

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