Saturday, February 18, 2023

Mining the Minors: Nahum (2)

Nahum begins his oracle, appropriately enough, by identifying its divine source and describing him for his readers. Who is the Lord, you might ask? Scripture answers that question in many ways at many different times. Here the answers appear to skew toward God’s destructive characteristics: jealousy, vengeance, wrath and power. It’s an intimidating prospect.

Still, we ought to bear in mind that for the victims of relentless oppression, God’s declaration of these characteristics about himself to their oppressors is cause for celebration.

It means justice is finally coming.

Nahum 1:2-3 — Six Characteristics of the Lord

“The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.”

Despite the fact that Nahum is primarily a message of reassurance for the nation of Judah, parts of it are written as though addressing Nineveh. Accordingly, we find the name of YHWH thirteen times in the book, ten times in the first chapter and five just in verses 2 and 3 alone. Presumably this is to make crystal clear that the Assyrians have not merely messed with yet another local deity, but with the transcendent God before whom all local deities are literally as nothing. For Judah the reminder is important as well, even if we take for granted that Nahum’s message came to God’s people at a relatively favorable time, during the godly reign of Josiah, as I am inclined to assume.

In case the people of Judah have managed to forget who they are dealing with, the prophet describes their God in great detail, beginning with six aspects of his character.

1/ Jealousy

The Lord is jealous. His word states it repeatedly. In English, we have multiple words to translate the Hebrew word for “jealous”. In addition to the obvious, sometimes we translate it “envious”, at other times “zealous”. With respect to God, his jealousy is holy, righteous and utterly appropriate, where human jealousy is often petty, paranoid or unfounded. There is no element of envy in it. Envy craves things that belong to others; God’s jealousy is always with respect to that which is rightfully his.

The basis for God’s jealousy is his covenants. Having taken a people to be his own who had promised enthusiastically and voluntarily to keep his covenant, the relationship between the Lord and his people is like marriage in its intended exclusivity. Introduce a third party into the picture — as Israel did whenever they worshiped foreign gods — and YHWH has every right to be jealous. His people are breaking an agreement more sacred than marriage.

God had miraculously saved Judah from Assyrian exile in the days of Hezekiah, while allowing Israel to go into captivity. However, during Manasseh’s epically idolatrous reign, God permitted the king of Assyria to humiliate Judah by capturing its king with hooks and taking him captive to Babylon (at that time part of the Assyrian Empire), where he repented. At that point, Judah was a vassal state under Assyrian hegemony. Mordechai Cogan has written about Judean idolatry in this period and concluded, to his own surprise, that it was not externally imposed on Judah by Assyria, but rather “the foreign innovations reported of the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh are attributable to the voluntary adoption by Judah’s ruling class of the prevailing Assyro-Aramean culture”. Bible students already knew this. The Jewish historian is merely confirming what Ezekiel says about Judah, that “she lusted after the Assyrians”.

In other words, with respect to idolatry and the impact of Assyria on Judah, God had plenty to be jealous about.

2/ Vengeance

The Lord is an avenger. If that sounds like a terrible quality, bear in mind that God reserves vengeance uniquely to himself, saying, “Vengeance is mine.” Human vengeance is frequently emotional and, more often than not, disproportionate. Human vengeance also rarely comes from the moral high ground, because we are so frequently guilty of the same things for which we wish to exact repayment from others. So it’s hands off for us.

But when God takes vengeance on his enemies, he is always justified and his revenge is always proportionate. David understood this better than almost anyone. Faced with the judgment of human beings or the judgment of his God, he said, “Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” True to his established character, the Lord relented where man would not have.

Right call, David.

3/ Wrath

Josiah’s reforms in Israel began with this revelation: “Great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us”, which the king discovered by hearing the Book of the Law read out loud for what was likely the first time in at least 67 years, going back to the reign of Hezekiah. Accordingly, Josiah set about to respond to the word of God with humility and obedience. He cleansed and restored the temple, made a covenant with the people to walk after the Lord, burned the vessels of Baal and the chariots of the sun, deposed the ungodly priests, broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes, and defiled the high places in both Judah and Israel, including Molech’s altar at Topheth. After all this, we read, “Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him.”

This is what it means that the Lord “keeps wrath” for his enemies. Though God promises eventual restoration, some sins demand his punishment. David wrote, “He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever”, but then David was thinking about YHWH’s centuries-long family relationship with Israel, not God’s wrath stored up against his enemies. Assyria, as we will see in the verses that follow, had insisted on making themselves God’s enemy despite all his efforts through Jonah to bring them to a lasting repentance and blessing. Accordingly, God “tended” his wrath the way a man tends a vineyard.

Many of us dislike the idea of a God of wrath, and with good reason: we would not want to be its object. All the same, wrath is part of his character, a point Nahum makes twice in case we prefer to overlook it, as modern liberal preachers tend to.

4/ Longsuffering

The Lord is “slow to anger”, says Nahum, in language straight out of the book of Jonah. One of the better evidences of God’s longsuffering character was Nineveh herself. If Jonah’s prophecy against Nineveh took place, as some think, about 785 BC and Nineveh was finally destroyed in 612 BC, that’s over 170 years of grace extended to that wicked city. Talk about longsuffering. We don’t know how long the reforms that occurred because of Jonah’s preaching lasted, but if Israel and Judah are any example, chances are it was no more than a generation.

God’s longsuffering character was first revealed to Moses on Sinai, when God proclaimed his own name before him: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” Of the eight qualities he lists, his longsuffering is third. David’s psalms also extol this virtue.

5/ Might

The Lord is “great in power”. Moses noted the great power of the Lord in Exodus, referring to his miraculous deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery. He appealed to the Lord’s “mighty power” again (same phrase) during the debacle of the golden calf. Oddly enough, Moses always mentioned the Lord’s power to him moments before pleading (successfully) with him not to use it against a people who richly deserved it.

6/ Justice

The Lord will by no means clear the guilty. Like the phrase “slow to anger”, this one originates in God’s self-revelation to Moses on Sinai, the eighth of his eight statements about his own character. In this case, the words “the guilty” are inferred by translators; the literal rendering is that the Lord “will not acquit”.

This statement has nothing to do with sentencing the guilty to eternal damnation, but rather with practical consequences of sin in this life. Institutionalized wickedness like idolatry is multi-generational and socially pervasive. Both Hezekiah and Josiah, godly as they were, and humble and repentant as they were, were unable to turn away the wrath of God toward Judah in the form of the Babylonian exile. He would not acquit the guilty. The promised penalties for sin in this life had to be paid.

The same is true for us today. All our sins, however heinous, may be forgiven when we repent. Murderers come to know Christ, and thank the Lord for that, but there is no guarantee their salvation will change the duration or outcome of their sentences, nor can it remedy the consequences to the families of their victims. Nahum has that sort of “non-acquittal” in mind here, I think.

Plenty of extra-scriptural historical evidence exists for the devastation and “comprehensive sacking” of Nineveh. The website sums it up nicely:

“The destruction of Nineveh left such a strong impression on ancient peoples’ psyche that it was written about for several subsequent centuries in the Babylonian cuneiform annals, the writings of Greek and Roman historians, and even in the Old Testament of the Bible. Many cities have risen and fallen throughout the course of world history, but few have had such a dramatic history as the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh.”

When God wants to make a point, he makes it memorably.

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