Saturday, February 25, 2023

Mining the Minors: Nahum (3)

It has been observed that verses 2-8 of Nahum’s first chapter are a poem or hymn about the wrath of the Almighty that appears to have been written in the acrostic style of some Psalms (9-10, 25, 111, 119), which is to say each clause usually begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I say “appears” because scholars only noticed this pattern in Nahum a couple of centuries ago, mostly because the acrostic is incomplete (three letters are missing, and only the first half of the alphabet is used at all) as well as somewhat irregular (the expected letter is not always first in its clause).

We might sum up Hebrew scholar Aron Pinker’s conclusions about it by simply saying the pattern is too consistent to be accidental and too inconsistent for his peers to agree about.

English, Not Hebrew

All that doesn’t help us much since we are reading it in English, not Hebrew. Where learned students of the original language disagree about the patterns they see in Nahum’s poetry, non-Hebrews are unlikely to find anything at all. However, the existence of the acrostic does two things for us: (1) it confirms what I suggested in an earlier post, which was that the original form of Nahum’s prophecy was written rather than oral; and (2) it helps us recognize the structure of the first chapter. It is evident verses 2 through 8 belong together as a unit, though, to be fair, we could probably confirm that from the content as easily in English as in Hebrew.

Acrostics are otherwise unknown in prophetic literature, and some experts have commented on apparent stylistic differences from the rest of the book. It’s possible Nahum was a poet himself, but it’s also possible he chose to open with a quotation from an extra-biblical psalm with which his readers may have been familiar. A series of selective quotations from a better-known work would certainly explain the presence of a partial acrostic in Nahum.

If I remember, one day I’ll ask him.

Nahum 1:3-6 — The Lord in Action

“His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.”

Power and Destruction

The poem began with a verse and a half describing the Lord’s characteristics, and now moves on to three and a half verses describing the Lord in action.

What does the Lord in action look like? In this context, he looks immensely powerful and destructive. What follows cannot be a literal description of anything Nahum’s readers had ever seen or could expect to experience. The impression is of huge and uncontrollable forces unleashed on the world. It is so intense that some feel compelled to read it symbolically. The occasional commentator sees it as a preview of the events of the great tribulation. Indeed, some of the language is similar to the book of Revelation: dried up rivers, earthquakes (there are five in Revelation) and mountains moving. The net effect is to acknowledge that behind all the delegated powers and authorities in this world is the sovereign will of God; that in the end, no disaster can occur which he has not at very least allowed.

The Implications for Nineveh

Other aspects of Nahum’s description echo the visions of Ezekiel: the whirlwind, storm and clouds, in the midst of which is the throne of God. But Ezekiel’s vision was not apocalyptic; God’s majesty and “otherness” are just that jarring to the human senses. The drying up of sea and rivers also serve as a reminder of Israel’s deliverance from the Egyptian army and entrance into Canaan across the dried-up river bed of the Jordan. Some see allusions to the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah in the “wrath poured out like fire”.

Bashan was renowned for its oaks, Lebanon for its cedars, Carmel for its vines, forests and pastures. All were areas coveted for their beauty and utility. But God is both the source of that beauty and the one who maintains it, fully capable of turning off the rain with a word, as he did in the days of Elijah.

Of course, Nahum is not predicting that Nineveh will fall to a variety of natural disasters. What he is saying is that the God who will judge Assyria is an utterly unstoppable and implacable enemy. If the very elements cannot stand before his indignation, and if he unmakes the natural world with such ease, the Lord will surely have no problem dealing with Judah’s human oppressors no matter how powerful they may think themselves.

Nahum 1:7-8 — The Stronghold

“The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness.”

Verse 7 begins with the second reassuring thing Nahum has mentioned about the Lord (the first being that he is “slow to anger” in verse 3). This Lord, who can be terrifying to his enemies, is also a faithful friend to those who come to him for refuge. He “knows” them.

The word used for “know” is yāḏaʿ. If you’ve ever heard a Jew use the expression “yada yada yada”, you know it means something like “Cut to the chase” or, more crudely, “blah blah blah”. Literally, it means “I know, I know, I know”. Move along, please! It’s word with a broad semantic range, but one of the ways it’s used in scripture is to describe deep intimacy, a knowledge that is through and through. I suspect that’s how Nahum is using it here: to indicate that the Lord cares intensely about those who have sought him out for protection. He is a “stronghold in the day of trouble”. He will not give his loved ones over to the enemy.

Likewise, when the Lord pursues his enemies, he will not give up the chase until they have been entirely eliminated, no matter where it leads. So far we have had God’s indignation pictured as a drought, an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, fire and some sort of pulverizing powerhouse. Here he is an overwhelming flood, sweeping away those who defy him without a trace.

With this, it appears the hymn comes to an end, and Nahum begins his commentary.

Nahum 1:9-10 — A Complete End

“What do you plot against the Lord? He will make a complete end; trouble will not rise up a second time. For they are like entangled thorns, like drunkards as they drink; they are consumed like stubble fully dried.”

Given all this information we have been considering about God, here’s a reasonable question: “What do you plot against the Lord?” The question is rhetorical. Given his overwhelming power, what device can hope to succeed against him? What possible plan could be of any use? Nahum is probably not contemplating anyone foolish enough to launch some kind of attack directly against God. How would one even do such a thing? But because the Lord is a fortress to his people, any attack on them is an attack on God himself. He takes the mistreatment or neglect of those he protects very seriously, as the Lord Jesus taught: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” For the Lord, this is a very personal matter.

The prophet then restates the second last line of the hymn to make his point: “He will make a complete end.” He goes on to amplify: “Trouble will not rise up a second time.” When a complete end has been made, that’s how it is. The Assyrians will be like entangled thorns, unable to move, or like drunkards rendered helpless with drink, or like dried stubble in the path of a forest fire.

Judah could be confident that when the Lord finally made an end of the Assyrians, they would never trouble his people again.

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