Saturday, March 11, 2023

Mining the Minors: Nahum (5)

By 616 B.C., Nabopolassar had ruled Babylon for a decade. He had spent those ten years profitably, rebelling against the Assyrians and successfully expelling their forces from Babylonia. Civil wars between major Assyrian cities and the general decrepitude of the empire confirmed his belief that the time had come to transfer the seat of Mesopotamian power from Nineveh to Babylon. Gathering his own Chaldean army, along with allies from Media, Persia, Cimmeria and Scythia, Nabopolassar marched on the capital city of Nineveh in May of 612 B.C.

Resistance was fierce, but they took the city within three months. What Nabopolassar probably didn’t know was that a Judean prophet had accurately describe his sacking of Nineveh as many as thirty years prior to it. Still less did the king of Babylon understand that he was doing the work of Judah’s God when he went about his business.

Nahum’s prophecy has stood the test of time, preserved by his people because his predictions proved to be eerily on the nose. Chapter 2 of Nahum predicts the fall of Nineveh in sufficiently accurate detail that secular historians still quote it today, even if most assume he wrote it after the fact.

Nahum 2:1 — The Scatterer Comes Up

The scatterer has come up against you. Man the ramparts; watch the road; dress for battle; collect all your strength.”

Nahum begins by addressing the king of Nineveh. The “scatterer” in view is surely Nabopolassar, though the prophet does not name him. The “road” to which Nahum refers would turn out to be the road from the city of Tarbisu, which Nabopolassar’s Median allies took first, and where his armies encamped prior to laying siege to Nineveh.

The phrase “dress for battle” is a modern translation of the famous King James-era expression “gird your loins”, a more literal rendering of the Hebrew.

Nahum 2:2 — The Majesty of Jacob

“For the Lord is restoring the majesty of Jacob as the majesty of Israel, for plunderers have plundered them and ruined their branches.”

This is the only real moment in the chapter of practical application for Nahum’s original readers, and it comes early. The Ninevites almost surely never read Nahum or heard from him in person as they did from Jonah. The whole point of Nahum’s message was to encourage his brothers in Judah.

As we mentioned last week, there are hints throughout Nahum that God has bigger things in view for his own people than the mere satisfaction of looking on from a distance as one world empire topples another. This is one of them. The phrase “restoring the majesty of Jacob as the majesty of Israel” seems a rather hyperbolic way of referring to a series of events that would only benefit Judah in the very shortest of short terms. In reality, the Judeans simply went from being vassals of one master to being vassals of another. Twenty-five years after Nineveh’s fall, the Babylonians would overwhelm Jerusalem and take its people captive for the better part of the next century. When Nahum says, “plunderers have plundered them and ruined their branches”, the worst of that plundering was still to come.

Jacob was the birth name of the father of Nahum’s nation. God renamed him Israel to signify that he had chosen Jacob’s descendants to be his agents of testimony and blessing in the world. Ellicott points out that the prophets often use “Jacob” to refer to the downtrodden remnant of the divided nation in the years after Assyria had taken the northern kingdom into captivity. So then, the true restoration of the majesty of Jacob “as the majesty of Israel” awaits a future day, when God “will exalt the nation once more to the lofty eminence of its divine calling”, as Keil and Delitzsch have nicely put it.

Judah was and continued to be a tiny remnant-nation after the fall of Nineveh. In no way could we interpret the next few years of relative peace as a literal fulfillment of Nahum’s predicted restoration. No return to Solomonic glory would occur in Judah during its remaining short period of nationhood; most of those years were grim ones under a succession of wicked kings who had great difficulty meeting the ever-increasing demands of the Babylonian kings.

Nahum 2:3-9 — Nineveh Invaded

“The shield of his mighty men is red; his soldiers are clothed in scarlet. The chariots come with flashing metal on the day he musters them; the cypress spears are brandished. The chariots race madly through the streets; they rush to and fro through the squares; they gleam like torches; they dart like lightning. He remembers his officers; they stumble as they go, they hasten to the wall; the siege tower is set up. The river gates are opened; the palace melts away; its mistress is stripped; she is carried off, her slave girls lamenting, moaning like doves and beating their breasts. Nineveh is like a pool whose waters run away. ‘Halt! Halt!’ they cry, but none turns back. Plunder the silver, plunder the gold! There is no end of the treasure or of the wealth of all precious things.”

Nabopolassar’s armies comprehensively sacked Nineveh, either killing the Assyrian King Sinsharushkin or driving him to commit suicide, depending on which authority you read. These next seven verses describe the siege and destruction of the city in vivid terms.

Nahum says the “scatterer’s” mighty men would have red shields, symbolizing the considerable bloodshed with which they took the city. Over a century earlier, in Jonah’s time, the population of Nineveh was 120,000 (which probably refers only to the males). Estimates of its population in 612 B.C. range from 600,000 to as many as two million. Assyrian records claim that on several occasions they killed the defenders of the cities they conquered “to the last man”, suggesting many of Nineveh’s citizens did not survive the siege. The rest, mostly women and children, were carried off into captivity as Nahum describes.

Nahum’s references to the opening of the river gates and to Nineveh being “like a pool” proved both literal and precise. The historian Diodorus of Sicily quotes Ctesias to the effect that the river Tigris flooded the city during the invasion, quenching the fires the invaders had set in the royal palace and possibly aiding in the preservation of the many clay texts that comprised the city’s famous library. When Nahum says, “the palace melts away”, that is probably very much how it appeared.

The Medes and Chaldeans burned, plundered and destroyed the city just as Nahum prophesied, breaking down its famous walls and completely deurbanizing the area for centuries. The surviving Assyrians rallied around Ashuruballit II, whose failed attempt to revive the empire lasted a mere four years.

Nahum 2:10-13 — The Fate of the Young Lions

“Desolate! Desolation and ruin! Hearts melt and knees tremble; anguish is in all loins; all faces grow pale! Where is the lions’ den, the feeding place of the young lions, where the lion and lioness went, where his cubs were, with none to disturb? The lion tore enough for his cubs and strangled prey for his lionesses; he filled his caves with prey and his dens with torn flesh.

Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts, and I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions. I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the voice of your messengers shall no longer be heard.”

Hunting lions was the sport of kings in ancient Assyria. The British Museum displays panels of sculpted reliefs from the north palace of Ashurbanipal, widely regarded as the masterpieces of Assyrian art. Among other things, these show lions impaled with the arrows of the king’s hunting parties. An earlier Assyrian king wrote of killing “370 great lions” with hunting spears. The Assyrians also captured and bred lions in their zoos, so we should not be surprised to find Nahum using lions them as symbols of Nineveh’s royalty. Like the Assyrian Empire, lions were respected for their savagery, and its kings identified with them.

The neo-Assyrian Empire has been called the world’s greatest war machine, lion-like in its ability to dominate the kingdoms of their day. Nahum now asks, “Where is the lions’ den?” The answer: God has cut off their prey from the earth, and the voice of their messengers will no longer be heard.

This testimony is true. All earthly empires fall. The rapid decline of U.S. dominance on the world stage is a reminder that decadence, pride and political overreach are a lethal cocktail. Aggressive foreign policy may serve God’s purposes at times, but those who engage in it always get what’s coming to them eventually.

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