Saturday, March 18, 2023

Mining the Minors: Nahum (6)

Consider the limitations the Law of Moses placed on Israel and Judah, had they chosen to follow it with any consistency.

The usury laws and the Jubilee would curtail the ability of merchants and profiteers to exploit the lack of financial sophistication among their fellow Israelites. Israel’s law forbade certain forms of lucrative trade: fortune telling, the manufacture of graven images, cult prostitution. The Sabbath laws would restrict commerce to six days a week rather than seven. Tithing obligations would take well over 10% of your income, and the law would permit, even encourage, the poor and the sojourner to help themselves to the excess of your fields and vineyards.

In short, when the provisions of Mosaic Law were observed and enforced, Israel was not the easiest place in the world of its day for profiteers and merchants to get rich quick. That said, it was a great place to live for normal, godly people.

The Superficial Glamor of Powerful Nations

Wars under the more godly kings were generally defensive. Israel was not an empire, and God did not intend its rulers to aspire to constant expansion or oppression of other nations. When Israel subjugated other nations, it was usually because they had been aggressive towards Israel first, and needed to be restrained.

When Israel obeyed God’s laws, it was a humble, peaceful, largely rural, family-oriented society that valued generosity, piety and hard work. The splendor of Solomon’s court was the exception, not the rule, and the extravagance that moved the Queen of Sheba to such praise proved unsustainable past a single generation; the tax burden required to maintain it was simply too great for the people to bear. But just as the Israelites begged Samuel to give them a king so they could be “like the nations”, so the glory of the empires that came and went over the centuries to the north and south of God’s people attracted the less-spiritual among them, even though emulating the superficial glamor of powerful nations came at a huge moral cost.

In chapter 1, Nahum introduced the God who judges. In chapter 2, he gave us a description of Nineveh’s destruction. Now that we know the “who” and “how” of God’s judgment, in chapter 3, Nahum gives us a little more detail concerning the “why”: Nineveh was pretty much the exact opposite of what the Law of Moses commanded Israel to be.

Nahum 3:1-4 — The Bloody City

“Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder — no end to the prey! The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end — they stumble over the bodies! And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute, graceful and of deadly charms, who betrays nations with her whorings, and peoples with her charms.”

Where historians associate Babylon with its literature, architecture and law, they associate Assyria with military power, weapons and conquest. Nineveh was truly a city of blood. Sword and spear, hosts of the slain. Tiglath-pileser I claimed to have conquered 42 kings and their peoples. He wrote, “I carried away their possessions, burned their cities with fire, demanded from their hostages tribute and contributions, and laid on them the heavy yoke of my rule.” The Assyrians were a brutal people who showed no mercy to those they conquered.

Life in Nineveh for Exiled Israelites

The book of Tobit is apocryphal, but there is no reason to doubt the historical accuracy of its descriptions of life in Assyria. Tobit, the citizen of a town in Upper Galilee, is taken to Nineveh as an exile. Concerning life under Assyrian rule, Tobit says:

“If I saw the dead body of any of my people thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury it.”

This sort of casual disregard for human life was a regular thing in Nineveh. He goes on:

“I also buried any whom King Sennacherib put to death when he came fleeing from Judea in those days of judgment that the king of heaven executed upon him because of his blasphemies. For in his anger he put to death many Israelites; but I would secretly remove the bodies and bury them. So when Sennacherib looked for them he could not find them. Then one of the Ninevites went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them; so I hid myself. But when I realized that the king knew about me and that I was being searched for to be put to death, I was afraid and ran away. Then all my property was confiscated; nothing was left to me that was not taken into the royal treasury.”

Or consider this choice bit of dinner conversation from Tobit 2:

“Look, father, one of our own people has been murdered and thrown into the market place, and now he lies there strangled.”

So then, Nahum’s “heaps of corpses” is not hyperbole. The Assyrians were mercurial, violent and unforgiving. They were not any nicer to their own people: Sennacherib’s own sons conspired to kill their father shortly after he had Tobit’s property confiscated.

The Countless Whorings of the Prostitute

Powerful nations have tremendous appeal. Everybody wants to be like them. To understand the carnal attraction the people of Israel and Judah had to Assyrian culture despite its wickedness and ruthlessness, we only have to read Ezekiel 23. It’s a grim passage, full of references to whoring and idolatry, but a couple of lines remind us of the Assyrian “charms” Nahum mentions. Ezekiel says, “Oholibah [Judah] … lusted after the Assyrians, governors and commanders, warriors clothed in full armor, horsemen riding on horses, all of them desirable young men.” God’s social order encourages humility and generosity, but worldly people are more inclined to admire displays of strength, boasting and showmanship than meekness or self-abnegation.

It reminds me of the rock stars of my youth, of whom the music journalists opined that the girls all wanted to have them and the boys all wanted to be them. They were not wrong. That is the hypnotic spell cast by worldly success, and God’s people are not immune from developing an unhealthy attraction to all the pomp, power, charisma, and the occasional dark hint of arcane secrets for which the Assyrian religions were notorious.

God calls these “graceful and deadly charms” the whorings of a prostitute. Assyrians were sinners who made others want to be just like them. The poisoned the nations around them with the toxins of their evil society.

Nahum 3:5-7 — The Whore as Spectacle

“Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will make nations look at your nakedness and kingdoms at your shame. I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. And all who look at you will shrink from you and say, ‘Wasted is Nineveh; who will grieve for her?’ Where shall I seek comforters for you?”

Verses 5 through 7 continue the “prostitute” imagery introduced in verse 4. Despite the fact that men would pay for the services of prostitutes, their trade was never considered respectable. Prostitutes (and later tax collectors) were the lowest forms of life. In the absence of a social safety net, the women who made a living from prostitution did so mainly because they were divorced or otherwise unmarriageable, and had nobody to care for them. In Israel, there was probably a fair bit of hypocrisy around this attitude. We all remember the woman taken in adultery in the gospel of John, whose partner seems to have gotten off the hook more easily than she did. It is unlikely the Jews would have dared to stone her — Roman law did not permit them to stage impromptu executions — but they would certainly have shamed her brutally. Such an attitude was common in the Ancient Near East.

The Lord picks up the imagery of this social convention and uses it concerning Nineveh in a manner all the readers of Nahum would understand. The “prostitute” will be publicly humiliated. Everyone will see her for what she is, and nobody will be interested in giving her comfort or grieving over her. The great Assyrian Empire would pass from the world’s stage with neither sympathy nor tears from its former victims.

Photo courtesy Fredarch at Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

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