Saturday, March 25, 2023

Mining the Minors: Nahum (7)

History shows us empires never last.

People groups do. Israel, for example, has been around as a distinguishable national and genetic entity for something very close to four thousand years notwithstanding its lack of a country to call home for most of that time; the Chinese have been almost completely ethnically homogenous even longer. In this respect at least, China holds a tremendous advantage in our present day should the US opt to go to war with them over Taiwan. Ideologically divided right down the middle, some say the US is on the brink of civil war; though occasionally experiencing internal unrest, the Chinese are comparatively unified.

But that’s the problem with multi-ethnic empires: they don’t have the kind of cohesion and staying power that kinship produces. The modus operandi of empire building is perpetual expansion and absorption of new people groups, whether through conquest or immigration. At some point, those so absorbed inevitably begin to influence the empire in favor of their own ethnicity and agendas.

Historically speaking, diversity is the opposite of strength. Biblically too.

Diversity and Empire Building

Now, a position of power in somebody else’s empire can be a good thing for both the minority as well as the citizens of the empire for which they labor. This is certainly the case if the person in power is a Joseph, Daniel, Mordecai or Nehemiah, restrained by the word of God about how to conduct himself when handed an unexpected advantage. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”, said Jeremiah. Sound advice there. The Israelites and Jews of the Old Testament who held high positions in the empires of their day seem to have followed it, and their wise decision-making was a blessing to all. In empire building, diversity may work for you … until it starts working against you.

Generally, though, a transfer of power to outsiders, immigrants or formerly conquered peoples is the death knell of an empire. Their own interests and loyalties make them unreliable. Cleopatra, one of the last rulers of Egypt before Rome absorbed it, was ethnically Greek, not Egyptian, and notoriously self-interested. Flavius Stilicho, the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire when it fell, was not Roman but ethnically Germanic. Why should the Romans have expected a Vandal to make decisions in the best interests of someone else’s citizenry?

More Diversity at Work

Skipping to forward to our present era, Volodymyr Zelensky is ethnically Jewish, not Ukrainian. Perhaps that is a non-trivial factor in his apparent willingness to see his army annihilated rather than negotiate an end to the current war: they are no more “his” people than they are mine. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is Punjabi, not English. That’s not promising for the UK, any more than Barack Obama’s eight year project of dismantling the American empire was in the interest of the vast majority of its citizens. From all available evidence, Obama was (and remains) less interested in preserving the US than either Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin.

Interestingly, the last six kings of Assyria were descended from a fellow who deposed and killed Shalmaneser V a century before the fall of Nineveh. Generally known as Sargon II, a Hebrew rendering of the Assyrian Sharru-kin, his name literally means “the king is legitimate”. Methinks he protested too much, as do many historians, who question Sargon’s genetic connection to the dynasty he toppled and his legitimacy to rule Assyria.

In any case, whether it’s diversity, famine, too much immigration, conquest by foreign invaders, or even decadence and ennui, all empires eventually fall. Nahum is in the process of reminding the king of Nineveh that this will be the case with his empire too.

Nahum 3:8-10 — Consider the Precedent

Are you better than Thebes that sat by the Nile, with water around her, her rampart a sea, and water her wall? Cush was her strength; Egypt too, and that without limit; Put and the Libyans were her helpers.

Yet she became an exile; she went into captivity; her infants were dashed in pieces at the head of every street; for her honored men lots were cast, and all her great men were bound in chains.”

Nobody was ‘Better than Thebes’

Here’s a little bit of irony for you: Thebes was sacked in 663 B.C., which would have been recently enough that many people in Judah who heard about the city’s fall just after it occurred were still alive when Nahum wrote his prophecy. Guess who Thebes fell to? Why, it was Ashurbanipal of Nineveh, during his conquest of Egypt. So Nahum’s question “Are you better than Thebes?” is asked of Ashurbanipal’s descendant, who was actually far more like the Egyptians his forefather had conquered than he preferred to think.

The question is rhetorical, the answer a hard “no”. Not too many cities in the Ancient East were ever “better than Thebes”. Thebes had defenses and allies Nineveh did not. Though the city is often associated with present-day Luxor, ancient Thebes was actually located further north in a convenient spot surrounded by the Nile on three sides, a body of water that averages 2.8 miles wide throughout its course and provided the city with a natural moat. Ancient armies on foot or horseback were compelled to approach her from the west, where all her defenses would be concentrated. Thebes could not be effectively surrounded, her people prevented from limitless access to water, or cut off from escape across the river.

Historical Evidence for the Sacking of Thebes

Historians as well as geographers confirm Nahum’s reading of Thebes’ situation. The city was allied with the Cushite 25th dynasty of Egypt under Tantamani, who quickly fled south when the Assyrian army arrived, leaving Thebes to fend for itself. 240,000 Cushites promptly deserted and eventually settled in Nubia.

There is little archeological evidence for the destruction of Thebes, certainly not anything like there is for the destruction of Nineveh, though Nahum’s fellow Judeans would not have accepted and retained his prophecy if its details had not accurately portrayed an event they knew to have happened less than a generation previously. Isaiah also foretold the Assyrian conquest of Egypt, though he did not single out Thebes for special mention. Assyrian records indicate the city was thoroughly sacked, its inhabitants deported, and a large booty of gold, silver, precious stones, clothes, horses and fantastic animals taken back to Assyria, including two obelisks covered in electrum weighing something like 75 tons each. Ashurbanipal claims to have torn off the temple doors from the city and carried them home in triumph. That data is certainly adequate for modern historians.

All this is consistent with what Nahum has to say about the conquest, and his original audience were close enough to the events he mentions to hear them as a cautionary tale and not just a little bit of historical trivia.

Nahum 3:11-13 — An Embarrassing Miscalculation

“You also will be drunken; you will go into hiding; you will seek a refuge from the enemy. All your fortresses are like fig trees with first-ripe figs — if shaken they fall into the mouth of the eater. Behold, your troops are women in your midst. The gates of your land are wide open to your enemies; fire has devoured your bars.”

The Drunks Take Refuge

The relatively easy taking of Thebes is natural point of comparison for Nahum with the present situation in Nineveh: “You too will be drunken, you too will seek a refuge.” Of course, escape came easier to Thebans than to Ninevites surrounded by a huge wall with land on every side and nowhere to go where the invading Babylonians could not easily catch up with them as they fled.

The expression “your troops are women” really strikes me. I’m quite sure Nahum didn’t mean it literally. He was saying that the men of the Assyrian army had let themselves become so soft and complacent that their wives may as well have replaced them. That’s not a compliment.

Fast forward to our own day: almost 20% of active duty US military personnel are women, an estimated 15,000 transgender, and many thousands more openly gay or lesbian. On top of all that, the US Army discharged 20-30,000 of its soldiers who refused COVID-19 vaccination. Let’s just say it is not at its best as the prospect of going toe-to-toe with Russia and possibly China is contemplated, a fact conceded by major media sources as early as 2018.

Empires in Decline

But that’s the thing about empires in decline: they don’t generally realize they are in decline until it’s too late. Complacency and pride lead them to think they can keep doing what they’ve always done and produce the same results, even when they are working with wildly inferior human capital and strategic disadvantages their predecessors were not. Notwithstanding the precipitous decline of its own army and the paucity of military resources among its European allies, the White House remains delusional about the prospects of success in the war NATO has provoked in Ukraine. If it turns out badly for the US, this will not be the first time an empire entered with great confidence into a conflict it couldn’t win, only to find itself horribly embarrassed by the facts on the ground.

Thebes, despite its natural defenses and strong allies, was taken with relative ease. Nineveh would inevitably follow it. Too bad President Biden’s foreign policy advisors don’t appear to read much ancient history, let alone scripture.

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