Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Nahum

Judgment against Nineveh

The judgment pronounced against Nineveh in the book of Nahum is an ethical problem for many modern readers. The threat to Nineveh as presented in the Book of Jonah is more palatable. There, the human (Jonah) acts impetuously but God acts with excessive mercy. Nahum presents things differently: God’s wrath and judgment take center stage and there is no opportunity here for Assyria/Nineveh to repent. The book presses us to ask hard questions of ourselves as readers and people of faith. Indeed, the name of the prophet, Nahum, is related to the Hebrew word for “comfort”—are we to take comfort in this word of judgment? How can it ever be too late to repent (3:1-7, 18-19)? And–if we are honest–is there someone whose demise we would welcome with such glee? 

The church has struggled to answer these questions. The book of Nahum does not appear in the lectionary or Christian hymnody. It has been called “ethically and theologically deficient” and even the work of a false prophet. But when we read this book in conversation with others, Nahum represents a valuable contribution to the canon. The prophet insists that God’s judgment is real and total, surpassing the power of nature (1:5) and certainly surpassing any human injustices. But it is not judgment for wrath’s sake—it is judgment for justice’s sake. And consider this: if you are oppressed or the victim of extreme violence, imagine the contrary—being told that there will be no recompense for your oppressor. Perhaps you have even begun to doubt if God is able to deliver you. Nahum professes that God’s judgment may be slow, but it is sure (1:3). It is not to be trifled with (1:6) and it is to be understood as a refuge (1:7).

The book certainly has a nationalistic bent. But Nahum also pushes us to interrogate many of the presuppositions with which we read. Does God not bring destruction to forces of injustice and oppression? That is, can God only forgive? Is it not God’s decision when to show justice and when to show mercy? The Books of Nahum and Jonah present the fate of Assyria (perhaps overall, perhaps just in a certain moment; see “Relationship to Jonah”) quite differently, but on this matter they agree.

Structure and unity of the book

The structure and unity of the book are still a matter of debate among scholars. Taken as a whole, these discussions raise questions about why the opening poem in chapter 1 is almost entirely about God’s power but the account of the destruction in chs. 2-3 makes relatively few references to God. If it came together in stages, we are left with questions of how, why and when this took place. We also think that Nahum and Habakkuk were inserted into the canon where they were to give readers of the “Book of the Twelve” (that is, the collection of twelve “minor” prophets) a sense of what Assyrian and then Babylonian oppression and occupation might have actually meant to residents of Israel and Judah throughout the 8-6th centuries BCE. Without these two books, perhaps we would not have a clear depiction of the strong feelings these turbulent political situations created for the people of Israel and Judah.

Lack of prophetic judgment on Judah

Biblical prophecy has a geopolitical perspective. And while the majority of biblical prophecy does not spare Israel and/or Judah, Nahum at most chides Judah for not imagining that God is capable of overturning Assyrian domination (2:2). The lack of a direct and forceful indictment of Judah leads some interpreters to regard Nahum as an instance of the false prophets of hope whom Jeremiah condemned (Jer 6:14, 8:11). While some interpreters find an indictment of Judah in 1:9 and 1:11, Nahum’s ire is more generally directed against Assyria and its capital Nineveh for crimes against social norms and standards of justice that other biblical prophets are concerned with.

Alternatively, the lack of explicit prophetic judgment against Judah can be attributed to the specific context of its address. Judah has been and indeed is currently under judgment. Those addressed have been indicted and are currently serving their sentence. The hope announced is not shallow avoidance of judgment; rather, the hope is over against a judgment that is already in place. The “festivals” of communal religious life are not being observed (1:15), and the judgment of God (1:12) is in place. Nahum’s word promises that this condition is soon to be reversed.

Pronoun antecedents in chapter 1

The initial section of the book (1:2-8) has sentences starting with words that begin with the first eleven letters of the alphabet in order. This is a type of poem called an acrostic. No direct addressee is stated. The second person pronouns (“you”) that first appear in 1:9 shift from masculine plural (“they”) to feminine singular (“she/it”) in 1:11-13, to masculine singular (“he/it”) in 1:14, and finally back to feminine singular in 1:15, where Judah is explicitly named. While it is easy to read all the second-person pronouns beginning in 2:1 as referring to Nineveh, readers must decide about 1:9-14, where the pronouns probably alternate between Judah and Nineveh. The New International Version (NIV) makes some of these choices in translation; the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) retains the ambiguity of the Hebrew. The issue cannot be resolved definitively based on the Hebrew. Readers must settle for the overall flow of the account, which clearly points to Nineveh’s demise and Judah’s restoration from affliction.

Relationship to Jonah

The chronological relationship of Jonah and Nahum is in dispute, and the sequencing of the books has implications for our interpretation. In Jonah, Nineveh is spared after it repents and God does not do what God commissioned Jonah to announce (Jonah 3:4, 10). In Nahum, there is no mention of repentance. There is no summons for Nineveh to repent; the judgment is final. There is no future for Assyria (Nahum 1:14); the wound will be mortal (3:19).

If Jonah precedes Nahum, the theological message is understood as a warning against lapsing after one has been forgiven. If this is the order in which the books were composed, it suggests that Nineveh repented after Jonah’s visit, but lapsed into their destructive ways before Nahum, at which point there was no longer a possibility for repentance. A second chance is not to be squandered. Many interpreters—ancient, medieval, and modern—have aligned the books in this way. This chronology also connects the prophet in the Book of Jonah to the prophet Jonah mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 and places the Book of Jonah at least a century prior to the Book of Nahum.

If Nahum precedes Jonah, the theological message is that, even with the vilest offenders, God has options that humans are inclined to resist. If the books are ordered in this way, God’s ultimate power to show mercy (even against human desires) as seen in Jonah functions as a counter-testimony to the relishing of God’s judgment as seen in Nahum. It is usually suggested that this means Jonah was composed after the Babylonian exile, when theological categories such as judgment and mercy, guilt and recompense, were being reevaluated in light of Judah’s own experience of destruction and humiliation.

Understanding the glee at the destruction of Nineveh

Since the book asserts that no one has escaped the “endless cruelty” of Assyria, it would be reasonable to assume that Judean readers would join the international applause. There are no projected mourners or comforters for Nineveh (3:7). There are, however, restraints on a simplistic, vengeful appropriation of Nahum’s message about Assyria and its capital Nineveh. First, Judah is not the perpetrator of Assyria’s destruction—vengeance belongs only to God. All of this political turmoil pales in comparison with the power of God. Assyrian strength is an affliction for which God assumes responsibility and which God will now reverse (1:12). And Nahum reminds the people of Judah that they know what it means to be in the path of God’s anger. The first step in a different direction is to take refuge in God (1:7). The book does not directly eliminate the potential for a self-serving, triumphal reading, but it does set up rhetorical restraints. Albeit in a less final form, Judah has experienced the consequences of being an adversary of God. And while the book is often maligned for lacking an explicit call to repent, only a surface reading of the book would not invite the reader to deep self-awareness concerning their own destructive actions.