Lesson 4 of6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Nahum

Lack of prophetic judgment on Judah

At most, Nahum chides Judah for not imagining that God is capable of overturning Assyrian domination. 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. Nahum’s ire is directed against Assyria and its capital Nineveh. Chapters 2 and 3, as well as portions of chapter 1, name only Assyria as the adversary of God. The subject of the verb translated “plot” (both in the NRSV and NIV) in 1:9 and 1:11 is not clear, but some interpreters find an indictment of Judah in these verses. The indictment, in those interpretations, charges Judah with doubting God’s capacity to reverse their subservience to Assyria. Clearly, Judah is not indicted for crimes against social norms and standards of justice.

Alternatively, the lack of explicit prophetic judgment against Judah can be attributed to the specific context of its address. Judah has been and 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” are not being observed (1:15), and the affliction of God (1:12) is in place. The condition of judgment will 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 (an acrostic). No direct addressee is stated. The second person pronouns that first appear in 1:9 shift from masculine plural to feminine singular in 1:11-13, to masculine singular 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 between Judah and Nineveh in 1:9-14. The NIV inserts Nineveh in 1:11 and 1:14 (as well as 1:8 and 2:1) and Judah in 1:12. The NRSV retains the ambiguity. The ambiguity opens up the possibility of a chiding word directed to Judah in 1:9 or 1:11, but the issue cannot be resolved definitively. 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. The sequencing of the books has theological implications. 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 beyond a grave (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. Jonah is construed as a call for repentance that Nineveh heeded; the city was, as a result, spared from destruction. At a later point, it returned to its prior wickedness and Nahum announces its destruction without a possibility for repentance. A second chance is not to be squandered. Historically, this chronological construal connects the author of Jonah to the prophet Jonah mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 and places the book of Jonah at least a century prior to Nahum.

If Nahum precedes Jonah, the theological message is that, even with the vilest offenders, God has options that humans resist. Can God forgive “endless cruelty”? The answer is negative if that means violence has the last word; this is the question before the book of Nahum. But the answer may be positive, as it is in Jonah, when the human community seeks to restrain the extent of God’s graciousness. Historically, this chronological construal usually posits Jonah as a postexilic composition.

Understanding the glee at the destruction of Nineveh

Does Judah’s return to celebrations and vows (1:15) consist of clapping over the news of Assyria’s mortal wound (3:19)? 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 appointed as the executioner in the day of Assyria’s judgment. Instead, Judah, at the point of address, bears a yoke and is in bondage (1:13). Assyrian strength is an affliction for which God assumes responsibility and which God will now reverse (1:12). In Nahum’s depiction, Judah knows what it is to be termed an enemy of God. Judah’s 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. Judah has experienced, albeit in a less final form, the consequences of being an adversary of God.