Lesson 1 of 6
In Progress

Summary of Nahum


Nahum addresses the afflicted community of Judah to announce the demise of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire. Judah, along with many other countries, has suffered from many years of Assyrian tyranny and violence. The question of whether or not anyone can escape the cruelty of Assyria is answered by God’s standing against them. The destruction of Assyria is announced through speeches formally addressed to the king of Assyria and Nineveh, but the actual audience is Judah. Both the past affliction that Judah has experienced and the coming destruction of Assyria are the work of God. God also works through the usual ebb and flow of turbulent political forces.


The book asserts that oppressive violence will not ultimately endure in the face of God’s opposition to it. God is involved in the ebb and flow of history to bring destruction to the oppressors and to provide refuge from suffering for the oppressed.


Nahum is the thirty-fourth book in the Christian Old Testament, falling between Micah and Habakkuk, and is the seventh of the twelve Minor prophets (“minor” means “shorter”, not “less important”).


The opening verse of the book attributes the book to Nahum the Elkoshite. Neither Nahum nor Elkosh are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. In contrast with a book like Jeremiah, this is a book where the prophet’s identity is completely obscured. But this does not mean Nahum was not a real person or a real prophet.


The prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible are closely connected with politics and history. Yet even when they refer to historical events, it can still be difficult to date their composition and formation. Nahum is a good example of this challenge. The book refers to the Assyrian destruction of Thebes (3:8-10) in 663 BCE, and so it can be assumed that it was written after this event. How much after is not clear. The successful revolt of Babylon in 626 BCE marks the beginning of the unraveling of the powerful Assyrian empire; the destruction of its capital city Nineveh in 612 BCE marks the end. It is common to assume that the book was written close to the latter date.


The book of Nahum announced the imminent destruction of the Assyrian empire and its capital Nineveh. By the time Nineveh fell in 612 BCE, it had been over a century since Judah had watched its sister kingdom, Israel, be destroyed by the Assyrians. Judah itself had been reduced to a vassal state (paying tribute and owing allegiance to the more powerful party). This oppressive relationship, described in Nah 1:12-13 as both a yoke on Judah’s neck and an affliction from God, had been difficult to bear and had generated harsh feelings toward the Assyrians. Historical documents from Assyria show evidence of brutal and cruel tactics that their rulers boasted of. And so, when Nahum pronounces that this affliction is coming to an end, and that Assyria will face the consequences of its own destructive rule, their devastation is met with relish on the part of the people of Judah.


The content of this book has presented a challenge for modern readers of Scripture. Even if the city (Nineveh) whose destruction it celebrates was the very representation of oppression and violence, it is still a city full of human beings. Many readers are—perhaps rightly—uncomfortable with such unchecked vengeance appearing in the Bible. 

As we read Nahum, it is helpful to remember the historical context of the original hearers/readers of this book, and to compare it to our own context. If we are reading from the perspective of one accustomed to being a superpower—one that assumes our political will is enforceable—imagine this prophecy from the perspective of a small nation surrounded by powerful empires. From this vantage point, God’s judgment on brutal oppressors can indeed be a refuge and a word of comfort. The mercy here may be in God’s slowness to anger (1:3). But liberation disrupts the balance of power. And so, where destructive forces equivalent to Assyria/Nineveh remain in our own contexts, the question all readers must face is whether they, in fact, are in the position of Assyria/Nineveh or Judah. The latter are promised deliverance from the forces that up to this point have also been instruments of God’s action; the former must face the end of their destructive impunity (cf. Isa 10.5-12). [For more on this topic, see “Judgment Against Nineveh” in “Introductory Issues in Nahum.”]