Theological Themes in Nahum
Destruction of embodied evil
The depiction of the destruction of Nineveh is very vivid and concrete. War looked like that in the ancient Near East, as Assyria’s own artistic representations make clear. The violence and cruelty that Assyria visited upon its conquered victims is matched by the description of Nineveh’s own destruction. There is no reason to suspect that the actual conquest of Nineveh by a coalition of Medes and Babylonians in 612 B.C.E. was any less severe than Nahum’s depiction. The details may not be exact, but the intensity of the terror and violence is accurate. The book of Nahum asserts that God’s defeat of evil is embodied. The challenge to contemporary theological readers is to reflect honestly on equivalent embodied possibilities.
Jealousy and vengeance of God versus adversaries
No one, the book assumes, is able to stand against God’s indignation and anger (1:6). God’s vengeance and jealousy bring about days of trouble and judgment. The key difference in such events is whether or not one takes refuge in God or persists as an enemy of God. Nahum, however, keeps that from being an easy distinction; Judah was the name of Jacob’s fourth son and one of the 12 tribes. More, which is promised refuge and even restoration, has been afflicted by God (1:12) and, as such, has had its turn as the adversary of God. The very jealousy and vengeance of God that Judah has suffered is ironically the source of hope for its future restoration. Neither Judean sin nor Assyrian cruelty can have the last word.
“Celebrate your festivals…fulfill you vows” / “Never again shall the wicked invade you” (1:15)
The future depicted in Nahum is stated unconditionally. In negative terms, the destruction of Nineveh is articulated without condition. Nahum does not summon Nineveh to repent in order to redirect its future. The flipside is an unconditional statement of a positive future for Judah. The directive to celebrate festivals again is predicated on God’s promise never to permit Judah to be invaded again. Contemporary readers know that some decades later Judah was invaded and devastated by Babylon. Other invaders and destroyers followed in later centuries. Yet, the book of Nahum, with this direct, unconditional promise, has been retained in the canon by both Jews and Christians. It is canonically appropriate to ask with the lament psalms and the book of Lamentations, “How long before this promise is kept?” Canonically, the book asserts a promise that God must keep with the addressees.